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11 May 2016

Guest Post: How Mothers Are Judged by Linda Green

One, two, three...

Lisa Dale shuts her eyes and counts to one hundred during a game of hide-and-seek. When she opens them, her four-year-old daughter Ella is gone. Disappeared without a trace.

The police, the media and Lisa's family all think they know who snatched Ella.

But what if the person who took her isn't a stranger? What if they are convinced they are doing the right thing? And what if Lisa's little girl is in danger of disappearing forever?

Today I have the pleasure of having Linda Green on the blog sharing her thoughts on a very fascinating, controversial and important topic. 

How Mothers Are Judged

It's hard being a mother. Even putting to one side the obvious toll of pregnancy, child birth and sleep deprivation in the early years, the sheer practicalities involved in trying to juggle motherhood with all the other aspects of your life make it tough.

The weight of responsibility hangs heavily. You are aware from the moment your child exists that they are entirely dependent on you. From the moment they are born, the weight of love you feel for your child is only matched by the weight of guilt you feel if anything happens to them.

But what makes it even tougher is knowing that you are being judged on everything you do as a mother.

I'm not the only one who feels it, of course. Every mother I know feels the same way. If anything happens to our children, it is our fault.

And yes, maybe part of it is simply the maternal instinct to protect our children. But the fact that the media and society as a whole are so quick to point the finger of blame at mothers has clearly contributed to it. Especially with social media, where everyone feels entitled to give their view on our failings.

We are bad mothers if we don't breast feed (though we shouldn't do it in public), if our child has an accident, we should have been looking after them better (even if we were at work at the time) and if our child is lost, it is always the mother who is to blame.

The seed of the idea for my novel came when I had my own 'lost child' moment. When my son was two-years-old, we took him to Center Parcs, It was only a matter of months since Madeleine McCann had gone missing. I settled my son down for the night in a fold-up bed wedged between our own bed and the wall. But when I checked on him later the bed was empty. My eyes were immediately drawn to the window. We were on the ground floor and I'd left it open a crack because of the heat. All I could think of was that he had been taken as we'd sat in the next room. Eventually, we found my son fast asleep on the floor under the bed, having somehow slipped down the narrow gap between his bed and the wall.

I didn't really sleep much that night, the 'what ifs?' running through my head. Having worked as a journalist for 15 years, I was well aware that 'I never thought it would happen to me', was the most common response when people were interviewed about tragic events. But what interested me was how what I'd done - or hadn't done - would have been forensically examined by the media and public if my experience had turned into something tragic.

Before writing my novel, I read the books written by Kate McCann and Sara Payne, both of whom were wracked with guilt about the disappearance of their daughters.

And the way mothers are judged at press conferences is a good example. They are 'over-emotional' if they cry and a 'hard-faced cow' if they don’t.

As soon as any parent finds out what my novel, While My Eyes Were Closed, is about, they immediately furnish me with their own lost child story. Sometimes it is recent, sometimes thirty years ago or more, sometimes a matter of seconds, sometimes worryingly longer, but for all of them that moment is etched in their memory and the feeling of panic as raw as if it was yesterday. And usually followed up with, 'I'd never have forgiven myself if anything had happened to them'.

Already, one of the characters in my novel While My Eyes Were Closed is being judged in book reviews, with comments on Amazon about how she was 'crazy and irresponsible' to actually shut her eyes during a game of hide-and-seek.

Well, if there was a manual given out after childbirth about the rules of engagement for hide-and seek, I clearly missed it. The idea for how the child in my novel goes missing came from my own experience of struggling to find my son after I'd closed my eyes and counted to one hundred during a game of hide-and-seek in a park. And yes, I actually closed my eyes too, because it wasn't worth risking the wrath of my son if I'd pretended and he'd caught me peeking!

Of course, maternal guilt is a universal thing and it doesn't seem to matter how impossible it would have been to prevent something happening to their child, women still blame themselves. I was watching Newsnight while writing my novel and saw an interview with a woman who had lost two sons at Srebenica. I’ve used her quote at the front of my novel because it sums up how so many women feel.

'I watch a bird as it brings food to its chicks. How it looks after them. How it protect them. And I think to myself, you're a better mother than I am.'

Clearly, there was absolutely nothing she could have done to stop a massacre. But still, she was left feeling guilty.

I hope I've written a thought-provoking novel which will make readers think about how women are judged as mothers and how the media likes to portray everyone as 'good' or 'evil', when the truth is that there are so many complex reasons why people do the things they do and I think we could all do with being more understanding and sympathetic to people instead of jumping to conclusions.

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