In the months after my first baby was born, I nearly went out of my mind with sleep deprivation.

It wasn’t that he was a ‘bad sleeper’ (although at the time it certainly felt like it). He was a pretty normal baby really. But normal doesn’t matter when you’re living through a stupor of broken nights and catnap days. I saw other babies sleeping peacefully in their prams, heard stories of sleeping through the night, and felt like a miserable failure. Because if I was a good mother, my baby would be a good baby, right?

I kept notes on the routines and settling techniques that we tried, filing them away for use on future babies. I’d nail this motherhood thing next time, and my baby’s sleep would be the proof. Except… next time I had a different baby. And I was a different mother, living in a different house, and this time there was a toddler in the mix. My notes and routines were next to useless! So baby #2 catnapped and nightwoke and I felt hot tears of shame well up every time other mothers casually mentioned how well their babies slept (bloody showoffs).

But breastfeeding, that I could do. Didn’t feel like a failure there, no ma’am. By the time baby #3 was born, I had three years of problem-free breastfeeding under my belt. SMUG AS.

That baby was a lesson in humility if ever I had one. Three months of screaming at the breast and then the black desperate day when finally he refused to feed at all. I was so stressed that my milk wouldn’t let down at the pump, and when my husband came home from his late night dash to buy formula I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. As for baby #4… I’ll talk about her when I’ve survived her.

Baby cries a lot? Failure.

Breastfeeding isn’t working out? Failure.

Had to transfer from birth centre to labour ward (or ‘worse’, theatre)? Failure.

The birthing and baby years are such a deeply physical, emotional and spiritual experience that we can’t help but be cut to the bone when our realities betray our hopes and dreams. But every baby, every mother, every circumstance is unique. When did we become convinced that motherhood was a one-size-fits-all, pass-or-fail scenario?

Mothers generally have pretty high standards for ourselves. But the standards set for us are punishingly unattainable. We are expected to self-flagellate for having the audacity to weigh up risks and benefits as they apply to our family, or to ritually validate our own experiences by throwing rotten fruit at mothers who did things differently. The burden of it all on our bodies, lives and minds are meant to be irrelevant, because Good Mothers always disregard our own needs for the sake of giving our children The Best.

And isn’t it convenient for the powers that be, for women to be so convinced that the problem is us. Which is why girls are are groomed from infancy to be nice, don’t ask questions, don’t be pushy, don’t make trouble, don’t worry that pretty little head about it. Mummy guilt is just one more splash in a cultural cocktail intended to make women and our complicated lady lives easier to control. So you wanted a natural birth and got a cascade of interventions? If only you had a wider pelvis and lower expectations. The lactation clinic at your hospital was defunded? Fed is best. Your employer won’t negotiate part time hours for your return to work? Women can’t have it all you know.

Yeah definitely us who are the failures.

Feelings of parental guilt are probably inevitable (little kids have those puppy dog eyes for a reason). But they don’t have to be our boundary. What if every time we felt like a failure, we named the ways we had been failed? The barriers imposed on us. The choices removed from us. The things we have overcome to be able to achieve as much as we did. Imagine what could happen if we redirected our anger and hurt onto the people and systems where the responsibility actually lies!

How we feed and birth matters, but they’re not a marker of our maternal worth. And I’m pretty sure that loving your child enough to worry about whether you are failing them, is the furthest thing from failure.