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Mothers: Held Accountable Since 1550

01/05/2014 14:13 BST | Updated 01/07/2014 10:59 BST

The glue had barely dried on my freshly painted hand-made-from-recycled-materials alphabet fridge magnets when I came into the kitchen to find my nine month old eating the strip off one and my cat systematically swiping them to the floor. Profanities burst forth from my mouth, I'd spent more time than I have left in life on this activity, this project, using only colours that I knew would look good with the 'process' filter on my iPhone. So I could look back and remember how great I was at play-based learning.

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I'd got the idea from one of the many (many, many, Ican'tkeepuptherearesomany) wonderful image-based blogs on cool and fun ideas for ways children can spend their time at home with you whilst also learning stuff. Like painting with cars or coloured shaving foam or ear-piercing with shards of blunt glass. Maybe that last one doesn't really exist.

I really did and do like these pages, their innovative suggestions and the fact that someone else is coming up with these cool ideas so I don't have to. But, personally, I'm exhausted. I'm worn out trying to realise these projects in my own home and everything's a mess and I'm just not living up to the expectations I feel I should meet.

As the months and years have rolled on since I had my first child, and my newsfeed's filled up with 50+ Rainy Day Activities (ooh, I hate rainy days, give me some ideas of easy and fun ways to spend them!) and 19 Activities to Develop Fine Motor Skills in Boys and 32 Ideas for Teaching Colours and 5,209 Things Your Toddler MUST Be Doing Right Now and 98 Best Cocaine-Scented Playdough Recipes... I've begun to feel a little overwhelmed.

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It's partly my own fault, because I'm way too liberal with 'liking' finger, but it also makes me reflect on the greater message that the prevalence and popularity of these pages send us about motherhood and the changing cultural expectations of the role of the mother. Or rather, the way the cultural expectations haven't changed hardly at all.

In Motherhood and Feminism, Amber E Kinser reflects on the Calvinist belief that all children are born evil, and - given the rise of industrialisation coinciding with the rise of Calvinism - it is the job of their stay-at-home mothers to raise them moral and right. What were they on, them old-skool Calvinists?! Of course that's not the way it is now...I mean, of course nowadays we've progressed beyond just blaming...Hm.

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When I think of back-in-the-day Calvinism I think of the reformation, predestination, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, bleakness, rain, John Knox, the olden days. But the Calvinist and post-Calvinist approach to children and a mother's role in childrearing is not so far from the way the narrative of middle-class motherhood is represented today. It's motherhood, *the most rewarding job in the world*, exploded all over my newsfeed.

Kinser suggests, "..the view of children as naturally evil...gave way in the 19th century to the idea of 'tabula rasa' or children as a 'blank slate', waiting to be molded" She continues, "(they) looked to adults, especially mothers, to model for them strong moral grounding and to provide experiences that would help them shape their characters...The building of a child's...moral character, industriousness, and self-discipline was now the sole responsibility (and blame) of the mother. The mother was expected to pour her energy into molding children and create a home that was the moral center of the family and the community." (Emphasis mine)

I fully intended, since my son was a baby, to follow the principle that the best way to raise a balanced child was to have him engage in all the daily activities that needed doing anyway. But it turns out I don't have to raise a balanced child at all. What I have to raise is a sensory sponge, a counting whizz, an all-round gentle good guy who can alternative between utilisation of his fine and gross motor skills with fluidity and sophistication, a social butterfly who will play loud and big and then sit next to me quietly matching colours to numbers or something while I get on my laptop and look up more ways to fill our days with stuff that will make him an even better person. Oh, and my daughter, she's 10 months old, she needs sensory bins, sensory experiences, sensory play, sensory shites one after the other.

I have 26 browser windows open on my smartphone. 24 of them are blog posts about play-based learning, one is about the symptoms of mental breakdown and one is about how to know if a mouse is dead or playing dead.

While I don't take any issue with the bloggers themselves - many of them actual (as I understand it) early-education experts and all of them creative, industrious and cool - who create and take time to post the activities (and I'd like to give a shout out to my two favourites Play at Home Mom and A Little Learning for Two) which are absolutely amazing and useful, I have watched the emergence of this field with some interest as a feminist mother, noting how this version of motherhood - the PicMonkey/Instagram smartphone-ready version - could be really just another way of telling middle class women they have it all but they're just not doing a good enough job. And mothers from other classes just don't count.

To be clear, I actually LIKE these ideas for play and for home learning, but I feel a little...overcome. I'm exhausted, I want to be a good mother, a creative and attentive parent who cultivates curiosity and a hunger for adventure and wonder in her children. But when consider the growing pile of stuff I'm not doing, not giving them, I start to feel like there's no point even trying.

It could be argued that the emergence of at-home play-based learning is the antidote to barrage of plastic crap we're still being told to buy in order to be real parents, I wonder whether the market has just shifted such that consumer-based parenting is now aimed at one social class whilst recycling-bin craft-based parenting is being pitched to another. The stay-at-home-mums of the middle classes (because we're constantly told that unless you're middle class, being a stay-at-home-mum is basically the same as being unemployed) are now post-consumerist, rejecting excess polymer in favour of reusing, recycling and repurposing.

It used to be discipline that parents were encouraged to compete on. Whose child could sit at the table longest, who could rock the naughty step concept with most conviction. Now it's craft. Craft, craft, craft. And I suck at it.

I think the parents, mostly mothers, who run these sites and come up with these ideas are fabulous, and I applaud their work. This isn't really a rant at anyone, there's no feet at which blame should be laid for my own sense of inadequacy, except perhaps mine, but it is a reflection on how far we think we've come and how, at the same time, nothing has really changed.

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