It seems as if three successive waves of feminism haven’t resolved the chronic mismatch between the ideal of the ‘good’ and ‘happy’ mother and the realities of women’s lives.

Even if you consciously reject them, ideas about what a mother ought to be and ought to feel are probably there from the minute you wake up until you go to bed at night. Even in our age of increased gender equality it seems as if the culture loves nothing more than to dish out the myths about how to be a better mother (or a thinner, more fashionable, or better-looking one).

It’s not just the celebrity mums pushing their prams on magazine covers, or the continuing dearth of mothers on TV who are less than exceptionally good-looking, or that mothers in advertising remain ubiquitously obsessed with cleaning products and alpine-fresh scents. While TV dramas have pleasingly increased the handful of roles that feature working mothers, most are unduly punished in the twists of the melodramatic plot. They have wimpy husbands or damaged children, and of course TV’s bad characters are inevitably bad due to the shortcomings of their mothers (serial killers, for example, invariably have overbearing mothers or alcoholic mothers, or have never really separated from their mothers).

It seems we are living in an age of overzealous motherhood. Indeed, in a world in which the demands of the workplace have increased, so too the ideals of motherhood have become paradoxically more – not less – demanding. In recent years, commonly accepted ideas about what constitutes a barely adequate level of mothering have dramatically expanded to include extraordinary sacrifices of time, money, feelings, brains, social relationships, and indeed sleep.

In Australia, most mothers work. But recent studies show that working mothers now spend more time with their children than their non-working mothers did in 1975. Working mothers achieve this extraordinary feat by sacrificing leisure, mental health, and even personal hygiene to spend more time with their kids.

This is coupled with a new kind of anxious sermonising that is having a profound impact on mothers, especially among the middle class. In Elisabeth Badinter’s book The Conflict, she argues that an ideology of ‘Naturalism’ has given rise to an industry of experts advocating increasingly pristine forms of natural birth and natural pregnancy, as well as an ever-expanding list of increasingly time-intensive child rearing duties that are deemed to fall to the mother alone. These duties include most of the classic practices of 21st century child rearing, including such nostrums as co-sleeping, babywearing and breastfeeding-on-demand until the age of two.

It seems we are living in an age of overzealous motherhood.

Whether it is called Intensive Mothering or Natural Parenting, these new credos of motherhood are wholly taken up with the idea that there is a narrowly prescribed way of doing things. In the West, 21st century child rearing is becoming increasingly time-consuming, expert-guided, emotionally draining, and incredibly expensive. In historical terms, I would be willing to hazard a guess that never before has motherhood been so heavily scrutinised. It is no longer just a question of whether you should or should not eat strawberries or prawns or soft cheese, or, heaven forbid, junk food, while you are pregnant, but so too, the issue of what you should or should not feel has come under intense scrutiny.

Never before has there been such a microscopic investigation of a pregnant woman’s emotional state, before, during and after birth. Indeed, the construction of new psychological disorders for mothers appears to have become something of a psychological pastime, with the old list of mental disorders expanding beyond prenatal anxiety, postnatal depression, postpartum psychosis and the baby blues, to include the baby pinks (a label for a woman who is illogically and inappropriately happy to be a mother), as well as Prenatal and Postnatal Stress Disorder, Maternal Anxiety and Mood Imbalance and Tokophobia—the latter being coined at the start of this millennium as a diagnosis for an unreasonable fear of giving birth.

The problem with the way in which this pop psychology is played out in the media is that it performs an endless re-inscription of the ideologies of mothering. These ideologies are often illogical, contradictory and – one suspects – more often dictated by what is convenient for society and not what is actually good for the children and parents involved. Above all else, mothers should be ecstatically happy mothers, because sad mothers are failed mothers. Indeed, according to the prevailing wisdom, unhappy mothers are downright unnatural, if not certifiably insane.

Never before has motherhood been so heavily scrutinised.

Little wonder there has been an outcry against such miserable standards of perfection. The same decade that saw the seeming triumph of the ideologies of Intensive and Natural mothering, also saw the rise of what has been called the ‘Parenting Hate Read’ — a popular outpouring of books and blogs written by mothers (and even a few fathers) who frankly confess that they are depressed about having children for no better reason than it is often mind-numbing, exhausting and dreadful. Mothers love their children, say the ‘Parenting Hate Reads’, but they do not like what is happening to their lives.

The problem is perhaps only partly about the disparity between media images of ecstatically happy mummies and the reality of women’s lives. It is also because our ideas about happiness have grown impoverished. Happiness, as it is commonly understood in the western world, is made up of continuous moments of pleasure and the absence of pain.

These popular assumptions about happiness are of comparatively recent origin, emerging in the works of philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued in the 18th century that people act purely in their self-interest and the goal to which self-interest aspires is happiness. Ethical conduct, according to Bentham and James Mill (father to John Stuart), should therefore aspire to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

Our ideas about happiness have grown impoverished.

This ready equation of goodness, pleasure and happiness flew in the face of ideas that had been of concern to philosophers since Aristotle argued that a person is not made happy by fleeting pleasures, but by fulfilment stemming from meaning and purpose. Or, as Nietzsche, the whirling dervish of 19th century philosophy, put it, “Man does not strive for happiness – only the Englishman does”.

Nevertheless, Western assumptions about happiness have remained broadly utilitarian, giving rise to the culturally constructed notion of happiness we see in TV commercials, showing families becoming happier with every purchase. Or by life coaches peddling the dubious hypothesis that self-belief can overcome the odds, whatever your social or economic circumstance.

Unless you are Mother Teresa, you have probably been spending your life up until the time you have children in a reasonably independent and even self-indulgent way. You work hard through the week but sleep in on the weekend. You go to parties. You come home drunk. You see your friends when you want. Babies have different ideas. They stick forks in electric sockets, go berserk in the car seat, and throw up on your work clothes. They want to be carried around in the day and wake in the night.

If society can solve its social problems then maybe parenting will cease to be a misery competition. Mothers might not be happy in a utilitarian or hedonistic sense but will lead rich and satisfying lives. Then maybe a stay-at-home dad can change a nappy without a choir of angels descending from heaven singing ‘Hallelujah’.

This is an edited extract from “On Happiness: New Ideas for The 21st Century” UWA Publishing.