“Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky.” —Fran Lebowitz
Whether planned or unplanned, through birth or adoption, the anticipation and ultimate arrival of a baby generates a wide range of emotions. Regardless of how much you’ve prepared, how many magazine articles you’ve read, how many nieces and nephews you’ve babysat, the realities of motherhood can still hit you like a ton of parenting books. The expectations that prospective moms put on themselves combined with society’s expectations of what it means to be a good (read: perfect) mom are enough to make any new mother feel like a failure. Along with that can come varying degrees of stress and anxiety.
Expectations versus reality
“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories.” — John Wilmot
Anxiety can manifest well before you bring your baby home for the first time. The external expectations around motherhood are universal:
- You should be selfless.
- Everyone does it so it shouldn’t be a big deal.
- Your identity going forward is ‘mom.’
“Even when we are aware of those external pressures, they can become internalized expectations of ourselves and our families, either overtly or covertly passed on to us,” said Marta Oko-Riebau, MA, LPC, therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center and mother of two.
This can even extend to the birth itself. While there are certainly common experiences, each birth is unique and each mom responds in her own way. Medical interventions, unexpected C-sections, lengthy or difficult labor can completely change one’s experience from idyllic to frightening. Adoptions also have a variety of possible scenarios for how parents receive their baby, and things don’t always go as smoothly as hoped. A collision of expectations and reality at a time when emotions are unpredictable and easily triggered can leave new moms feeling alone in their experience.
The “super-mom” trap
“There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” – Jill Churchill
Being a great mom right from the start can be like a badge of honor. For some moms, this means doing everything themselves. For others it means trying to seamlessly insert their new baby into their former put-together lives. For still others, it means constantly failing to achieve the high standard they set.
“Partners can inadvertently add to this pressure of being perfect, by using terms like ‘superwoman’ or ‘super mom,’’’ said Marta. “When dad says to mom, ‘You know everything. You’re super mom.’ it may put a lot of pressure on her to live up to those expectations, and at the same time it may take the pressure off of him. He doesn’t have to be ‘super dad.’ For a mom it may feel as if she should be able to do everything and look good doing it, but the dad can just get away with being in the background because he isn’t expected to know how to do any of this.”
Women typically have to wrestle with the issue of staying home or going back to work. Being a stay-at-home mom means giving up income, professional development and often adult interactions and intellectual stimulation. Working full-time means not being fully available for your child, potentially missing out on developmental milestones and always dividing your priorities. Both require sacrifices. Both are difficult. “Either decision comes with a nice dose of guilt,” Marta said. “Am I doing the right thing? Am I going to have regrets? Are my kids going to resent me? Is my partner going to resent me?”
It takes the right village
“(24/7) once you sign on to be a mother, that’s the only shift they offer.” ― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Regardless of whether you stay home with your children or work outside the home, you are a parent all the time. That can be scary and lonely. Past generations had extended family and community support. Neighbors watched each other’s kids. That is true today to an extent but it is something that moms have to create, rather than something that happens organically.
The superficial, filtered, well-posed social media posts depicting motherhood can have a negative impact on a mom’s self-esteem. “A lack of honest discussions between women and the stigma associated with being less than perfect amounts to internalized oppression amongst women. Expectations are removed from reality to a degree. It’s hard to talk about the difficulties and challenges. It wasn’t done in the past. Mothers and grandmothers were not able to prepare their daughters because they were not allowed to acknowledge how hard it is to be a mother,” Marta said.
As a new mom it is easy to feel isolated. “That can exacerbate fears and anxiety, and potentially lead to depression and other mental health issues. It can be detrimental to one’s mothering and to the baby,” explained Marta. “Being around others who are supportive has a self-correcting quality. Having that ‘village’ of women who are willing to share vulnerable experiences provides the reassurance that what you are feeling is normal.”
A word about postpartum depression
“I want to be honest about [postpartum depression] because I think there’s still so much shame when you have mixed feelings about being a mom instead of feeling this sort of ‘bliss.’ I think a lot of people still really struggle with that, but it’s hard to find other people who are willing to talk about it.” — Amanda Peet, Gotham, August 2008
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that can affect women after childbirth. Mothers with postpartum depression experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion that may make it difficult for them to complete daily care activities for themselves or for others…[It] does not have a single cause, but likely results from a combination of physical and emotional factors… [and] does not occur because of something a mother does or does not do.”
“Postpartum depression is very common and not talked about enough. I think we still don’t recognize how common it is,” said Marta. “It is probably linked to expectations of new moms and society — internalized by new moms — that pregnancy should feel like a blessed state. But it is much more complicated. Life circumstances, financial struggles, lack of support, hormonal changes and physical discomfort are only some of the factors that can make pregnancy difficult, laden with anxiety and fears. It is also important to note that depression can set in even in the first trimester.”
When discussing the stigma around mental health issues associated with motherhood, Marta talked about a woman who suffered from postpartum depression and had concerns that somehow she would hurt her baby, not intentionally, but nevertheless it was a real fear. The woman never shared this with anyone because she was afraid social services would take her baby away. “She felt shame and worried about the stigma. She said she felt that she was not competent, not safe to be a mom and that was something she shouldn’t feel. It’s such a painful experience, not trusting yourself and not trusting others to help you. Many women go through it alone,” Marta explained. “When we acknowledge it, talk about it, we normalize the feelings and that can be a relief.”
What you can do
“Being a mom has made me so tired. And so happy.” – Tina Fey
Marta offers these suggestions for taking charge or your parenting experience:
Be particular about your support groups.
Having good support is key to preventing isolation and maintaining your well-being but choose to be around people who actually support you and allow you to feel confident that the decisions you make are good for you and your children. Avoid those who are critical, competitive or judgmental.
Establish healthy boundaries for yourself and your baby. Not everyone in your network is good for you. It can be a loss when you realize that some of your relationships will fade, and that is normal.
Reach out for help.
Professional help can be invaluable if you are not finding the support you need.
Individual therapy or support groups (for expecting or new moms) can set the stage for deeper vulnerability and sharing experiences that may be uncomfortable but are actually quite normal, such as “I’m exhausted” and “I have moments I regret having children.” These emotions don’t typically last but they are part of the experience and we need to feel safe expressing them. When we become mothers, we often go from being self-centered to being much more selfless. This is the only relationship like that. Prioritizing someone else’s needs becomes the new norm.
Aim for “good enough” not perfect.
It is so easy to feel inadequate as a mother. A goal of perfection is one we will fail to achieve every day. Strive to be better, not perfect. A mom who is “good enough” satisfies all the basic physical and emotional needs of her child. We can succeed at that, but it is impossible to meet some external standard of “the perfect mom.” What does that even mean? Our goals evolve and change. What is important to us changes. What you thought it meant to be a good parent before having kids is likely different once you have them. The basics, however, stay the same. Kids need to feel a connection and be safe. Just having the awareness and willingness to be better shows you care and want to do your best.
Take care of yourself.
Self-compassion and self-care are part of acknowledging that this is a life-changing, difficult experience, one that has an amazing gain but also loss. It is important to acknowledge that things are changing. Be patient and kind to yourself. Don’t be ashamed of your feelings. Acknowledge that you feel exhausted, hopeless and isolated sometimes, and let that go. Without self-compassion we may block that and pretend it isn’t happening because it is too shameful. Recognize that this is not unique to you and that many people are going through the same thing. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad mother.
It can be hard to make time for yourself when you have a baby. Just do small things. Ask for help so you can go for a short walk, take a shower or read a book. Taking a break helps you recharge for yourself and your child, and helps maintain your coping skills. I’ve heard from multiple clients that taking time to go out with a friend helps them be more present and energized when they come home. “I’ve taken care of myself now I’m ready to take care of you again.” It is hard to parent for 12 hours a day without some adult time and some “me” time.
Become a team with your partner in raising a child.
For those who are in relationships it is so important to discuss the new reality and role division. Couples therapy can be helpful in establishing healthy communication. Patterns of partnerships are sometimes established by the time you have a baby, but can be improved. Establish new rules for the family to avoid resentment and contempt for one another. Work as a team so that the mom feels like she can ask for support, particularly when she is not working and the partner is the one making the money.
All couples are different. The goal is for both partners to feel good about the agreement so no one feels taken advantage of. It is tricky but, with communication, not impossible, to find just the right balance.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about new motherhood or any issues you are having, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Marta Oko-Riebau, MA LPC, for contributions to this blog.***