PART II: Becoming a Mother
We are all taught to believe that pregnancy & motherhood are magnificent times in a woman’s life and that we, as women, intuitively transition into parenthood. What we aren’t taught is that often this transition also comes with shock, disappointment and fear. One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog series is to shed light on certain parts of this transition that may not be discussed as easily or openly in our communities and amongst our friends. In this post, I will be exploring some of the stories and myths around becoming a mother.
I recently listened to an interview with Dr. Catherine Birndorf, MD – a psychiatrist and obstetric gynecologist, who specializes in perinatal mood disorders, working almost exclusively with pregnant and postpartum women. She referred to the period of becoming a mother as “maitrescence.” Similar to adolescence, which we widely acknowledge to be a time of intense struggle and transition, maitrescence is another highly destabilizing time in a woman’s life, yet it often doesn’t get the same attention or acknowledgment.
Becoming a parent is a massive identity shift; once it happens, it is forever. You may have months and years to think about it and prepare, but the transition is instant; one moment your baby is safe and secure inside of you and the next, he or she is out in the world, needing your nourishment, warmth, and safety. You are responsible for a tiny little life and it is terrifying and wonderful all at the same time.
Many of the struggles Dr. Birndorf sees in her work are about the expectations women have about motherhood, and the disappointment and confusion that sometimes sets in when those expectations do not meet reality. Here are some of the thoughts I’ve heard and had on the difficulties of becoming a mother:
- There is a narrative that I heard constantly when I was pregnant. That is, the moment you see your baby, you will be instantly attached and in love. Yes, many women do feel instant love and connection to their baby, but for others it takes more time to bond and experience feelings of love. It can be embarrassing, or even shameful to admit that your experience is outside this “norm.” More often than not, we keep these ‘shameful’ feelings a secret and let them ruminate.
- You may need to mourn the loss of your freedom. Often we cannot even conceptualize the immense sacrifice that motherhood entails until we are in the throws of it all. Learning to give up your solo time, to no longer be able to run out of the house for an errand or walk the dog without a plan in place, or to have an impromptu date night with your partner – these are all difficult adjustments.
- Productivity is a trap and it is not serving you. Many of us measure the success of our days based on how productive we were. Give yourself permission to step off that productivity treadmill during this transition – because feeding a newborn (every two hours!), feeding yourself, and trying to sleep somewhere in between, is a full day. This is not the time for more work (or to worry about checking things off a to-do list, no matter how much your internal overachiever wants you to!) One helpful tactic I like to fall back on is to ask myself, what would I say to my best friend if she were sharing these feelings with me?
- Your body has just gone through a major trauma and depending on your delivery, you may be in a huge amount of pain, and unable to care for your baby the way you hoped you would in the first weeks. Treat your body like you are treating your newborn – with care, concern, love and patience. Again, what would I say to my best friend if she were in this position? Can we work to show the grace and love we show to others, to ourselves?
- You are no longer the center of attention – for the doctors or your partner. For nine months you are under the care of a doctor every month (and eventually every week); you have a treasured spot in our society as a pregnant woman and often you are doted on, cared for and pampered like you have never been before (totally deserved by the way, you are growing a human life.) But, often all of that love and attention (from doctor, from partner, from the world) is transferred over to baby, and you may be left wondering where all the attention went. (Women are often not required to see your doctor until six weeks after your delivery, while newborns see his or her pediatrician 3-4 times in six weeks.)
This is such a hard thing to acknowledge, and it might feel embarrassing or inappropriate to say that you need some extra love and attention when there is a little baby in the picture. Honor those needs and communicate what you are feeling to both your partner and your doctors.
- Becoming a mother can elicit questions that might feel overwhelming; Am I ready to be a mother? Who do I want to be as a mother? What do I want my child to experience in their childhood? But also, how was I mothered? Are there pieces of that story that are upsetting or triggering? Setting time aside to truly reflect on these questions can be daunting, but the reward is just as much yours as it is your baby’s.
If all of these weren’t enough, you may be experiencing a shift in your hormones, sleep deprivation, depression and anxiety symptoms all while you are caring for a newborn. See my post about Postpartum Depression (& Perinatal Mood Disorders) in Part 1 of The Transition to Parenthood series.
Additional resources & books:
More about Dr. Catherine Birndorf, MD and her most recent projects: https://www.themotherhoodcenter.com/
Nurture by Erica Chidi Cohen
Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman
Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly
Art of Waiting, by Belle Boggs
SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
NorthShore MOMS Line
The NorthShore MOMS Line is a free, confidential, 24/7 hotline staffed by licensed counselors who can help you find the information, support and resources you need to feel better. You don’t have to be in crisis to call.