Many women express to me that the transition of becoming a mother is very difficult. Often, to the new mother, this is a very surprising feeling and very concerning. Being a mother in many ways does not match up to the expectations we thought it would. We thought we would be able to approach motherhood in many of the same ways we have approached other new experiences in our lives – that is, with some preparation, some research, and with the reliance on ourselves as rational, competent and capable people.
But it’s not surprising that the first years of motherhood are difficult for many of us. As women, we receive mixed messages about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a mother.
If we think about our own childhood and the messages we received about what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman – it is likely fraught with contradictions and complexities. Our own mothers were likely grappling with this very issue in part due to the changing culture of gender roles.
This is not about whether women should work out of the home or work in the home. It’s an observation that as gender roles have shifted, we have less clear expectations of what it means to be a spouse, and a woman, and a mother. At the same time, we have fewer experiences with largely biological events like giving birth and nursing a baby. It’s a relatively recent shift to a world where most of us work with ideas, analytical thinking and being part of a team. The very skills and talents for modern life and career are profoundly useless in the first weeks and months of motherhood.
Consider how strange childbirth and breastfeeding are in relation to any other our life experiences – they are biological in a way that very few of our other experiences are. With fewer than two births per family, and very little exposure to birth besides our own, we have little opportunity to develop familiarity with these experiences.
So why is it surprising when we have difficulty with the transition? We have neither biology nor social paths to guide us.
One of the difficulties is that we often assume that our maternal instincts will kick in. But do we really know what those are? It is common to feel deep connection, an intense desire to protect and take care of our baby. That sounds like what we think of as maternal instinct. But many new moms also experience feelings of anxiety, worry, a feeling of boredom or fantasized escape. Having expectations about how maternal instinct will guide us can leave us unprepared and extremely conflicted. Partners may also assume that our maternal instincts will guide the process and can feel confused when this period is not as smooth as they anticipated as well.
I wonder if you might be interested in a small experiment – consider for one moment who your mother was. Who was she before she had children, what were her hopes and dreams, and now consider who she became after she had children. What happened to her hopes and dreams? Our own mothers’ struggles, conflicts, contradictions, and complexities are likely with us as we become new mothers today. What were the social expectations of your mother when she had children? And how did she make choices that reflected these cultural and social expectations of motherhood?
Now, in our generation, when what it means to be a mother, or a wife, isless defined, we have many choices about what kind of person we want to be, but it can often leave us feeling anxious and confused about that same identity after this major life transition.
All of this is to say – if you are feeling confused about who you are now that you are a mother, or how motherhood has unexpectedly changed every aspect of your life, maybe you are in exactly the right place and asking exactly the right questions. The process of becoming the mother is complex, with many more options and so much to consider, it is important to remember that a path is not set for us.
That this leaves us all feeling uncomfortable and unsure can be deeply uncomfortable and for some quite distressing. But I can tell you: it’s okay and you will be ok. It could take a while to adjust to this new identity, but you will do it. The thing is, you don’t have to do it alone.
I strongly encourage you to seek support from people that you trust and share with them these big and even existential questions. If you are not finding enough support, that’s ok too. Come to PEPS or come to a mother’s group through PSI of WA – that’s where many new moms share these big questions of their new life, their new identity. With a friend, a family member or a group, we want to be reminded that we are not alone in this process – even when feels like it.
About the Author
Mia Edidin is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker. Mia facilitates Adjusting to Parenting, a parent drop in group in Greenlake, where we laugh and cry about all the amazing and terrifying things about parenthood together. She has a private practice in Wallingford, and is the Program Manager at Postpartum Support International of WA. Mia’s daughter is 15 and thinks Mia is best mom ever!