When we talk about having a baby, we often hear how exhilarating it can be. We hear about the promise of personal fulfillment and the brilliant growth that accompanies the miracle of life. We hear stories of abounding joy and delight as mothers seemingly glide through the various phases and tasks by which they are confronted. We are told we will beam when we're pregnant, we will evolve naturally and gracefully through this transition into motherhood.
We all hope it will be like this when we have our baby.
The picture, however, is not always so perfect. Of course, we all hear about the many loads of laundry we will do with our eyes shut from exhaustion and how many showers we'll take in 30 seconds flat with the door open while our baby screams for attention. And though, to some extent, we are geared to compromise our previous lifestyle, most women find themselves inadequately prepared for the unpredictable adventure they have embarked upon.
We live in a culture that romanticizes motherhood. Even today—when we find ourselves by enlightened and progressive thinkers—the myth of the perfect mother persists. That is, the good mother is, with absolute commitment, self-sacrificing and nurturing. She provides unconditional devotion to her family and is motivated by endless self-denial that will ultimately fortify her children's emotional well-being.
All of this sounds good on paper.
A woman may hear how motherhood will change her life forever. Indeed. But what is often not said is that some of these changes will be profoundly disquieting, often launching her into a crisis, the likes of which she has never known.
What does a mother do with the burden of ambivalence she feels toward the baby she has longed for?
How does she reconcile her desire to be the best mother she can be with the yearning for the life she had before her baby?
To whom does she dare admit her secret wish that she never had this baby?
How can she sleep at night as she tries to balance the unsettling thought that constantly race through her mind and the imposing guilt that follows?
Can she be a good mother if she struggles, at times, with abrupt feelings of discontent, resentment, and anger toward her baby?
How does she resist the temptation to surrender to the loss of control and the assault to her self-esteem and identity?
Will she ever, again, reclaim her feelings of sexuality and passion for her former self?
Is this what being a mother is all about, or will she ever truly feel like herself again?
Our mothers didn't tell us about these changes and the losses that can take place after we have a baby. The medical community doesn't tell us. Often, our friends and family don't tell us. Yet, if we look very closely and listen very carefully, we can see the labored smile that marks the face of a mother lost in the challenge of her lifetime.
It is the story of a woman who looks very good on the outside—one who tries desperately to maintain the illusion that everything is fine, that this is, in fact, as easy and as pleasurable as it appears to be for every other mother to whom she compares herself. It is also the story of a woman who doesn't know where to go when she needs to say out loud that being a mother doesn't always feel so good. Just when she expects this to be the best time of her life, she is often left feeling as if she is doing something wrong, she's just not good at this; Perhaps she was not cut out to be a mother?
Sometimes, it's easy to claim rights to the hardships of motherhood. It is easy for most mothers to identify with the dreadful sleep deprivation, the brutal colic wail, or the breakfast dishes from yesterday never quite finding their way to the kitchen sink. But when a woman endures the pain of disconnection from her baby, or fails to meet the expectations dictated by her critical mother, or can't face her own reflection in the mirror because she has lost touch with the soul within—it's hard for her to know where to turn.
And this leaves us with a simple thought: Sometimes being a mother doesn't feel good.
Let's face it—it's hard, it's constant, and the endless work is rarely something we are thanked or rewarded for. Sometimes, even when we are doing our best, it doesn't feel like as if we're doing quite enough. Other times, no matter what we do or how hard we try, we are left feeling depleted, overwhelmed, angry, and exhausted. Clearly, some of that just goes with the territory. There are times, too, when deprivation sets in, complicating the picture. But whatever the context, it's urgent that we debunk the myth, which perpetrates the notion that this transition to motherhood comes easily and naturally to most women. We need to challenge the presumption that good mothers take better care of their children than they do of themselves. In doing so, we can begin to set the stage for women to be released from the expectation that they manage this mother role perfectly.
So what do we do? We need to modify the messages they hear. We need to tell them it's okay to make mistakes. We need to tell them it's okay to ask for help.
And we must remember that it is essential that we, as mothers, be selfish sometimes. We must put our needs at the top of our priority list, without feeling guilty. This is not easy to do. But it's important. We need to rest when we can. Eat well. Get some fresh air, reach out to our friends, avoid people and things that make us feel bad, set limits, or simply take a walk.
We need to nourish our spirits.
Only then will our children have an opportunity to truly experience us at our best, be enriched by our efforts, and thus derive the most benefits from what we have to offer.
Copyright 2014 Karen Kleiman, MSW
Excerpted from Parent School: Simple Lessons from Leading Experts on Being a Mom and Dad by Jerry and Lorin Biederman "What You Didn't Expect When You Were Expecting"