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Mommy Wars: Aren't We All on the Same Side?

Letting mothers off the hook may keep them healthier.

Alas, we live in the age of the supermom challenge, fueled by media frenzy and competitive instincts. You know the drill: who's a better mother, who makes the best choices, who's smarter, stronger, prettier, healthier, skinnier, and more accomplished than the rest? More than ever, women feel the burden of trying to achieve unrealistic expectations, resulting in a constant urge to compare themselves to others. Inevitably, they end up being as hard on themselves as they are on their neighboring mothers. Not a new concept. And one I have personally invested a great deal of time and energy trying to reconcile.

While tweaking details of the press release for my newest book, I fell upon a commentary by Elizabeth Renzetti from The Globe and Mall titled: From Inside the Trenches of Motherhood : A Plea for a Ceasefire.

In her column, she makes reference to the recent campaign protesting the pervasive social demand that mothers strive for perfection. She reflects on the latest "battle" instigated by Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Renzetti aptly appeals to all of us, asking for a respite from the persistent and enduring pressure to be perfect. She included my latest book, Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts on her exclusive list which consisted of two others: Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers (I haven't read it but yes that would be daunting if I were a young mother.) And The Monster Within: The Hidden Side of Motherhood (I haven't read this one either but I've heard of it and it explores maternal ambivalence, another title that would indeed scare me if I were a new mother.)

I cannot speak about the other two books, but regarding Dropping the Baby, I must point out that Renzetti - perhaps in her effort to find titles that the "troops" have been "feeding on," - omitted the subtitle, Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood, which might have clarified the intent of the book. Be that as it may, my sole purpose in writing this post is to ensure that others don't misconstrue the title of this book and miss the point entirely.

Clearly, she hasn't read the book. Or, any of my books, for that matter. If she had, she would know we are on the same side.

Back in 1994 when my first book, This Isn't What I Expected was published, Valerie Raskin, MD and I set out to break ground that had been well-established in mommy circles. In our book, we expressed and reinforced the notion that sometimes, it doesn't feel so good to be a mother. Shocking as it was to some, and validating to many others, we explored the not-so-pretty side of motherhood. Written at a time when doctors, neighbors and mother-in-laws were not talking about maternal angst or postpartum depression, it soon became a must-read for women who were worried about the way they were feeling after childbirth. The message that it was okay not to be perfect and even be sick, sometimes, relative to motherhood, resonated with many.

Fast forward to today. This current book on scary thoughts is my most recent attempt to highlight the message that anxiety comes with motherhood and navigating through that is nothing less than a woman's greatest challenge. Once again, the goal is to let moms know that they are not alone with some the thoughts that may be distressing them and that help is available. Without this information, mothers tend to remain isolated by feelings of profound shame and self-reproach. The title of this book, admittedly conspicuous, was intended to grab the heart and mind of the mother who has had this thought of dropping her baby, once, or twice or a million times. Dropping a baby, by accident or by misfortune, or negligence or any other unthinkable shock attached to being a mother is something most don't talk about. The title was, again, my way of saying we should not be afraid to discuss what new mothers need to hear. Some are crying out for our help. Yet, 17 years after my first book was published, we are still afraid to talk about these negative aspects. Doctors are still not asking about scary thoughts, mothers are still afraid to disclose that they are having them and columnists are misinterpreting the aim of efforts to elucidate them.

Unfortunately, the pressure to be perfect inhibits any confession of anxious thoughts, thereby keeping the cycle spinning. Research has shown we have grossly underestimated the prevalence of unwanted intrusive thoughts in motherhood (Jennings, 1999 & Abramowitz, 2003). The studies show this holds true for all mothers, not just those with postpartum depression or anxiety. Ask any mother if she has ever had the thought of dropping her baby, or any other scary thought of harm coming to her baby for that matter. When asked by the right person, in the right scenario, in the right way, for the right reasons, the answer is most always, yes. If so many women report they are experiencing thoughts that scare them, isn't it essential that we take the time to understand what these thoughts are, why they are here and what can be done for relief?

I am in absolute agreement with Ms Renzetti. (I'm sure when she reads my book, she'll agree with me, too!) Anxiety is rampant in motherhood. It's hard enough being a mother without subjecting oneself to judgment from a society who collectively calls into question every motive and every outcome.

It is, indeed, time we let mothers off the hook.

© 2011 Karen Kleiman. All Rights Reserved