This piece, by Kate Medlin, was first published in The Doula magazine.
In labour, the transition period is often referred to as the most challenging stage. Women who have previously been coping well can break down, feel completely overwhelmed, experience the ongoing contractions as relentless and generally wish they could throw the towel in. The same can be applied to the transition from woman to mother with particular intensity in the first year as a parent, and yet the negative aspects of motherhood remains a taboo subject. Time and time again in my consulting room I find myself explaining to mothers that they are not the only ones who feel isolated, miserable or failures. New mothers are often expected to be floating around in a state of reverie with a serene smile across their face. Whilst at times this may be true, the difficulties of acclimatising to this new role can leave many women struggling to come to terms with their newfound identity. This can be as true for women who have always longed to have children as for those who go into it with more ambivalent feelings.
For many, becoming a mother is the biggest change that occurs in a woman’s life. And with change comes the challenge of loss, as well as gain. Changes in friendships, the inability to be spontaneous, making miniscule minute-by-minute decisions such as going to the bathroom or having a shower are disrupted and have to be thought through and considered in such detail that can’t be explained – even by those who have experienced it.
I have found that women who are more tightly wedded to their identity prior to giving birth do tend to struggle more with the shift that motherhood brings. For example, take a woman who has a very firm idea of who she is in the world, perhaps she has a successful career and is very comfortable being in control of her working life. It’s possible that she may transfer the expectations she has over this aspect of her life onto the new one. But as experienced mothers know, babies don’t work like that. They don’t fit into a neatly prescribed time-table, nor do they fit into the fantasy of who we wish them to be. Perfectionism doesn’t have a place in motherhood and can be a real barrier to enjoying those first few months and even years.
As a psychodynamic counsellor, it is my firm belief that how we were mothered ourselves plays a huge part in what we take forward into this new chapter of our lives as parents. Which parts of our own mother’s methods do we hope to repeat, and which do we hope to avoid? In avoiding those that felt unhelpful, do we run the risk of overcompensating and going too far in the other direction? Does the mother who felt emotionally neglected as a child become overly intrusive as a mother? It isn’t possible to determine exactly how a new mother will respond to motherhood – we all come into it with our own unique set of experiences and it’s important to try to let go of any expectations that you have of yourself and of this new life you have created. Nevertheless it’s important to try and be continually consciously aware. To consider that linear dimension that dates back through the generations from your mother to your grandmother and so forth. After all, there is no better way for us to understand how our own mother felt than the moment we step into the role for ourselves.
New mothers run the full gambit of emotions, from rage to adoration, jealousy and frustration, resentment, boredom and guilt to elation, ecstasy and joy. Never has the term ‘emotional rollercoaster’ been a more accurate description of the journey that most mothers embark upon. Feeling ambivalent about motherhood is completely normal and should be expected (almost encouraged) and is definitely not a sign of failure. If I ask a new mother how things are going and she replies that everything is ‘perfect’ I often have concerns about what she is doing with all the difficult feelings that are near impossible to avoid during that first tornado-like experience of early day motherhood.
Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was a London paediatrician who studied psychoanalysis and wrote extensively about the relationship between mother and baby in the early years. He referred to ‘maternal occupation’ which he described as a ‘heightened state of sensitivity’ for a new mother who almost loses sight of the world around her and is able to fully engage in the task at hand. (‘Flight into sanity’ then follows where the mother begins to re-engage in the outside world and starts to encourage her baby to do the same.) He believed that the mother herself is best equipped by following her own instincts, to really listen and be in tune with what her baby needs, as she herself on some unconscious level remembers what it felt like to be a baby and therefore has all the answers within, if she can only let go of all the outside pressure around her. The pressure of her own expectations, of the media, health professionals, mother-in-laws and friends who may have good intentions but drown out the ability for the mother to hear her own maternal instincts. He wrote that there is no such thing as a perfect mother – only one who is ‘good enough’. In order for baby to develop in a healthy way, we will inevitably let it down at some point by not bringing the breast/bottle quick enough, not realising that the cry means a dirty nappy, by holding and rocking for too long or not long enough. Mothers cannot meet every single need their baby has immediately and there is value in finding the balance which will encourage an ability to tolerate delayed gratification. Mothers will fail at times. And this will not do irrevocable damage to their babies, because they are trying their best. Accepting this is the best gift mothers can give themselves, as well as the new little lives they are helping to shape. So the aim is not to be perfect, but to be ‘good enough’.
Kate Medlin works in North London as a Counselling Therapist both in private practice and within a Counselling Service at a London University. She is the Agony Aunt for Bella Magazine, answering readers letters on emotional, sexual and family related problems. For more information visit this page.