Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Life with children requires a 24/7 commitment, a commitment mothers are expected to meet with abundant tolerance, selflessness, and surreal endurance. For instance, moms answer an average of ninety questions a day per child, listen to every wonder a child can imagine, and sidestep, with uncanny strategy, many tantrums in the making. We become light sleepers so that we can hear our babies cry when they need us through the night. We nurse in awkward places and take great care to ensure that our children know that Mommy is there for them. We have food for their bellies and the right clothes to keep them comfortable. We read to them and let them make some choices for themselves. We referee, discipline, sacrifice, arbitrate, negotiate, and apologize when we make mistakes. We create structure, safety, and opportunities for growth. In every action we take, we are aware that we are being watched by children who look to us for the most critical lessons in living life:
the lessons to be patient, to share, and to not hurt your sister, your brother, or others; the lessons to forgive, to take turns, and to be safe; the lessons to focus, practice, and work hard; the lessons to be empathic, confident, kind, honest, and moral; the lessons to not overdo, to play fair, to be proud of themselves, and to let go when they are ready.
These are only a few of the many physical and mental “actions” involved in raising a child. Far less glamorous but equally taxing on a mom are the jobs related to the kids. When I was a young mom, I washed at least a load of laundry every couple of days. I shopped for food, brought it home, and cooked it. I cooked again in the morning, and then cleaned the mess. I made lunch, and then cleaned again. And then, of course, it was time for dinner, and I cooked again. After I cleaned up the dinner mess, I was inclined to tackle the mess that the kids made while I was cooking. I would ask my young crew to help clean the house in order to teach them about responsibility and order, but I knew I’d be doing most of it after they were asleep. In the meantime, the house was noisy as the kids plotted activities to sabotage my efforts to prepare them for bed.
I watched the clock as it ticked closer to the time when I could sit down alone. I finished up the night by reading to the kids before putting them to bed, which took the last of any energy I may have had for an activity that was reserved strictly for me, like reading a novel or visiting with my husband. Instead, while I sat, I mentally reviewed my checklist. Have I done everything that needed doing today? Was the homework finished? Did the kids brush their teeth? Are the lunches packed for school? Did all the phone calls get returned? Did I turn on the dryer and start the dishwasher? How about the thank-you cards for the gifts given to my daughter for her birthday (because there was always something left to do)? I finally got to bed knowing that another day would follow that would work me as hard as it had that day. Tomorrow would bring another day with no time or energy to exercise or see a friend for lunch unless I arranged for a babysitter who was competent, reliable, and trustworthy. This, of course, required research beyond my fully engaged schedule and existing level of burnout. With all the work and sacrifices associated with motherhood, how could a woman not change? Change is inevitable. However, a woman’s perception of change matters a great deal in her overall experience of becoming a mom and the workload, responsibilities, and demands associated with that role.
At a conscious level we ascribe meaning to events, people, places, gestures, objects, and environmental conditions (e.g., stress) given our emotional state, prior experience, knowledge base, and what we believe to be true, which is why no two people have the same accounting of a single event; each of us perceives an event through our own unique conscious and unconscious processing of information. What we tell ourselves, our internal dialogue, reflects this processing and greatly influences our lives, especially how we form relationships, assess situations, make decisions, solve problems, and cope with the stress that often accompanies change. We respond to change according to how we process, and ultimately internalize in words, the meaning of change in our lives.
Mothers who perceive change as a natural and evolving process tell themselves exactly that. They tell themselves that life circumstances have changed, but they will retain the important aspects of themselves or their lives (however altered they may be). Likewise they tell themselves that it is all right to postpone certain goals, activities, etc., until a time that is less demanding on them. They make choices and act in a manner that supports what they believe to be true, all without a trace of resentment. Because they perceive change as a process, they tend to transition into their new role as mother without the effect of change compromising their sense of self. In fact, some women actually welcome the changes associated with motherhood and experience a heightened sense of self after a baby, regardless of the kinds of changes that occur.
Harriet’s internal dialogue
“This is where I belong now. This is a fleeting moment in my life and I want to experience it well before it’s over. Hallie and Ryan need me, but they will not always need me so much. This time goes by so fast. I see them changing every day. I’ll get through the tough spots. This is hard work, but so too would be many other things I would choose to do in my life, other things that are a lot less rewarding.”
Conversely, a large number of mothers perceive the changes associated with motherhood as losses, which is evident in their internal dialogue. Their internal dialogues are like mantras in that the same words are used often and with focused conviction. For example, “I lost my freedom.” Or, “I lost my desire for sex” and “I lost touch with my friends.” Similarly, they may use words like “gone” and “miss” when referring to things related to their past. These words reflect emotions that accompany a sense of longing. Unlike mantras, though, no other person can hear or dispute the typically negative words that are chosen for private thought, and as such no one can argue, reassure, or prompt an appropriate reality check. Below is an example of the kind of self talk moms internalize, self talk they wouldn’t dream of voicing aloud unless under strict codes of confidentiality—internal dialogues that indisputably relate to the perception of change as loss. I asked, “What are some of the things you tell yourself on a regular basis?”
Theresa’s internal dialogue
“I just want my life back. This is too hard. They [the children] are driving me crazy. I can’t do this anymore. I miss my old life and the things that went along with that, like going out with my friends or having the freedom to do things when I wanted to do them. I don’t do those things anymore and I miss them.”
Apart from sharing their “darkest secrets,” many moms openly and willingly shared their feelings. In just about every interview discussing these feelings, moms began with similar assertions of love, as if to weaken the potency of words to come. Once love, gratitude, awe, and joy were out of the way, I heard the raw and honest feelings that mothers can have when unencumbered by the expectations typically associated with the role of mother. I heard truth: Motherhood is hard. Motherhood is a big adjustment that requires a great deal of selflessness. Moms can feel frustration, angst, anxiety, overwhelm, fear, guilt, shame, anger, depression, sadness, and loneliness. They can feel afraid, awkward, and a rapid decline in self-esteem. They feel less attractive and self-conscious; and they often feel misunderstood, underappreciated, or not validated enough as they struggle to transition into a role that is incredibly complex and multifaceted given society’s expectations and the bar they often set for themselves.
By holding space and allowing for the distinctly different feelings that often coexist in early motherhood, moms may more readily accept the dueling nature of motherhood; that becoming a mom is an incredible gift and that gift can come with lots of changes in one’s self, one’s lifestyle and relationships. Likewise, these changes often bring on an influx of feelings that would otherwise contradict the notion of “the good mother.” In other words, and the takeaway being, a woman can be a good, devoted, and caring mother and also experience conflicting feelings, sadness, frustration and a variety of other feelings around losing a life and version of self that is being, or has been, transformed by motherhood. By embracing these coexisting feelings, moms may have a better chance of feeling a less guilt, a little less shame, a little less negative, a little less anxiety, a little less depression…. and a lot more grace and joy. Perhaps this is the path to take to help improve the mental health of our moms.