Updated: Dec 6, 2021
A tidal wave moving swiftly toward an unsuspecting beach dweller is the image that comes to mind.
For many women the challenge to adjust to motherhood moves at a pace and strength that is greater than they expected. A tidal wave moving swiftly toward an unsuspecting beach dweller is the image that comes to mind. At least that’s how it felt to me. Like I was hit by a tidal wave and I was drowning in water that was too deep and too rough for this average swimmer. The simple truth is that life changes with a child, as does a woman. Years ago I foolishly thought that only my life circumstances would change after I had a baby. I knew there would be lots of dirty diapers and toys scattered around every room in the house. I figured that I would be hanging around playgrounds more often than the local café with friends and traveling less spontaneously and more with port-a-cribs, bottles, and booster seats. I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t nearly as ready for motherhood as I thought at the time I conceived. I didn’t realize how much sacrifice was involved or how little I knew about coping. I figured I was mature and in a happy relationship and therefore I would transition well, but I didn’t. In fact, I struggled with “convulsions and explosions,” as author Eric Hoffer wrote in his book, The Temper of Our Time, regarding drastic change.
Perhaps I made a big mistake by anticipating the “hardest job in the world” by only visualizing the physical nature of childcare, not by preparing for the effect motherhood would have on me psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, socially, cognitively, behaviorally, sexually, and financially.
On the other hand, how does one prepare for such wide-ranging effects? The changes can be lurking in the subtle decline of intimacy between partners or as brazen as weight gain. For me it started innocently with clothes that were less about style and more about their ability to withstand the abuse of dirty hands and spit-up, and a haircut that was more convenient than attractive. I have the pictures if you need the proof. There were other changes in my physical appearance, but those changes were of a much more intimate kind. Let’s just say that I am no longer perky and leave it at that. More disturbing, however, were the changes in my state of mind, ranging from the ecstasy of just giving birth to the fury that arises when parent needs collide with toddler needs. Those were the obvious, and momentary, states of mind.
Far more penetrating were the insidious changes in my mood, which moved along steadily and consistently toward discontent. My days were filling with a growing sense of restlessness and depression. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with me. I had beautiful and healthy children. I was thrilled that they had each other. I thought I had what I wanted. And yet, I was unhappy in a way that was hard to explain at the time, but something I knew was true. This unhappiness was making it hard for me to get through each day. Now, granted, my days were full of doing laundry, dishes, food shopping, vacuuming, changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the numerous needs of three young children. Few people could get through a day like that with a smile on their face. On the other hand, I was becoming more aware of the adverse changes in my disposition and the things I told myself. In fact, my words took on the voice of a character I referred to as the Mother Maid. She kept me company as I complained through each endless chore and every obligation. I mumbled in her voice as I started each day aware of the responsibilities I knew were mine, responsibilities I began to describe as mindless, unsatisfying, and downright dreadful. With self talk like that, it’s no wonder I wasn’t dancing around in a state of joy.
I suppose that’s when it hit me, when I actually heard the things I was saying to myself and realized I didn’t like myself.
I knew that having children changed so many things about my life, but it had also changed me, just not in ways that I wanted for myself. I didn’t like the person I was becoming: more irritable, tired, overwhelmed, unhappy, less patient are words that come to mind. Because the link between having children and my life changing seemed so obvious, I understand how I could have looked at my children as the reason for my unhappiness. They weren’t. In fact, it was only after I acknowledged this fact that I more closely examined my life and the way I had been feeling. Being a social worker, I knew I had to take a step back and, with a therapist’s perspective, look at my “symptoms.” Much to my surprise, I discovered that my symptoms resembled those related to grief. Because I had experienced the loss of several family members over the years and I had worked for hospice as a grief counselor, I knew the symptoms of grief. It just never occurred to me that I was grieving. I was grieving because I had lost someone—me! I had taken on the role of mother in a single instant and became so completely immersed in the lives of my children and the house in which they lived. Through the years of caring for them and neglecting myself, I became estranged from the person that I had been for the three decades prior to having children. I lost touch with almost everything about me that I once valued and considered familiar. In short, the “old” me was gone.
With this understanding, I studied as much as I could find around this phenomenon (there was very little on the subject) and eventually started focus groups with moms who lived near me. From the many interviews I conducted, I learned that I was not alone in my experience.
The big takeaway was this: Most women undergo and acknowledge a drastic change in their sense of identity, thinking of themselves first as mothers and second as wives, daughters, sisters, and friends, respectively.
Second to identity, these women felt that their self-image declined after they had a baby. They felt less attractive and more “frumpy.” They rarely looked good leaving the house during the day and were even less appealing getting into bed at night. Sex appeal was no longer held up as an aspiration but more as a construct intended to shame them. In addition, a large number of mothers described the mental, psychological, and financial adjustment from a life of status in the workforce to a life of routine at home caring for toddlers and watching muppets of different shapes and colors that came to visit each and every morning. Other telling feedback included how relationships, priorities, dress sizes, responsibilities, eating and sleeping habits, goals, cognitive skills, and general dispositions changed unexpectedly, and sometimes quite radically, as the result of becoming mothers.
So, let's normalize transition and how that looks for women who have become mothers. Let’s normalize some of the negative self-talk they can experience and the feelings attached to these thoughts. Postpartum depression (PPD) is real and requires medical intervention; however, in far more cases, depression and anxiety exists at a level that can be addressed with appropriate information, understanding, and support. Each motherhood experience is different and every mom will experience it differently because perception of change plays a big part. However, change is inevitable, and every new mom is going to realize this very quickly. The bigger issues to address are how to help moms manage change, how to help moms adjust in ways that serve them and their mental health, and how to help moms mitigate the grief that often accompanies feelings of loss around the various undesirable changes — in self and lifestyle — that seem innate to motherhood. These are the issues to tackle, the answers within that can truly make a difference to moms, their overall mental health, and the families they love.