As a society, we occasionally praise our moms for managing the tough job of raising children, but we rarely “allow” moms to express some of the personal challenges —the darker side—of motherhood without a critical ear. As a society, we expect moms to be a certain way: gentle, patient, affectionate, attentive, giving, caring, and full of the kind of energy that extends far and beyond what children need. Yet, it’s a tall task to adjust to a (very) new lifestyle and the numerous changes that coincide with that new lifestyle (e.g., sleep patterns, new schedule). Never mind shifting hormones and the enormous demands put on moms physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. But internally, moms have lots to say about motherhood and what it’s like letting go of one life to grab hold of another.
What I learned from interviewing moms
Most women undergo and acknowledge a drastic change in their sense of identity, thinking of themselves first as mothers (vs. teacher, doctor, dancer, graphic designer, office clerk, etc.) and second as wives, daughters, sisters, and friends, respectively. Second to identity these women confessed 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 with a purple dinosaur named Barney and 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.
During these interviews, a surprisingly large number of women admitted that they never shared their true feelings with their husbands, friends, or family (i.e., mother, father, siblings). I think fear prevents many women from sharing—fear associated with rejection, embarrassment, ridicule, judgment, and shame; ultimately, fear prevents mothers from reaching out and getting the support, encouragement, help, and advice they seek and deserve. When fear exists, I tell mothers to commiserate with other mothers at a support group, since these mothers will most likely appreciate all the emotions attached to motherhood and not judge even the “worst” of feelings. A support group is a great place to practice expressing the difficult feelings and thoughts that may be important for spouses and family members to eventually hear. Saying the words out loud is like turning a release valve. It takes the pressure off, reduces the likelihood of an outburst, and decreases the anxiety around a tense situation.
If the metaphor of a valve doesn’t work for you, think about what Helen Keller once said, “The only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.” I don’t think Helen Keller was referring to motherhood, but she certainly knew a thing or two about challenges. And I think she’s right. Opening the door to the less conventional emotions and expressing the “unacceptable” feelings around motherhood is essential in making your way through the door. I can assure you that you will feel less “trapped,” figuratively and literally. Opening the door to the possibility that it’s all right to have “bad” feelings about motherhood—to feel overwhelmed, lost, depressed about losing many things that were once familiar, pleasant, and necessary for you to feel complete—will make it infinitely easier for you to let go of what was and help you create what can be in the context of motherhood. You will redefine yourself in these moments of truth, and carve a path down a road of better parenting, fulfilling relationships, and mounting confidence.