The Reality Of Motherhood...
What Nobody Tells You
Grand Valley ON Canada
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 4, July-August 2006, pp. 148-152.
I thought I could prepare for my first baby. I read countless pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding books. I attended prenatal classes as well as a breastfeeding course. I had loads of experience with babies and children, and had many deep conversations with their parents.
And yet, I was hopelessly unprepared. Nothing I had read described the helplessness I felt when my baby wouldn't stop crying. Or how desperately sleep deprived I was. Or how I would avoid mirrors because I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a hairbrush. Nobody told me how guilty I would sometimes feel (often about things out of my control), or how fragile my self-confidence would become.
I, like most expectant mothers, was prepared for labor and delivery, and even for breastfeeding, but not for life postpartum. One reason is that nobody talks about the reality of motherhood, which often doesn't match the naïve ideal many of us have.
Consequently, as expectant mothers we often underestimate just how much our lives will change when our babies are born. We may believe our babies will sleep peacefully for hours while we work or complete projects. Breastfeeding, as the natural choice, will come easily. Our sweet babies will gaze into our eyes while their fathers lovingly look on.
Then our babies are born, and that "perfect" picture of a quiet, peaceful, sleeping infant is quickly shattered by a very real, screaming, hungry baby. He may nurse more frequently than the expected eight to 12 times, and the feedings may run together, requiring more time and energy than previously imagined. As mothers struggle to reconcile their vision of motherhood with reality, well meaning comments, such as, "Don't wish this time away" and "Aren't you just loving your new baby?" can make them feel horrible. One mother admits, "I had a period of time where I thought I'd made a big mistake." She loved her son deeply, but was having difficulty adjusting her expectations.
The reality of the constant care and attention needed by an infant is something many parents are unprepared for. It can sometimes strain even the best relationship. Some mothers find they are so consumed with caring for their babies that they neglect their spouses. Others resent their spouses' apparent freedom, because life for them doesn't appear to be changed.
One couple's idealized vision of life as new parents was shattered by reality despite a huge amount of preparation on their part. Her pregnancy and delivery went as planned, but their new daughter cried inconsolably for months. When her husband became withdrawn and no longer tried to help, she felt abandoned and resentful. Professional counselling helped her understand that he had felt like his daughter hated him because she cried harder whenever he tried to comfort her. He had been deeply hurt, frustrated, and disappointed. Therapy helped them put their family back together, and now they enjoy a close relationship.
Amanda Philip from Ontario, Canada had the opposite experience. "I was really detached from my daughter and my mothering instinct." Her husband, on the other hand, seemed to always know how to care for their baby. Amanda felt useless and thought she was a failure as a mother.
Amanda's picture of new motherhood, like many mothers' visions before birth, included the certainty that she would instantly fall in love with her baby and instinctively know what to do. It does happen that way -- sometimes. When it doesn't, mothers feel guilty and scared.
Naomi Leboe from British Columbia, Canada remembers sobbing on her husband's shoulder and feeling like a terrible mother because she was afraid she wasn't bonding with her baby. Her husband assured her the bond would come, and he was right. Naomi and her son are now very close and share a deep connection. It just took time.
In the LLLI-published book, NIGHTTIME PARENTING, Dr. William Sears writes:
Bonding is not like instant glue which at a critical time suddenly and irrevocably cements the mother-child relationship together forever. Bonding is a lifelong process of mother-child interaction.
Bonding is also the continuation (rather than the beginning) of a process that began during pregnancy. One mother suggests that her baby's birth was like a first date -- the beginning of a relationship. This analogy might take the pressure off new mothers. Bonding, just like loving our partners, is something we grow into.
Even when the deep connection is there, new mothers can also feel weepy, overwhelmed, and tired. Most, in fact, will experience the "baby blues" -- a few days or weeks in which they feel sad, moody, and anxious. New mothers have a lot to contend with, such as rapid hormonal changes, the emotional and physical toll of childbirth, and, of course, sleep deprivation.
Tracey Slater from California, USA was sometimes resentful when her daughter pulled her from a deep sleep for a feeding. She would often cry as she picked her baby up. At the time, she thought she was a "bad mother" for feeling that way, but now understands it was because she was sleep deprived.
Many mothers experience mixed emotions. While we know our babies are depending on us, the responsibility can be overwhelming, especially in the early days when we are so affected by the "baby blues" and exhaustion. The change from being independent women to having our lives revolve so completely around our babies is difficult. Many mothers feel anxious and scared. One mother remembers, "I thought they were crazy to let me go home from the hospital -- what the heck did I know about newborn care?"
Sabrina Bassett from Ontario, Canada was afraid of what people would think of her and of what might happen when she went out. What if her baby cried? She couldn't relax with her baby, but she was even more stressed without her. Her anxiety made it difficult to leave the house. "I resented the solitude. I never realized that being around someone 24 hours a day could be so lonely."
That sense of isolation can also stem from a recent move, from being far away from other family members, or from being the first in a group of friends to have a baby. It can even grow from the feelings of inadequacy that can come with having a "high-need" baby. Dr. Sears describes these babies as intense, "in arms," and demanding.
In THE HIDDEN FEELINGS OF MOTHERHOOD, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes, "Sometimes...mothers become isolated from each other because we fear judgment. Other mothers can be our harshest critics." No wonder mothers are reluctant to share their negative experiences.
Memories of my oldest son's baby days are clouded with tears -- his and mine. He slept so little and cried so much that it eroded my confidence in my mothering ability. I was sure I was doing something horribly wrong. It didn't help that a crying baby is a magnet for unsolicited advice, mostly negative, which, for me, confirmed my fears.
Attending my first La Leche League meeting was a turning point. At first, the blissful nursing couples intimidated me as I paced and rocked my baby, trying to stop his constant crying. Afterwards, one of the Leaders told me she'd had a high-need baby, too. She empathized with how difficult it could be and told me I was a good mother. She was living proof that others had survived and so would I. LLL became my lifeline.
Experts agree on the importance of mother-to-mother support. Kate O'Shaugnessy is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, California, USA who provides individual counseling to pregnant and postpartum women and their babies. She also facilitates support groups for mothers and believes that, as a society, we need to offer new mothers more support in their adjustment to new motherhood. They need support on all levels -- from partners, families, employers, and communities.
Naomi received support and help from her mother during some tough moments. She recalls being reduced to tears when her son screamed through his entire bath. Her mother reassured her, saying, "He's not crying because of you. It's normal -- he just hates his bath."
Unfortunately, mothers don't always get the support they need from well-meaning family members. Sometimes they feel judged and the advice they receive may conflict with their instincts. These mothers might find it especially helpful to have a close friend to confide their feelings to, especially since some of those feelings can be confusing and frightening. Much as we don't believe we could ever feel anything but the deepest love for our babies, most of us will sometimes feel frustration, resentment, or anger -- especially in moments when we are run down from exhaustion and feel we don't have anything more to give.
Mothers can have visions of running away, or of hurting their babies. The anger and other emotions can seem overwhelming, as is the guilt that sets in afterwards. Even when they know they would never act on those feelings, the impulses are terrifying.
Kim Kelly from Massachusetts, USA can relate. She had thoughts of tossing her son out the window at times when he had been crying for hours on end:
I hated being a mother until he was about eight months old. I hated the lack of sleep, the crying, everything. He was such a hard baby, and I wasn't ready for that.
Kelly wondered what she had done wrong to make him cry so much. She also questioned whether or not she was an adequate mother. After she discovered a cosleeper, she started to sleep better at night. She also found a friend to share stories with. Life began to get better.
For most mothers, including Kelly, the frightening thoughts are fleeting. However, if you fear you may actually harm yourself or your baby, put him in a safe place (such as a crib) and get help immediately. Call your partner, your doctor, a friend, or a crisis line. In those cases, the "baby blues" may be turning into postpartum psychosis.
According to Postpartum Support International, postpartum psychosis includes symptoms of visual or auditory hallucinations, delusional thinking, and delirium and/or mania. This condition occurs in one to two women per thousand and has a five percent suicide and four percent infanticide rate. (To read one mother's experience with postpartum psychosis, see page 158.)
In her article, New Studies in Postpartum Depression, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett explains that mothers who have recurring thoughts of harming their babies may be suffering from postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is "an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwelcome thoughts, ideas, or doubts that give rise to anxiety and distress." It can also occur along with postpartum depression (PPD).
Postpartum depression is an illness that can set in months -- even a year -- after the baby is born. It is more intense and lasts longer than the baby blues. Signs of depression include feelings of sadness, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, sleep issues, and a change in appetite. PPD can be debilitating and it can negatively impact the mother-child relationship, but it doesn't have to. There are steps a mother can take, including asking for help. Professional help is available in a variety of forms from support groups, to individual therapy, to medications. And, yes, there are medications that are compatible with breastfeeding.
Nina Little, a Certified Social Worker and early childhood consultant in Orangeville, Ontario, Canada co-facilitates a support group for women who are having difficulty adjusting to motherhood. The group is a "soft place to land" and a safe place for mothers to share their experiences. Ms. Little believes that, despite their unhappiness, most mothers are responsive, caring, and involved with their babies. Babies are forgiving.
Even so, it is important to take depression seriously. Research shows that depression can affect the way in which mothers interact with their babies and can affect infant development. Breastfeeding helps. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett describes a recent study:
Jones and colleagues found that breastfeeding protected infants from the harmful effects of maternal depression....One apparent reason for this finding is that by simply breastfeeding, mothers were more likely to touch, stroke, and make eye contact with their babies.
Kim worries that she may have scarred her son with her negative feelings in those early days. She regrets not getting help. She couldn't admit she was depressed. She was afraid people would think it was just an excuse, and that she was an inadequate mother.
This is why Amanda openly discusses her diagnosis of postpartum depression. She wants her friends and family to know that she understands and is available to talk about it, if they should need her. Other mothers agree. They hope that knowing they are not alone in their feelings will lessen the guilt for others.
Dr. Jacqueline Duncan, a psychiatrist and therapist in Inglewood, Ontario, Canada advises mothers to put the past behind them. Babies may not even register the individual transgressions (impatience, feelings of anger or resentment) that the mother feels guilty about. The baby is much more likely to pick up on the ongoing, relentless self-hatred, guilt, and shame that mothers subject themselves to. "What determines our self-esteem and ability to become integrated productive adults is not the sporadic episodes of misery we encounter," she explains, "but how we are treated most of the time." Mothers who feel shame and guilt are generally good mothers who have set impossibly high standards for themselves, and view their mothering in black and white, "good and bad" terms. The danger in this kind of thinking is that one horrible day can feel like "all is lost" rather than being seen for what it is...a horrible day.
Sadly, the guilt can be long-lived. One mother says:
Even though I'm older and wiser now, admitting all this stuff still sets off the "bad mother" alarm somewhere in my head...moms really need better support.
Dr. Duncan hopes that mothers can learn to let go of some of the unnecessary guilt they live with.
In the meantime, the passing of time, along with practicing attachment parenting and finding a support group or a friend to share experiences with, has helped many mothers heal and grow in their love for their babies.
Sabrina found that a combination of factors, including finding a support group and returning to work, have given her balance and made her a happier mother. "I look at my daughter now and think that she is the most incredible person I've ever known."
Another mother echoes the sentiment. She loves being a mother, with all the ups and downs. No matter how tired she might be, her son can make her laugh or renew her resources with a sweet baby kiss. She's deeply in love with him and, she adds, he has replaced the fictional image of perfection in her head.
For others, time is everything. One mother says she mentally turned a corner when her son was around six months old. She realized that she was adjusting to motherhood and was not as sad and stressed anymore. Looking back, she sees that she had been mourning for her lost independence and the changes in her relationship with her husband. She couldn't see the wonderful things she'd received in the trade. And now? "All the things I mourned are so insignificant to me now; at the time they were everything."
Things do get better. The sleep deprivation wears off, our instincts develop, the incredible bond between mother and child grows. And through it all, Tracey says, "The overwhelming phases of raising a child certainly do not outweigh the everyday joys of motherhood."
Kendall-Tackett, K. New studies in postpartum depression. LEAVEN 2005; 41(4):75-79.
Kendall-Tackett, K. The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. Amarillo, Texas: Hale Publishing, 2005.
Sears, W. NIGHTTIME PARENTING. Schaumburg, Illinois: La Leche League International, 1999.
Tips for Enjoying the Early Days
Postpartum Support International (PSI)
Information about postpartum depression and other postpartum mood disorders, as well as an international listing of PSI Coordinators who refer women and their families to the resources and support services they need, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors.