Research has shown that a mother with high expectations of her labour/birth experience, motherhood (and herself as a mother) is more likely to develop post-natal depression and that we can assist pregnant mothers by helping them to develop more realistic expectations and prepare for the adjustment that motherhood brings.
In the article “The New Parent”, Dawn Gruen recognizes what is termed a “Postpartum Adjustment”. She writes: “With birth comes the transition to parenthood, often referred to as a developmental crisis for the parents. For them, the postpartum period is a time of emotional upheaval including rapid fluctuation and unpredictability of feelings. Everything is different and new, making it very difficult to know what is “normal”.”
Gruen identifies four areas of change that are challenging to both parents in terms of adjustment:
- Identity changes
- Feelings of loss (of your previous life/lifestyle)
- Time and energy changes
- The couple’s relationship changes
The area I want to address today is that of “identity.”
Becoming a mother for the very first time, creates in us a new identity as we take onboard this life-changing role. Quite aside from getting to know our baby and feeling comfortable and confident in having responsibility for this new little life, we are also psychologically coming to terms what we believe it means to be a “good mother”.
In my experience, there are two conflicts that occur. Perhaps it is the same for everyone? First, I have an internal ideal of what it means to be a “good mother”. My ideal may have been formed by a whole range of experiences of motherhood (usually key people in my life that have role-modelled motherhood to me) and how I’ve interpreted them. Internally I have processed my experiences and decided which ones I value and esteem to be like. Second, I have a range of health professionals, friends and family with their own set of ideals about what a “good mother” is and each of them (with good intentions) sharing those with us in the hope to guide us to be a better mother to our child. And let’s not forget the media and various other influences shaping our society’s culture by messages about what it means to be a mother.
The conflict occurs when my ideal (and values) and the guidance I’m receiving from others (based on their values) clashes with reality. The pressure I might place on myself or feel others are putting on me to live up to my (or their) ideals may cause me more harm than if I were to let it go.
Secondly, a conflict occurs when the guidance and advice I am receiving contradicts one another, causing confusion.
In speaking with mothers, the most common expectations and pressure they feel is regarding:
- breastfeeding vs. formula feeding
- keeping the house in order
- how “well” their baby was doing (eg. sleeping, feeding)
- parenting styles including “parentcare”
- staying at home vs. working
Here is what some mums are saying about expectations they had/pressure they felt:
“I had a lot of pressure put on me from my in-laws – they would try to go through [my husband] who would then ‘suggest’ different ways when I wanted to do it another way.
I had comments like ‘we won’t look after her until a bottle is involved’ (as I was breastfeeding) and when [my mother-in-law] would ring up the first thing she would ask every time is “is she sleeping through yet?” even when she was weeks old…!
…Apart from that no other pressure – [except] sometimes in coffee group when [my daughter] was not sleeping through and ALLLLL the other babies were…”
“I think my main expectations I put on myself – and most of them were very unrealistic! I had always intended on being a stay home mum and had the `ideal’ that I would be in my mind. As someone who had trained as a chef, my child was never going to have processed foods, but now some days I have to accept that the only thing she is going to eat is potato sticks. I love my coffee group and they never put pressure or expectations on me as such, but at the beginning I felt awkward going along as they all seemed to be handling every thing so well and my baby had reflux and colic and I had a nightmare starting breastfeeding. As soon as she got into full on cry at coffee group I would just leave.”
“One woman grabbed [my daughter] off me when she was a couple of weeks old and tried showing me how to burp her properly, for one this woman doesn’t have kids and two there wasn’t an issue with burping. Being told that she needs to be given a bottle by some, bf by others, she was too hot and I dressed her too warm, I should have had her in her own room from the beginning, it was all this crap that made me feel inadequate as a mother. I’m much stronger now and if I ever have another I will definitely tell people where to go if they tried that again.”
“I think the pressure was probably from me. Then me worrying how people perceived me and my not coping… I had expected it all to be easy and fall into place. I thought, because younger [daughter] was my 2nd child, it would be easy and all would be sweet as. Um, no! I was so wrong! 6 yrs is a huge gap and you don’t remember it all from first child with a 6 yr gap! Plus older child started being very badly behaved and new baby was very spilly. I did develop PND very severely. It is very different, having 1st child as a single mum and then having 2nd child with a partner and older child. So much more to contend with, so much more expected of you. It was a big shock to the system that things weren’t just easy peesy.”
“I think that I should be able to keep a clean house and have a good nutritious dinner on the table each night, this doesn’t happen all the time and I feel guilty about it. I think its because I’m not earning that I feel like I need to do something for [my husband] so I am “worthy” of being able to stay home while he has to work.”
“I think that my main problems were failing to meet my own expectations of myself as a mother… for one, I fully intended to go back to work full time when [my daughter] was 1, and then realised it wasn’t for me, took me a while to get over ‘abandoning my career’ even though I knew it was the right thing.”
“I also expected to have so much time to have a wonderfully tidy house, be able to exercise every day, cook lovely meals for my family and play with my baby… Okay so maybe I was a tad naive, but I did struggle with the realisation that it just wasn’t/isn’t possible for me to have that perfect tidy house, to exercise every day (I’m too damn tired and sleep deprived) and that cooking is a right horrible experience when you have a tired toddler or crying baby to deal with too!”
“I think a big contributor to PND is the difference between expectations and reality. The expectations I faced [were] generated by me, read stuff about people being able [to] give their baby expressed milk and have a day off, saw Mums getting back into sport with a newborn etc – this didn’t happen for me and the disappointment was crushing.”
“I think also from the stuff I read i got the self expectation that to raise I well adjusted child I had to basically glue myself to her 24/7. Felt massive guilt when she went to her room for sleep so could get some too.”
“I didn’t want to be that mother that hands the baby over to their dad the moment he walked in the door so if I do do that always feel a little guilty about it.”
“Luckily neither my boyfriend or our families have put any pressure on me about anything, but again, if I’m having a bad day I automatically start thinking…’they must think I’m so lazy not being able to do all these things’.”
“First time round I expected and it was expected of me that I would breast feed my baby. The fact that I couldn’t, put me into such a funk. I was in so much physical and emotional pain that when [my daughter] cried for another feed I thought about putting a pillow over her face so I wouldn’t have to put her to the breast. However, because of the pressure I received from midwives, mum, and myself I could see no alternative to breastfeeding. Thankfully one midwife snapped me out of it by telling me it was ok to bottle feed.”
“There is a huge pressure to breastfeed and I feel this is sometimes dangerous for the mental health of new mums.”
“Breastfeeding was the biggest pressure I had to deal with. Knowing all the benefits of breastfeeding, but being in such agony that tears would be streaming down my face while feeding her. The relief when I finally decided to give up and formula feed is indescribable. But it really annoys me that on every tin of formula, and even the MoH pamphlet on formula feeding, there is a ‘breast is best’ warning … just in case I wasn’t already feeling guilty enough!”
“I had a thought now that I’m working a bit and considering putting the kids into childcare. I fully expected that I would be a stay-at-home-mum and would enjoy it and be happy that my kids didn’t have to go into care. But you know what? I love going to work and getting some time out from the kids, its amazing. I really don’t think I’m cut out to be a full-time stay-at-home-mum. I definitely feel guilty about this.”
With these internal and external expectations on mothers, it seems to me that mothers respond in one of three ways:
- they hold tightly to those ideals and try to live up to them, causing enormous pressure on themselves which can in turn bring tension to the family (whether that’s through fatigue, stress or resentment) or at a cost to their own mental health
- let go not of the ideals themselves but of their attempt to meet some of them so that they are living more realistically but not without guilt
- challenging some of the ideals with their reality and embracing “what works for them” as a family
The questions raised are:
“What does it say about me if I ask for help… if I say I can’t cope… if I don’t do everything [on my checklist]?”
“Haven’t I failed my baby if I cannot breastfeed? Failed as a mother if I can’t comfort her or settle her into a routine?”
As a first-time mother, during my pregnancy I made sure that I did everything they told me to do, read everything I could and never ate anything that could ever possibly harm my baby. Prior to his arrival, I scrubbed every inch of the house and made sure every possible item was bought, items laid out in preparation for his coming home. Perhaps there is no coincidence that mothers second, third or fourth time round are far more relaxed during their pregnancy and preparations? Perhaps it’s because they have gone through a process with their first child where they have accepted that nothing is perfect and nothing is ideal or really goes according to plan. Perhaps it’s because they are familiar with the challenges they are likely to face and so their expectations and reality are not at odds? Perhaps they have learned that whatever challenge might arise, they will find the best solution that works for their family. This might involve talking to a range of people – professionals through to family and friends, but ultimately they will arrive at what works for them.
We have our ideals for a reason: we want the best for our baby and for our husband/partner. However, it is simply nottrue that a “good mother always puts herself last.” A good mother factors in her own needs as well as the rest of the family’s. If striving to meet the ideal for her baby/family means that she is carrying stress and guilt and a sense of failure and fatigue and resentment – and ultimately is at a cost of her own personal mental health – then that cost is too great. Not only because of what it does to her, but also what it does to her family.
Perhaps it is true that a “good mother cares for her family…. and also cares for herself.”
I’ll leave you with a quote I really liked from one mother:
“This time around I don’t care what anyone else says we’ll be doing what works for us, after all in the end that’s what I have had to do already and we have a beautiful happy girl, so I must be doing something right.”