The transition to motherhood is a profound step in a woman's life. One day she is "just a woman", and then literally overnight, whether she gives birth or adopts, she becomes someone's mother. She enters this new territory with a concept of what "mother" means based on her own childhood, perceived expectations from others, and the media. For nine months, the pregnant woman gets to "play" with the idea of what it will be like when the baby comes. She imagines how she will be as a mother, maybe idealizing herself a bit. She swears that she won't make the mistakes she sees others making.
Then comes the initiation — birth. Adoptive mothers also experience a moment of truth when the baby is in her arms and she is now "mother".
Suddenly, the marriage changes as well. There is this other person, the father or partner going through his own internal identity crisis. Both living under the same roof, sometimes having conflicting ideas of what should be done from minute to minute. During the baby's first night home, reality strikes. Just as our new mother is drifting off to sleep, still exhausted and recuperating from the birth, the baby cries. “Do I really have to get up now?" the new mom wonders.
The ups and downs
Of course, having a baby is a time of joy and celebration. But there is also some loss involved. The new mom has lost her old self and she might lack confidence in her new role. The word "freedom" takes on new meaning and is longed for. Unless she has someone to watch her new bundle while she goes out, she finds she can't just step out the door like she used to. There is no such thing as "I'll be right back, just going to the corner" any more. Now, going out the door has become a big production. Pack the diaper bag, wrap up the baby . . . oh, wait, change the diaper first, now wrap up the baby. Drag the stroller down the stairs...."Is going out worth it?" She decides not. What happened to that productive woman? She could squeeze three errands into less than an hour, finish a work project, cook dinner and clean the bathroom. Now she is a little discombobulated and disorganized — not a comfortable feeling for most new moms.
While becoming a mother is instantaneous, it is really a process. The new mom is tested to her limits and beyond. Sometimes she gets it right and is overjoyed — and sometimes she completely gets it wrong (but hopefully can laugh at herself, along with the baby).
The haves and the have-nots
In the early days, she is eager to hear her child call, "Mommy!", but after a few years she wants to run away if she hears "MOMMY" one more time! Suddenly every kid in the department store calling "mom" sounds like hers. Now, there is a new division between our new mom and her friends without kids. There's a little tension in the air as the one without makes all sorts of great suggestions. When the mom tries to explain that there is also a down side to motherhood, the "one without" absolutely refuses to believe it. Mom might be tired, drained and a little depressed, but her childless friend will say, "You should thank your lucky stars that you’ve been blessed with such a beautiful child." And yes, she does, every day, but sometimes she secretly hates it and wonders, "What was I thinking?", unable to share those thoughts with anyone but another mom. Now the induction into the mom's club begins.
To know how it feels
I recently had a conversation with my son who is learning how to drive. When he was young and sitting in the back seat, he would chatter away and I would miss most of what he said because my attention was on the crazy streets of Brooklyn, trying to keep us safe and alive. He would always complain, “You didn't hear a thing I said," and I would try and explain; but he would pout and refuse to repeat a word of it. Now, learning to drive, he was becoming tense and I couldn't resist saying, "Now you see why I never heard what you were saying while I was driving". "Well yeah, but you could have explained it to me," he protested. My reply? "I tried, but now that you’re driving, you can really understand". That's how it is with friends who don't have kids. Unless they are tackling what our new mom has to deal with, they really can't imagine how hard it is.
What’s normal, what’s not
The transition into motherhood is sometimes a long and painstaking process, as well — especially if support is not available. No matter the expectations, the new dad is probably not up to mom’s standards. Whatever the parents thought parenthood was going to be like, the demands are usually far greater than ever imagined. It is only over time that she starts to believe she is a good mother and begins to form an identity of actually being one, for real.
It's important to spot warning signs early, and to seek professional help before things get worse. New mothers do flock to one another but sometimes it's hard to find like minded souls. Sometimes when she does find them, a mom’s experiences don't feel the same as theirs and she might feel isolated in her feelings. If there is excessive tearfulness, increased fighting with your partner, or a sense of detachment from the baby, seek help. Don't let these normal difficulties spiral out of control by not seeking supportive counseling. Sometimes couples therapy is helpful at this time, as well. Discuss your problems with a trusted friend and try to get a referral for a therapist who will be sensitive to what you're going through. Also, making connections with other moms is important throughout the years your child is growing. Try to make those connections and retain them.
Be easy on yourself!
Last of all, cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism doesn't work with motherhood. We may have wished that our own mothers were different, but now we're seeing that it really isn't so easy after all. Be gentle with yourself as you learn how to be a mom — and forgive, forgive, forgive.
DEBORAH SIMON, M.S.W., is a Brooklyn Heights-based psychotherapist. She has worked with new parents for many years and is also involved in guided imagery, visualization and stress management. She has a son at Princeton and one in high school, and her favorite pastime is Argentine Tango. She can be reached at (718) 393-7642 or at [email protected].