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People often say to me 'I don't feel like myself.' And it's true, one of the ways that motherhood can surprise us is that it can challenge our ideas about who we are.
We often get into ways of relating to the world that work pretty well for us and make us feel good, so if motherhood forces us to re-evaluate some of those, it can really shake us to our core. In psychological terms, transitions like becoming a mother can trigger a kind of breakdown as our usual ways of seeing ourselves don’t work, and we have to rebuild our sense of who we are.
It can be really distressing feeling like this, as it can leave you feeling very vulnerable or as if you’re ‘getting it wrong’. However it is so common I thought I would list a few of the ways in which motherhood can shake your sense of yourself, so if it happens to you you might feel less distressed by it.
1. You can cope by yourself
Maybe before having kids, this was true. However, one of the things that many people will say that surprises them about motherhood is how much you need other people.
There are so many reasons why this might be true. It might be that culturally we are fed the idea that independent is best, that you should be able to stand on your own two feet. It might be that we de-value the impact that informal groups of support have had on mothers in the past, so we don’t recognise how important that was. It might be that we have had to learn from previous life experiences that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. There can be many, many reasons for this.
However the research is clear – new mothers need practical and emotional support or they are more at risk of struggling. So if you find it hard to see yourself as someone who benefits from support, this might feel a tough one to face.
2. If you just work at something you can solve the problem
You might have found that this is how you are used to solving problems at work, or in relationships, and maybe it has worked well. However if you have a baby who won’t sleep, or you have a baby who cries all the time (for no known medical reason), then this idea will not help you. Because they can’t be ‘fixed’, and your usual method of working harder might just see you run yourself into the ground.
Accepting that you might need to accept the situation, rather than seeing it as a problem, and then find ways of getting your needs met in that situation (getting someone to look after the baby to give you some respite from the crying, or allowing you to sleep).
3. That you and your partner will never end up in gender defined roles
There are few things that only one gender can do, and giving birth is one of them (as is breastfeeding). So from the start, it can be hard to resist the onslaught of attention being given to the mother, not the father. This is only increased if you are breastfeeding, or if you have decided that you are the one who takes a longer period of leave from paid work (for whatever reason).
It is a big shift for all of you, and in all of these changes it can often feel harder NOT to fall into gender roles (especially if that is what your role models did) than to make the effort to keep checking that you are not doing so.
If you find yourself upset or resentful that you find yourself feeling a divide between you and your partner, because he or she can’t understand what life is like for you (which they probably can’t), then that is normal. It is helpful to discuss this with your partner (if you can), and also make sure that you give both of you a bit of slack. It’s a new transition for both of you! Many couples talk about how they feel as though their roles are VERY gender defined at the beginning, and that as they become more confident in their roles as parents, however that is for them, then they feel more able to renegotiate within the family, however that works.
4. Perhaps related to the idea of being able to solve problems, is the notion of yourself as someone who can bring comfort
If you are someone who finds that you experience a great deal of your sense of worth from making people happy then if you have a baby who cries a lot, this might really impact on your sense of how good a mother you are. It might feel intolerable to be with someone who you can’t comfort.
If this is the case for you, it can be very hard not to take it personally, and I would recommend speaking to an organisation such as Crisis who have volunteers who know what it is like and can provide you with emotional support to know that you are not alone.
5. If you are someone who is ‘happy go lucky’
Anxiety is part and parcel of being a parent. Mothers’ brains change from the moment of conception in order to help them notice threats in the environment to their babies.
If you are someone who has never really experienced anxiety very much before, this can really be quite shocking, and it might feel ‘wrong’ that you are feeling more anxious. Awfully, that can become a vicious cycle as you become anxious about the anxiety itself.
It can be helpful to know that you WILL become more anxious, as then you can realise that this is part of your new relationship and it’s there to keep your baby safe. It might not feel comfortable, but maybe if you can accept the anxiety as normal, it might help you feel less as though you’re not yourself.
These are only a few scenarios, but there are many more. If you are able to help yourself understand why the challenges you face are because they don’t fit with how you see yourself, it can help you be kinder to how you experience yourself right now. And when you’re kinder to yourself, quite often you can start to access the support you need and start to feel better.
If you've found this helpful, you might find it useful to read this post on returning to work, another time when our identity can be challenged, or you might be interested in my free resources on how to manage your anxiety.
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I’ve spoken with a few mothers recently about how they didn’t acknowledge their sense of fear during their pregnancy. How they took pride in their ability to carry on without making many allowances for the new person inside them. Not that they didn’t go to antenatal classes or enjoy preparing for their baby practically, but that they didn’t start developing their relationship with the person inside them, because for some reason they were scared to.
This fear can often be rationalised as being about protecting yourself in case something happens to the baby. However what if it is actually about something deeper than that. What if you don’t want to connect with your unborn child because actually you’re scared of what they will MEAN. What will they do to your life? How will they affect you? What will they make you give up?
Many of us work very hard as we grow up to develop a sense of independence and autonomy, and babies are a very real threat to that. At the beginning especially, our autonomy and independence are very much lost. Donald Winnicott, the paediatrician and psychanalyst talks about how the mother and baby are so interconnected, especially at the beginning, that a baby will struggle to exist without a mother. And perhaps subconsciously we recognise this, and so during our pregnancy it is almost easier to deny that the baby is really there than face the fear of what that responsibility might be like for us.
Rachel Cusk, the author, wrote that a woman might feel anger for her baby “because she has lost the power of autonomy and free will in her own life. From the first moment of her pregnancy, a woman finds herself subject to forces over which she has no control, not least those of the body itself. This subjection applies equally to the unknown and the known : she is her body’s subject, her doctor’s subject, her baby’s subject, and in this biological work she has undertaken she becomes society’s and history’s subject too. But where she feels the subjection most is in the territories,whatever they are that in her pre-maternal life she made her own. The threat to what made her herself to what made her an individual : this is what the mother finds hardest to live down. Having been told all her life to value her individuality and pursue its aims, she encounters an outright contradiction, a betrayal – even among the very gatekeepers of her identity, her husband or colleagues or friends – in the requirement that she surrender it.”
But research shows that mothers who spend more time developing their relationship with their baby before they give birth are more likely to enjoy the early days of meeting their baby outside the womb, and are more likely to enjoy learning more about who this person is right from the start. They are continuing a relationship that they have already started.
Mothers who have difficult pregnancies can sometimes be forced into losing their sense of independence and autonomy much sooner, and so the grieving process starts earlier. This can bring its own struggles, as this can either help the mother accept the changes that having a baby will bring in her own emotional landscape, or else it can make it even harder to accept as the mother can feel resentful of the baby for having caused this loss, which may cause her to unconsciously want to reject her baby.
I don’t say these things to make you worry about whether you are thinking about your unborn child enough. I say them because I believe (and research bears out my belief) that mothers who take time to reflect on and develop their relationship with their babies BEFORE they are born, can have more enjoyment of their babies sooner after birth. And this enjoyment can help mitigate all the other parts of being a mother that are really hard!
If you find that you are really struggling to connect with your baby in utero, I would encourage you to think about why that might be. There maybe many reasons for it, and some of those might be painful and you might want some support to explore them. But, like any relationship you are developing, the more you invest in it the more rewarding it becomes.
I never wanted to be the person who had ‘mental health issues’ or even worse still, ‘post-natal depression’. In fact, I am to this day convinced that I did not have either. I did however need to give my emotional wellbeing some extra TLC in the 12 months after giving birth. Call it what you will… the role of ‘mother’ did not measure up to my expectations… and I came to realise that I needed support to find my way.
I always wanted to be a mother, I had a lovely easy pregnancy and a fairly straightforward birth. I am in a very secure relationship with a wonderful husband, and am surrounded by friends and family all willing to offer practical help and support on the arrival of our first child. What on earth could I possibly have to feel down about?
That’s precisely it. I couldn’t then, and I can’t really now, put a definition on ‘what was going on with me’. But I knew very clearly that the old me was lost. And this new (temporary!) me was uncomfortable, unfamiliar (frightening even) and upsetting. I desperately wanted to learn how to be the old me but in this new way of living.
I resisted seeking help for a few months because of all the things I’ve mentioned above… I was not going to be that person. I had so much to be grateful for. I fought the feeling of ‘getting something wrong’. Thanks to a very supportive husband coupled with a dark moment of realisation within myself, I rang Sarah at ‘Birth and Beyond’ and began counselling sessions.
Sarah quickly identified some key areas for us to talk about and for me to think through for myself. During our sessions we covered an enormous range of emotions, relationships and scenarios… surprisingly few actually involved my daughter… but each time Sarah got to the nub of what was going on in a very positive and solution focused manner. She helped me to figure out where the old me had gone, and why I was feeling that way. And then work out some ways for me to learn how to incorporate the real me into my new role as a mother.
Sarah managed to get me to figure things out for myself and come up with my own advice and solutions without actually suggesting them herself. Herein lies the success of working with Sarah in my opinion… being given advice, or listening to someone tell you how to fix something which is going on in your life, or even listening to people tell you that you are not alone has no lasting benefit. But the way in which Sarah got me to come to my own ‘making sense’ and ‘way forward’ was key to how I engaged with the sessions.
Having come through this experience I now want to shout from the roof tops to all new, or expectant, first time mums. You know yourself better than any health visitor, any GP, or any midwife… dare I say it, better than your partner and better than your own sisters or mothers!!! LISTEN to your gut. If you have even the tiniest inkling that something is not quite right, feels too heavy to carry or isn’t slotting into place as you’d wish then please, PLEASE seek support. It will be the strongest and bravest thing you ever do and the best gift you ever give yourself. And the sooner you do it the better!
For me, looking after my emotional wellbeing is how I look back on the past few months. If I can help just one other mum feel more ‘normal’ and emotionally safe by writing this then my experience has been put to good use.
I was recently at an event for parents-to-be and it got me thinking about what might be helpful for them to hear at this stage. Some of the things I found useful were having some of the myths of motherhood debunked, so I thought I would share a few here.
1. There is no such thing as maternal instinct.
Now I realise that is a pretty controversial statement, and I am going to temper it by saying that I am not talking about the sense of protectiveness and responsibility that mothers feel for their baby. A mother's brain changes during pregnancy and can stay altered for up to two years in order to help her be protective of her child.
However, mothers are NOT born with an innate knowledge of how to look after a baby. We learn this. And it has been shown that it actually doesn’t matter what your gender is – you take the same amount of time to learn how to look after a baby whether you are male or female.
It is like a job – you learn by watching other people, hanging out with people doing similar things, reading books or searching the internet, being given advice by people who have been there already or ‘industry experts’.
However, there is no induction, an incredible amount of responsibility early on, poor working hours and an ever changing set of goalposts. Most of us will never ever learn quite so much quite so quickly, from how to manage different drops of kerbs with different buggies, to how your baby likes to be held at different times, to what kinds of groups there are going on around you. It’s a massive learning curve, and most of us know very little about it until we have a child ourselves.
Thinking of it means like that means you can rid yourself of the idea that you ‘should’ know what your baby wants. So when other people expect you to interpret your baby’s cries on day two, you don’t need to feel as though somehow you’re a failure because you don’t know. You just haven’t learnt that part yet…
2. You are not a ‘bad mother’ if you don’t fall in love with your baby at first sight.
We are led to believe than we’re meant to be bowled over by an oxytocin-induced juggernaut of love for our baby the second we lay eyes on them, but that is not the case for everyone (or even the same person with different babies). Research by the NCT suggests that at least 1/3 of new mums do NOT feel an immediate bond with their baby. And there are many things that can affect our ability to bond with our babies as soon as we see them.
Think about it - how many of us fall in love at first sight?
For many people, falling in love is a bit of a slower burn, and bonding takes a bit of time, but the good thing is that there are lots of things you can do to enable bonding. Skin to skin is crucial, and massage, bathing with and cuddling your baby are all brilliant for this. Slings are useful for bonding too. And activities such a Video Interaction Guidance and Newborn Observations are great tools for learning more about your baby and who they are.
The thing about bonding is that it helps you enjoy being a parent more, so it’s worth pursuing even if it isn’t there right at the beginning.
3. It is normal to feel a range of emotions as a parent – being filled with joy all the time is not a prerequisite for being a ‘good’ parent
Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, out of control, frustrated and resentful are all normal parts of being a new parent. Yes, you might be lucky enough to find the process of becoming a parent incredibly joyful and affirming too, but the reality is often less fun than it looks from the outside. Not loving parenthood does not mean you are ‘getting in wrong’, and when people say ‘treasure ever moment’, remind yourself that it’s easy to say that when you’ve got a lot of distance on the situation. You don’t need to feel guilty about occasionally wondering if you’ve made a mistake by becoming a mother.
However if these feelings don’t go away with reassurance or else you start finding yourself anxious about them for any reason, then you need to check them out. Here is a good guide to what feelings are worth speaking to someone about.