This is a video of a talk I gave to SoP on the 19th February 2019. I talk about my research into the transition to motherhood and the existential crisis of motherhood. Both of these will be the basis of an edited book which will be published in 2020 by Palgrave MacMillan.
We all want to be good mothers and make the best choices for our babies/children and ourselves. But what are those best choices? How do we know what they are and how can we recognize them when we’ve made them? This is difficulty we all share as human beings. We can only tell what was good, or what worked after the fact. Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, famously said that we can only understand life backwards but have to live it forwards.
For mothers, or parents, this seems especially important, as we are not only responsible for ourselves but for the lives of our children. It is easy to get caught up in thinking and worrying about what we feel we have done wrong or not as well as we would have liked. Rather than thinking about what we did right. If we can recognize our good choices, not only will that help us learn and make more good choices, but it will also help us feel more confident in our mothering.
A good way of doing this is to end the day by thinking of three things that had gone well, that had made you smile or that you had enjoyed. It is too easy to focus on all the things that didn’t go well that we forget to treasure the good things. Mothering, like life, is a process of trial and error, we will make mistakes, but the key thing is about learning from them and building our confidence. Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to start again.
Motherhood is a challenging experience for most women but it can often also be a paradoxical role. One such paradox is how women find it difficult to make sense of their new experience and create some meaning for themselves because they are caught up in the actual process of being a mother. The practical aspects of mothering can feel monotonous at times, an endless round of feeding, changing nappies and trying (and often failing) to get their babies to sleep. Mothers with new babies are fully immersed in living in the present and the immediate future, and the demands of their babies mean there is often no space for the mother to think about anything other than what needs to be done next.
This put me in mind of the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by the Greek Gods to endlessly push a boulder up a mountain. When he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down again under its own weight. So begins Sisyphus’ endless struggle with a meaningless and thankless task. I’m not suggesting that motherhood is meaningless or thankless but mothers are engaged in a similarly endless round of tasks. Camus noted in his book The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) that for Sisyphus, even though his punishment was to perform an absurd and ceaseless task, he was able to overcome this absurdity by realising that the rock was his and so too was the task and he could understand it and make sense of it in whichever way he liked. Sisyphus had time on his side to contemplate this position and his punishment. He was able to look back over his life and put this current predicament into perspective and decide how he would think about it.
For the mother, she too is engaged in the never-ending task of mothering, these daily tasks become her boulder that she must push up the mountain. However, where mothers differ from Sisyphus is that the process of mothering a small baby is all-consuming. There is no mental space or time for the mother to stop and reflect on herself, what she is doing or even contemplate alternatives. The mother is locked into a circular round of doing where there is little opportunity for her to consider her being. Sisyphus was able to make sense of his suffering as the task allowed him time to think. Mothering allows no time to think or make sense of the huge changes that have taken place in the mothers’ life.
In fact, time as a concept becomes altered once a woman becomes a mother. The usual structure of the day changes, she is awake in the night when everyone else is asleep and if she is lucky is able to catch up with sleep during the day. Time gets measured in 4 hour feeding slots and the structure of the day becomes the pattern of feeding and sleeping that her baby adopts. A mothers’ sense of temporality changes too, the past retreats and so only the present and the immediate future is available. This change in temporality locks the mother into her present experience and does not allow for time to reflect and ponder on what she thinks or feels about her current experience.
Mothers need time and space, both physically and metaphorically to help them to unravel their experiences and to help them to make sense of the momentous changes that have taken place in their lives. Seeking therapy can help mothers talk through what it has been like for them to become mothers, what the challenges are and what potential solutions there might be. Time and space is needed for mothers to find meaning from their experience and to think through what their experience means to them. Given this dedicated time and space most mothers are able to gain a new perspective on their experience and find a new understanding of their lives and what it means to them to be a mother. This time and space will enable mothers to find the strength to continue their mothering tasks each day and help them to find a resilience when sometimes it feels a struggle.
The click, click beats a rhythm
It calms and rests
And my mind soars and roams
(Claire Arnold-Baker, 2011)
As a knitter myself I have long held the view that knitting is therapeutic. It is an activity that requires concentration but is repetitive enough to allow your mind to roam and wander. There is a rhythm to it, that you create with your needles, a click, click, click. It is creative and purposeful as you create something new, maybe to wear, or to use in your home. It is a way of meditating, your body is taken up with a repetitive act which calms the mind.
It was therefore really interesting to read this article about a mother who turned to knitting as a way of overcoming her postnatal depression. Jacqui’s struggles began when she decided to become a stay at home mum, having given up a career in law. She turned to knitting, although an extreme, oversized version of knitting, and found that it was “really therapeutic and a way to meditate”. In the process she also created her own business creating throws and other art works with oversized needles and wool.
Although it is not always possible to find the time to knit when you have a small baby, although I have knitted with a baby on my lap in the past, it may be a way of creating an oasis of calm in what may seem a chaotic time. Creating a bit of time and space for you to regain a sense of yourself in this often challenging time and in the process create something warm and comforting. Equally knitting isn’t for everyone and not everyone will find it therapeutic. As is always the case it is about finding a solution that works for you, as an individual.
I recently read an interesting article on the possible link between how ideal images of mothers can effect the mood of mothers’ and which may contribute to postnatal depression, ‘Do ideal images of mother impact on postnatal depression?’. I think this is a really important issue and one that needs to be challenged in our society. We need more realistic views on the many ways in which women can be mothers. So that new mothers can find their own way of being a mother without feeling like they are failing. One of the ways in which we can challenge the dominant discourse in society is for mothers to begin talking about and sharing their own experiences with other mothers in an open and collaborative way.
There seems to be a misconception in society and amongst new mothers that women should, on the birth of their baby, know exactly how to be a mother. Terms such as ‘maternal instinct’ suggest a biological and innate sense implying that a woman will know how to be a mother. Many feminists (e.g. Oakley, 1974) have argued against this biological basis, suggesting that this misconception has been perpetrated by men to keep women in a subservient role. Although women, and of course men, might have an innate sense to care, to love and to look after their offspring.
This misconception has helped to create, along with media images, professional studies and a lack of discussion amongst mothers about their experience of motherhood, an image of the ‘perfect mother’. The ‘perfect mother’ is all-knowing, patient, calm, loving and puts her child’s needs before her own. In other words the ‘perfect mother’ is a saint, other worldly and not a realistic role model for new mothers.
But faced with this image the new mother experiences a gap between her own experiences and what she perceives she should be doing as a ‘good mother’; and in this gap she often sees her experiences and feelings as failures. The image of the ‘good mother’ does not allow for the fact that the new mother is human; that she will fail, she will suffer and she will be involved in conflict (Jaspers, 1951). Her baby is also human and so the relationship between mother and baby will not always be smooth and without conflict.
There is no room in the image of the perfect mother for negative feelings, such as frustrations that the baby isn’t sleeping, or feeling lost and not knowing what to do or feeling depleted by the constant all-consuming nature of motherhood. Those mothers who have negative feelings may find it hard to articulate them or share with others as they fear they will be judged and deemed not be to ‘good mothers’. Instead the feelings are bottled up and often result in the mothers feeling depression or anxiety. It is useful to remember that we all have positive and negative feelings about the things we experience in our lives and it is normal for mothers to feel this too. Also feeling frustrated or annoyed does not mean that the mother does not want to be the best mother she can be for her baby nor that she does not love her baby tremendously, the negative feelings are expressing the often difficult nature of new motherhood. New mothers have to grapple with a whole new life, both her own and her baby’s and this upheaval, understandably, is going to take some adjustment and getting used to.
New mothers, therefore do not need to be Saint’s but instead, as Winnicott (1973) stated, ‘good enough mothers’. To be the best mother they can be at the time, taking into account that there will be days when things don’t go right and it will be difficult and they will feel frustrated and upset. Above all to remember that they are human, and like the rest of us, are muddling their way through life.
Becoming a mother involves a huge upheaval in a mother’s life, whether it is her first or subsequent baby. Life with a baby can also be very different from the one that was imagined. If you are feeling low or sad or are having negative thoughts about your baby or being a mother it might be useful to remember that:
- It is normal to feel low after having your baby
- It is also really good to talk about those feelings with other people such as your family, friends or a professional, so that they can support you
- Sharing your experience openly with other mothers will also help and you will probably find that the other mothers are feeling similar things to you
- It is important to take time for yourself too, to give yourself some space to make sense of how your life has changed and what you are feeling
- You don’t need to be the perfect mother, each mother is different and each mother and baby relationship is different too, you just need to find your own way of being a mother
- You will not be judged for seeking help, in fact the sooner you seek help the sooner you will start to feel better
Sometimes it is hard to know as a new mother if what you are feeling is what you are ‘supposed’ to be feeling. There are no right and wrong responses. Motherhood is a time of great change and as with any great change in life it will be challenging and can stretch your resources. It also takes time to make sense of what your new experience is and your feelings about it. Mothers need supporting at this time of great change. Some mothers may need more emotional support than others, but this doesn’t mean that they are somehow failing or lacking in their abilities to be a mother. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have produced a really good leaflet about Postnatal Depression (PND). Recognising the signs of when things are getting difficult is a way of being aware of when you may need to seek out some more support. These are some of those signs:
- Feeling depressed, low, unhappy or tearful most of the time
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling utterly exhausted and lacking in energy
- Sleeplessness, unable to fall asleep or waking early and worrying about things
- Changes in appetite
- Feeling unable to enjoy anything
- Having negative or guilty thoughts
- Feelings anxious
- Avoiding other people
- Feeling hopeless
The important thing is not to suffer alone.
The Baby Blues are a way of describing how a mother feels emotionally after having a baby, Postnatal Depression (PND) is another. A 2010 research study showed that between 25%-33% of all mothers in the study reported experiencing PND. PND might be seen as being at one end of the spectrum but there are a multitude of ways in which a new mother might feel emotionally after the birth of her baby. Becoming a mother is a life changing event, for which most mothers have little preparation for, or experience of, caring for a new-born baby. Mothers are also given little preparation for how they might feel or the emotional responses they might expect after the birth of their baby. Little has been written about the real life experiences of mothers who are struggling to come to terms with their new life, or who feel sad when they think they should be feeling happy with their new baby. This means that mothers can sometimes suffer in silence because they feel that what they are feeling is not normal or that in some ways they are not being a good mother. It was therefore good to come across Sarah Jane’s blog, who wrote about what it was like for her emotionally after having her fourth baby and her struggles with PND. These real life experiences show that motherhood can be hard emotionally for the mother, even for seasoned mothers of four. They also show that mothers don’t need to suffer alone and that with support things can begin to feel better.
BBC News today reports on recent research which shows that there is a lack of mental health or emotional support for new mothers after the birth of their babies. Becoming a mother for the first time is a life changing event. New mothers often feel they are entering into an unknown world where they lack confidence and skills. Research has shown that support from partners and other mothers can be extremely beneficial to new mothers as it increases their ability to cope with the demands of looking after their new babies. Mothers do not need to feel isolated at this time and there is support available to help them. If you live in the Reading area, please come along to my Mother Time support groups. Together new mothers can share their experiences and support each other through this life-changing time.