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.
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.