If you find yourself regularly feeling "not good enough" as a mother, you're not alone.
Recently I’ve been reflecting a lot on motherhood. Perhaps it’s because Mother’s Day is approaching. Perhaps it is because some close friends and clients are dealing with postpartum depression. But mostly I think it has to do with the fact that my husband and I would like to expand our family and I’m giving thought to what it might look like to mother an infant again in light of my recent Hashimoto’s diagnosis.
In retrospect I see that I had the symptoms of Hashimoto’s back in my teens, and I know that the fatigue that accompanies this diagnosis is a big part of the reason I found the first few years of parenting particularly challenging.
There were other issues though. And those are the ones I’m interested in as I examine the question of whether it could be different next time around.
Seemingly, motherhood should be the most natural of all skills. After all, everyone has a mother, and our very existence depends on being protected and cared for by them or another parental figure.
Given that, I can’t help but wonder, why does mothering feel so difficult? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts and a desire to open up the dialogue on this issue since I know I’m not alone in my struggle.
One thing I’ve noticed is that our society seems to have difficulty holding seemingly contradictory realities at the same time. Because new babies are a joyful event, it can be hard to also acknowledge that having a child is incredibly challenging.
One piece of validation I’ve discovered is that having a baby is listed on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale as one of the top forty most stressful events in a person’s life.
Somewhat surprisingly, the list includes many other “positive” events, including vacations and major life achievements. What researchers discovered when compiling this list is that life events that change our routines are a form of stress – whether or not the reason for the change was “positive” or “negative”.
Having a baby in and of itself is stressful (it most certainly changes our daily routines!), but I also counted 12 other items on the scale that are typically associated with having a baby in our culture – including stopping work, trouble sleeping, and sex difficulties. While many of these would be true of parenting at any time in history, some of them are unique to our age, such as a radical shift in our daily habits or peer group.
The scale doesn’t begin to address one of the most stressful aspects of parenting (in my opinion) which is the triggering of all our own unresolved issues. Babies have a way of magnifying all the pre-existing problems in our lives by depleting us of the resources we usually use to try to keep these wounded aspects of ourselves “safely” in the shadows. Power struggles in relationships become heightened, financial strains get exacerbated, health challenges get amplified. And perhaps most poignantly, our own unresolved issues with our mothers come to the fore.
Not only are our problems magnified, but our range of coping strategies are minimized.
Our customary ways of dealing with stress are frequently not available to us anymore. Perhaps we’re used to going for a run when we need to blow off steam, or having a hot bath alone to decompress after a long day, or curling up with a book and a glass of wine. Now that we have a child it may be difficult or impossible to engage in some of these former self-care strategies. This can lead to us feeling like we’re trying to stay afloat with our hands tied together.
In times past when people lived in small villages where the responsibility for parenting a child was equally shared among many adults (and still is, in many places around the world), it was easier to feel supported and ask for help. But in today’s society the “village” that it takes to raise a child may be spread over many continents. We may live in a different city or province/state than our parents. We may live in a different country than our best friend. While modern technology makes it possible to maintain relationships by distance, it doesn’t enable us to reach out and hold a friend’s child when they are in need of a good cry or simply a shower!
For those of us who have an “addiction to perfection” there are added challenges. Motherhood doesn’t come with a single rulebook, and can’t of course, because no two families or children are alike in their needs. This poses a problem for those, like me, who have spent much of their life playing by the rules and looking to external sources to validate accomplishments. Not only are there no clear rules in motherhood, but nobody will give you a gold star at the end of the day.
If you’ve been reliant on external praise for validation of your worth in the world, motherhood will surely tip you inside out.
You’ll also undoubtedly encounter criticism on your parenting from both external sources and from within. Thanks in part to Freud, mothers in our society will continually worry that we are f@cking up our children. And when we’re not beating ourselves up for what irreparable damage we may be causing, probably someone else will. Whether it is from family, friends or strangers in the park, everyone seems to have an opinion on how we could be doing a better job.
Social media doesn’t do us any favours in this department. In looking at all the happy family pictures shared on Facebook and Instagram, it can be easy to assume everyone else has it figured out. We imagine that the mothers around us are happy and organized and totally know what they are doing.
We forget that tears of inadequacy and exhaustion are being shed behind closed doors, just like they are behind ours.
These fears and feelings of inadequacy can lead us to polarize around certain topics – be it working vs. staying at home, the appropriate amount of “screen time” for our children or whether or not to give vaccinations. We armour ourselves with arguments and studies to justify our choices in an attempt to prove to the world (and to ourselves) that we are good mothers. The problem is that these arguments pit us against each other, and further reinforce one another’s fears.
There are many other thoughts I have on this topic, some of which are only partially formed. I’m in no way the first to write about this issue, but like many of the things we discuss at Red Tent Sisters, I feel this is something that needs to be talked about more openly in informal settings, not just in academic publications. I’m grateful to Leonie Dawson (one of my business mentors) and Carrie Klassen (one of our dear friends) for sharing their stories of post-partum depression on their own blogs. And I’m grateful that celebrities like Hayden Panettiere are speaking openly about their experiences.
Brené Brown writes about how the antidote to shame is being vulnerable and sharing our stories. I’ve found that to be true. In the coming month I will be sharing my own stories in an intimate, virtual writing course called Momoirs run by our dear friend Chris Kay Fraser and her team at Firefly Creative Writing. If you have your own stories to tell (and I’m sure you do) I invite you to join me there.
If you’re not quite ready to open up about your own mothering wounds, or feel uncomfortable putting pen to paper, you may wish to begin by reading parenting stories of truth and vulnerability written by others. The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood is a great place to start. By reading about the experiences of others we are reminded we are not alone, but more importantly we tap into the common struggle of fellow mothers and in doing so, discover our common strength.
The M Word is just one of the fifty titles included in our list of Red Tent Sisters' favourite books which you can download below. Also, if you'd like to be a part of this mothering conversation, we invite you to visit our Red Tent Sisters Facebook page and post your thoughts and/or witness the experiences of others.
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Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.