As a mom of two daughters who are now 17 and 21, I vividly remember all the changes pregnancy and motherhood brought, intermingling moments of joy and awe with worry and doubt. Of everything I've done, being a mother has been my most important role, and the one I've learned the most from. What follows is my Mother's Day gift to expecting, new and veteran moms, to help you let go of guilt and unrealistic expectations and instead honor and appreciate all you do.
Having a baby is supposed to mark one of the happiest times in your life. For nine months, you await your child's emergence with a whole range of emotions, from nervous anticipation to unadulterated joy. Society is quite clear about what your emotions are supposed to be once your baby is born. Television, movies, magazines and newspapers all give you the message that happiness, calm satisfaction, joy and pride are the norm when a new baby arrives. Family, friends and medical professionals tell you to "relax and enjoy your baby," as if relaxation played even the smallest role in the drama of life with a brand-new child.
Hardly anyone talks about the enormous physical, emotional and relationship changes that accompany the birth of a new baby. Maybe it's because no one wants to be the killjoy sounding the notes of grim reality among all the soft-focus hype. But for many women and their families, the experience of having a baby turns out to be very different from their expectations. You may feel devastated when all your beautiful images of motherhood crash in a pile at your feet. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," you want to shake your fist and shout at someone. And the worst part of it is that no one wants to listen — not really. Even the eyes of your closest sister may glaze over when negative words come out of your mouth. When you report that you're so sleep-deprived that you feel like an 80-year-old running a marathon, well-meaning friends and health professionals will tell you to sleep when your baby sleeps. Who do they think they're kidding? When their babies sleep, new mothers tend to their wounded bottoms, or throw some food in the oven, or agonize over the birth announcements they haven't had time to buy, much less address the envelopes.
A New View of Motherhood
Our new view of motherhood has to be more real, more accurate. We need to recognize that being a mother is likely the most demanding job you will ever do. There are certainly tremendous rewards in being a mother, and these are not to be minimized or forgotten. But more emphasis need to be placed on the challenges and difficulties that are part of the territory. Cultural bias often minimizes the job; you are adopting this attitude yourself if you ever degrade yourself by saying "I am just a mom." Society needs to recognize the critical importance and the stress of being a parent. Motherhood is not always the glowing and rewarding job it appears to be on television and in magazines. Parenting is tough work. Being a mother is being in the trenches, mucking out the stalls, contributing much that is neither glorious nor immediately satisfying.
What makes this new job so demanding? Step back a moment and look at some of the realities of the day-to-day job itself.
Parenting is nonstop. As a mother, you are always on duty. You are even on call when your child is sleeping. In a paid job, labor laws in this country require that you sit down for two 20-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch during an eight-hour shift. If life with a new baby has three eight-hour shifts a day, you are entitled to breaks totaling three-and-a-half hours per day. Multiply that by seven days and you deserve nearly 25 hours off. Maybe you get this much, IF the baby is sleeping. Even if your baby sleeps eight hours at night and you only have two shifts, your breaks still add up to more than two hours per day!
Parenting is drudgery. Repetitive, mindless physical labor is what childcare is about, particularly in infancy. Change diapers, clean up spit up, do laundry, walk a squalling sack of potatoes around for hours on end. It is important to remember that you can love the child and hate the job. A recent survey that asked mothers to rate the enjoyment from their daily activities placed childcare below nearly every activity — slightly more satisfying only than housework, paid work and commuting. Big picture, mothers do realize that there are sweet and satisfying moments laced within the drudgery — at least eventually.
There are few absolute answers about how to parent correctly. No matter how hard you try to do right by your child, you are absolutely guaranteed to make some mistakes. Everyone from granny to the pediatrician has ready advice, solicited or not; everyone has a better way. Even the experts often give conflicting advice. Since there is no one "right" way, you will have to define what works for you. Expect to make, and overcome, your share of mistakes.
Society devalues the job of parenting. As a culture, we don't honor the job of motherhood — financially. Unlike some nations, we don't guarantee paid parental leave. We pay childcare workers and teachers minimal wages to replace parents. We recognize mothers on one day per year — Mother's Day. And if you have ever watched the face of a new acquaintance at a party when you announce you are "just a mom", you know this is true.
Society devalues the intensity of the job. Again, our culture doesn't attribute much importance to the job of motherhood because we simply don't think it is very hard. Not only do we not value the contributions of mothers, but we have trouble as a society believing that parenting is really any big deal. Any 13-year-old can do it, no license required. So if you are having a tough time at it, getting frustrated, irritable, fatigued or angry, the message is that "there must be something the matter with you." Validation — that it is exhausting, demanding, challenging, even crazy-making hard work — is not universally forthcoming.
Return on your investment is low. As a mother, your product will not be finished for a long time — 18 years or more to be sure. You even have to wait two months to see a smile. Human beings plod along a bit easier when they get positive feedback on how they are performing; this is why most employers have yearly job evaluations. Raising a child lacks that feedback, and so the job is even more difficult — how can you know you are on the right track? Which leads us to the final factor:
Parenthood is one of the most important jobs there is. Period. This is one of the most critical undertakings you will engage in across your lifetime, and our culture says your value (and the value of the human being you are launching) is on the line. If your child has difficulties, this society we live in will point the finger at you. This fault-finding is patently unfair, for there are myriad influences on what adults children become. Many parents struggle with this pressure nonetheless.
From Blame to Appreciation
Adopting a more balanced view of motherhood may help women to stop blaming themselves for their struggles postpartum and after! If the period following childbirth is expected to be difficult, and the job of motherhood is accepted as challenging, women may see their problems as part of a normal adjustment process, not as a personal shortcoming. They may feel more comfortable asking for assistance from family and friends and speaking up when problems occur rather than suffering in silence. A change in society's attitude may give women permission to be more loving and gentle toward themselves as they learn to be moms, and to appreciate their strength to carry on.
As a new mom, I thought my OB was joking when he said motherhood would be harder than anything I'd ever done. I snickered to myself "What can a man possibly know." But being the father of two, he knew many things I had yet to learn. And boy, was he right! Although I'd been counseling pregnant and postpartum women a year before my first daughter's birth, it was not until I experienced the challenges and exhaustion of new motherhood that I fully understood the emotional ups and downs. Instead of practicing self-care and making my emotional health a priority, I struggled to cook, clean house, and host family and friends while on maternity leave. I felt depressed, depleted and questioned if things would ever get better. This taught me firsthand that self-care cannot be neglected. When my second daughter arrived four years later I took my own advice, balancing my needs with those of my newborn and family. I had no problems and became entirely convinced that self-care is the key to postpartum emotional health and adjustment.
I also learned to make peace with the unrealistic expectations of motherhood I'd grown up with. My mother, a stay-at-home mom, was a gourmet cook whose house was spotless and who volunteered to be Girl Scout cookie chairman two years in a row. As with many other women my age, my parents encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, which was to get my Ph.D. Mine was the first generation who thought we could have it all, combining careers and motherhood seamlessly. Little did we understand that we could not excel at everything, and for that matter, no one could.
At first, this realization was frustrating and agonizing for me but slowly I discovered that I didn't have to be Girl Scout cookie chairman or a fabulous homemaker to be a good mom. Although I didn't bake from scratch, I could fix up a cake mix for a fine result. I learned that it was okay to balance my personal needs with those of my family, and that we were all much happier when I did. I chose to be flexible about my professional life, and spend more or less time on my business as my family needs changed (like having teenage daughters). I decided to feel good about myself without having to be perfect because there simply aren't enough hours in the day. I found out that good moms make mistakes, but learn from them. I accepted that motherhood is a journey, not a destination, which I will explore for the rest of my life. Being a mom has challenged and enriched my life in ways I never imagine and I am grateful for all of it.
This Mother's Day give yourself the gift of love by recognizing all you do instead of what's missing. Resolve to see yourself and other moms in a kinder, gentler way. By promoting this new view of motherhood, together we can ensure that all the hard work moms do is valued. For all you do, I applaud you. Happy Mother's Day!
Diane G. Sanford, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, educator and speaker with a mission to help women learn how to lead healthier, happier lives in mind, body and spirit. An internationally recognized expert in pregnancy and postpartum health, she has appeared on many radio and TV shows and been interviewed for most major women's publications. Her new book, co-authored with Ann Dunnewold, is called "Life Will Never Be the Same: Surviving the Ups and Downs of Pregnancy and Postpartum". It will be released later this year.