When I learned that the focus of this month’s issue was going to be on women, I knew that I wanted to write about how motherhood impacts a woman’s identity. But clarifying what aspects of this to focus on turned out to be an overwhelming task. Working as a counselor with couples and women primarily in their 20’s and 30’s, questions and feelings around motherhood and children come up frequently. There are pre-motherhood questions and fears, and there are the natural challenges of child-rearing that every mother experiences. For many women, these choices and concerns are some of the hardest they will ever face. As motherhood brings up biological considerations and creates psychological pressures surrounding family and social traditions, the awareness of how profoundly becoming a mother changes you is always present.
Once, having children was taken for granted — it was simply something women were expected to do, but now women feel able to question whether or not they want a child, and even when will be the best time to have one. As the culture has changed, new questions have entered our consciousness. Is my current relationship strong enough to support the raising of children? Should I have a child on my own or wait for the “right” partner? How will I deal with my own needs, my changing body, and loss of time to myself? How will a child change my work and financial life? Do I want to bring a child into a world of such strife, and one with so many environmental challenges?
At a deeper psychological level, contemplating motherhood tends to make us think about our own mothers, especially the sacrifices (or lack thereof) they may have made in their own lives in order to parent us. Many of us observed our mother struggling over her role as mother and wife at a time when there was little support for women’s self-hood after marriage. Some of us grew up with single mothers who worked several jobs to put food on the table, or with mothers who seemed exhausted and resentful by the choice she made to stay home with us.
We all know from watching our own parents that nothing changes one’s life as much as a child. As a result, young women of the current generation acknowledge the conflicts that arise with parenthood and are careful to consider their decisions regarding child-bearing. They are conscious that few decisions are as important as this, and yet when they begin the journey they quickly learn that regardless of all their considerations, more questions are raised than answered and no outcome could be more unpredictable.
So how do we make a choice? Keep asking yourself questions. Know that regardless of your choice to have children or not, and how it came about, as a culture we are still not able to separate the idea of woman from the idea of mother. As a result of this, it is up to each of us to determine for ourselves whether or not and how we choose to have motherhood define us. And if you do decide to try to have a child, think about your sense of self in the same way you would before embarking on any other life changing journey.
Know what aspects of your life and of your sense of self are fundamental to who you are and must be protected, and know in what ways you are willing to change.
In my personal and professional experience, there is a path that leads to motherhood adding to our lives without taking anything away, and though certain factors contribute to this, the path is unique to each woman.
I am the mother of two children: a twelve year old son and a 4-month-old son. I had my first son at 27 and my second at 39. As you can imagine, I was a very different person at 27 than I am at 39, and the circumstantial factors I considered when making the decision to have a child were also very different. At 39, I was well aware of the fact that if I wanted to try for another child, it needed to be soon. I knew how amazing being a mother is and also how hard. I knew how difficult divorce with a child and single parenting are. I had no idea how a child at this age would impact my career, and I knew too well how it would impact my finances. When I was 27, I had just gotten married. My mother had me at the same age. I wanted a child, and it seemed like the logical next step in my life.
If you were to ask me to tell you about myself, the fact that I am a mother would most certainly be in my top three descriptors, the others including my work as a counselor and a writer. Being a mother defines a core aspect of me. It tells you something about what my life might look like, and it tells you something that is important to me: my children. If I were to describe core qualities I believe I possess as a woman, many of them developed or became stronger as a result of my being a mother: patience, flexibility, optimism. But being a mother is one aspect of my identity, not all of it. Mothers are as diverse a group as any other subset of people. There are some shared experiences among us, and many, many differences.
My sense of self at 27 was not as solid as it feels now, and as a result, “mother” became my entire identity. I adored my child and did everything I could for him. I stayed home with him for the first two years of his life and then went back to work part-time, teaching early childhood classes, some of which allowed me to bring him along. When my then husband and I separated and finally divorced, I was suddenly faced with 3 days a week apart from my son, then only a toddler. It was shocking. I had no idea who I was or what to do with myself. And as a result, the years immediately following the separation were years of compartmentalization. When I was with him, I was just as absorbed in mothering as I had always been, perhaps even more so due to the grief and guilt of having days apart, and when he was not with me I began to figure out and reorganize who I was as a woman. It took me a long time to get to a place of integration, to feel like the person I was was consistent regardless of the situation. Now, as I raise my baby and my adolescent, I am able to say that I am both a devoted mother and a healthy, happy, well-rounded individual. I am present with my sons and I find ways to make time for my work and myself. It took a lot of awareness and intention, but I think have a good balance. I can say that some things have changed with the arrival of my younger son. Baby pictures have won domination over political posts on my Facebook page, and now I spend too much time browsing and shopping for woven wraps to wear my son in, instead of boots to wear on my feet. Even as I write, I frequently must stop to nurse my youngest and often lose my train of thought, both due to the interruption and because when I look into his eyes I melt, reminded of how deeply I am in love and how there is nothing I would rather be doing than holding him. But I still feel like essentially the same woman.
I believe that many women feel tremendous fear about becoming a mother because it feels as if the mother is a replacement for the self.
And it’s not surprising that women feel that way, given that sexism is sadly still alive and well in the way the media portrays mothers as people who have no other care or interest in the world than their child and, perhaps, their home. And it’s true that when we become mothers, a period of reorganization happens as a result of the natural decrease in freedom and independence, and we experience an increase in our care and responsibility for another life. Often, women feel lost as new mothers because they are no longer engaging in things that were previously important to her as a childless woman. Hobbies and activities that made her feel grounded, that made her feel connected to a deep sense of self, seem to dissipate. For most women these are things that need to be actively and intentionally pulled back into their lives. I find it most sustainable and realistic when a practice is brief but done on a daily basis. Perhaps an hour a day to go for a walk, take a yoga class, write in your journal, have coffee with a friend. I also believe that therapy provides a way for a mother to set aside a small piece of time each week in which she is able to care for and focus on herself, giving her the space to express feelings that she may be afraid or ashamed to share with others. Unfortunately, the addition of a baby often means for a mom that she is always asked about her child and rarely about herself.
Having seen many clients before becoming a mother, I strongly believe that another key to making the profound transition a little smoother, a little less shocking and difficult, is support. Support prevents isolation, and isolation is one of the most truly terrible things that can happen to a mother. I think frequently about how much we sell ourselves short as a culture by not adopting the “it takes a village” model of child-rearing, and instead valuing the more insular nuclear family model. Babies and children have needs that cannot be met by one person – needs that rarely can be met in a healthy way by even two people. A whole community of love, involvement, and guidance is what is needed by both child and mother alike. Sharing responsibilities allows all members of a family to experience the amazing gift of a child without a mother becoming so depleted that it cannot be truly appreciated. If a new mother does not have a strong community of family and friends around her, I encourage the creation of one by joining local “mama groups.” I’ve been astounded by the number of strangers I see on local online mothering groups offering help and company to other mothers. In the early months of motherhood, having people offer to prepare meals or wash laundry allows a period of adjustment and bonding, which can be fundamental in creating a feeling of harmony rather than feeling overwhelmed. Doulas are people who provide this service as well, offering ideas, help, and encouragement for both child and mother.
In her primary romantic relationship, while some women find that a child will unite them in a joint task, a joint love, a joint experience of growth, for others the added stress of a child will break up their partnership, especially when partners have a lack of respect and good communication around differing parenting styles or when the relationship is not given its own time and prioritization. In fact, some couples find that a child triangulates their family system, and they start to feel uncomfortable when the child is not present or struggle to find other things to talk about. I am frequently surprised by the length of time a couple will go without a date away from their child, and how doing so allows them to connect again and be reminded of why they are together and how much fun spending time alone together can be. Because, as mentioned above, our society seems to view motherhood as being a replacement in a woman for other aspects of identity, including sexuality, I believe it is also very important for couples to talk openly about what many women feel is the abrupt and unfair transition from sexual empowerment to becoming essentially asexual. This can leave a woman feeling angry and resentful, and in my practice, I am seeing more women having affairs or leaving their partners following the birth of a child, looking to regain something that they feel they have lost. This rebellion from the selflessness that motherhood requires is a jump to the other end of the spectrum, a grasp at taking something that is just for her and a way to feel momentarily like her former self. Unfortunately, affairs are only a temporary solution, and they can have potentially devastating consequences. And Baby Makes Three by Dr. John Gottman is a wonderful resource for couples preparing for the dramatic change a child brings to a relationship, and it offers help for couples to avoid such pitfalls.
On another note, it is important to mention that beyond the expected challenges in the transition to motherhood, 9-16% of women experience Postpartum Depression. PPD results in severe and prolonged feelings of sadness, fatigue, irritability, fear, and guilt. Most mothers with PPD become withdrawn and struggle to bond with their baby. Some have thoughts of harming themselves or their child. For women who have not experienced such symptoms or were not informed by their doctors or midwives of the possibility of such symptoms, it can be terrifying. And the knowledge that what they are experiencing is a not-uncommon effect of carrying a child and will not last forever does little to reassure her. Thankfully there has been a growing awareness of the existence and signs of PPD and some great resources out there to help women who may be struggling with it. The Baby Blues Connection has support groups that meet often, as well as resources and information available 24-hours-a-day, and I would urge anyone struggling with motherhood to contact them and to remember that you are not alone.
The fact that many women today are both having children and working is both a blessing and a curse in terms of identity, because many other aspects of female empowerment in our culture have not yet caught up. So in a heteronormative household, while a woman may be working and earning an income, she is often still expected to carry the larger portion of parenting and household responsibilities. Plus, often doing the larger share of relationship maintenance. If she has given up her job to be a mother, she may feel a terrible loss of something that was a fundamental part of her identity, a place that she could express a different part of her personality.
Now, in my second marriage, my partner and I chose the unconventional arrangement of me continuing to work and my partner being a stay-at-home father. This was a decision borne in part from our respective earning potentials and in part because my work as a therapist allowed me far greater flexibility. Being able to see clients and take breaks during the day to come home to nurse and spend time with my family has proved to be in many ways an ideal balance for me as a woman. And my husband has flourished as a new father. We are in near constant communication about what the day’s schedule will be and despite frequent adjustments, we have managed to maintain an alliance in our parenting, rather than blaming one another for needs not being met. This has allowed me to feel like motherhood has strengthened our bond, and my husband’s support and appreciation has contributed to my feeling of health, wellness, and satisfaction. I feel proud that I am both able to support my family, spend a considerable amount of time nurturing my new child, and be present for my relationship with both him and my older son.
I can honestly say that becoming a mother is the best choice I have ever made. I am grateful every day that I get to experience the kind of love that motherhood has brought me. Although, like my clients, there are times that are hard, I am willing to sacrifice whatever I need to hold my child in my arms, to grow with them, to raise them, to dream and laugh and hurt and learn with them. The negative experiences and associations around motherhood can be mitigated or stopped completely by a cultural shift that supports women and acknowledges and provides support for the demands of motherhood. I know that mothering has made me more patient, flexible, and generous — core traits that have grown exponentially since having my sons. It has taught me that there is absolutely no limit on how much the heart can love. It also challenges me every single day to be my best self. Is this something that you can choose to do without being a mother? Absolutely. But I am grateful for the path that I have chosen, and I think that most women, as mothers, have the potential to feel the same.