When mothers get together, the conversation inevitably turns towards their children: “He rolled over for the first time”; “She ate a whole bowl of soup”; “I was up all night with her”; “My toddler had a screaming fit at the supermarket and I was so embarrassed!”
Rarely do mothers talk about the deeper sense of self-loss, confusion or anger so commonly felt among mothers. We often keep these confusing feelings to ourselves because we are conditioned to believe that becoming a mother is the best thing that could happen to us.
While this statement is not false, it does negate the reality of what being a mother is: a rollercoaster of emotions including the ones we are happy to share - such as excitement, joy, laughter, pride, frustration, even fear - and the ones we don’t want to talk about, such as emptiness, anger, a sense of loss of self, and resentment.
The agony and the ecstasy
“Motherhood was not what I expected it to be, and I was not the mother I expected to be. Instead of the fun-loving, energetic mother I’d dreamed of being, I was tired, confused and frustrated. My love for my children was all-consuming, but I was not happy,” says Lindy Bruce, mother and author of Motherhood and Me.
She describes becoming a mother as a period of huge transition, not just physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually too. This change – the growing pains or “postnatal transition” as Lindy calls it – are the agony and the ecstasy of motherhood.
Although many women experience these feelings, most do not understand why this should happen at a time when their anticipation and expectations are so high. Dr John Demartini, human behaviour expert, describes these negative feelings as the “motherhood blues”.
They exist on a continuum, with blissful and content on one end and postnatal depression on the other. Motherhood blues hover somewhere in the middle. While not as debilitating as postnatal depression, this state of being can still be very confusing and painful.
Some of the triggers include:
Your birth experience not being what you had hoped for.
Poor sleeping and eating patterns.
You do not fit the stereotypical image of a radiant, energetic mother with endless patience. You do not manage to always have your children beautifully turned out, and you feel like you’ve lost control of your time and your space. This picture is seldom the reality, and feelings of inadequacy can set in when reality does not match the supermom fantasy.
The change to your lifestyle that having a baby makes is a major factor.
You have gained a baby, but you may have lost the nature of your previous relationships with your partner, family and friends. Other things, such as giving up work and taking on the huge responsibility of parenthood, are big changes that take time to work out. It is often a time when women can feel socially isolated, spending a lot of time at home with little adult company.
Dr Demartini explains that many mothers experience feelings of emptiness, loss of identity and then anger and resentment when their fantasy of motherhood does not match up to the reality – when they realise that motherhood is more about sleepless nights, screaming babies and dirty nappies than blissful bonding moments between a calm mother and her angelic baby.
Through listening to other mothers, Lindy noticed that many can stay afloat among the chaos, coping with the practicalities of school lunches, dirty nappies, midnight feeds and art projects, but remain vaguely unhappy – not totally miserable, and not suffering from classic postnatal depression.
Wisdom, grace and strength
“Motherhood is the most important and challenging role a woman will play in her life. To play it well she is required to discover her strength, her wisdom, her grace, her peace, her joy, her intuition and herself,” says Lindy.
But how do you do that? The first step is to become aware of your feelings. Speak to others about it, and you will discover that the picture-perfect mother is an illusion.
Dr Demartini feels that finding contentment and peace with your mothering role involves understanding what you value most in your life, and then living to fulfil those values. He says, “Anger and resentment occur when you are doing things you feel you should be doing, rather than things you love to do.”
However, postnatal transition comes about precisely through losing a sense of what you are passionate about. “In reality, motherhood can take you to a place where you feel like you have shrunk, where you feel as if you have forgotten what’s true, where you can no longer see what you are passionate about; a place where you have forgotten who you are,” says Lindy.
Dr Demartini and Lindy agree that many women lose a sense of who they really are when too much focus is placed on an unrealistic external identity – one that is based on a career or hobby, what you own and, as mothers, on your children.
What you can do
Lindy says that the starting point is simple: be aware, recognise the feelings you are having, be realistic about what motherhood means to you and have the intention to change.
Live in the moment. Decide how much you need to give each situation at the moment and be fully present where you are.
If you have chosen to take time out, then commit to enjoying each moment without allowing guilty thoughts and feelings to enter your time. If you’re at home, understand that while your baby does not need your attention every moment of every day, when you have chosen to give him some time, be totally present and enjoy this time with him.
Discover your personal values
Although motherhood can send many mothers into a quarry of questioning and self-doubt, it is also the perfect platform for self-discovery.
Use the Demartini Value Determination Process to help you find your personal values. First answer the following 12 questions – give at least 3 answers to each question.
When answering these, it is helpful to think about all the areas of your life: career, mental (studying, reading, expanding your mind), financial, family, social, spiritual and physical (sport, appearance, health). Your life demonstrates your values, so be honest.
- What do you fill your space with (home and office) – when you look at your personal space at home or in your office, what is there?
- How do you spend your time?
- How do you spend your energy?
- What do you spend your money on beyond set monthly expenses?
- Where are you most organised and ordered?
- Where are you most disciplined and reliable?
- What do you think about or focus on most?
- What do you envision or dream most about?
- What is most of your internal dialogue about?
- What is most of your external dialogue about?
- What are you most inspired about?
- What do you set goals towards?
Now count how many duplicated answers you have. Whatever gets the highest score is your highest value (where you are most dedicated, focused, disciplined and ordered). Generally your top 5 values will be where you put most of your energy and attention.
The key to this process is that the top 5 values are what give you energy – they are your passions (at this point in time of your life), the bottom values are those that are less important, and spending time on them distracts you from your core values. According to John, spending time in areas of less importance to you results in feelings of emptiness, frustration and the motherhood blues.
How do I know whether what I am feeling is postnatal depression (PND) or motherhood blues?
Postnatal depression is quite different from the motherhood blues. You may have strong feelings of inadequacy with sudden bouts of anger and are unable to bond with your baby. You may not be able to sleep or eat, and you may have negative feelings about your baby. Some women even feel anxious, worried, unable to laugh or feel joy, unable to cope, unusually tearful or even suicidal.
There is debate over the cause of severe postnatal depression. Some experts believe it is triggered by rapid changes in hormone levels, while others feel it is a combination of adverse social and psychological factors (some of which may have no obvious connection with pregnancy, birth or parenthood).
If you think you may be suffering from PND, please seek help. Call the PNDSA help lines: 082 882 0072 or 083 309 3960.