Taking Care of Modern Moms

The Importance of Nurturing The Individual Identity of Women

taking care of modern mom

taking care of modern mom

There is arguably no greater identity shift than the one that takes your independent, only-has-to-worry-about-herself woman and propels her through the incredible metamorphosis that is becoming a mother. No longer just an independent identity, but one attached-by-boob, by heartstrings, by a cascade of body-battle scars. The enormous shapeshifting is bodily, no doubt, but also a cognitive, emotional, lifestyle and cultural shift. The morphing and growing of an identity, motherhood is the arrival at a new world and the experience of getting-to-know a new self. And yet, somehow the experience of Motherhood has been long glossed over in being understood and explored as such a vital interpersonal shift.

For decades, the step into motherhood has been somewhat quiet in terms of the experience of one’s transitive identity. That is, in western culture the welcoming of a child has been one of excitement, and fanfare—but mostly for the new baby. When I had my son, visitors didn’t show up at my door with chocolate, painkillers, wine and frozen pads for my stack of mesh underwear (and I mean, this would have been nice), they brought onesies and diapers and stuffed animals (still nice). Until more recently, the experiential shift to motherhood and the experience of mothers in general has taken the back seat to well, the kids. Excitement about the new babies, endless research on best parenting methods and child development. After all, people have been becoming mothers since the dawn of humans. Isn’t this old news? Mothers are everywhere—the motherhood experience isn’t a novel one. Parents, researchers and professionals are so focused on the child—creating the perfect nurturing environments, following with the latest research on discipline, schooling, sleep schedules, eating. The list is endless. Parents themselves are most apt to spend their time seeking magic and perfection for their child, to create a fairytale childhood and the closest thing possible to a “successful” adult.

And then, in the background, less likely to be seen in the photos—are the mothers—who have shifted themselves to the backburners. To the leftovers, the scraps, the back of the line. As has been the standard for decades, womens’ experiences have been squashed and quieted, seen as less than. And while many aspects of the parenthood experience are now frequently discussed and explored in society, it tends to be the inner shape-shifting and experience of moms that still remains neglected and ignored. Nobody is really looking at mom when there is a beautiful new baby to coo over. And historically, has anyone been told to look at mom, to see the enormity of her experience? Mothers are so focused on their new babies that they are often the last people to think about themselves. Dr. Daniel Stern, a therapist who worked extensively with mothers through their parenting experiences, expresses the following in his book The Birth of a Mother:

“As a society we talk easily about morning sickness, sore nipples and new mother fatigue. We publically debate the benefits of nursing or breastfeeding, and we thoroughly dissect a mother’s dilemma of if and when to return to work. Politically we fight for better health care and family leave policies, but we are strangely mute about the dramatic and often overwhelming changes going on in a mother’s inner life.” (Stern, 1998).

More recently, culture, lifestyles and the experience of personhood has begun a shift. Today, more than ever, we are encouraged to also be our Selves, to live our own lives, and to live for ourselves in addition to our children (think Oprah, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson). We live longer than ever before in the west, and with a constant quest for identity, self-betterment, answers, authenticity. With this, people are finally acknowledging that just maybe it’s okay to live for more than your children and to allow yourself to continue to grow outside your parenthood identity. Maybe you needn’t always keep yourself on that back bottom shelf. And that this is not a bad or shameful desire. In fact, it is necessary that we grow to understand and acknowledge the experience of mothers that has been so minimized throughout history. That we learn to care for this shapeshifting and highlight the huge physical and neurological change, the individual and cultural shift that becomes of women entering motherhood. The awareness of this delicate morphing is pertinent to the patriarchal society we are surrounded by, as well as mother’s and children’s identities and mental wellness.

The Physical Shift: Mothers experience a physical change in their body and brain that requires unique understanding, care and attention

The nature of motherhood can easily challenge the very idea and practice of individual identity. After all, you spend nine months housing a separate individual, and this grows the start of one’s shift in just “I” or “me” thinking. For a pregnant woman, your self-care has already become “us”. According to research in Nature Neuroscience, pregnant women begin to experience significant brain remodeling that remains post- birth. The changes seen in brain scans on mothers were not seen within the brain scans of fathers or non-parents (Hoekzema, Nature Neuroscience). (However, it should be noted that other studies do show that later in parenthood, involved fathers’ brains do become sensitive to parenting experiences. (Noted by Adrienne Lafrance via Fyal Abraham in The Atlantic). Mothers, after all are the ones that go through a very physical transformation in the body, within brain tissue and hormonally. This includes the physical experience and changes in pregnancy and birth, to nursing, to shifts in the brain’s amygdala that impact nurturing and anxiety. Brain scans show in particular that there are notable changes in brain regions associated with social cognition, anxiety, and theory of mind (which allows for thinking about what another being may be thinking, feeling or experiencing) (Hoekzema, Nature Neuroscience; Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic). There is a reason mom is the one who is anxious, possibly obsessively attentive. In fact, her amygdala is lit up, and her empathy and concern for her new child overwhelms any thoughts of herself.

While the incredible love and sense of care and devotion to a new baby can be a beautiful experience, there may also be less welcoming feelings. Sometimes these changes bring overwhelming experiences of Postpartum Anxiety and/or Depression, which are painfully common amongst new mothers. One in six new mothers will experience clinical levels of Postpartum Anxiety or Depression (Lafrance). Many mothers will experience at least some levels of anxiety and depression throughout parenthood-- including obsessive thoughts and worries and obsessive compulsive tendencies (typically attributed to the well-being and safety of their children). Some mothers can’t help but stay up watching their new infants sleep, for fear that they could stop breathing; others struggle to feel bonded or connected and fear they are doing something wrong. For some women, motherhood brings about struggles such as personal identity confusion, senses of loss of one’s old life, roles, or career.

The physical changes are numerous and complex. For many, there is no off-switch once you become a mother. You are anew. You must welcome yourself to being somewhat changed. For better or worse. Understanding this change is important in helping new mothers understand the new experiences and the feelings they are having. While many of the experiences new moms have are a normal result of their shifting body and brain, it is important to be aware of these things taking on an abnormal level. Opening this dialogue amongst mothers, friends, family and care providers can help others to be there for new moms if she should need additional support with the adjustment of her mental wellness.

The Identity and Socio-Cultural Shift: Mothers experience a particular individual and sociocultural shift that requires acknowledgement and adjustment

Mothers have long been expected to give themselves over to a new world and life, a new identity. It is assumed that mothers will take on new roles with new wants and desires, hopes, dreams, interests. Except, the reality is that we are still individuals, even when we become parents. Perhaps now, it is becoming more acceptable to work to preserve, establish and continue to grow an individual identity outside of one’s responsibilities as a parent. And actually, it is also becoming more and more necessary to work to do so. In The Birth of a Mother, Stern and Bruschweiler-Stern explore the confided struggles of a number of mothers. They note that most mothers feel so uncertain as to whether other mothers experience their struggles, that they stay silent. In fact, many mothers are afraid to discuss their deeply personal inner-world experiences as mothers with other mothers! This is seen largely from a fear of being seen as a “bad” mother, or shamed. As mothers already feel enormous amounts of guilt about being “good enough” parents, the social risk they perceive leads them into further self-isolation. With this isolation and guilt, mothers may be more likely to discontinue personal interests, hobbies, relationships and practices of self-care. This can be dangerous in a society that already isolates us from one another, where most families live in their own independent homes a drive or more away from friends and family, and many moms are often alone with their children all day. Bringing the narrative of the modern mother into plain view is key in extinguishing the quiet shame that has come to be associated with the loneliness and lack of fulfillment that can be experienced with parenting.

While many mothers experience huge amounts of guilt and stress within their role as a mom, they also experience increasingly heavy workloads and high expectations of a fast paced, scheduled and regulated modern society. As has been approached in a handful of more recent essays and research, mothers, by many circumstances, are more likely to be ‘default’ parents. That is, the primary caregiver, the knower of all the little facts and details, the go-to organizer and arranger of all things pertaining to the children (Dr. Sonja Benson). Today, there are more things than ever before to arrange, organize and manage pertaining specifically to our children. Endless school projects and events, extracurricular, playdates and parties, doctors’ appointments, assessments and testing, and classes. As society has become more scheduled, children are engaging in less free play and less unmonitored activity. Mothers instead are worrying about orchestrating hourly schedules and expectations. In other words, mothering is busy and now requires overwhelming management skills as well

With this, comes cognitive overload. Dr. Stern describes of motherhood, “there is no time off from being ultimately responsible, even if you delegate the actual work to someone else”. This can be exhaustive and all-consuming, leaving little headspace to one’s own sense of self. Instead, all one’s brainpower becomes employed to being the knower, the memory bank, the detailer. These experiences are part of the shifting that comes with the life of a mother, and illustrate the enormity of the task mother’s face, which can further lead to a straying from one’s sense of self and identity beyond motherhood. This loss is one that can be devastating, and further the struggles with depression, anxiety and loneliness that a mother may already face.

Simply put, motherhood is hard. Many struggle to shut off their constantly operating “mom-brain”. That is, they struggle to think of themselves and do and maintain the things that make up their identity outside of motherhood. The self-shut-off mode can be self-protective to parenthood. But not working to keep your self is dangerous and harmful. For parents, and their kids. In my personal experiences and talking with other mothers, I learned that the preservation of the self must be practiced to some extent to be up-kept. It can be hard, and go against your instincts or wants. Mothers constantly tell themselves they shouldn’t have other desires or wants or hopes. They shouldn’t want other plans, other people or places. That they should now be ‘complete’. The ‘want’ should shut off. How can I possibly be an individual now that this perfect precious thing that completely relies on me has been blessed to me? It grows our guilt—even the thoughts of our Selves. Of our human person as a separate entity. Shouldn’t we be whole? Shouldn’t this be the ultimate answer, all there is? How horrible can I be for wanting and needing space?

I’ll say it again. Motherhood is hard. And not necessarily in the ways one expects pre-parenthood. A number of mothers have mirrored this sentiment back to me. It isn’t necessarily just the concrete things like sleepless nights and seeing your little one in pain (which, yes, are hard, and cumulatively, even harder). Instead, it’s the fact that those realities are the 24/7 of your life. The cognitive and emotional shift, the inner world. The new reality of constant “hard” things that are hard emotionally and physically and mentally and in stamina. Spending entire days uncomfortable and anxious at any time being away from your child, or thinking only in terms of a child’s constant demands all day long, the whole self-exhaustion and mind-numbing that can come with caretaking, the shut-down of “me” in any independent frame. Every day, long-term, no off-switch. And then, that lodged in guilt that you could have any such negative thoughts or complaints. Some mothers have described struggling as stay-at-home moms, feeling as though they will lose their minds with limited adult contact, or of the ability to do anything productive not related to children. Working mothers have expressed difficulty in the guilt they feel being away from their children. Or the guilt they feel because they are glad to be away from their children. Again and again, mothers quietly admit that they are lonely and isolated, feel unstimulated by life, plagued by guilt, exhausted by the unending rat race. Moreover, separated from their own identities and selves.

In her book Fruitful, Anne Roiphe described motherhood as an “inherent…continual giving up of self”. It is taxing emotionally, mentally, physically. But also, existentially. And it is now that we must talk about it from the framework of the shift of a woman’s inner world and being. Women undergo a change in their identity during this time, and yet, they are still women. They are still individuals with hopes and desires and interests. And our social evolution is allowing us to grow and acknowledge the need to see mothers beyond their role as a parent. The rest of it still matters. The rest of you still matters. Motherhood is consuming and confusing. And sometimes you feel gone. And for a while, you are gone. And sometimes you have to work to be still there. And that’s ok. We can acknowledge the motherhood experience, to grow in community and support for one another, to encourage and empower one another as mothers and as individual women. Understanding these things is vital in helping the shame us moms replay in our inner-monologues be swapped for a reality check which acknowledges and offers compassion to our experiences.

Nurturing Mothers helps foster emotionally healthy women and kids

Catering to the selves of mothers and nurturing and caring for mothers as individuals is not just for their own wellness, it also sets a template of healthy development for a child. While societally it has become the norm for mothers (and parents) to furnish and create a “perfect” and “magical” existence for little Johnny, with little thought to themselves-- it’s actually vital for our kids to grow up not only furnishing their own play and learn routines (think independent play and imagination) but also, learning who their mothers are as people. Experiencing them as individuals, as whole people. Many kids can relay to you that daddy loves to golf, or daddy fixes cars. What does mommy love to do? What do you see mommy working on or fostering that isn’t the household chores or the care of the kids? How many kids bring home pictures of mommy cleaning? How many gifts does mom receive for her birthday that are for cleaning or household management purposes? A woman is more than the endless caretaking and managing she does. And whether or not she loves and thrives in it, there are so many more pieces that make up her love, passion and self.

Who our parents are is important. Our parents are not shells, not unspecified entities. And as we grow up, we learn this. We experience aspects of ourselves that are similar to our parents. We experiences validations, confirmation, understanding, connection. Sometimes we experience the opposite, in a disconnect. The self-discovery of who we are is built into our parents, our attachment and relational upbringing. It’s how we come to make sense of ourselves and the world. It’s how we come to develop our sense of self, our place in the world. Let your kids know their parents. That they are individuals. Let them know their parents as people with unique identities, wants, dreams, passions.

Why are we, as parents, afraid of this? As mothers? Why do we fear being known by our own children? As if the ropes of us are wrong or bad or tainted. As if our complexities make us less than. The reality is, for them to see none of our quirks and flaws and sense of self is a detriment. A harmful reckoning they’ll come to some day alone in their bedroom when they feel so much less than. When they feel weird, imperfect or unfitting in this world.

If we want our children to embrace their passions, follow their interests, explore themselves, their identity and let their freak flags fly (at least, I do), we cannot stop doing these things ourselves just because we have other roles. We cannot be so exhausted or busy or distracted that we always let our Selves slide.

While the change that women undergo in their shift into motherhood is insurmountably huge, the rest of us-- our identities outside of motherhood-- still matter. That sphere of us is deserving of space, care, time, energy and fostering. The transitive shift our entire being undergoes is so enormous, and so permanent, that societally and individually, it is deserving of more care and attention than it currently receives. Times have changed, and women are not just mothers and homemakers anymore. We are no longer just in the background holding the family upright without acknowledgement and recognition. We are squashing the patriarchy, demanding our rights and a say to our bodies and lives. We are living our own lives and dreams, allotting for our own passions. But the role of motherhood is still sequestered, cycling in oppression and age-old views and in need of attention. Working to keep up with ourselves and our identities can be difficult and daunting, and undoubtedly, we are already exhausted. But this work is vital for us, our families and society around us. Mothers must take care of themselves, and be allowed and encouraged to continue to grow as people. And the world must better learn to take care of mothers, to acknowledge the enormity that is the motherhood role. To understand the bodily and identity shift, to evolve to carve out space for their existence as more than “just a mom”.

Jillayna Adamson (said Jill-anna) is a mental health therapist, mother and photographer. Jillayna writes and advocates for her passions including human rights and mental wellness. She has written for The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Ottawa Citizen, and has a published travel journal chronicling two of her trips Haiti.
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