Becoming A Mother

by Hilary Cooper, Ph.D.

May 23, 2023 — Maternal Mental Health

Mother’s Day 2023 represents my 25th year as a mother. I took the occasion to reflect upon and empathize with the experiences of the young mothers who are my colleagues and of those that I currently treat. Looking back on the moment I realized that I was pregnant in the Spring of 1997, I feel a twinge of shame as I recall the panic that rushed through me. I was working out in a gym and felt something stir inside me that I have never felt before. I described the sensation to my husband who could not imagine that we were pregnant. A surgery to correct the impact of endometriosis had left the doctors to assume that becoming pregnant would be an arduous task for me. I was in shock when the faint line appeared on the little plastic test applicator of the at home pregnancy kit. I didn’t feel like my reaction was anything akin to the marketing images of joyous couples in carefree embraces on their bathroom floors. First time pregnancy was terrifying to me. Despite the fact that I had worked with children and was training to be a psychologist, I felt completely ill equipped to be a mother. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, pop psychology books and professional literature engendered shame and fear in those of us who felt ambivalent about becoming a mother. I knew that I wanted children, but the pragmatic ramifications and changes to my body were intimidating. My doctoral dissertation on the transition to motherhood was born from my own insecurities as a pregnant woman. I was also curious to see if other expectant mothers were struggling the way I was.

As our Clear Mind Psychology Reproductive Mental Health Team has begun to visit new mothers in their homes, or treat pregnant and postpartum parents virtually and in our offices, I am dismayed to hear the same stories of physical and emotional pain, misdirected shame, and disappointment in expectant and new mothers today that I, and my research subjects, felt over two decades ago. What?! Seriously?! No movement at all in the way new parents feel and the way they are supported by society? This is so hard to believe.

My old research was divided into four areas of interest. First, the meaning of work for pregnant women and new mothers; second, the physical sensations of pregnancy and new parenthood; third, the emotional reactions to pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood; and lastly, the marital relationships and the transition to parenthood. Below are some of the conclusions that I reached at the end of my study.

Broken Myths:

  1. Most new mothers describe their work and home lives as being at odds with one another. It is a struggle for many new mothers to make peace with their “professional go-getter self” and their deep desires to be a “good mother.”
  2. Technology makes it very difficult for many women to immerse themselves into their new role as a mother to a newborn.
  3. Many women were more afraid of “messing up” in their new role as a mother than they were about continuing a successful trajectory at work. They expressed feeling more comfortable functioning at work than at home.
  4. Women with very intense careers rarely changed their busy work schedules while pregnant (most worked over 45 hours a week) and wanted to work as much as possible before giving birth so they would not lose ground, compared to other workers.
  5. The physical and emotional challenges of the postpartum period, including sleep deprivation, were the most challenging aspects of new motherhood for most women. Most women felt unprepared for the challenges.
  6. Pregnancy and the road to parenthood required relinquishing control over one’s lifestyle, emotional life, and body. Pregnant women were naturally concerned about the changes to their bodies. The intensity of these fears increased after their children were born, when they couldn’t easily explain their swollen bodies to onlookers and when taking care of a newborn prevented physical exercise.
  7. Most women perceived that they lacked control over decisions made in the delivery room. They responded to their doctor’s decisions to induce labor with anger and shame as if their bodies didn’t work properly.
  8. The fantasy of how the birth of their child would go was very different from the reality. Most women felt guilty that their first moments with their newborn were not without pain and exhaustion.
  9. Women who had experienced pregnancy loss and treatment for infertility were far more anxious and had a harder time imagining the baby growing inside them than others who conceived more easily.
  10. Concerning their relationship with their romantic partner, many women are less likely to want to have sex while pregnant or while caring for their newborn. This is a concern that very few couples speak openly about and can be a big strain on romantic relationships.

Tips to ease the transition to parenthood:

  1. Know that sometimes professionals and parenting “experts” have become accustomed to creating formulas and step by step parenting advice because this information sells books and garners readers.
  2. It is more than ok to listen to your gut about a decision that you make regarding your body or your newborn child. You will start the path toward parenthood when you listen to your own voice.
  3. Use only well researched resources for information regarding pregnancy and new parenthood (some suggestions are listed below). Googling everything will not help your mental health.
  4. Accepting that your body and life are not in the same shape they were several months ago. Be kind to yourself and don’t rush your recovery process.
  5. Reassurance and open communication with your partner about how your body feels regarding sex is very important. Ask for what you need- perhaps asking your partner for a brief massage is more realistic than having sex. Touch and intimacy are still important albeit not always realistic.
  6. New parenthood is hard. Share your fears and frustrations with trusted family and friends and seek help if you feel isolated. Shame and guilt are unhelpful emotions when you are simply trying your best.
  7. Remember, striving for perfection is not the healthiest or most effective way toward optimal parenthood. It is ok to let a baby cry for a short period of time so that a parent can nap or get things done. Infants will eventually figure out ways to self soothe when we give them a chance to sit with mild discomfort.

New parenthood should not be a point in time riddled with guilt and shame. Society can do a better job portraying more balanced images of pregnancy and parenting. Those of us who carry fetuses inside our bodies can be more honest and open about the vast array of emotions and physical challenges associated with pregnancy and new parenthood. No one should feel alone about their experiences of the harrowing challenges of breastfeeding, the emotional isolation of caring for a newborn or the strain on romantic partnerships. One of the most shameful moments of new motherhood for me was when I complained to someone about my exhaustion and the physical and emotional pain I felt right after my first child was born. The person responded by saying, “Why aren’t you happy? You should be so happy, you have always wanted to have children.” Needless to say, that conversation was not helpful, only resulting in my feeling judged.

In my work, I pride myself on my ability to validate parents. Recently, I have become more conscious of the ways in which society unconsciously endorses society’s toxic positivity relate to pregnancy and parenthood. We should all remember that almost every human experience can bring the bad and the good. Feelings of gratitude and frustration can be experienced at the same time. It is with a sense of purpose and pride that we, at Clear Mind, continue to work with new parents on the challenges associated with parenthood in order to ease the transitions that all new parents encounter.