Seventeen years ago, when my daughter was about 5 months old, I was diagnosed with…
We’ve all seen it. The peaceful, sleeping infant, watched over by the perfectly coiffed, smiling mother in a sunlit, tidy room. It’s an image that’s shown in every movie, on every box, on social media, on the cover of every book. Welcome to motherhood, this is what to expect! And then we live it.
It’s messy, and the baby cries, and doesn’t sleep, and doesn’t latch, and we’re exhausted, and our nipples are on fire and we don’t have time to shower or clean the house. And then the shoulds start.
I SHOULD be smiling, I SHOULD be making more milk, I SHOULD be doing laundry, I SHOULD be in my pre-pregnancy clothes. But why the shoulds? And at what cost? Our entire lives we’ve been receiving and internalizing messages from the world around us about what motherhood and mothers should be.
The media, our parents, our communities, our country and its institutions — they all feed us information that shapes and implants representations of motherhood into our subconscious mind long before we begin our own motherhood journey.
We don’t realize that these messages are unrealistic, singular, often driven by the historically dominant culture in our society (think male and white). We don’t realize that they’re veiled to present a public image and void of the real, private and unique experience that actually exists for every new mother. Yet, we take them on as our own and use them to inform our judgment of ourselves as mothers and ultimately, human beings.
Are you kidding me?!!!
When else in your life would you take on a prefabricated identity and assume it as your own without batting an eyelash? And then criticize yourself anytime you didn’t appear to be measuring up? Well, if you said adolescence, you’re probably right. But do we really want to be comparing ourselves to partially developed adults whose brain functions mimic those of sociopaths?
The truth about maternal identity is that like any aspect of ourselves, we need to try things out and see what fits US. Maternal identity is defined as one’s internalized view of the self as a mother and it informs our thoughts, behaviors and feelings in the domain of parenting.
Consciously, this process seems to begin when we make the decision to grow our family. Adversity in the family planning or conception process, or throughout gestation, can often accelerate this thinking. Certainly, after birth, we become acutely aware of what we expect of ourselves as mothers and are constantly checking in to see if we measure up.
But when the reality lived is so different from the expectations held (of ourselves, our baby, the overall experience) it is almost impossible to not feel like we’re falling short. We feel sad and alone. We overthink every decision. We reach for every available parenting book and feel confused about how the experts can be prescribing completely contradictory suggestions. And we struggle.
It makes sense, we are deeply in love with our children and biologically designed to devote ourselves to their happiness, safety and security. The perceived stakes are high. If we aren’t mothering right, how can we ensure our kids will thrive?
What doesn’t make sense though, is our definition of what’s right.
First and foremost because there is no universal right when it comes to parenting. But moreover, because that definition is not based on OUR reality. Let me ask you something, do you like pie? Yes? So what if somebody said…
“Hey, do you want some pie? Ok, here you go. We have this premade, single offering. It’s guaranteed you’ll love it so much you will identify it as your favorite. You will serve it at every dinner you host, at every holiday and birthday party. Soon you won’t be able to envision a gathering without it. And you know, every other woman in the world also loves it and exclusively serves it too!”
Yeah, exactly, that’s ridiculous! We don’t all like the same kinds of pie! Some people like fruit pie. Some people like meat pie! Some people don’t even like pie at all. But you try different pies to explore how they taste to you and use this information to define your preferences and direct your pie-eating behaviors.
We’re talking about pie here. And yet many of us are probably more thoughtful and accepting of our individual journey around pie than we are when it comes to our experience of motherhood.
So, how can we navigate this differently and free ourselves of the burden of unrealistic and depersonalized maternal expectations?
First, we must begin to view it as a process. Of course, you can use all of these earlier life influences to inform you as you move into motherhood, we have to start somewhere. But don’t go into it expecting yourself to have all of the answers or be aligned with everything you’ve been told about motherhood up until now. Know up front that it will be different, unique to you, a bit disorganized, and full of bumps along the way. See, we’re already shifting expectations.
Try to be mindful and observe the “shoulds” when they pop up.
Ask yourself, “where does this come from and does it fit me and my family?” Sort through these things with curiosity and acceptance and be empowered to get rid of what isn’t aligned with who you are right now, at this point in your journey. There are undoubtedly beliefs stuffed into the suitcase of your mind that are outdated, ill-fitting, were a vintage hand-me-down that you accepted out of obligation but will never wear. Why would you save them? And continue to define yourself through them?
No, you need to get all Marie Kondo on that stuff!
When you have a moment of guilt or shame about a certain expectation not being met, rather than spiral into the darkness of that feeling, view it as a cue that something about this expectation is not gelling with your reality.
Empower yourself to take in that information, accept it, and move on without it. Consciously curating your maternal identity is an ongoing exploration best supported by observing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and assessing whether or not they are supporting the reality of YOUR situation and what maternal experience YOU want to live. If not, you CAN change them.
Because being a successful mother is not about striving for some form of perfection, based on someone else’s construct of motherhood.
That is actually a barrier to the environment you are so committed to creating for your child. It creates a sense of distress that pulls you into a cycle of shame and doubt, sucking up the energy that you could otherwise be expending on mothering (or dare I suggest a few moments of self-care?).
Your baby’s development is optimized by a mother who sets mindful intentions, does their best, and shows up every day with love, acceptance and a clear presence-towards baby and themselves.
Exploring the ingredients, measurements, textures, temperature, baking time and continuously adjusting your recipe is what will allow you to move towards this outcome.
You can, in fact, have YOUR pie and eat it too.
Looking to add more prebaby joy to your postbaby life? Click here.