How often have you heard a mom say, “I love my baby, but I don’t like being a mom.” I have lost count. This line has become commonplace in our everyday life. On the one hand, I applaud it. It takes courage to stand up and admit that you’re struggling as a mother and not enjoying motherhood.
But on the other hand, I am incredibly sad. I’m sad because I know this feeling all too well. This dichotomy shouldn’t exist. Or should it?
When You Don’t Love Being a Mom
Like most women in Western society, you may have grown up thinking that you will be a mom someday. Not because it’s something you desperately want (or maybe you do) but because that’s how it is. There is nothing wrong with that. We all grow up with dreams and expectations of how our lives will go. For many people, it looks like this: finish high school, go to college, get a good job, have some fun, meet the love of your life, get married, and finally, have children.
This layout feels natural, mainly because we get primed for this life model from a very young age. All the movies we see and all the women we see around us follow this life blueprint. It’s hard not to get sucked into thinking that this is how you should live and is required to achieve authentic happiness.
So, what happens when you hit all those milestones, and you’ve arrived at your final achievement, having a baby, and are miserable? Or maybe you’re not entirely miserable, but you feel things are wrong somehow? You don’t feel right and at home in your new skin? It’s an unnerving feeling. After all, just like all the women around you, you expected that the moment your baby would land in your arms, your whole life would shift. You expected to feel complete, blissfully happy, fulfilled, and like the person you were always meant to be. Only it didn’t happen this way.
What is “maternal ambivalence”?
There is a term “maternal ambivalence” that we should all get more comfortable using.1 It describes the feeling of push and pull that all mothers feel. We experience tremendous love for our babies, but we still crave personal space. It’s uncomfortable because the needs are on the opposite end of the spectrum. But what makes it worse is the societal message that when we don’t want to be close to our baby and want that space for ourselves, our love for the baby is somehow diminished, and we are terrible mothers. So, a situation that is already confusing for a new mother also becomes shaming.
I’m here to tell you that ambivalence is natural and there is nothing to be ashamed of when you feel it. Ambivalence is present in situations you are most invested in. And what can we ever be more invested in than our children?
The great life transition into motherhood.
Becoming a mother is always hyped up as the most important life transition a woman can go through. Once the transition happens, however, very little attention is paid to the mother. It seems to be a given that a transition into motherhood will always be a positive one with no issues. And if there are issues, then they are clinical and pathological.
Have you ever wondered why all we have to explain our motherhood adjustment is pure bliss or postpartum depression? As if nothing exists in between. This way of viewing the transition into motherhood is not only wrong, it’s hurtful for mothers.
The process of becoming a mother.
The term “matrescence,” coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael, describes the process of becoming a mother.2 Matrescence is just as important as adolescence and just as real. But because it only affects women who become mothers, we don’t talk about it much. But we should. It’s as complicated and life-changing as adolescence and deserves support and understanding. When a baby is born, a mother is born. And she needs space and time to grow into her new role. This growth will be bumpy and confusing, but it’s a metamorphosis that needs to happen and not be pathologized.
A study out of the Netherlands of roughly 84,000 women found that women’s self-esteem usually drops in pregnancy, goes up a little in the first six months postpartum, and then plummets again until the child reaches 3 years old. The decrease in self-esteem is the sharpest in first-time mothers and is less pronounced after subsequent pregnancies.3
As you can imagine, plummeting self-esteem will not help you feel better as a new mom. It will only add to your struggle to love your new self. For us to love ourselves, we need to feel good. We need to feel accomplished and appreciated. And motherhood doesn’t really give us that.
Motherhood is a journey of blindly poking around and trying to find the best solution to a problem. It is the never-ending questions and worries of “Am I doing this right?” Our children often don’t tell us they appreciate us until they are much older, if ever. And you never feel accomplished because when you fix one problem, another one crops up. Motherhood isn’t a great place to find your self-esteem. But it is a place to find the most amazing and unconditional love. It is a place where we discover that we are capable of so much more than we ever thought we could be.
Your struggle is real, and it’s not your fault.
Unfortunately, there is little empathy for struggling mothers. And for some reason, when we mention that we’re struggling, the comments are always geared toward “Don’t you love your baby?” Or “He is such an easy baby. How can you be struggling?” And that is just the wrong way to look at it.
While your baby is responsible for you being a mom, they are not responsible for how your body and mind reacted to this transition. You can have the easiest baby in the world and have postpartum mood disorders (PMADs). And that is not an indictment on the baby. And it is certainly not an indictment on you, either.
We can’t control our hormones, and we can’t control how our body will react to pregnancy or postpartum. So there is absolutely no blame that should befall you. For some mothers, the recovery is a breeze. For most, it’s not. Most moms have told me that it has taken them 18 months to 2 years to feel like themselves after having their baby. This is a far longer stretch than we are led to believe at our 6-week postpartum appointment. And if you have pregnancies back to back, the clock restarts at every birth.
Dear Mama, please know that you are not alone. Your struggle is real, difficult, natural, and normal. All growth and all change hurt. We break the old and build anew. Sometimes, we can’t completely shake off all the old, and that’s good. Motherhood shouldn’t remake us into a completely different person. It should change some things and leave others the same. We should let ourselves take the time to like the new woman staring back at us in the mirror with dark circles, messy hair, and stretched skin. But we should not push it.
Dear Mama, I love the new you. And I hope with a lot of empathy and love, you will finally be able to leave the struggle behind and love the new you.