The Martyrdom of Motherhood
I’m writing this from the perspective of a therapist who works with a mothers, as well as a therapist who is a mother herself. I’ve noticed a troubling trend among mothers of this generation and am hoping that naming this trend will help provide clarity. Specifically, I hope to address mother guilt in response to extremely unrealistic expectations.
On a social media forum specifically catering to new mothers, a mother posted about her guilt over using an iPhone nursing her infant. Her infant was only a few weeks old, so she was breastfeeding constantly. She was an exhausted and overwhelmed new mother discussing how her iPhone provided a much needed distraction and stimulation from the constant needs of her infant, and was an especially comforting device during middle of the night feedings when she felt especially isolated and tired. What troubled me was the reactions she received from other mothers. Some mothers were supportive and validating, yet others were judgmental, telling her she was interfering with her mother/infant bonding. To me, this was outrageous. This new mother clearly was reaching out for support and validation, and her iPhone use was very understandable. And yet, some people who could have understood her the most (mothers) were not only judging her, but telling her she needed to do even more than was already being demanded of her. She needed to put down that iPhone and lovingly gaze into her infant’s eyes while breastfeeding, and she needed to love every second of it.
Here’s another scenario: Recently, Kim Kardashian revealed to the media that she essentially hated being pregnant. She described all of the intense physical discomfort that comes with pregnancy and stated she disliked it. And yet, somehow this was “controversial” to some.
These two scenarios are, to me, indicative of a larger trend. Mothers nowadays are more isolated than ever. Many mothers do not have that village that is required to raise a child. Mothers now live in different cities from families, plus many balance the demands of work. One could argue that motherhood nowadays is as demanding as it’s ever been. And yet, people ask more of mothers. Not only should they constantly give and sacrifice, but they should do it happily and without complaint. So when a new mother is constantly breastfeeding a newborn and seeking temporary distraction to help her get through an extremely demanding phase, she’s not validated for this very natural reaction. Rather, she is asked to give even more. She “must” put down the iPhone and stare into the eyes of her nursing infant. Whom she is already nursing 8-12 hours a day. One can easily argue that the nursing in and of itself is enough bonding.
Or, Kim Kardashian “should” have never complained. She should have cheerily exclaimed how pregnancy is an amazing, sacred experience and left it at that. In reality, pregnancy is more taxing than running a marathon. It irrevocably changes the body and asks the body to give everything it has to maintaining and supporting a fetus. And yes, of course it’s an incredible process. But Kim Kardashian was simply acknowledging the reality of pregnancy, which is that it’s not always a joyful or comfortable experience. It can be quite miserable for many women. And it’s OK to acknowledge that.
The trend I’m seeing now with motherhood now is that mothers must exude this aura of constant joy, gratitude and contentment with pregnancy and mothering. They must constantly celebrate every moment of their children without complaint. This is highlighted especially by the existence of social media. On Pinterest, Facebook, etc., mothers must constantly present the highlight reels: their children’s clean and happy faces, usually engaged in some stimulating and beautiful outdoor activity.
Motherhood, though a wonderful honor, is also one of the most demanding experiences in existence. It’s rife with all sorts of emotions: joy, anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness, despair, apprehension, guilt, exhaustion, gratitude—the list goes on and on. It usually is messy, chaotic and quite frankly, pretty gross. It’s only 11:30 AM today and I’ve already wiped butts and noses more times than I can count. The highs and lows are extreme and often. Plus, motherhood carries the weight of enormous unknowns. There is an overwhelming amount of parenting books out there due to these unknowns. There is no one right way to do things, and each parent/child relationship is like a snowflake or fingerprint. There’s an inherent uniqueness in that relationship that will never be replicated.
Mothers are already asked to do so much for their children and families. And yet, when we communicate to mothers that their natural thoughts and feelings about being a mother is somehow wrong or bad, that is asking too much. I would say that every mother who I see in my practice struggles with guilt. They feel guilty about all of the darker emotions and thoughts that accompany motherhood. I think this in large part due to the fact that mothers in this society cannot embrace the full reality of motherhood. It is taboo for mothers to express ambivalence, despair, anxiety, anger, frustration and all the other so-called “negative” emotions about the experience of motherhood. She must cut off that normal and very valid part of herself that does not always love being a mother. Not only must she do that, but she must then be the “Pinterest” mother who manufactures every aspect of her children’s childhood in a beautiful and creative manner. It’s no wonder that so many mothers are in therapy for depression and/or anxiety. The actual demands of motherhood, paired with the impossible expectations, is simply too much for most human beings to bear. And they shouldn’t have to carry around that type of emotional burden.
Let’s stop. Mothers need to stop doing this to themselves and others. In reality, there is no mother on the planet who does not struggle with the daily demands of being a mother. That mother does not exist. If you struggle with overwhelming guilt as a mother, I ask you to please get help. Society’s expectations are not something we can change. However, we have great power over our internal lives. Therapy can help a mother come to terms with embracing the mother who she is, and realistically striving to be the mother that she wants to be.