I doubt there’s a single woman out there experiencing motherhood exactly the way she thought she would. This “motherhood expectation vs reality” comparison image sums things up pretty darn well. Except, it’s not really one or the other–either Instagram perfect or a total hot mess. It’s a little from column A, and a lot from column B. Here’s the thing: no matter what you’re experiencing, your feelings are valid.
To state the obvious: both transitioning into motherhood and keeping up with this role on a daily basis take a lot of mental energy. I’ve found that giving myself a chance to process it all has been just as important to my wellbeing as being proactive about my physical recovery.
I called in an expert.
So I reached out to Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Dove Pressnall, to gain some additional insight on this topic. Dove provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, families, and communities. She’s worked with women in every season of life. People seek her support when deciding whether to have children, when they have difficulty getting pregnant, after losing a pregnancy, while pursuing parenthood solo, when experiencing disorientation and distress during the postpartum period, and so much more.
So let’s start from the beginning. Dove’s advice for women as they approach childbirth? “Take whatever it is you think you are going to be able to do afterward, and do as much as you possibly can to get comfortable with the idea that it’s just probably not going to look the way you expect it to. It is good to adjust your expectations. It’s good to change your mind about when you’re going to be ready to go back to work. Not just fine. Good.” She says there’s not only a physical process but also an identity process happening here. You are becoming a different person, and balancing the many facets of your identity takes work.
Motherhood isn’t one thing. It’s many things.
Becoming a mother means you will experience joy, accomplishment, and unconditional love. It also means you will probably experience deep feelings that aren’t so positive: guilt, regret, sorrow, fear, uncertainty, doubt, disorientation, and distress. And unfortunately, those aren’t emotions we typically proudly advertise to the world. But yes, your feelings are valid.
Who wants to admit that not only do they not have it all together, but they have no idea what on earth they are doing. Or even… regret doing it in the first place? That just doesn’t fit into the narrative many of us want and expect to be able to present to our friends, families, and acquaintances on the internet we’re trying to impress. But if there’s one thing you should carry with you, it’s that all of your feelings surrounding motherhood are valid. Every single one of them.
Dove explains where negative feelings like distress and disorientation come from.
She reiterates that becoming a mother is an identity-changing experience. She says “there’s no book you can read that tells you who you’re going to be as a parent,” noting that our culture doesn’t hold enough space for entering this new phase or discovering who we are becoming. We rush around trying to find a new normal in our lives, meet others’ expectations, and get back to old routines instead of slowing down for intentional bonding and discovery.
She says negative feelings can also come from stories we hear about other people’s experiences, expectations (ours and other people’s), and language used. Do any of these feelings or experiences sound familiar? Because they are so common she literally talks to women every day about them:
- Not being able to follow your birth plan the way you envisioned
- Not experiencing parenthood the way you thought you would
- Experiencing unexpected feelings about your baby’s gender
- Changing your mind about whether you want to return to work
- Not feeling ready to return to work
- Worrying whether you can still perform the same at your job
- Being “mom-tracked” in your career
- Worrying you can’t meet all of your kids’ needs
- Staying home with your kids and feeling isolated or stuck at home
- Staying home with kids and feeling like you don’t have an identity outside of “mom”
- Not being able to fully recover from childbirth
- Not feeling bonded to your baby (more on this in part 2 of this article)
And If you’re having negative feelings about any of these things, or anything else?
You guessed it: your feelings are valid. One easy, free piece of advice she gives that can help you cope with your feelings is simply to connect with other moms. But not just any other moms. She talks about how important it is to “find your people.” Remember, part of the problem is trying to fit in with other people’s expectations and peer pressure.
But let’s face it, it can be really hard to make friends as an adult. Side note: One place I’ve had success with this was turning to Peanut, a free app that’s essentially Tinder for pregnant women and mothers. You can match with others based on shared interests, ages of kids, their location, etc.
Find your people. Not just other moms. Your people.
To illustrate the importance of this, Dove recounted a hilarious personal story about being on a hike with her local moms’ group and her six-week-old baby and being stuck in an excruciating 20 minute conversation about which type of plastic sippy cup was safest back during the initial BPA plastic scare. She ended up saying to another mom, “I can’t do this.” “I can’t either,” her friend responded. “I think that makes us horrible moms,” Dove said and her friend nodded, “I think I’m OK with that.” Dove said it was such a relief to find another mom who–of course–cared about safe baby products, but did not have the mental bandwidth to obsess about every little thing.
Which leads us to another great way to alleviate stress. Prioritize what you have the capacity to give mental energy to–because it definitely can’t be everything. So this is your permission (and encouragement) to give yourself the grace to let go of the rest.
After such an eye-opening conversation, it made me wonder: what would happen if we moms all tried to be a little more real and a little less perfect? If we put a little less pressure on ourselves and others to have it all, do it all, and be super mom? Would that help us play the compare game a little less? Could it help us feel less inadequate? Would we feel more open to share our struggles, our worries, and ask for help? I for one, am willing to try.
Wait, there’s more validation!
Dove had so much more incredible advice to give and helpful perspective to share, I can’t fit it all here. So head to Part 2 of this article where we discuss mom guilt, when to seek professional help, misconceptions about bonding with your baby, and more. And until then, remember: your feelings are valid!
And feel free to check out my little self care gift shop if you want to treat yourself (or pamper a friend) with something special today while supporting this blog and other mama-owned businesses!
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