Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Being A Mother — The Role of A Lifetime

At first I thought the physical pain of childbirth might be part of the process, but as I started paying attention to this phenomenon I saw that fathers tended to talk this way too. I even saw it in parents who had adopted children: one father I knew told us the whole story of how he and his wife drove down to Tennessee, to pick up their new infant daughter.

Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist who has studied the mother-child bond, has written about the process that mothers go through incorporating this new identity, called “matrescence.”  His research confirms the profound impact of this change.

Alexandra Sacks, a psychiatrist and co-author of a forthcoming book about the emotions of pregnancy and the postpartum period, writes

“Instead of focusing on the woman’s identity transition, more research is focused on how the baby turns out. But a woman’s story, in addition to how her psychology impacts her parenting, is important to examine, too. Of course, this transition is also significant for fathers and partners, but women who go through the hormonal changes of pregnancy may have a specific neurobiological experience.”

Mothers have been traditionally been put in two divergent groups, the blissful maternal ideal and its opposite: women who struggle with post-partum depression. While it is a good trend that attention is paid to the strains of the postpartum period, there is still very little written about the fact that a real norm for a new mother is ambivalence. The New York Times reports:

“The British psychotherapist Rozsika Parker wrote in “Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence” about the pull and push of wanting a child close, and also craving space (physically and emotionally) as the normal wave of motherhood. Ambivalence is a feeling that comes up in the roles and relationships a person is most invested in, because they’re always a juggling act between giving and taking. Motherhood is no exception. Part of why people have a hard time dealing with ambivalence is that it’s uncomfortable to feel two opposing things at the same time.”

While the change that takes place when a woman becomes a mother is for most a welcome one, it comes with many difficult challenges: lost sleep, loss of independence, shifting marital dynamics are just a few of the universal “gifts” that come along with the baby. For a mother, her essential relationship to almost everything and everyone undergoes a shift. One woman told me how her feelings about life itself had changed, in that:

“Before I was a mother I had a much less committed sense of myself and my decisions. Nothing felt all that important, even my life. It did not matter all that much if I existed in the world, but now I feel an essential need to survive and thrive because of my baby.”

This deepened sense of one’s importance to others is one that most parents experience. Mothers, in particular, have a harder time taking risks after this identity shift. Freud and others thought that men achieved a higher moral level because they were more willing than women to put their lives at risk for an idea or a purpose. Psychologists now think that women’s sense of themselves is essentially different from men’s: they are more likely to define themselves in terms of their relationships to others. (Gilligan 1982).

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  • Myriam Weinstein May 28, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    So true. I’ve always felt that I can be 3,000 miles away, but the emotional connection to my kids and now grand kids is constant .

  • Barbara May 18, 2017 at 7:53 am

    Love this article- it is true in every sense