Living beyond the "all-loving" and "self-sacrificial" model of motherhood
Have you ever encountered subtle or direct messaging that a good mother never thinks about her own needs, puts others first always, and only feels positive emotions about her experience as a mother? When coming from other mothers, these messages could sound like this:
I just love my babies - they're little miracles (without any acknowledgement that they wake you up in the middle of the night, pout and tantrum, etc).
We started having sex right away after the baby was born.
I can't imagine having "me time" - where do you find the time?
Don't you just adore being a mom - I can't imagine anything better?
How do you do it all? I can't imagine working and leaving my babies.
Dysfunctional messages can come from: older women who were not themselves supported and respond to this by repeating the cycle of abuse; men who are in pain, cut off from their emotions, and perpetuating toxic masculinity; female peers who feel insecure about their worth and respond to this with emotional suppression, perfectionism, and competition; institutions and policies that minimize the worth of mothers; and the media, which is often invested in cutting down our self-worth so we feel the need to consume in order to feel loved.
Women have lived for centuries in a patriarchal society, which requires them to cut off parts of themselves, become small, and find a way to live in a world where to fully express themselves is a risk. One of the ways we have dealt with this dilemma is to agree with patriarchal culture that our purpose is to serve men and children - that there is no value in us claiming our own joy and vitality (and not just so we can serve others, but for ourselves exclusively). While this is a brilliant survival tool, it also means that we repress our feelings of grief and rage at not embodying ourselves fully.
Nowhere is this inheritance of self-sacrifice more obvious than in motherhood. Women are often subtly pressured to:
not seek help or support
not feel negative/shadow feelings of anger, resentment, grief, loss, bitterness, fury, despair, hatred, disgust, self-preservation, or sadness
lie about how they are actually doing
continue to serve their baby, their partner, and others out of an empty cup
not ask for more
hide any problems that they are having
feel guilt or shame when they are confused, lost, frustrated, doubtful or experience regret about having a child
The cost of functioning under these self-sacrificial rules is our physical, sexual, and emotional health. When we suppress our emotional truth, we become sick. When we lie about our experience, we suffer from loneliness and isolation. When we refuse to ask for help and receive support, we die on the field of "I can do it all myself." Now, before you get to judging or criticizing yourself for having any of these patterns, please understand that this is that water we swim in as a society.
We all function from unconscious societal rules and agreements and often are not even aware that we are doing so. Additionally, we often carry inter-generational (meaning we inherit it from the previous generations) or personal trauma that locks us into cycles of helplessness, avoidance, suppressed emotions, and despair. Reclaiming your inherent worth, value, needs, and desires in this kind of environment can be difficult, but there are tools that can help.
Habits and tools to develop greater wholeness in motherhood (please note: mamas in dangerously coercive, abusive, and/or controlling relationships will require alternative support in addition to this list, as the priority is on external safety and getting safely out of the situation):
Prioritize your own needs - sleep, social support, water, loving touch, and nourishing food. There are endless ways to create a motherhood experience that works for you.
Develop supportive relationships where you can be authentic, tell the whole truth about your experience of motherhood, and experience non-judgment, validation, and support.
Listen to stories from other mothers who share the good and the bad about their motherhood experience - either in person or through podcasts or videos.
Learn to track your feelings, develop awareness of your emotional experience, and have at least one place where you acknowledge your absolute truth via journaling, sharing with a supportive friend or family member, attending a support group, or seeing a therapist.
Know that, if you have had certain traumatic experiences, these can become more intense experiences in motherhood for several reasons: you have higher stress and less sleep, therefore less emotional regulation available to you; the trauma may be triggered by experiences you have with your child; your way of mothering may escalate behavior of a toxic person in your life; or your body may still be recovering from birth or postpartum and is overloaded with managing trauma in addition to these needs.
Eliminate or minimize contact with toxic, judgmental, unsupportive, abusive, or critical people. Motherhood is hard enough without these presences in your life. What you may have been able to tolerate or spend energy on in your child-less adulthood, you may no longer have the capacity to deal with.
Allow yourself to feel all of your emotions, not just the good, angelic, and benevolent ones. The more we repress feelings of anger, sadness, resentment, and fear, the greater the likelihood that these feelings will come out sideways and cause harm to us or others.
Develop compassion for yourself and practice increasing self-love and acceptance and decreasing self-judgment, criticism and shame.
Learn the signs of post-partum depression and anxiety and know that if you are experiencing either or both, these experiences are temporary and treatable. Click here to read more.
Engage in time spent feeding and nourishing you. Do you need to hire someone so you can have alone time, do art while your kids are sleeping, take a weekly dance class, talk to your best friend twice a week? What fills you up? Can you allow yourself to think of your vitality as a need and invest in your own joy?
You are not alone. It can be a lifelong practice for women to reclaim our truth, centralize our needs, heal our wounds, and prioritize our joy and vitality. We often have to leave behind thoughts, beliefs, habits, and sometimes people along the way. It is a practice. Start small and come back to the practice when you lose your way. Here's to your health, recovery, and thriving, beautiful life!
For help with domestic violence, call 503-235-5333 for Portland or 1-800-799-7233 for the national domestic violence hotline. If you know or feel your phone and internet activity may be monitored, contact these resources from alternative phones/computers.
For more information about postpartum anxiety and depression, visit Postpartum Progress.
For more about the effect of patriarchy on women, toxic female relationships, and healing, visit Bethany Webster at Womb of Light.