Mothers today are unlike any other generation before them. We quite literally have the answer to every possible question right at our fingertips. And to my own mom’s dismay (and ultimately my loss), we often forget about the wisdom of the mothers who came before us. Why would we need to draw upon their knowledge when we have Google and the “What to Expect” app guiding us through pregnancy and early motherhood?
Starting long before women even consider becoming pregnant, we develop a vision of how it “should” unfold:
We should get pregnant the moment we want to. We should glow during pregnancy, exercise, and avoid complaining at risk of sounding ungrateful. We should try for a “natural birth” because apparently that’s somehow “better”. We should cherish the newborn stage. Nap when the baby naps. Make a baby book. Record milestones. Go to mom groups. Talk to your baby all day. Teach them sign language. Make your own baby food. Breastfeed. Co-sleep. No wait, don’t co-sleep.
We conjure an image of some kind of maternal goddess from idealized notions of pregnancy and childbirth, and persistent messages that becoming a mother should be natural and easy. And this is where it goes wrong for many of us. This goal, this ideal, this kind of woman we are striving to become probably doesn’t even exist.
Or maybe she does exist, but there’s a side to her that no one knows. Where is her flexibility? Where are her hard days? Where is her suffering? Maybe becoming a mother does involve all of these sought-after experiences but there is always a balance. There is a shadow, and that shadow is what goes unspoken in our society. For many women, there’s nothing easy about becoming a mother.
There’s physical pain as the body changes and adapts to its new role both during pregnancy and post-partum. The experience of childbirth that by all means can be beautiful and transformative, but can also be traumatizing. The surgery. The healing. The excruciating reality of learning to breastfeed and the feelings of “what’s wrong with me” when we can’t figure it out instantly. The caring for multiple children while you are “supposed” to rest and recover.
Becoming a mother is the emotional pain that comes with loss. Loss of strength and self-care. Loss of pregnancies. Loss of identity. Loss of career. Loss of space for self. Loss of sexual sensations. Loss of what your relationship once was.
There’s worry and fear that you don’t know what you’re doing. When you realize that you “should” have read more about caring for a baby than what size of fruit they were in utero.
And here’s something that sticks around for a while: Guilt. The guilt that you were frustrated at your baby for waking up last night. The guilt for letting them cry too long when you needed a moment by yourself. The guilt for missing your pre-motherhood days. The guilt for scrolling on Instagram while breastfeeding (because after all, you “should” be present with your child during these precious moments). Guilt that you give them a squishy pack, unwatered down juice, and let them watch four episodes of Paw Patrol while you catch your breath.
What women need to hear more often is that becoming a mother is often the most startling transition a person could go through. You’re entire worldview shifts. It can be scary, lonely, disappointing, and certainly not what you expected. And when our reality doesn’t meet our expectations (those images of motherhood that have been reinforced for so long) we look for someone to blame. Guess who that person is most of the time? That’s right, it’s you, mama.
You wonder why you aren’t good at this. Why it’s so hard for you and seems easy for everyone else. Why you are still hurting when you “should” have recovered by now. Why you feel sad, frustrated, tired. Why you aren’t more grateful and positive.
But what if the way you are feeling is actually normal? To experience one of life’s greatest challenges, to be pulled and pushed like most moms are, doesn’t it make sense to suffer a little bit? What if you could give yourself permission to experience this stage in its truest most honest form?
My hope for mothers, for you, is to look at yourself with wonder and awe that you created a life. Step into a place of amazement that you have been able to shift from how your life was before to what it is now. And get curious: why would you expect this monumental change to be seamless? Where did those expectations come from, and are they realistic?
While each mother will experience this transformation in a unique and personal way, the one common antidote that will support you through the postpartum months, years, and beyond is immense self-compassion. For many mothers, having compassion for others seems easy, but turning that compassion toward the self is where things become more difficult.
Self-compassion is about recognizing your places of suffering, your perceived shortcomings and faults, and then viewing those areas with kindness and understanding. It’s about letting go of the judgements and self-criticism and instead, accepting that it might make perfect sense that you’re having a hard time right now. Self-compassion is noticing this moment of suffering, accepting that this is a part of life at this moment, and sending love and patience to yourself.
You are a human being. You are allowed to experience the full range of being human. That means encountering the shadow of all of your roles in life is perfectly okay. When you truly accept how you’re feeling you instantly find some relief. You learn that much of the pain comes from your own expectations of being “the perfect mother,” expectations that were never yours to take on in the first place.
If you could do just one thing to support yourself, I ask you to give yourself permission to be exactly as you are in this moment. Show yourself the compassion that you so effortlessly give to others. Let go of your judgements, and allow self-appreciation to move in instead.
Kate Borsato is a mental health counsellor on Vancouver Island. With her online counselling practice, she supports women during their transitions into motherhood and postpartum stages. Learn more at kateborsato.com.