A while ago I watched a video of Karen Kleinman speaking at Byrn Mawr Hospital shared on the Postpartum Stress Center Facebook page. Karen Kleinman is a a therapist and well known expert on postpartum depression and author of several wonderful books that I will link at the end of this post. Part of the reason I’ll never forget the video is because it was from 1989 and Karen was rocking a polka dotted headband and very large purple button earrings. But most importantly she said something probably not many people had acknowledged before. She said, and I’m summarizing here, “What we need to understand is that having a baby is a tremendous loss; loss of independence, loss of self.”
This spoke to me for two reasons. One being that I really related to it. One of the most difficult things I’ve experienced is a loss of who I was after I became a mother. After being an achievement addict, a dedicated social worker, and a social butterfly I seemed to lose all of that when I had my children. When I didn’t have time to dedicate to my work, decided to stay at home, and couldn’t engage with my friends as much as I used to I felt lost. Secondly, I feel this is a concept that our culture doesn’t want to recognize. Many people say, “Being a parent is the best thing that will ever happen to you.” There is obviously truth to that in the love we all have for our children. But just because something is wonderful doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Changing our notion of accepting parenthood as a both a gain and a loss, as both an exciting time and a stressful time, as both a time to celebrate and a time to grieve empowers parents to navigate the journey with recognition of their emotions and grace with understanding it all as a process.
Something else that I’ve recently learned that is also a loss we experience is the loss of the expectations we had about parenthood to begin with. We also have to grieve that sometimes we don’t turn out to be the mother we wanted to be.
We all have these visions of the mother we’d like to be when we’re pregnant. And although I refer often to mothers in this post I think this same notion can apply to fathers using the societal expectations we place on dads also. We may envision ourselves joyfully playing with our children on a swingset, preparing fresh homemade meals for them to enjoy, making arts and crafts projects, providing comfort to our child when they skin their knee. I, for one, didn’t envision myself crying in a bathroom with hair that hadn’t been washed for three days as I binge ate Thin Mints.
But children teach us a lot of lessons and they are amazing at getting us to know ourselves a little better. Children are truly a gift when it comes to giving us a mirror to look at ourselves. It’s as if they say, “You thought you knew yourself? You thought you had life figured out? You thought you had total control? Oh boy, you thought wrong.” You don’t need an Eat Pray Love type of adventure to get to know yourself better. Just pop out a child or two, get in some sleepless nights, be pushed to the brink of your sanity every couple days and you’ll start to get to know yourself really well. Maybe even better than you’d like to .
So when our reality doesn’t fit our expectations we struggle. We try to fit ourselves into the mold of what we wanted but no matter how hard we try we might not fit. So instead of taking a new shape we frustrate ourselves to no end trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. But we often embrace as parents the notion that it is our jobs to raise our children to be the best version of themselves, not of anyone else. Why can’t we apply this concept to ourselves as parents?
Rejecting societal pressures or the pressures we place on ourselves to take on traits that we don’t have doesn’t mean there is something wrong with those traits. We can accept that those traits just aren’t who we are. For instance, I’m beginning to understand that I will never be the type of mother that is a good homemaker. I envisioned myself as a Pinterest mom with a well kept house, wonderful homemade meals every night, and having the walls of my home lined with my children’s monthly photos and handprints. But that didn’t work out for me. And I’m starting to learn that if I really wanted to be that way I would make it happen somehow. But I don’t. So I’ve come to understand that why being a great homemaker is an awesome trait I felt the pressure to be that way because of society and not because it was something that I truly wanted to be. So when I get down on the ways I’m not the mother I thought I’d be I start to think of the mother I truly am. I’m a mom who gets her kids outdoors, who lets her kids run wild, who is out of the house a lot meeting other moms for playdates and doesn’t have a lot of “routine”, who is not present 24/7 because I’m working on my own work projects, and who is trying everyday to give more grace to my children to make mistakes as well as myself. Take it all with the good and the bad and I realize I’m the mother I’m meant to be. And I hope you can realize that too.
Reflect on your own projections of what you thought you’d be like as a mother. Answer some of these questions or complete these sentences to dig deeper.
What did you envision yourself being like as a mom?
As a mother I always thought I’d be more _____________________.
Where did your hopes for yourself as a mother come from? (i.e. your own childhood, watching others, society,etc).
What surprised you after motherhood in terms of the mother you’ve become so far?
What can you try harder to accept about yourself as a mother? What could be the potential benefits of those traits?
What can you start to let go of in terms of your expectations of motherhood? What has your children taught you about yourself?
Books by Karen Kleinman