Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Let’s Talk About What’s Wrong with Motherhood

There’s a lot wrong with motherhood. We don’t want to admit it, or confess that we can’t handle it and don’t like it.

When we do think or speak of anything other than rainbows and butterflies that accompany baby snuggles, we’re disgusted by our own audacity to question what it means to be a mother. It’s an institution as old as time and it’s making us sick. Individually and collectively motherhood as we understand it is a bomb, that once detonated influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The mess that can be left behind once we’re in the middle of caring for babies, toddlers and everything in between ultimately plays an often overlooked and underappreciated role in our mental health.

Motherhood Completes Us

Though women now have the ability to pursue an education, a career outside of the home and maintain some sort of control over our bodies (though that’s currently under threat), we’re consistently bombarded with messages about becoming a mother. It’s often implied that motherhood will complete us. How could it not? It’s what we’re biologically programmed to do. Have babies. Nurse and care for them. Nurture them and raise the next generation of happy, healthy productive citizens.

This role is idealized and put on a pedestal and we’re given explicit instructions and expectations of how to complete our duties as mom. When we can’t meet these impossibly high standards we tell ourselves that we’ve failed. We’re stupid. Worthless. Inept. We’re bad moms and bad women. We will be incomplete as women until we’ve met or even surpassed these standards.

Moms are Perfect

Exploring these expectations further it’s obvious perfection is what’s expected of us. Take a cruise through Pinterest and see the immaculate baby rooms, birthday parties and color coordinated cloth diapers that match baby sleepers. Certainly we can achieve all this in between caring for our babies, homes and building careers. Right? A search on Instagram using the hashtag #pregnancy or #postpartum will generally come back with endless photos of women showing off their perfect pregnant or post baby bodies with descriptions of their fitness routines and diet plans that are “super easy to follow” even though we all know that often we’re lucky to eat more than a banana some days and survive until bedtime.

Perfectionism runs rampant and the internet lets us create and fuel this illusion. Women on social media will talk about how they felt worthless or had their self esteem shot to pieces because of pregnancy and the postpartum period. With a little hard work and self control they’ve been able to transform themselves into culturally appropriate versions of what a mom “should” look like. They take pride in how quickly they’ve been able to bounce back from creating little humans and create a life that’s Insta worthy. They have the perfect body, the perfect baby, the perfect life. These women aren’t remotely at fault – they’re only trying to meet impossible standards of perfection that they’ve been exposed to since childhood.

Motherhood is All Women Want

We’re told that we can and should be perfect moms, and there is a lot of messaging about what our priorities should be. Matching our priorities to these ideals will help us move closer to pulling off this motherhood gig without fail. We can have babies, bounce back in six weeks or less and return to work, to school, to caring for other children, to social calendars and our lives as they were before. We can split our time between crazy to-do lists that have us running from dawn to dusk in a marathon that never ends, seeking fulfillment of some sort that’s promised when we’re able to finally “do it all”.

But then we’re also told that being a mother is all should want to dedicate all our time, energy and entire being to. Women should be completely devoted to their children at the expense of their own physical and mental health. To suggest that taking care of ourselves by perhaps showering or sneaking off to Target alone is selfish and somehow a neglect of our duties as a mom. Wanting to create identities outside of this motherhood myth is a deviant act; simply look at how women go after one another for their parenting decisions or life choices that might deviate from what’s “normal” or directly challenge cultural notions of acceptable mothering.

Moms Don’t Get Mental Illness

We’ve been sold a lie that motherhood will complete us. That perfect mothering is not only possible but what we should try to achieve. And that being a mom is all we should want and anything else is just selfish. It’s under the influence of these messages that we meet the reality of pregnancy, birth and motherhood and sometimes these don’t align or make any sense whatsoever. After birth we might feel like we’ve physically been hit by a truck. We might hate our new roles as caregivers. We might want to desperately return to a time before we had babies.

We might love being a mom but are feeling really anxious for no good reason. We might feel hopelessly depressed and worry constantly that we’re going to mess our babies up for life. But we don’t talk about this – about any of this – and feel more and more isolated and alone as a result. Together with biological changes that all our bodies and brains go through during pregnancy and postpartum, these social messages profoundly influence our mental health. They outright make us sick and keep us ill until we confront and challenge them head on.

Motherhood is Easy

Wading through the murkiness of our social constructs of motherhood it’s easy to see just what’s wrong with it. Motherhood as we understand it is a game that not a single one of us can win. We’re set up to fail. The system is designed to keep us in a negative feedback loop where nothing we do is ever good enough. We’re never thin enough. Sexy enough. Smart enough. Competent enough. Kind enough. Patient enough. Motherly enough.

Change is only possible when we start to see motherhood for what it really is; the hardest job we’ll ever have. It changes our minds and bodies in profound ways that we still don’t fully understand. There will be joys and triumphs. Moments of unconditional love and intense pride. You’ll love your child and your role as a mom. There will also be rage and disappointment. Failure, embarrassment and total exhaustion. You’ll want to run and hide or maybe scream and break things.

All these feelings are real and valid. We need to have more conversations about what being a mom is really like without feeling the need to justify ourselves. No more conversations that start with, “I really love my baby, but…” or “Being a mom is great, but…” Let’s just be honest with ourselves and one another and admit that there really is something wrong with our version of motherhood. It’s only once we drop the pretense that we can move forward with challenging what motherhood means to us and decide how we want to play the game.

Shannon Hennig is Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.

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