Family action shot above, though not a moment of overwhelm. Just a little birthday celebration for me at our favorite creek spot. My son is not grimacing in pain, but making that face because he knows how to crack me up.
If you are a mother, I am 100% certain you have complained about how tired you are at some point. None of us has escaped motherhood without some form of ass kicking around our energy.
Motherhood today involves so much more than it ever has. Not only are mothers working to provide all the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, connection, and warmth, but many work outside the home and have responsibilities and pressures waiting for them very soon after birth. And now with the research and literature on child development and attachment becoming more accessible to all of us, we also know how essential it is to provide our infants and children with sensitive, nurturing, psychologically informed love and care that engender secure relationships and a positive sense of self.
Just a little extra thing to think about nowadays.
Ok, so, basically, when mothers are getting the least amount of sleep, have the most uncertainty about their new identity as a mother, and their daily lives and future aspirations are being overhauled by tiny babies, they also have the most influence and responsibility on who their children are going to become. Add in there that we have little to no social support in the forms of postpartum parental leave or extended (i.e. adequate) postpartum and maternal health care.
We’re kind of on our own to figure it out. And since so many of us are good at being independent, strong willed, and self reliant, we think we can do it by ourselves.
Motherhood pushes and pulls us deep into the world of urgent, primal, intimate relationships. Even for those of us who have prided ourselves on being independent and capable on our own, we find tremendous meaning within the experience of becoming closely bonded through deep attachment ties to our children. And still for many mothers, motherhood is full of exhaustion, inner conflicts, and identity shifts that feel unsettling and confronting.
So many of us struggle, at some point, or in an ongoing way, with how to meet the layers of demands we face as mothers. While we may have glimpsed the nourishment available in the depths of our primary relationship bonds, it can get drowned out by the resistance we feel in our mind and body because of how intense it all feels.
I have spent many years studying, and living, the experience of how people attach and form close relationships. All the research shows that humans are more content, resilient, flexible, creative, independent, compassionate, intelligent, and so much more, when we have strong, secure bonds with our caregivers and those we care for. It is undeniable that loving relationships, especially from the beginning, form the foundation for growth and development on every level. So it would seem that creating a family (especially under privileged circumstances) would have the potential to grow our capacity for resilient health and sense of well being like nothing else.
Yet, what seems to be happening is that the women who are providing so much are not feeling buoyed and empowered by the central and powerful role they hold in their family and society at all, but are feeling the fall out of that, big time.
The demands of motherhood are meant to be relentless, so that we bond with our babies and make our families (including ourselves, our partners, and our most intimate relationships) one of the highest priorities in our life. From this lens, the unending feeding, caring, and providing for every need for a baby becomes a transformation for the whole system. The couple become parents, and a family is born: all the resources between them start building out the bonds and attachments between them all, nurturing another human into the world. It is beautiful, and fucking intense.
Why woman are paying the price of this intensity in their bodies and minds today is a result of a combination of forces that I think has created a perfect storm for women’s health to suffer a great deal. The convergence of these issues is making it hard to thrive as mothers:
~Increased responsibility for our children’s emotional and mental well being (as a result of decades of excellent research and information coming out of the fields of psychology, child development, attachment, physiological psychology, and neuroscience).
~Increased responsibilities outside the home (as more mothers generate income that support their families now).
~Increased value on independence and self reliance in our society (which we have internalized).
~Increased demands on our marital partnerships with little to no real understanding of how to utilize our primary relationship more effectively for our own health and well being and that of our families.
There are always individual and personal factors and history that will add in to this soupy mixture, but as I work with women and couples, and my own psychology and marriage, I see these issues surface again and again.
So how do we mitigate these forces so that our health and well being are preserved, so that we could possibly thrive amidst the growth and development of strong loving relationships as we are built to do?
Well, I’ll try and answer that.
As far as I can tell, the responsibility to be a more psychologically informed parent isn’t going anywhere. We live in a time and place where we have the luxury to worry about our child’s psychological development. For those of us that are beyond survival issues (and that is a LOT of us over here in the western world) we now face different challenges as we raise our families. We have to educate ourselves and become advocates for our children’s (and all children’s, in my view) growth, development, and well being. We have the information and resources available to us to do this now. Ultimately, our entire society will move forward emotionally, relationally, and socially if we implement what we are coming to know through psychology, somatic understanding, and neuroscience today in our families, schools, and institutions.
Increased responsibilities outside the home aren’t going anywhere either. Ideally, mothers (and fathers) would have more support to postpone their obligations and careers outside of their family for much longer than the few weeks most families get in this country. In the meantime, we have to get creative (as families and as a society) about how to support families better so that a mother’s stress (and thus, the family’s stress) is managed better. That means advocating for flexible schedules, creating new agreements between spouses about changes in roles and responsibilities, using family and community support, somehow spreading out the duties so they don’t primarily fall on the one who is most responsible for growing the little humans. There are obvious institutional obstacles but we need to push for change here in our own lives and for other families.
Now, for the more accessible though not “easier,” changes: the ones within us. Placing a high value on independence is an aspect we can really do something significant about in ourselves, right now. We can look at how we became attached to our self reliant identities, and honestly see how much we struggle to let others in to witness us, care for us, and just fucking help. I’m not talking about practitioners we hire to help us, either, though I know how crucial real professional help can be. I’m going beyond that and talking about our friends, families, and spouses. The people doing life with us. We can start to see the limitations of going it alone, figuring it all out on our own, holding the belief that we are alone. This part takes some deeper introspection and support to shift, but our psychological stances are moveable and shapeable. We just have to address them honestly and make the incremental changes through our actions that will inform new experiences so we can generate new information to live from.
Ok, it doesn’t happen overnight, but our inner beliefs and paradigms can evolve if we attend to them more closely.
The last issue of how to really utilize our intimate relationships is also one we can move the needle on, big time. There is a world of possibility in front of us when we have another grown human standing there with us, ready to live life alongside us. Turning towards that relationship and using it to generate energy, creativity, and new possibilities will take us way beyond all the great things that self reliance promised–but could never deliver. It is vulnerable and humbling to admit we need each other, but lets face it, we do. And when we get real with this truth, we have created a doorway into a new source of energy that could change the whole world.
Or at least, one little family at a time. Which to me, is exactly the place to start.