Last summer, my parents and I got into a conversation about modern motherhood. They (and probably anyone from a previous generation) were shocked to learn—literally, their jaws were agape—that many mothers today experience a wide range of mental and physical health problems post partum. It was like I was telling them I was going on the next mission to Mars: they just could not understand.
They both acknowledged how raising a family has never been easy, has always been extremely demanding and exhausting. But how, they wondered, could it be today, with all of our societal progress, that post partum issues are a widespread health concern for women?
“But women have so many more choices today than we did, or our mothers did.” They both concurred. “You all have it so much better.”
In many ways my parents are right, mothers today do have it better. A lot better.
But in other ways, we’re getting schooled.
We all know that women have access to more resources, education, and income opportunities than probably ever before in history. Many of us can choose motherhood, or not. We can choose how we raise and structure our family and our lives. These choices are not free from external judgment and criticism, or inner conflict, but at least we have them, right? We also have decades of research on child development and psychology at our fingertips online. We listen to podcasts and audiobooks on parenting and motherhood from experts in attachment, post partum health, and women’s empowerment.
Women today are super informed. And, we’re also super stressed.
Many of the most privileged of women today are experiencing stress levels that continue to climb. We live in an era where women struggle with health concerns disproportionately to men in areas like autoimmune diseases and other chronic health conditions (which are largely stress related) especially in the post partum years. Instead of feeling empowered through the variety of roles we can inhabit today, and the resources to inform and educate ourselves, many mothers feel overwhelmed, drained, and in desperate need of a break.
More choices, more information, more roles we want to inhabit, are not making our lives any easier on us.
Without the support of society to back us up (such as adequate post partum health care physically and psychologically, paid and adequate maternity leave, ongoing emotional and relational support for the parents) in our choices to parent from an attachment informed stance, to continue to work post partum, or live and educate our kids in an alternative way, women’s bodies bear the brunt of the stress of having more roles to fulfill without the social infrastructure that would support it.
Yes, it is going to take time and effort to keep moving society forward on women and their family’s behalf. In the meantime, what is it that mothers need in order to navigate the many roles, psychological information and pressures, and lack of societal resources for families that is our reality today?
Dan Siegel MD, a psychiatrist and one of the world’s leading experts on attachment and the nature of mind, has a concept that speaks to a capacity we can cultivate from within that could help. Siegel calls this an “internal compass.” According to him, an internal compass is one of the most important things we can help our children develop: a way of sensing themselves that gives them emotional equanimity, access to meaningful relationships, and the capacity to be resilient and creative in the face of life’s challenges.
Sounds super fucking important to me.
The compass applies to us, as mothers, too. In order to be able to choose wisely for ourselves and our families from the growing menu of life, to face the current stresses of our times socially and politically, to navigate the multitude of roles we each hold in our own lives today with very little outside help, we must know ourselves well from the inside first.
Going inside and listening—to our own heart beat, gut feelings, perceptions, and beliefs—is not the norm. Many of us struggle to simply know the difference between anxiety and intuition. Sometimes, we would rather find answers outside of us, where advice and endless “shoulds” are readily available. It seems easier to mimic an image of the woman or mother who might make us feel happy, than to be who one is, with all of her feelings, preferences, paradoxes, and wisdom.
The challenge in cultivating our internal compass is navigating the minefield of agendas that everyone has for us—well meaning parents, caring friends, wise mentors, parenting experts, our former selves, and even our feminist foremothers. Essentially, we must chart our own path, initiated from within, and sourced by our own intuition, senses, and felt experiences. We can encourage each other with this, as it helps to have relationships that support us in bringing our truths to fruition.
And guess what? You don’t have to meditate for years or sit on a mountain for months to hear the deeper parts of yourself. If nothing else, through mothering, the door to deeper listening has opened. The kind of listening involved in mothering our children cultivates our capacity to listen with all of our senses—not only to our babies, but ourselves, too. Through mothering, not apart from it, we can learn how to listen deeply.
Mothering from within is a manifestation of our capacity to listen to something beyond the mind, beyond ideas, and beyond rational thinking. Mothering in this way, with our intuition steering us, isn’t “perfect,” but it is empowering.
A sense of empowerment supports our overall health and well being. We do not become empowered from trying to uphold an image, or go through the motions of someone we think we should be, but are not. We do not become empowered just because we lead a privileged life. Empowerment comes from knowing our inner values and acting in alignment with them. We need to have a connection to ourselves in an experiential way to do this.
To those generations of mothers before me, the ones that had it hard in other ways than me, I thank you. You did not have the luxury or permission to consider your own experience deeply, let alone have access to tools that would support you. Thank you for paving the way for us to have more options and freedom to choose our roles and way within our lives.
We are living in different times, where the only way to find our way is to locate ourselves, first. There is so much coming at us, and if we don’t know ourselves well we will get lost in the undertow of judgments, expectations, shoulds, and social media fascades.
To the generation of mothers I stand with now: may we stay connected to ourselves as we find our way with our multilayered roles and desires for ourselves. Not only will our own mental, emotional, and physical health benefit, but our children will benefit greatly from observing (and thus learn for themselves) us use our internal compass to relate to the complexity of our current situation as women. And then imagine how the world would change if we all used an internal compass to navigate our feelings, relationships, and the challenges that life inevitably will bring us all.