I was “warned” about a lot of things as I embarked on pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, from well meaning people. But it never felt good to be warned about how tired I would be, how I would have no time for myself, how hard my infant, toddler, preteen or adolescent would be to parent, or how much my life would change (not for the better).
I became a mother at 35, with very few motherhood fantasies to begin with. I knew it would be hard—that wasn’t something I needed drilled into my head, and I wasn’t really worried about that, either. There was something I would have loved to hear more about, however, that would have helped me prepare on some level for the changes coming once I was a mother: expect to be rewired by mothering.
It’s true that motherhood can change you into a fundamentally different person, with not only a different brain, nervous system, and body, but different values, feelings, convictions, ways of being, perspectives, and views on everything in life. I mean, it makes sense that becoming a parent will change us. Bringing life into the world, and being completely responsible for that life, is such a huge endeavor that we no doubt will be transformed by the process. Not to mention all the subtle shifts that happen within us as we parent, as we engage in the process of building a relationship with someone from the ground up. A relationship where we are ultimately responsible for their overall well being from day one, day in and day out, and evolves for decades. This relational experience inevitably changes who we are in a deep and lasting way.
Parenthood activates and builds out parts of our brain that are entirely new and different than before having children. And, if you are parenting through an attachment science informed lens, the rewiring is even more obvious—especially if you did not experience secure attachment in your own childhood. When you are providing something you didn’t really get, you will be challenged, confronted, very uncomfortable, and at times also in awe of the power, depth, and complexity of our relationships with our kids.
Those who embark on utilizing the insights from the science and research in the field of attachment theory may find themselves overwhelmed at times, because the capacities that must be cultivated to create security are no small thing. These parents are continually piecing together the stories and experiences of their own life and finding their authentic path to parenting based on a coherent understanding of their own significant life and relationship events. The ongoing self reflection, personal responsibility, and attunement to a child’s inner life that is required to support secure attachment is significant, complex, and nuanced. The focus on being sensitive, soothing, and supportive caregivers that also can regulate intense sympathetic and parasympathetic (which are even harder to regulate) states in their dependent and not fully developed children is a major energetic, relational, and emotional undertaking.
All of my ideas about myself and my identity, as well as my fears about mothering and parenthood, were based on who I was before giving birth, before going through this attachment overhaul. When I contemplated motherhood while pregnant, I was worried about things like losing my autonomy with my career, and losing time for and with myself. Today, 12 years into motherhood, I see these fears as those of a solo person moving through the world who worked hard for a sense of autonomy and independence, who really valued those aspects of herself and her life, and was understandably anxious when on the precipice of deep inter-dependency.
But none of my pre-motherhood fears made sense as I made my way into motherhood, and the grip on my independence relaxed as I delved into the powerful interconnectedness I shared with my kids and husband. This can be a really scary shift, especially from being so self oriented in our early adulthood (as we should be). As my individual identity expanded and made room for these relationally intense endeavors like partnership and parenting, my former individually oriented fears dissolved into new and more complex questions, concerns, and observations about “us.” My fears of “losing myself” in my family life evolved into a pursuit to more deeply know myself in relationship. Relationships that involve dependency make life more complex, rich, anxiety provoking, and demanding, yet also reveal aspects of ourselves (from very unworked to stunningly beautiful) that we could never have known without those relationships.
Today, I no longer fear the loss of solitude, but at times do fear the idea of losing connection and intimacy with my children. I don’t fear the loss of my career momentum anymore, but do fear the time my career could take away from being with my family if I don’t have my priorities clear. I have relied on my relationship with my husband in ways I have never allowed myself to rely on someone (he depends a great deal on me as well), despite before parenting feeling so independent and capable of taking care of myself. We have grown so much over time, together and as individuals, which has enabled such depth between us, and also brought forth new vulnerabilities and challenges to navigate, as well.
I understand that on an existential level we are all alone, and I want to be in relationship with myself, my internal foundation, and inner life. Yoga, meditation, therapy, time in nature, writing, as well as my meaningful and deep relationships, all help keep me connected within. They also support me being connected to myself so that I can be present with others, too—at the same time. That practice of being with me and you at the same time, of holding and caring for both of us at once, is relational security in action.
These insights about the depth and importance of my relationships, and how to be fully myself within them, were not available to me prior to motherhood. Providing a relational sanctuary for my kids has deeply changed my values and outlook in life. How I view relationships is fundamentally different now, as I too get to experience the power of feeling safe and secure, of being with myself and the ones I love in a deeper and more complex way. The reality of how relationally intwined we all are is very apparent to me.
Something I love about having a more relational view of life is how when I see an ecosystem–be it a school, a forest, a farm, or a family–is that I can’t help but see how each element or individual is contingent on the next. How each one matters, to the whole system’s health and well being. Since allowing myself to be immersed in connection, I can’t see anything but that. Seeing how intertwined we are makes everything more complex and paradoxical, awesome and beautiful.
So back to this idea of “warning” new parents. What if us seasoned parents INVITED new parents into something good, something greater, than what they currently know and understand? Into an enhanced perspective on themselves and life, one that has expanded (and not shrunk) because of the enormous responsibility of raising humans. What if we all continued to see the possibilities to grow and evolve beyond our current versions of ourselves, through the transformative power of showing up in a big way for our most important relationships?