Chapter One

Motherhood: The Most Demanding Job, Ever


Supermom is loving but firm. She listens, then acts. She's sensitive but in control. Supermom of the Millennium is supportive but encourages independence. She's informed and active, attentive to her children's needs. She nurtures her own needs as well. She's involved, soft, strong, capable, and mature. She's an emotional giant. She always knows the right thing to do and does it all perfectly. Whether she stays at home or works outside her home, her life is totally in order. She never misses a beat. She is the standard of success. Hers is the image to which many women compare themselves. No wonder they feel so bad!

Telling yourself that you have to be Supermom is like telling yourself that you need to look like a high-fashion model: it's possible, given the right natural endowments, but it's not realistic for most of us. It's ridiculous and self-destructive to hold yourself to such impossibly high standards. Society must let go of the notion that there is only one way to be a good mom. Motherhood is an extremely complicated role--so complex, in fact, that achieving perfection and always being right are simply impossible. Every mother makes mistakes, because mothers are only human.

There are many functional, loving approaches to motherhood. It is up to each woman to develop her own style and to follow her heart. When society promotes diversity, there will be no shame in not conforming to one particular ideal. Women will be able to feel selfesteem and self-acceptance because they have differences, sprung from an individual vision of what is right and good. Each woman can define her own model for mothering and drop self-blame for falling short of some unattainable ideal.

Given this demanding job of motherhood, you need to give yourself a break emotionally. If you were undertaking any other equally stressful job, you would allow time to learn what you need to know. As a popular new baby card quips, you will encounter joy, wonder, and lack of sleep.

The Wide Range of "Normal" Postpartum Adjustment

We want to educate women and their families about the wide range of feelings that are possible after the birth of a baby. This book was written for two reasons. Reason number one is to let you know that having a baby is a tough adjustment: feeling lost or down or nervous is as understandable (and as likely) as tears of joy when you gaze upon your sleeping infant. After accepting that, reason number two naturally follows: if this immense, demanding job looms ahead of you, learning to take care of yourself will be key to surviving and thriving in the job. We want not only to firmly burn into your brain the necessity of tending to your own needs; we also want to teach you how to balance self-care with the demands of a family.

When you ask women what their postpartum adjustment period is like, you will hear a wide range of answers. Some new mothers feel wonderful, in charge, and confident. Some feel giddily in love, obsessed with this new being. Others report feeling just plain rotten. Look at this list of feelings mentioned by women in a new mothers' group:

"I am so irritable. I am full of awe. I cry all the time. I can't sleep. I am so in love. I can't get going. I can't think straight. I feel so worried. I am so bored. I can't feel anything. I have scary thoughts. I am ecstatic. I grieve for my old life. I feel like a failure. I feel so alone. I feel so nervous. I feel obsessed with the baby. I feel I've made a huge mistake."

We understand how difficult such a mix of feelings can be when you expected a glowing life. We know, first as women and mothers and then as psychologists, the sense of guilt and failure when having that new baby in your life feels less than wonderful. In our work as psychologists, we've seen the relief in women's faces when their negative feelings are validated. Women feel crazy for having negative feelings. They feel deficient and abnormal and ashamed. If it were possible to put a big motherly hug into words, that's what we'd do for every postpartum mom who opens this book. In the words of Jane Honikman, founder of Postpartum Support International, we want you to know that you are not alone, you are not to blame, and you can feel better.

Why do you hear so little about negative postpartum emotions? Part of the answer is that society still wants to believe that new motherhood is nothing but wonderful. Women who have negative feelings in the postpartum period are afraid to talk. They feel as if something is wrong with them or that they'll be rejected by family or friends if they come clean about how they feel. They may not want to scare or worry other new mothers. This, combined with shame for their negative feelings, means that postpartum mothers don't even confide very much about their worst fears to other women. But a look at the statistics confirms how common postpartum reactions are. Researchers often find widely varied answers when they poll new mothers about their feelings. Generally, however, it appears that from fifty to eighty percent of all new mothers experience some short-lived negative feelings that can be classified as "the blues." Probably ten to twenty percent of new mothers have longer-lasting and more upsetting bouts of negative feelings. Postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and panic clinical conditions fall in this range, with ten to twenty new mothers out of every one hundred experiencing some of these difficulties. Finally, only one or two out of every one thousand new mothers actually experiences the most extreme clinical condition: postpartum psychosis.


© 2010 A. Dunnewold & D. Sanford