Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Moms: Motherhood and Identity Changes

Many people spend a lot of time, energy and resources on family planning and conceiving, and just as many are surprised by a new addition to the family. Regardless of how one arrives at a family, there are a lot of concrete resources like books, manuals, classes and trainings available that can help a parent-to-be feel "prepared" for the new baby's arrival. From breastfeeding to diapering to CPR to introducing a sibling, one can educate oneself about what to expect when they are expecting. However, fewer resources are available to help a new or soon-to-be parent prepare for or cope with unexpected emotional and psychological challenges a new baby may raise.
When a woman gets pregnant and has a baby, what often happens is that many unconscious emotional issues surface unexpectedly. This is supposed to happen. She now has to manage a whole new aspect of her identity - impending motherhood - and what the concept “mother” means, then has to blend that identity with her concept of herself that has developed all of her life. Pregnant women often come into well-meaning advice from family, friends, or perfect strangers about how she will lose her identity, that her whole life will change, and that she should "just wait" and "take advantage" of her last few months/days/moments of freedom and life as she knows it. Disguised as a tongue-in-cheek warning of impending doom, what these women offer is a glimpse into identity alteration as a new mother. Based on research in the psychological and social work domains, a new mother’s identity is shown shift in a very real and unexpected way. This does not mean, though, that becoming a mother erases one’s known, established, familiar identity and plunges her into a foreign world that is uncomfortable or undesirable. It just adds another level of identity that, with some thoughtfulness and emotional processing, can be merged into a cohesive whole.

Psychoanalytic theorist, Daniel Stern, introduced the concept of the “motherhood constellation” in his book The Motherhood Constellation: a unified view of parent-infant psychotherapy (1995). His theory is that when a woman first becomes a mother, she begins to reevaluate her identity and, insodoing, she reevaluates her concept of motherhood. From the woman’s perspective, this can be initially upsetting and often disorienting, as the “warnings” from others can produce doubt and can be confusing. From this psychological perspective, the mother is working to blend her realms of experience - past, present and future. Stern noted three spheres where this evaluation takes place:  

  • Mother-to-mother: When a woman becomes a mother herself, she begins to think about what her own mother was like as a mother and begins to have an internal conversation that helps her see her mother not as a woman or wife, first and foremost, but as a mother, herself as a child, and their relationship. She has the opportunity to revisit all aspects of her early care receiving relationships, the good and the bad, reflect on them and, perhaps, put some of the less satisfying pieces to rest and integrate the more positive experiences into her budding identity as a mother.

  • Herself-as-mother: In addition to thinking of her own mother and her own childhood in a new way, from a parenting perspective, as a woman becomes a mother, she also now looks at herself in a new way. Thinking about her identity as she knows it, a new or soon-to-be mother begins to incorporate into that thoughts about her baby’s growth and development and the family unit as a whole. Generally, there is less focus on her individual career and hobbies and marriage is no longer necessarily viewed as belonging to a couple only. She thinks about the family and about her husband, less as a partner and lover and more as a father.   

  • Mother-to-baby: As she begins to think about herself in her new role and about the new elements of her identity, a woman is thinking of herself as the mother to a new baby. Practically speaking, she has to take care of the baby’s needs all the while learning about the baby, which can bring up personal insecurities, past memories of early relationships, and doubt. Can she keep the baby alive, healthy and thriving? Will her baby like her? How will she know what to do and what is best for the baby in terms of stimulation, feeding, play, etc. Can she actually do this?

This discussion is important, for many women find themselves feeling abnormal, crazy, or scared that they will lose themselves when they are shaken by the changes to their sense of self-esteem, in their understanding of who they are, and in their abilities as a person and as a parent. Many women feel alone in the way they experience this adjustment to their identity but, the truth is, this change happen to virtually all women and is completely normal. True, parenthood arouses unexpected feelings and memories and triggers different emotional reactions. Self awareness, though, can go a long way to mitigate the challenges of this new-found emotional state and identity configuration. Not every parent is the same or has to follow the path, trends or expectations of others. Parenting can become part of a person’s identity in a way that fits who they are, not as an identity of its own that is vastly different than how the parent experiences herself already. By gaining awareness and comfort in the fact that this is a natural process, it can serve to normalize the experience and make it seem not so scary, unique, or foreign. By talking about this phenomenon - having an internal dialog, sharing her thoughts with her partner a trusted friend or even a mental health professional - a woman can build confidence in herself as a person and parent as her roles and identities begin to integrate into a whole that feels right for her.

Note: Fathers-to-be go through a similar identity re-formation process. Part of this experience includes thinking about themselves in relation to their own fathers and themselves as more than just a partner but as a caretaker and provider. More on this topic in coming posts.

Posted by Andrea Hohf, LSW