Life is a series of transitions. Childhood is full of them, and adulthood is marked by many of its own—going from living at home to living on your own, from student to professional, from single to married, from nonparent to parent, and many others. All transitions are challenging and require us to develop new skills, abilities, and emotional capacities. Sometimes they stretch us beyond what we imagine is possible. All cause us to grow.
Parenthood might just be the most challenging transition of all. It is a transition that requires a person to assume total responsibility for a living being who is completely and totally dependent upon others for his or her survival. That’s a lot of pressure, and it requires making significant life changes.
More specifically, the transition to motherhood is fraught with biological challenges, double standards, and no-win situations. Women experience the physical stress of carrying the baby, delivering the baby, and significant hormonal upheaval. If they chose to breastfeed, they have to either be with their baby nearly all of the time or excuse themselves regularly to pump. If they choose not to, or cannot, breastfeed, they are often shamed and called selfish.
Moms who choose to stay home with their babies are often disparaged as “just staying home,” and moms who go back to work are often disparaged for not caring enough about their babies. Moms who work outside of the home often still shoulder the bulk of child care and household responsibilities. It seems that however a woman decides to approach motherhood, there is an overwhelming amount of work and judgment.
Chirlane McCray, New York City’s “first lady,” recently gave an interview in which she was quite candid about how challenging she found her own transition to motherhood. It was heartfelt and authentic, and she was lambasted. Several subsequent pieces came out in support of McCray, but the damage may have already been done. Many women who read her words probably thought, “Yes! This is what I am experiencing. Maybe it’s OK for me to talk about this.” How many of those women still felt like talking about their authentic experiences after seeing the backlash that rewarded McCray’s honesty?
The vicious response seems particularly damaging because McCray’s experience as a new mom 20 years ago (i.e., pre-“first lady” status) is probably closer to the typical new mom’s experience than the other stories of new moms featured in mainstream media. The stories of motherhood that we typically hear about are those of celebrities. Their messages are carefully crafted by public relations professionals and image consultants. They have the resources to hire small armies of support staff, from nannies and personal assistants to personal trainers and chefs. All of this support and message crafting yields a completely unrealistic representation of motherhood. Yet, the implicit message to women goes something like this: you must absolutely love everything about being a mother, you must look thin and fashionable, and you must have an exciting career but not be away from home too much. If you don’t, you are failing.
Women need to be able to be honest about their experiences as mothers and not be judged for it. The sleeplessness, exhaustion, physical and hormonal changes, and the sheer weight of the responsibility are enough for new moms to deal with. They should not also be tasked with keeping the stress, anxiety, sadness, and sometimes even desperation to themselves, while acknowledging only the joy, pride, and deep love they have for their baby. New moms should not be expected to expend valuable and taxed emotional resources hiding their full, authentic experience.
New moms, speak the truth of your experiences of motherhood and give yourself permission to ask for what you need and want. Loved ones of new moms, listen without judgment and help when and where you can.
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