Motherhood. Motherhood is one of the most complex experiences I can imagine. It is full of emotional highs and lows, physical sacrifice, joy, and pain. It changes a woman. Literally, it biologically changes a woman’s brain.
When I was a teenager and would come home late I would find myself amazed at my mother’s super-sonic hearing. I would barely step on a floorboard and she would snap awake. She once told me, “Once you have kids, you never sleep the same.” I recently learned that this is actually true on a neurological level.
There is a bundle of neurons in the brain called the amygdala which is responsible for processing our emotional drives for survival. The amygdala drives emotional reactions aimed at ensuring our survival (fight, flight, or freeze). The amygdala actually grows in the time after a woman gives birth. It’s the reason why a woman may be hypersensitive to the cry of infant at 3 in the morning when her partner is snoozing away and doesn’t hear a thing. Her brain has literally changed to be hypersensitive and motivated to meet the needs of her child.
And while the biological changes that can occur during childbirth are incredible, they are not a prerequisite for motherhood because conceiving and giving birth are not prerequisites for motherhood.
There are millions of incredible women who are mothers to those whom they do not share DNA with. The act of giving birth does not make one a mother, nor does raising a child from infancy to adulthood.
Motherhood is a loaded word, and it is far more than biology.
Motherhood astounds me. It is a daily act of self-sacrifice, devotion, nurturing, unconditional support, daily compassion, and presence. Sure, some days look better than others, but I am of the belief that most moms are doing the best that they can.
I never understood all that was wrapped up in motherhood, and not being a mother myself, I still don’t.
I do, however, find myself amazed on a daily basis in working with pregnant and postpartum moms, observing the monumental changes that many make, the way that life is prioritized differently, the worries, the guilt, the grief, the hope, the optimism, the love...so much occurring before a woman even meets her child.
As an adult, I’m amazed when I think about my own mom and how she balanced climbing the ranks in her career, picking us up if we were sick while my dad worked out of town for several years, and taking care of all things on the home front, all while never missing a tennis match or soccer game. Superhuman is the word that comes to mind. She was always in motion, meeting our needs or meeting the needs of others. I don’t know how she did it.
Motherhood is letting go.
And while I am not a mother, the unifying thread I observe in motherhood is the daily practice (not necessarily by choice) of letting go. Motherhood is one of the deepest yearnings in my heart, and I don’t know what it will look like. I do know that the things that I’ve been attempting to do towards these ends have shined a light on my own control issues and underscore how every aspect of motherhood, even before one conceives, is an act of letting go.
Motherhood is the ultimate act of releasing control. You can do all the right things and still have no control over the outcome.
All of the organic foods, positive parenting strategies, and structures set up to ensure safety do not mean that things will happen according to our plans. Kids fall and break bones, people in the world will inevitably hurt our children, and we may not be able to have children biologically or navigate the barriers that can come with adoption.
I was talking this week to a midwife about the pressures mothers place on themselves, particularly those who are struggling to conceive. She poignantly said, “One of the best things a woman can do is to take the pressure off of herself.”
The million-dollar question is “How?”
For some it's daily acceptance that control is an illusion. For others its reliance on their higher power, and for others a moment to moment practice of asking, "What am I trying to control? It's not mine to control."
The BS of Mom-Shame
There is a very real phenomenon of “mom shame”. Every single mom I have talked to whether pregnant, post-partum, or those who have been mothers for years or decades have experienced it. It’s the deep and enduring sense of absurd expectations and shame a woman faces regarding her role as a mother.
From “I just don’t feel attached, and I can’t tell anyone” or “I worry all the time” to a perceived sense of failure in not breastfeeding or in returning to work... women are constantly taking on the expectations of others and society. It leaves one feeling like they are chasing their proverbial tail.
Women struggling with fertility issues feel a deep sense of shame as if there is “something wrong” with them. There is a sense of “not being enough” or of being somehow “defective”. None of these thoughts could be further from the truth, yet many of us take this sentiment on as gospel.
I see it daily. I feel it daily. We are forced to reckon with our perceived own shortcomings and wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”
The shame is real. The pain is real.
One amazing mother I know told me how she struggled with mom-shame when she wasn’t able to breastfeed. She could sense a feeling of condescending judgment when other women would react with, “Oh...you’re not breastfeeding?”
And let’s not even talk about single-mothers, who are arguably some of the most inspiring and super-human women on the planet, or amazing mothers in the LGBTQIA community. Anything outside of the hetero-normative nuclear family box is placed under scrutiny.
A Mother's Needs
Many women feel trapped and lost in the liminal space between meeting the needs of her children, her family, and meeting her own needs, with the latter placed on the back-burner. There is a real sense of lost identity, as women give all of themselves to meet the needs of their children, and in doing so begin to feel lost.
It’s a limbo that few discuss. The balance between what is right for the children and what is right for mom. The shame that a woman feels if she goes to work to meet her family’s needs or simply because she enjoys working is very real. It’s a catch-22, and no one comes out the victor.
Motherhood is not for the faint of heart.
It’s an amazing thing. It’s not rational, and I think that’s what so beautiful about it.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own experience. Some as mothers, some as children, some who did not have a mother, and some who had mothers by name only, not by presence.
I can only speak to my experience. And it is one of gratitude, love, and admiration. After a bad day or a painful experience, my mom is the first one I call. No matter how old I get, I’m forever grateful the relationship I have with my mother. She is my rock in many ways and I love her deeply. I am fortunate to say the same about my mother-in-law.
Feeling Pain on Mother’s Day
I want to close by acknowledging that Mothers Day can be a painful holiday for those who have lost children, those who have miscarried, those struggling to conceive, for those who have lost their own mothers, and for those who never experienced love or nurturing from their own mothers.
Wherever you find yourself on this day, be it in celebration, in mourning, in frustration, in isolation...know that you are not alone.