The Danger of Buying Into the Mythical Mother Figure
By Dr. Maria Shifrin
When I was pregnant with my first child, I had no idea what his birth would be like; and so, like a good girl, I did my research. I signed us up for Hypnobirthing, hoping to make my pregnancy and birth as anxiety-free as possible. Despite my tireless pursuit of an “ideal birth” — when the time came for my son to enter this world — the actual experience was quite traumatic. After a seemingly unremarkable labor, he entered the world with barely any vital signs. Rushed to the NICU for stabilization, and then emergency-transferred to a different hospital across Manhattan, I didn’t see my baby for the first 48 hours of his life. By some miracle that modern medicine has yet to explain, in just a short time after, he went from being all but lifeless, to thriving — and has continued to do so without any further medical intervention ever since.
Friends and family asked . . . Just how much was I was enjoying being a mom to this “little survivor?”
Once this terrifying ordeal was over, it seemed that everyone in our circle wanted to put this event in the past, and focus solely on the celebratory aspects that come with the birth of a baby. Nobody wanted to listen to my endless questions about how this could have happened to my baby in the first place. Even my OB, at the 6-week follow-up, dismissed my pursuit of answers, chalking my baby’s ordeal up to “a delayed adjustment to life outside the womb.”
Friends and family asked: Was I breastfeeding? Was he a good sleeper? Just how much was I was enjoying being a mom to this “little survivor?” Even my husband, who, after years of being married to a clinical psychologist, has developed a very intuitive mindedness, wanted to focus on the positive, and never look back. This insistence on throwing all worry under the rug was so pervasive, I eventually bought into what everyone seemed to be selling: Now that I was a mother, I needed to focus solely on caring for my baby and appreciate the good fortune of his survival.
I, too, had been sucked into a powerful group denial of all toxic feelings.
I even hid the painful memories of my son’s time in the NICU from my own therapist in the sessions I had during my son’s first year of life. But the thoughts were undeniably there, whether I wanted to say their names out loud or not: The images of the NICU staff scrambling to intubate and insert IV’s into my son’s tiny, one-hour-old body were a constant tickertape behind my eyes. At the time, I had been a psychologist at the Manhattan VA hospital, working with traumatized veterans. But it took me 18 months to confront just how traumatic my own birth experience had been, and how it was still affecting me in every area of my life. It was only after I returned to work full-time and became pregnant with my second child, that my therapist really pushed me to do the hard work of uncovering my trauma.
As a result, I began to recognize how hard everyone around me had been working to deny how dark that time had been for me, and for everyone who knew my little family. Friends, family, and others had found it so unbearable to discuss fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, and yes, death — that when it came to the topic of birth and motherhood — they avoided any negative talk altogether. I too, had been sucked into a powerful group denial of all toxic feelings. I imagined that exposing my dark side would somehow do major damage to my bond with my kids, and the thought was terrifying. No one — not even me — had allowed me to give into my most despairing thoughts.
In reality, every step of the Mother’s experience brings with it some type of internal conflict.
Mothers are constantly being pressured to deny their full range of very normal emotions in order to keep up the appearance of being the mythical Mother figure. My own traumatic birth experience and its aftermath helped me realize how this phenomenon wasn’t just unique to me. It was happening to the women around me, and happening to my patients who were mothers.
I’ve had patients who have suffered anxiety, and bouts of unexplained rage, coupled with physical symptoms like chest pressure and sleep problems — because of intense feelings of guilt and sadness about their own ambivalence about their pregnancies. I have patients who feel like what they are feeling as mothers is “wrong”, because they perceive “everyone else” to be feeling things a lot differently. One of my patients even dropped out of a fitness mommy-group because she was the most overweight of the group, and felt like she wasn’t as dedicated to health and fitness as the other moms. It turned out that most of the other moms felt just as self-conscious and no one in the group felt safe enough to discuss their individual struggles with post-baby body changes. All of the mothers in that group had resorted to forming assumptions about how easy it “should be” to drop that baby weight rather than pay attention to their inner struggles and take a risk and share.
In reality, every step of the Mother’s experience brings with it some type of internal conflict. It can be that slight tinge of regret when you see the double line because you know there’s no turning back; or that secret wish to be young and single again when your toddler is throwing themselves on the floor. If you are a mom and reading this, you know these feelings and it’s likely that you can also empathize with the almost immediate guilt or shame that follows when your subconscious accidently allows you the freedom to feel something socially unacceptable.
Just as individuals have an innate need to ward off unbearable fears, so do we as a society. There is a psychic safety in the shared belief that women morph into magical, lactating, other-worldly beings. Just as evolutionary theories tell us it is our purpose to ensure the physical survival of our species, mothers are also handed the job of the psychological survival of their infants. Imagine the sheer panic if we shared our dirty little secret: that we are totally winging it 99.9% of the time, and — contrary to popular ignorance — feeling completely out of control.
It seems we are all up against the shared societal fantasy that once you’ve given birth, you become superhuman, with a limitless capacity for patience, tolerance, and uncompromised kindness. In actuality, as you know, we continue to be human beings with needs and wishes — and the most damaging thing we can do is to fall prey to a dichotomous characterization of mothers as “all good” or “all bad” or some other arbitrary definition of what a mother “should be.”
In the years that I denied my trauma and pain, I could have been living a fuller life, and could have been more present for my children. As mothers, we need to learn how to parse out the reality that the people around us would like to project onto us, from our own truths. It is possible and very OK to feel scared, unsure, and intolerant, while still providing all the love and care our kids need. There is tremendous value in seeing ourselves as a gestalt — a sum total of all our parts — and not only the good ones. Denying the darker or messier parts of ourselves can lead to dissatisfaction and dissociation — inhibiting our ability to be truly present in our day-to-day-lives with our families. And isn’t that, after all, the ultimate goal?
Dr. Maria Shifrin is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City. A mother of two, she is a strong believer in parental mental health to help foster a well-adjusted next generation.
Image of Diana Ross and her children backstage at Palace Theatre, photographed by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images.