I think it’s fair to say that each one of us enters motherhood with a set of beliefs or expectations about what it means to be a good mother. We develop these beliefs from the pressure of our communities and society as a whole, the experiences with our own parents, and through the expectations of friends, family, and media. These outside influences can have so much power and influence over us that when we finally do become mothers ourselves, it is unbearably difficult to listen to our own ideas of what this “good mom” thing is all about.
So difficult, in fact, that anxiety, depression, and overwhelming emotion can latch on like crazy to our new identity.
I want to share a brief story with you about a mom who I saw in my office this summer. This mom has given me permission to share her process around the topic of being a good mother, because it gives such a clear example of the ways in which perfectionist thinking and unachievable expectations can lead to distress.
Celia* came to my office when her baby was about four months old. She was attractive, articulate, and also very scared by the unpleasant thoughts and anxieties she had been feeling since her baby was born. Celia described sleepless nights of worry, her lack of appetite, fear and insecurity about being alone with her baby, and the pure distress that was accompanying early motherhood. She told me, through tears and obvious guilt, that she was having very scary thoughts of hurting her baby or herself, thoughts that terrified her, she said, because she did not want her baby or herself to be hurt. Celia felt that her thoughts and emotions were out of control and that she was going “crazy.” She described a traumatic delivery in which an emergency C-Section led her to believe that she would not make it through alive. “I realized that I needed to be willing to give up my life for my baby,” she said.
When Celia’s symptoms were being managed through a combination of medication and therapy support, we began the process of identifying beliefs about motherhood that might be adding to her distress. I have an exercise that I do with moms in my office that asks them to write down all the things that they believe go into being a “good enough” mom. Celia’s first list looked like this:
A “good enough” mom:
- Loves her child unconditionally
- Never hurts her child
- Always does what is best for child
- Always puts child’s needs before her own
- Always wants to be around her child
- Should always feel that the most important thing in the world is her child
- Should always be willing to give up anything for her child
- Should be happy staying home with her kids all day
- Never resents her child
- Should feel the only thing she needs in her life to feel happy is her child
- Should completely define herself as a person though motherhood
- Shouldn’t feel bored spending time with her child
- Should feel happy and overjoyed every time she looks at her child
- Should never think about how enjoyable her life was before kids
- Should be able to handle kids all day without needing breaks (luxury)
- Shouldn’t feel unhappy at night when up with her child
As I said to Celia at the time, this list makes me anxious when reading it, and so I can only imagine what it must have felt like to her to believe that all of these things were a necessary part of mothering.
They make it hard to breathe.
Helping her realize this did not take long, and Celia was quick to acknowledge that, when writing these beliefs about motherhood down, these expectations looked high. When I asked her where she learned them, she said that she always believed that this is how her mom felt and what her mom believed when she was growing up. And do you know what her mom said when Celia showed her this “good mother” list? “Oh my… no mother feels this way!”
We worked through this. It was not easy for Celia to come up with a more realistic, comfortable, and fair list of what it means to be a “good enough” mom, but once she was able to really examine what she believes, she came up with this:
A good mother, often called a Good Enough Mom, does her best to:
- Teach her child how to live life to the fullest
- Be there for her children when they need her
- Teach her child the importance of self-worth
- Provide food, shelter, and love
- Be a good example to her children
- Make time to have fun with her kids
- Allow room for her children to make mistakes and learn from them
- Teach her children how to love unconditionally
Pretty big difference, right?
No shoulds, shouldn’ts, always’, or nevers.
Celia is doing much better. She has not had a panic attack in some time and her scary thoughts have decreased. She is more able to access feelings of hope and optimism and she is enjoying her baby more. Her medication is helping with the biochemical imbalances that added to her symptoms of postpartum anxiety and OCD and her more realistic idea of what it means to be a good mother to her kiddo has taken some of the pressure off.
We all do this. Each of us enters motherhood with some idea of what we “should” do in this new and often overwhelming role, what a good mother is. While many of those things may be entirely appropriate, many others may be entirely unachievable .
I encourage you to ask yourselves what is it that you believe goes into being a “good enough” mom to your kiddo sand to write down your own list. Take note of the “shoulds” and the “always’” and whether or not you are noting ideas that are truly yours or whether they are someone else’s (breastfeeding your baby vs providing nutritious food whenever possible might be a good example), or your assumptions of someone else’s.