Maternal bliss is a myth. Not that it never happens or there aren’t moments of it, but the idea that it is a given and natural state for all new mothers is simply not accurate. In fact, that very idea has done great harm to many women and their families.
Having a child is a huge change in many ways. There is, of course, the new addition of a tiny infant who is totally dependent on its parents and requires almost constant attention, day and night. This is a major shift in a woman’s focus each day. Many women struggle with what this means for them when they return to work or when they decide not to return to work. Finances are often strained. Then there are the hormonal shifts that occur with childbirth and breastfeeding. And all of these changes frequently cause a strain in primary and other significant relationships of mothers as they adjust to their new life. Such personal, biological, and social changes are all part of this major transition.
When new mothers expect that they’ll enter a state of bliss once their baby is born – and then don’t, they begin to wonder what is wrong with them. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist who works with pregnant and postpartum women, says that she has fielded hundreds of calls from women with these concerns. In her brief Ted Talk, A new way to think about the transition to motherhood, Sacks explains that women can benefit from understanding motherhood as a transition, much like adolescence, that she calls “matrescence”. The identities of new mothers are in flux as they have hormonal and bodily changes.
Dr. Sacks talks about the “push and pull” that new mothers often experience. They have an increase in the hormone oxytocin that heightens the connection they feel with their baby, pulling their attention toward them. Meanwhile, their minds push away as they are conscious of the aspects of themselves that are getting lost. They remember their identity in relation to many parts of their lives, such as work, other relationships, and hobbies. They are also aware of their physical needs, such as sex, eating, and sleeping. So, they enter an emotional tug-of-war. This is not postpartum depression or any other illness. It is a natural part of the transition to motherhood.
It is impossible to prepare for the unrelenting demands of motherhood, which are exhausting. With it comes the loss of personal freedom. So, mothers need support, if for no other reason than to give them some respite or to validate that their experiences are normal. But many mothers also feel isolated because their connection with their baby is so strong and requires so much attention. This makes having connections with other mothers invaluable.
Like any other part of life, being a mother is multi-dimensional, with some parts being enjoyable and others being difficult (and some being both!). Becoming a mother doesn’t just happen, but is rather a process. As Dr. Sacks said, “When a baby is born, so is a mother.” Consequently, be kind to yourself. After all, while being born is wondrous, it can also be confusing, overwhelming, and even shocking to enter a new world.
If, after considering the natural transition to motherhood, you are still concerned that you may have postpartum depression or another perinatal mood disorder (common symptoms listed here), be sure to speak with your doctor or mental health professional.