Any woman who becomes a mother for the first time will evidently go through a radical change. Life as she knew it is no longer the same. The addition of a child to any couple will naturally change that relationship forever in some way or another.
Not only are the parents forced to adjust to a new way of relating to each other, each partner is also transitioning into a new role: parent. To care for and nurture an infant child day in and day out is a whole new learning experience for most people. While men confront a new identity as a father and have to adjust to that role (and indeed may feel this transition as intensely as their female counterpart), it is a decidedly differently experience than what most women undergo.
For women the shift to motherhood can be an extreme change, equally demanding and difficult (both physically and emotionally). Most new mothers take to this new role with immense joy and exuberance, although those who struggle with the experience may suffer too much shame to talk about it. Post Partum depression is real but often silently stigmatized. Mothers in such a situation might then be isolated, having few if any outlets to talk about their challenges and feelings.
There are many factors that make new motherhood something of a whirlwind, but there is no denying the changes to one’s internal (and often external) self. Life suddenly has new limitations. Freedom, responsibility and opportunities take on whole new meaning. Every single decision a mother now makes must take another human being into account: one’s child(ren). Children come first because that’s not only what is demanded, but because it is (usually) a mother’s instinct. This is what we are supposed to do … and what we are told to do. In most cases, it is what we want to do. We sacrifice our former lives out of love, compassion and care.
But what is the cost of motherhood to our womanhood? What slips away from us when we become mothers? We live in a world with (almost) equal opportunities as men – so we are told. We are also lead to believe that we are strong … feminists … doers … movers and shakers. So what happens then to the many women who give up their old selves when they become mothers? It’s as if they kiss that woman good-bye and let her drift away into the ocean … only to find that one day she wants her back! Or perhaps she never discovered the woman inside of herself before becoming a mother, but now yearns to find her at this point in her life. Who is she and what does she represent?
First, let me explain to you what I mean when I say a woman gives up, loses, or displaces her old self after becoming a mother. This may happen with intention, automatically, or with great difficulty. But it happens, and it happens to all women because, let’s face it, we take on a new role that demands a whole lot of us! However, the degree and intensity to which it happens varies greatly among women.
In my experience, the typical indicator of a woman giving herself up to motherhood is when her life choices, plans, and goals begin to solely revolve around her children. It’s a wonderful and beautiful thing to always be available to your children, to want the best (and help deliver that) for them, and to dedicate your life to them. However, with that commitment undoubtedly comes worry and anxiety that is projected onto children. It also often (almost abruptly) takes the mother’s focus away from her spouse, or she recruits him or her into the process and the energy of the family goes mostly into the children, and NOT into the marriage. The marriage is put on the back burner, and as years fly by (as they always do with children), the couple ends up in a distanced or conflictual relationship. Children often become the third leg in such circumstances. They stabilize the underlying marital anxiety. This can be a natural symptom of the transition in priorities: a coping mechanism that redirects the attention away from core issues/unresolved problems in a marriage onto something or someone else.
It may be hard to avoid this happening if there is such a dramatic shift of focus from the couple onto the children. Again, this is often not something that is decided, it simply happens automatically or is an unspoken shift. Gender roles, societal pressures, and socioeconomic and cultural expectations may also play a part in how this type of process unfolds. Women generally take on more of the nurturing role when it comes to rearing children, and many would argue women are born to be “caretakers” more than men. However, I wonder what the cost may be for mothers in the long run if they end up willingly (or unwillingly) stuck in a predominately maternal role and over time lose sight of who they are outside of that role. I notice this when I see (mostly newish) mothers who come to therapy, desperately trying to recapture more balance in themselves and their marriages.
Another frequent topic is the “debate” between the working mother and the stay at home mother … I’ve been both and I’ve heard countless versions of the different experiences, the advantages and disadvantages, of these archetypes. Our natural tendency is to believe that the grass is greener on the other side, but the truth is it often is just a fantasy, that equal or greater frustration may lie in those other shoes. Both roles have their ups and downs, and both have their challenges as well as their limitations. If we compare the two, we are talking apples and oranges. But both are fruit … whether a working mother or a stay at home mother, a mother is a mother. No matter what, the expectations, duties, and dedication to raising good children are the same.
Yet it may be fair to say that working mothers do maintain more of an identity outside their role as a mother, and tend to gain more “self” in the long run. My point is not to argue that working mothers have it better than non-working mothers. Rather, it is to illustrate some general ideas that may be beneficial to both sides of the aisle – working and non-working mothers – when it comes to establishing balance between motherhood and womanhood. Let’s start with some important themes and a few reminders to consider…
You’re not just a Mother – You Have a Name too!
I still remember the first time my daughter (at the age of 3) asked me what my name is and it slightly caught me off guard that she would think of me as anyone other than her mom. But then it occurred to me how wonderful it is that she thinks of me as someone … a woman … who exists separate from being her mother. To this day she calls me by my name from time to time … often giggling and pointing out how funny it is that my name starts with a capital “O”. As sweet as it may be, it was also an important jumpstart into telling my children who I am as a woman … that I have a life outside of being mommy every day … that I have a job, interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes too! I’ve taken my children to my office, try to explain to them the work I do, why I love what I do, what inspires me, and what my personal and professional goals are. They may not understand most or any of it yet but it’s nice to be present with them as an adult who is not only just playing with them, or cleaning the food off the table and floor from their messes, or wiping their butts clean!
DONE is Better than Perfect
Women are great at being self-critical and, sadly, it is often to our detriment. This tendency only gets worse when a woman becomes a mother and responsibility (and accompanying stress) are increased across the board. Being self-critical is also one of the most effective tools of a consumer society – it keeps us (especially women) striving to maintain perfection … with our bodies … as mothers … as sex goddesses. But trying to be perfect, or doing things perfectly (like the perfect Pinterest mom/woman), is a set up for failure. It leads to false expectations and major disappointments. I am a neat freak and when I had children I learned the hard way that it was a losing battle to maintain a perfectly clean and ordered environment in my home, or to achieve all my usual tasks on time and without error. When I started to live by the mantra of DONE over PERFECT, I felt like I could breathe again (a variation of the old saying, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”). When I came to accept that accomplishing something was more important than doing it perfectly or as I would have if I had more time, this realization was a major relief and actually made me more efficient.
One silly and funny example, when I first began to realize the true meaning of “done is better than perfect”, was when I pulled a jar of minced garlic from my sister’s fridge in horror that she wouldn’t use fresh garlic… to which she (a hard working successful business woman and mother) said “who has time for that!”. To this day it makes me smile thinking about that moment. I still use fresh garlic when I cook because I love to cook (she doesn’t) but I have cut corners (or maybe it is better to say streamlined my efforts) in many other areas to my benefit.
Make Yourself a Priority
When you’re a mother, there is practically no time left to do much else but stay above water and survive the day without sinking. At least that is what many days feel like. Sleep is a luxury, alone time practically non-existent, and often we find ourselves dragging, waiting to drop into our beds when the kids are asleep. BUT, it is so CRUCIAL (I can’t emphasize this enough) to make time for yourself. And by this I mean time away from your children, and even your spouse. Exercise, go out with your girlfriends (nurture those friendships), get your nails done, go to a cafe to read a book, treat yourself to something special … whatever the outlet may be, it is worth it. This shouldn’t happen once in a blue moon, it should be a regular occurrence. It should become a way of life, even if it means hiring help for the care of your children, or insisting your spouse step up and take charge so you can break away. Don’t think of it as being selfish but more as being self-focused or living a self-fulfilled life. The more you nurture and take care of yourself, the more you have to offer as a mother, a spouse, and as a woman.
Let Go of Control!
Too often we like to be in control because it helps us manage our daily lives better. When we have children, there is much that is out of our control so we desperately try to hold on to as much as we can to manage our own anxiety. When we can control things, we feel calm(er). The problem is that it actually makes us do more and end up with more work than we really want. We become over-functioning mothers, and as a result fathers/partners (and everyone around us) end up under-functioning because of that resulting dynamic. We try to control how the parenting schedule (and our children) develop, what and when our children are fed, the time they go to sleep — and when fathers/partners try to step in they are criticized for doing it incorrectly, only later on to be told they are not doing enough! This pattern is common with new parents and often begins when mothers are initially breastfeeding. An alternative would be to let go of some of this need to control, encourage fathers/partners to be involved from the get go, and ultimately help them become responsible and equal parents. Ask for support and get comfortable with reaching out to others when needed. To let go of the mindset that you have to be in control or in charge of everything when it comes to the household and parenting takes genuine, concerted and continuing effort but it will pay off well in the long run.
Recover your Sexuality
It is no myth that when couples have children, their sex lives decrease, at least initially. In order for it not to go stale indefinitely, work needs to be put into getting your sexy back. In committed relationships, men’s desire goes down gradually but for women it plummets much faster. Esther Perel says, “for women it’s the institutionalization of the relationship, the familiarity of the partner and in particular the de-sexualization of the roles (that leads to decreasing sexual activity)… there is not much sexiness to wife and to mother.” We tend to think that women have less sex drive than men, that she loses interest in sex because a mother loses (or has lost) her sex drive.
In reality, women do not reach their sexual peak until well into their 30’s and 40’s, usually well after they have children. So, it’s not that her sex drive has diminished … in order for her to want to have sex, it has to be sex that is worth wanting! It is not that women don’t want to have sex with their partners, but the role (mother and wife) that she finds herself in that turns her off. When a woman then has the opportunity to change the plot and narrative, her hormones will follow suit!
In order for a woman to recover her sexuality, she has to feel sexy in order to have and want to have sex. Women who are mothers are often in “control” of their environment; they are constant managers, caretakers, disciplinarians, and again, strive to do things right and do them well. When it comes to sexual desire, women often want to “let go” … they want to enjoy, be free and feel pleasure. A woman essentially wants the opposite of her social role of caring for others, and feeling responsible for others. In the bedroom she needs to overcome the obstacle of that social role, of being the protector, in order to enjoy, play and have fun. It doesn’t matter how much one’s spouse/partner wants her, a woman has to be turned on herself or it makes no difference how much she is wanted. What turns women on is TO BE THE TURN ON. A big secret about women’s sexuality is that it may be immensely narcissistic…
Be Your own Turn on!
Before you ask a woman if she would make love to a man or woman, ask her if she would make love to herself. If she doesn’t want to make love to herself, she won’t let anyone else do it (or have much fun doing it) either. This is also where women get caught in the pursuit of perfection … that self-critical voice which is much harder to extinguish because it is so self-reflexive. If a woman can think about herself, she can be into it. And in order to be into it, she needs to LIKE herself … hence she can’t be in a critical voice! If she begins to think about “what she doesn’t like about herself” she will shut herself off and NOT be turned on.
Men, typically, are turned on if the woman is aroused … because if she is turned on he can relax. He knows he’s not hurting her, and the result is a beneficial, self-fulfilling cycle. Predatory fear, awkwardness, and failure to find a comfort zone are the main obstacles a man can then bypass to freely engage with a woman. If a woman likes it, he can enjoy. Perhaps that is the appeal of (most) pornography, the woman always (appears to) like the sex and never feels fear. The man then doesn’t feel inadequate, he doesn’t fear rejection or worry that she’s not into it (the 3 most internal experiences for men psychologically in sexuality) (Perel, 2016).
If women begin think about sexual desire as dependent on their relationship with themselves (not only how they relate to their spouse/partner), self-exploration into one’s internal and sexual self can take place. We must find whatever that may be for a woman: what does it take to like, love and cherish yourself enough to be your own turn on?
I hope this essay has stimulated your thoughts regarding your own experiences of motherhood, and whom and what you represent as a woman.
In my private practice I work with many women experiencing a variety of issues. If you are interested and find the need to address some of your own experiences and challenges, I am happy to guide and explore this with you. Please contact me at 305-299-9490, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Olivia Schlapfer Colmer, Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy