What a psychiatrist learned during therapy sessions with mothers

I’ve noticed a certain dilemma that enters into therapy sessions with mothers over the years. Mothers often feel in a bind and sometimes this bind distorts the way they think about their lives … or is it that their thinking distorts the way they feel? The sequence of events generally runs like this – the strong urge to have a family – the joy of being pregnant – the horror of the weight and nausea of pregnancy while working – the relief of childbirth – the love of the new baby – the stressors of a demanding life – and suddenly: the dilemma – the difficulty of sustaining active love (of anyone) in the face of stressors – ambivalence about the father – and the beginning of a struggle that determines the fate of the family. Why do these challenges occur and what can women do to ease the burden on themselves?

The perils of perfection. The first point to highlight is “self-expectations.” New mothers often expect to be perfect rather than the best that they can be. Perfection does not exist. But you can always strive to be better by making small changes. Holding yourself to a standard of perfection can lead to burnout in all areas of life, because you are constantly striving for something that does not exist. The brain actually does the opposite of what you expect when you are a perfectionist – it slows down to make sure rather than speeding up. And life then becomes harder than you imagine because you are constantly striving to slow down to hit the mark rather than living in the flow.

Burnout. What women often fail to recognize is that burnout affects your entire state of mind. As a result, they are increasingly annoyed by their children or partners and then feel guilty about this. The reality is that when the burnout is reduced, their feelings about their families often change. So rather than force themselves to think and feel differently, addressing the burnout can help many problems all at once.

The best balance. When women feel overwhelmed, they essentially need to ask themselves why they expect something impossible from themselves. The idea that women can be the same mothers that they were when they were not working compared to when they were working is unfair to women. And having to “rationalize” that quality time is more important than quantity of time is also unfair. The reality is that if a woman has a need to work and have a baby, she needs to find a best balance that is right for her and her family. The operative construct here is “best” and not “perfect” and also, that this need not be a static change. Women may give themselves a few tries to find out what works best. Taking this attitude will create less guilt and the consequences of this for the child, and a sincere representation of trying out what works best.

Not all women are the same. Also, many women forget that not all women are the same. For those who are adamant that staying at home is best for them and their children, this may work best for them and their families, whereas for those who decide to work part-time or full-time, this may be best for them as well. There is no one-size-fits-all type of mother, and different types of mothering produce different positive and negative outcomes. Certainly, in my practice, I have met children of stay-at-home moms as well as those of part-time and full-time mothers who have difficulty facing life later on. And the converse is true as well. Many working and stay-at home moms are able to empower their children too.

It’s not all you. The idea here is to recognize that children are a product of genes and the environment, and that they are individuals who determine their own fate as well. Parents who take on all the responsibility of this often distort this, feeling as though they are fully responsible for how a child turns out. This often prevents children of learning how to lean on their own sense of responsibility. Also, mothers how are alarmed by their own mistakes set a challenging standard for their children who may grow up to learn that mistakes are “bad” rather than inevitable but not a reason to give up.

Thus, when mothers find their relationships thrown into disarray, they may want to re-examine their own standards and relax their judgments toward themselves as they allow themselves to be more human and the very best that they can be without needing to be perfect.

Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He blogs at Debunking Myths of the Mind.

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  • Anonymous

    Winnicott summed it all up many years ago - the “good-enough-mother” is all that is needed.

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