I remember when I was a brand new first-time mom, like four days brand new, and went to a new mom group. I was in the no-sleep, hormones still rollercoaster-ing daze. I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing, even though it felt like the bottom had dropped out of my body, my breasts were bowling balls, and I was wondering why no one ever tells you about urinary incontinence…
(This is Guest blog- to read full article, go to psychedinsanfrancisco.com )
- It’s not about the weight.
In the original “great palace lie” story, when the emperor’s trustworthy officials couldn’t see the cloth the swindlers were weaving (which wasn’t there), they pretended they could. Why? Because they didn’t want to look stupid or unqualified. Who wants to look stupid or unqualified? And yet motherhood, especially new motherhood, is filled with the experience of feeling unqualified. No one is prepared. That is one of the lies. Transitions are difficult, uncomfortable, and messy. That being a different weight will make you feel more competent/happy/qualified is a lie.
Magazines are filled with articles about “the right amount of weight to gain during pregnancy,” “losing the baby weight,” “mommy tucks,” or skinny celebrities strolling down the red carpet weeks after giving birth. It’s another version of one of the Great Palace Lies. Kate Middleton was alternately shunned and celebrated for still having a baby bump after her first child was born and then shunned and celebrated for looking too stunning just after after her second baby was born. So the lie works both ways: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The truth is weight is just that: weight. And regardless of your weight, your stomach will never be the same postpartum. Your breasts, whether or not you breastfeed, will never be the same. Your sleep will never be the same. Your relationships will never be the same. And, most importantly, YOU will not be the same. Whatever your weight is and becomes, you will never be the same person you were prior to having a baby. Putting all your energy into the lie that you can be (or at least look like) the same person, and that is the goal, will only succeed in making you tired, depressed, and trying to be something you’re not.
- You can be more comfortable in your own skin.
If you get rid of the scale, the real feelings will show up. This will probably feel uncomfortable, but freeing. Motherhood, becoming a mother, includes grief: grieving the old self and creating a new one. Anne Lamott says one of the greatest palace lies about grief is that it should be gotten over quickly and privately.
Allow grief, allow imperfection, give yourself more time than you would have expected, and allow your body to be what and where it is right now. Also, you do not have to do this motherhood-thing alone. Ask for help, join a moms group, get into therapy, do whatever you need to do to not be in isolation with believing the great palace lies. Be the truth teller: be the one who is willing to say, “I’m not feeling happy and glowing! I feel like sh*t! I want to go to the coffee shop without carrying a baby and a diaper bag full of butt cream, cheerios, pureed carrots, 3 changes of clothing, 2 pacifiers, wipes, bibs, burp cloths, sleep sheep, and SPF50 sunscreen!” Speaking the truth of your experience can give you more of the feeling of comfort in your own skin than losing weight ever could.
- You will not pass on the suffering to your child.
Scales are a way to measure value in an amount, but they don’t really measure what is valuable. When you die, I doubt “she weighed this amount” or “Wow, her stomach was surprisingly flat postpartum!” is what you want people to be saying about the meaning you brought to this world. What do you really value? Be that; do that. Many women are inspired, when they become mothers, to break the generational chains of suffering from their own family of origin and/or cultural experience. If you have suffered from self-hatred or disordered eating in your own experience, this is an opportunity to not pass it on. This is an inspiration to be different, learn to love and appreciate yourself now, flaws and all. Wear the bathing suit. Look kindly, as much as you can, in the mirror. Treat yourself at least as kindly as you treat your child. The way you treat yourself is your child’s mirror. Model that imperfection, eating cookies, and cellulite are normal parts of the human experience. Oh, and destroy the scale (more on this next).
- Scales are for fish.
I encourage you to smash your scale. Do it. Get out a hammer and bash away. Have a scale smashing party. Consider freeing all the energy that has been going toward measuring your worth externally to other endeavors. Letting go of your scale can free up so much energy! If you can’t throw out your scale, I encourage you to make it into a YAY scale. A YAY scale is a scale that reads an affirmation to you instead of a number. If you have a daughter, make her a YAY scale, or make one with her. If she is old enough, let her write her own affirmations. Illustrations also work. Though it may sound cheesy that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Isn’t reading “You are just right,” “You are a sexy goddess,” or “What you’re looking for is not in here” preferable to another “not good enough”?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
Did you know it takes babies at least a year to take their first step? And this is a first attempt, not fully practiced walking. Most babies begin to stand briefly and take small steps while holding onto support prior to walking by themselves. This is often called “cruising.” Not all babies walk at one year though- some do at 9 months, some at 17 months. It is an individual process. Once started, the journey of learning how to walk independently continues through many, many months trial and error: two steps forward, one fall down; two steps forward, one fall down.
– resource: Baby’s Milestones: Your child’s first year of development WebMD.com
We could interpret this “first step” in all kinds of ways metaphorically. In the 12 steps, the first step is about admitting powerlessness and unmanageability- not in a disempowered way, but in admitting your current (and past) way of walking in the world is no longer working. It is about taking an honest look about where you have fallen down, “hit bottom.” It is about reflecting, as you get up, on how you can learn to walk differently. How can you walk down the sidewalk in a different way or walk a different sidewalk? There is a well-quoted poem about the recovery process that goes like this:
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes me forever to find a way out.
II I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place but, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
III I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. my eyes are open I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
IV I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
V I walk down another street.
resource: Portia Nelson, There’s A Hole in My Sidewalk, 1993. As you are learning to walk down the sidewalk in your recovery, in motherhood, in life:
- How can you allow for holes in the sidewalk?
- How can you practice taking steps down another sidewalk?
- How can you love and accept your legs and feet while you are taking each step?
Give yourself time to learn how to walk differently in the world in your recovery process, whether it be from an eating disorder, alcoholism/addiction, codependency, depression, or postpartum. Try to accept and appreciate your legs and feet as they are and not need to change them. Babies learning to walk do not judge themselves when they fall and they certainly do not worry about the size of their thighs. They get back up, again and again, and again, focusing on the task of learning their new skill. In recovery, this skill is to notice the judgments, not believe them, and keep walking. Here are two suggestions for how to practice walking steps in the road to recovery:
- Lean on Support
Ask yourself: How can I allow others to support me? How can I allow them to walk with me? Recovery is a time to let support in, not push it away. However, many people find it difficult to reach out and accept support from others. The truth is it’s much easier to walk the road of recovery with someone walking alongside you than making the trip on your own. If you are having difficulty accepting support, think about how you feel when you are given the opportunity to provide support to others. Remember, it is a gift. Resource: Life During Recovery: Questions to Ask Yourself from National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website, By Maggie Baumann, BA, Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today, Spring 2007 Volume 5, Number 2, (c) 2007 Gürze Books.
- Practice Mindful Walking:
Walk slowly and carefully walk feeling your feet connect at each point on the floor. Without controlling the breath too much, you can try pairing walking and breathing so that 1 foot touches the ground at each in and out breath. See how many steps seem natural to take during each inhalation and exhalation. Direct all attention towards the sensations of walking: you feet and lower legs. Which part touches the ground first? Pay attention to how your weight shifts from one foot to the other. What are the feelings in your knees as they bend? What is the texture of the ground (hard, soft, cracks, stones)? Differences in walking on different surfaces? From Coping Skills handout Compiled by Shannon Dorsey, Ph.D. Associate Professor and Licensed Psychologist, University of Washington, Evidence Based Treatments
Remember the one-year-old practicing her first steps for a whole year. As a Japanese proverb states, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
Also, it is not only ok but encouraged to make time for pedicures and (non exercise-bulimic oriented) dancing. Your legs and feet deserve it. How are you going to take your first step today? What are you going to do to take care of your legs and feet?
Before I had a child, and before recovery, I was someone who ALWAYS finished books. Even if I didn’t like them. If it was nonfiction, there was something to be learned by the end of the book, and I might miss it. It might be the secret instruction in the manual of life that would turn the key to (insert topic here: being a better therapist, being more recovered, learning how to deepen spiritual practice, understand theories of psychology or physics…) If it was fiction, again even if I didn’t like it, I might end up liking the character by the end of the book. There might me some redemption or twist that turned the story…
Sometimes, in my life, I struggled with finishing other things or being with endings, knowing when it was time to hold on and stay with and when it was time to let go and release: funerals, graduate school, the dissertation process, relationship endings.
This past week, for I believe the first time ever, I returned a library book UNFINISHED. It was actually a good book, a parenting book that I would recommend to parents, to colleagues, to clients. And yet the book was something else I needed to get done that never got done. And I thought, hmmm, is this something I would regret not finishing if I were dying? And the answer was, No. Is it something that is giving me pleasure or assisting me in reducing my or other’s suffering? Is it helping me be a better parent, therapist, wife, person? No, not really. It has some good advice, but it’s not anything that I haven’t already been exposed to in other early childhood trainings. So on our weekly trip to the library, along with my son’s books he was returning, I put it in the slot. And the weight of relief was immediate.
There are other things in my life I would rather not finish or show up for that I need and actually want to now: endings, difficulties that lead to growth, showing up for greater connection and competence on the other side of fear. Those are opposite action practice. Those are important. The library book? Nope. That is not one of them. Halleluiah for letting go.
Where do you need to hold on and stay with; where would you like to give yourself permission to let go?
One of the most surprising aspects of the baby blues and Postpartum Depression for me to learn was how it can show up as irritability, anger, or anxiety. I know I personally never felt like a b*tch (Yes, I know from 16 years of recovery, 14 years of working in mental health settings, and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology that “bitch” is not a feeling) nearly as much as I did after becoming a mom. After becoming a mom, my “b*tch” feeling levels skyrocketed.
How does one know if these feelings (irritability, anger, sadness, loss of self-esteem) are in normal range of mommy/personhood and when they are of concern and needing attention and mental health support?
Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D. (co-author with Pec Indman, Ed.D. of Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression, 2010) offers two simple criteria:
1. The symptoms last longer than two weeks
Postpartum Depression, like non-perinatal depression, includes symptoms for at least two weeks that can affect changes in appetite, sleep, loss of self-esteem, and lack of pleasure. Hormone changes are dramatic postpartum and the baby blues are usually a result of feeling this dramatic change and resolve within two weeks postpartum. 50-80% of women experience the baby blues. The baby blues are much shorter in duration. PPD can be difficult to detect as what new mother isn’t struggling with changes in appetite, sleep, and self-esteem?! However, PPD is more persistent, and:
2. The symptoms are severe enough to get in the way of normal functioning, even if they occur during the first two weeks.
Perinatal mood disorders (including not only depression, but also anxiety, OCD, psychosis, and Bipolar) are more persistent and pervasive and can interfere mildly or dramatically in functioning and care for yourself and your baby.Postpartum Depression (PPD) affects 1 in 5 women (this is the latest evidence- it used to be 1 in 7. I imagine this is due to more women speaking up and receiving help, not more women being affected). If the symptoms are severe enough to get in the way of normal functioning, even if they occur during the first two weeks postpartum, it is considered to be PPD.
But what ARE the symptoms and how do they show up?
The following are a list of symptoms interspersed with statements made by women suffering from PPD (excerpted from This Isn’t What I Expected by Karen R Kleinman, LCSW and Valerie Davis Raskin, MD, 2013) and comparisons between the baby blues and PPD (excerpted from Kristin B. Hodson, a psychotherapist, and founder of The Healing group.com, a center for Women’s relationship health):
“Every little thing gets on my nerves lately. Sometimes, I am even furious with my baby. Often, I am angry at my partner.”
The Baby Blues: One minute you love your husband and the next you want to bite his head off.Postpartum Depression: You are beginning to wonder why you married your husband in the first place, you are continually angry at him, and you consider throwing the vase at him.
The Baby Blues: One minute you are smiling at the baby and the next you feel irritated that you have to get up to feed them the fifth time that night.
Postpartum Depression: You’re dominated by anger daily, not just waking up to feed but towards others and life’s situations that you used to be able to handle.
“I cry at least once per day.”
“I feel sad most or all of the time.”
The Baby Blues: You haven’t showered in three days, you have dried milk on your clothes, and you burst into tears at a moment’s notice.
Postpartum Depression: You haven’t showered in a week, you don’t remember the last time you did laundry, and you are crying most of the day, every day.
“I can’t concentrate.”
Baby Blues: You walk into a room and forgot what you were looking for.
PPD: You cannot remember/memorize facts and figures needed in your professional life, that prior to pregnancy, were easy for you and your baby is 9 months old.
Loss of pleasure/lack of sex drive
“I can’t remember the last time I laughed.”
“I have no interest in making love at all, even though my doctor says I’m now physically able to resume sexual relations.”
“I don’t enjoy the things I used to enjoy.”
Fatigue and difficulty sleeping
“I can’t sleep, even when my baby sleeps.”
“I have no energy, I’m tired all of the time.”
“I have no appetite and no enjoyment of food or I am having sugar and carbohydrate cravings and compulsively eating all of the time.”
The Baby Blues: You haven’t had a thought about putting makeup on in a week and you don’t care that you are wearing your pregnancy pants because your focus is on recovery and the baby.
Postpartum Depression: You’re feeling so overwhelmed and out-of-control that you start focusing excessively on your outward appearance so people don’t know how bad and out of control things really are for you.
The Baby Blues: You wonder from time to time if you are really cut out for this mothering thing.
Postpartum Depression: You think you are not cut out for the mothering thing and start having regular fantasies about getting in your car, driving to Canada, and never returning because everyone would be better off.
This list is not intended to diagnose or treat PPD. A full assessment and screening can be done by a therapist (MFT, Psychologist or Psychiatrist) trained in perinatal mood disorders.
If you are having thoughts or a plan of hurting yourself or your baby, you need immediate attention and support. The following is a 24-hour crisis line for new moms.Postpartum Depression Phone Support: 1-800-773- 6667 (1-800-PPD-MOMS). This helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone experiencing depression during and after pregnancy, as well as for anyone concerned about a new mother. The telephones are answered by trained crisis counselors who can provide information and referral for treatment.
I remember attending a class postpartum in which all the moms brought their babies in strollers and exercised together. I was in that early phase of exhaustion and urinary incontinence (Who tells you about this prior to having children?!) I was just trying to get out of the house with baby and get some fresh air and exercise. Any exercise. There was this one woman who mentioned taking (__________) the name of a supplement supposedly helpful for losing weight. She desperately wanted to lose the baby weight. (I am deliberately leaving it blank the name of the supplement not give anyone’s ED any ideas. More on “ED” later). I have to admit in that moment I had a dual response. My Healthy-Self thought:
“Uh Oh! Steer clear! Eating Disorder false promise of thin-ness= absence of all discomfort! You know that no supplement is going to take away feelings or give you the nonexistent ‘perfect body’! Lovingly challenge her now! Tell her to love herself the way she is now and ask what else is going on? You know you are talking to yourself when you are talking to her.”
And my very tired postpartum self, who was subject to “ED” (aka the voice of an “Eating Disorder”ed self-critic) thought:
“Ooh a way to lose weight quickly postpartum! Woo Hoo!”
Did I get that supplement? Of course not. I was 13 years recovered! from an eating disorder at that point and knew better. Did I have a vulnerability to an ED thought during that moment? Of course! I was exhausted and in the huge, life-changing rite of passage of mommy boot-camp! My body was different, my Psyche was different, and I was walking around in a sleep-deprived fog. My Healthy-Self left that group disappointed that my usually strong Eating-Disorder-Psychologist-Feminist-Crusader had not spoken up to what I knew to be true: No supplement will change the difficulty of being and becoming a mom! No supplement will teach you how to love yourself the way you are! Losing weight is never the answer to complex life difficulties.
This is what I know to be fundamentally true for eating disorder recovery (and cultivating a foundation of love from which to live): Losing weight or trying to change your body is never the answer. The solution is never about hating, punishing, or trying to escape from your body and always about loving and accepting yourself. My clients often ask me: Always? Yes. Always. And yet it is hard to talk about this with women, in groups, where “fat chat” is so common. Andrea Wachter and Marcea Marcus, Licensed Marriage and Family therapists who also specialize in eating disorder recovery, and authors of the book The Don’t Diet, Live-it workbook (www.innersolutions.net) coined this term:
Fat chat is complaining about eating or weight, gossip about who has gained or lost weight, conversations about the latest diets, discussions about cosmetic procedures [Mummy tucks], etc…when we engage in fat chat we are missing opportunities for more meaningful conversations about our lives.
What would a meaningful discussion have been in that moment? Maybe “I feel very alone in this new mom thing. Do you ever feel that way?” Or “I wish my baby weight would go away, too, but I’m also proud I had a baby and of the baby my body grew. My body needs to rest and recover from childbirth more than lose weight right now.” Or maybe if I was being fiercely challenging “I can’t afford the luxury of fat chat right now. I am trying to find my way into who I am as a person, as a Mom, and as a strong woman who has given birth.”
The good news? I can absolutely say that now. Any of those. All of those. My warrior-self is back. Look out ED voice! Look out fat chat! Boot camp is over! And Healthy mama is in the house! Thanks to “How to be a dad” for this beautiful image:
SoulCollage® as a means of fleshing out the voice of wisdom in postpartum and eating disorder recovery
When women develop their voice (and with it their sense of self) and when they flesh out those parts of themselves that have been sacrificed to the Body Myth they can then move from…emotional emptiness…to the fully-grounded substance of their lives. Instead of changing their bodies so that they can change their lives, women can accept their bodies and get on with and celebrate their lives.
–Margo Maine, The Body Myth
What is soulcollage® ?
A kind of collage in which you make a deck of collaged cards (no limit on the amount) for yourself, each card representing one aspect of yourself, it is a collage process that images the multidimensional parts of one’s Self. You can then create your own deck of wisdom from which to ask a question and find answers. (To read more, go to Soulcollage.com)
How I discovered soulcollage®
I discovered SoulCollage® as a new mom, finding it to be an expressive art modality that I could fit in between naps and breast-feeding. I had heard about it for years, but being a Psychologist who has been trained in so many expressive arts modalities, I thought SoulCollage® wouldn’t have anything new to offer. I was delightfully wrong!
The first card I made was to honor the generational legacy that I was spanning with my parents, grandparents, and now my own child. It imaged the lineage my parents had travelled, new appreciation of the difficulties of parenthood, and awareness of my own parents’ mortality. As I had already discovered with other expressive arts modalities, the images uncovered, expressed, and held multidimensional emotional aspects of myself that words alone could not have spoken.
The next card I made was about accepting my postpartum belly. I wrestled with body image postpartum and didn’t have a forum for discussing the feelings underlying these changes. Being a new parent was a liminal time, a rite of passage that included not only
a new body, but a whole new identity. Making this card of my postpartum “muffin top” helped me quiet my body image critic, honor my newly emerging mommy-self, and acknowledge both the grief and joy involved in being a new parent.
soulcollage® and Eating Disorder Recovery
For the past decade and a half, I have worked with women recovering from starving, restricting, or stuffing their voices. This shows up as “disordered eating.” And yet, when I brought soulcollage® into working with these women, it became absolutely clear that the “disordered,” or not yet given a voice, parts of the self have a LOT of wisdom to share (and very little of it is about food). Just like new parenthood, eating disorder recovery is a rite of passage time in a woman’s life during which vulnerabilities and sometimes formerly unwanted or not-yet-voiced parts of the self show up with incredible wisdom.
The following is a SoulCollage® reading (shared with permission) by a client recovering from an eating disorder. This client was quiet in group, often restricting her authentic voice. She had an overdeveloped critical voice that constantly attacked her and tried to separate her from her authentic voice. During her reading, I was so inspired to finally hear her wise, authentic voice finally speak its truth, I almost cried. Her question was around how to maintain her sense of self when she went back to school after being in treatment for her eating disorder.
I Am One Who is desperate for connection, will take on the experiences of others, in doing so losing my sense of self. Although I think this is for safety, it leads me into an internal battle and brings about much pain. Stay true to yourself. Getting lost among others will ultimately never bring you the connections you strive for.
I Am One who is determined, even in the face of much adversity, even when overwhelmed with sadness, hopelessness, and solitude. Continue fighting for your passion, even in the most intense moments of isolation. You are never alone. You will always have somebody by your side to get you through the day.
I Am One Who can overcome the odds. My internal force born within me can push me through even the most disheartening of situations. I have a well of support from which to draw. This will keep me going, even when there seems to be nothing left.
As evidenced by her reading, this woman clearly had incredible access to her own strong, fierce wisdom and power when given a modality that encouraged her to go within and listen!
As a right brain process that can bypass the critical parts of the self, soulcollage® can access the wisdom held in formerly judged parts of the self. Parts of the self such as disordered eating, postpartum bellies, chameleon-like parts,and isolated parts begin to have a voice. Instead of being parts to avoid or silence, these parts become a source of wisdom and guidance. By doing this, they can illuminate the way in and through liminal times in a woman’s life such as disordered eating recovery and new parenthood, showing us that we always have a voice, and offering fiercely compassionate guidance we didn’t even know we had.
Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe is a Clinical Psychologist and SoulCollage® Facilitator in San Francisco. To see current soulcollage workshop offerings, click here: soulcollageworkshops
(And it doesn’t have anything to do with looking like this.)
Now that the sensational controversy has died down, I want to comment on the 2012 Time magazine cover image that was so powerfully disturbing to fueling the fire of the Mommy wars.
Compare And Despair
This cover is just ridiculous and does everybody a discredit with its devaluing of relationships, bodies, and the lived experience of being a woman, parent, young child, and person. And yet, images go right to that affective part of the brain. I’ll admit, my first, just below the surface stream of consciousness, critical thoughts upon seeing this image were:
“This woman is young and thin and has no idea how difficult motherhood is (jealousy, fatigue),”
“She must be able to breastfeed a 3-year-old because she doesn’t have a job (anger, sadness),”
“Wow, now we are sexualizing toddlers?! (anger, fierceness)” and
“I’m a bad/not enough Mom (shame, hurt).”
I felt separate from this woman, this Mom I knew nothing about.
I remember, when doing doctoral research on body image, reading about the concept of objectification theory:
Objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This…can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states,…[and] also illuminates why changes in these mental health risks appear to occur in step with life-course changes in the female body. (Frederickson and Roberts, 1997)
I find this last sentence particularly relevant to why images like this can be so damaging. It is basically saying that vulnerability to objectification, shame, and anxiety risks coincide for many women during the times when their bodies change. For example: adolescence, menopause, pregnancy, and postpartum. Becoming a Mom is ripe with changes including not only body shape and size, but also questioning and identity shifting. How do I do this Mom-thing? Am I doing it right? This is why so many new Moms are desperate for the right parenting book, sleep training book, breastfeeding guidance, and parenting philosophy (for example Attachment parenting, which this Time magazine article was about). This is why the first years of motherhood are often described as “Mommy boot camp.”
SHAME: Should Have Already Mastered Everything
Within this Mommy boot camp are many uncomfortable feelings. One of them can be shame. In writing about the connections between shame and body image, Judith Rodin talks about “the shame trap.” She describes this as “a felt gap between the actual self and the ideal self.” She observes that there are gaps in the psychological research on people’s feelings about their bodies, and she believes shame to be a determining factor in this gap because who wants to research shame? Shame is uncomfortable, icky, disturbing, unsettling and “may therefore tend to be repressed from awareness.” (Rodin, Judith, Body Traps, 1993).
Shame is about questioning one’s self: Am I (breast)feeding my child; supporting their sleep; brain, body, and feelings in the right way? Should I be practicing attachment parenting or Ferber; co-sleeping or sleep training? Can I juggle working outside the home with building a strong attachment with my child? New motherhood and parenting are ripe with these questions. And bookshelves are filled with psychologists and doctors’ philosophies attempting to answer these questions.
Time magazine, and the editors that choose what images to put on their covers, are not stupid. They are very aware of subliminal, subversive, and highly controversial images. They are aware that this just-below-the-surface-repressed shame is the source of feelings of “not enough.” They are also probably aware that there are many images of virgin mothers cradling babies and there are many images of pornographic women with exposed breasts. But there aren’t many images that try to combine this virgin whore dichotomy all-in-one! So we have controversy mixed with shame, taboo, and perhaps some eroticism. Add the title with the words “Are you enough?” and we have a big seller. Who wants to buy a magazine that says “I am enough”? Let’s face it, if you were feeling enough, you probably wouldn’t be buying a magazine!
The Reality of Being Good Enough
So anyway, back to the image. I decided to look up this Mom who was imaged on the cover of Time and see who she actually was vs. my projections. I went to this woman’s blog. I read about her experience as a Mom: the difficult first pregnancy she had, how she then chose to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, how she started a nonprofit foundation to assist women with pre and postnatal care as well as financial independence due to the AIDs and orphan crisis in Africa. And I thought,
“Wow. I would like to meet this woman. This woman is deep, amazing, caring and doing wonderful work in the world.”
Who cares what the size of her body is and how long she is breastfeeding? I no longer felt jealousy, anger, shame, and hurt. I felt connected with this woman! I thought I would like to sit down with this woman and have a cup of tea and have our children meet! I would like to share our different experiences of pregnancy, marriage, faith, and motherhood.
And so I will end with a challenge to the proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Yes, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but if it comes from the media, it needs a whole lot more to flesh out the experience. Because motherhood is about being and becoming enough, regardless of age, size, breastfeeding status, sleeping, or parenting style. Motherhood is about being good enough!
In the words of the English Pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott
“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds…her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.”
In other words, in motherhood, the whole point is to fail, or to be “Mom enough” by being “good enough.”
I distinctly remember 1 moment postpartum when my husband and I were in a bookstore, with baby in the carrier, browsing. I saw the book The Female Brain and picked it up, thumbing directly to the section on “Mommy brain,” and, more specifically, “Breast feeding and the Fuzzy brain.” I was still breast-feeding, fuzzy brained, and seeking some scientific proof that I wasn’t going crazy. I found it. Louann Brizendine, MD writes:
“…one down side of breast feeding can be a lack of mental focus. Although a fuzzy brained state is pretty common after giving birth, breast feeding can heighten and prolong this mellow… unfocused state…the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are preoccupied with protecting and tracking the newborn.”
During this time, I would walk into the next room of the house to get something and forget what it was. Keys? Diaper bag? One of my husband’s friends, a Stanford scientist with two children, explained: “You’re breastfeeding. Your brain will come back after you stop.” This fuzzy breastfeeding brain also explained why I felt physically connected with my baby when I went back to work. Brizendine writes:
Many mothers suffer ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when they’re physically separated from their babies, feeling fear, anxiety, and even waves of panic. It is now recognized that this is more than a psychological state but is a neurochemical state.
The longer and more often a baby suckles, the more it triggers the prolactin-oxytocin response in the mommy brain…Oxytocin dilates blood vessels in the mother’s chest, warming her nursing child, who also gets doses of feel good compounds in the breast milk…
Ah, Oxytocin, the bonding hormone. By 3:00pm at work, I would be physically and emotionally longing for my baby. I’m sure it was no accident that this was the time that I would pump milk for him and he would be having his afternoon snack! I remember coming home from work, checking in with the nanny on how baby’s day went, and she would say “he’s probably not hungry- just had a bottle about an hour ago.” I would nod ok, and then, as soon as she left, baby would lunge for the breast like a long lost lover and Mama would feel relieved and reconnected.
According to Brizendine, This lovely, feel-good state of oxytocin is turned on at the time of birth.
The mommy-brain transformation gets underway at conception and can take over even the most career oriented woman’s circuits…At the same time, her brain signals for eating, especially in the morning, become finicky as her brain is changing how it reacts to certain smells…she wouldn’t want to eat something that would harm her fragile fetus…That is why her brain is now overly sensitive to smell.…Progesterone spikes from ten to a hundred times its normal level … and the brain becomes marinated in this hormone, whose sedating effects are similar to Valium.
I wish I had had this book when pregnant. Sometimes there is no substitute for empirical, neurological data to combat shame and confusion. I remember sitting at my desk at work while pregnant feeling like I was in a mental fog and wondering where my focus had gone? Where was my motivation for work? I would sit there feeling like a hippo (I know, hippo is not a feeling- see previous blog), daydream about rocking chairs, and eat olives with hummus and crackers (My baby had a Greek craving theme). I could not tolerate perfume smells and threw up in the airport when walking through the fancy shopping section filled with expensive scents.
I was also studying psychological material for the EPPP (Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology: the licensure test for Psychologists) at the time, and confused about why nothing I was studying seemed to be able to stick in my brain. I would study material and then the next day it would have flown out of my mind. This was not very pleasant or ego syntonic for someone who had earned 4.0’s all through her undergraduate, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. At 7 months pregnant, I was scoring 50% on practice exams. Finally, with humility, resignation, some resistance, and a good dose of radical acceptance, I threw in the towel and postponed.
Why have 9,000 books have been written about
helping your baby sleep through the night
While oxytocin is a lovely feel-good chemical, drops in hormone levels mixed with lack of sleep do NOT feel good. I remember a mother in my brand New Mommy group telling me about how her baby slept through the night at 3 months. Bless her for her kindness (or perhaps it was discernment that the other mothers may have killed her) for not sharing this at the time. Every baby, like every person, has their own temperament, their own capacities, and their own preferences from the time of birth. I see this in my own child, a boy, who seems to be predisposed to fire trucks, dump trucks, dinosaurs, and things that go bang or boom. As a feminist, I would have ardently fought this Nature-Nurture debate prior to children. However, my little boy is naturally drawn to trucks, particularly those that dump things or make loud noises. Anyway, that is a whole other post (See http://www.scarymommy.com/boys-vs-girls/)
My baby did not naturally sleep through the night at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, or 12 months. That too, is a whole other post as well as bookshelves filled with thousand of experts offering their advice on how to get one’s baby to sleep. For the new Mom, though, lack of sleep can contribute to a fuzzy brain.
In a new mother, sleep is disrupted by repeated awakenings of the infant, but hormonal factors also seem to play a role. Immediately after childbirth, levels of the reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, drop precipitously. It is believed that, because these hormones modulate neurotransmitter systems in the brain responsible for sleep quality, this dramatic hormonal shift may cause significant disruptions in sleep. (See MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/postpartum-depression-and-poor-sleep-quality-occur-together/ )
I remember going into work and hearing my (childless) co-workers say, “Gosh, I’m tired today.” Then they would sheepishly look over at me a moment later and say “Oops sorry” as I gave them the death stare. However, sleep-deprived states aside, there are other brain changes that can occur postpartum that are both beneficial and astounding.
Does the brain grow BIGGER postpartum?
Research from the American Psychological Association suggests this is the case.
Exploratory research…found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior…A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after [new mothers] gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn’t ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change. (Craig Kinsley, PhD and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, Behavioral Neuroscience, October 2010)
I was sharing with a friend recently about the hidden gift of humility in needing to slow down on my desired accomplishments due to being a Mommy. She replied, “You are doing and growing more than most people I know, with or without children.”
“Oh,” I thought, “it certainly doesn’t feel like that.” I often tell my clients, who are recovering from eating disorders, that they are growing much faster than they realize. As they say in twelve-step recovery “You can’t kiss your own ear.” In other words, others will see your growth before you do. I certainly see that in my son. Sometimes it seems as if he has literally grown overnight. One day he is standing by the couch scooching, and then BAM! He is walking. One day he is babbling incoherently and then Bam! He is saying “Bump!” for Mr. Bump, and banging his chest for the gorilla. Where did my newborn go? And so, as I begin to let go of my Mommy brain fuzz (Hooray!!!), I am also letting go of my little breastfeeding baby (sweet sadness), toddling about, developing his own cerebral cortex and synaptic formations. (http://main.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ter_key_brainFAQ#changes) May the growth continue.
Linda Shanti McCabe, PsyD, works at the Association of Professionals Treating eating Disorders in San Francisco. You can learn more about her at http://WWW.DrLindaShanti.com