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Therapist Motherhood is an emotional rollercoaster - go gently with yourself

On Mother’s Day, psychologist Jade Lawless looks at the challenges mothers face and asks if society should give them a break.

THERE IS NO straight path in motherhood. It is filled with twists and turns, ups and downs. As rewarding as being a mother can be, there are complexities within motherhood that create challenges that are not often enough said out loud due to fear of judgement, shame and guilt.

Central to these challenges is the notion of the “good mother ideology,” which defines societal expectations regarding motherhood and parenting (Williamson, et al, 2023).

This ideology perpetuates the belief that mothers should consistently put the needs of their children above themselves and all others. This is often at the expense of social relationships, romantic relationships, career aspirations, personal goals, etc. In addition to this, it creates an unrelenting standard for mothers who must be able to do it all.

If you wish to have a career, for example, and be a mother, the good mother ideology tells us that we must be exceptional in both domains – no balls should be dropped. This idealisation of motherhood creates immense pressure for women who often balance multiple roles outside of caring for their children. The same can be said for any perceived primary caregiver in today’s modern society.

Relentless stress

These narratives create higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and lower life satisfaction. If we continue to follow this ideology, we are inevitably invested in an unhealthy formula for generational well-being.

This way of thinking is not good for us or our children. Research informs us that a mother/primary caregiver’s mental health plays a pivotal role in the healthy development of their children (Leis, et al, 2014).

These messages are inescapable through the rise in social media use. Our human tendency to engage in upward social comparisons (where we negatively compare ourselves to others who appear to be doing better than we are) adds fuel to the fire. It’s hard to escape the picture-perfect scenes that we are naturally primed to compare ourselves unfavourably to.

Research shows that if mothers do not adhere to these standards, this can lead to ‘mum-shaming’ where mothers are judged for their parenting choices (Orten-Johnson, 2017, Abetz & Moore, 2018). The expectation for mothers to be able to ‘do it all’ and smile while doing it is simply unrealistic and unhealthy and will inevitably lead to burnout and mental health challenges.

Oh, the guilt

Of course, mothers don’t need to be shamed just by society, we do that all by ourselves when we experience that awful ‘mom guilt’! The inner voice saying ‘tut tut’ that looms near a mother if she decides to prioritise her own needs. That guilt though is a mere internalisation of the judgement coming from society over a long time.

A sense of identity as a mother is more difficult to develop for mothers who feel they must live up to these expectations — a sense of identity that is already somewhat fragile as motherhood itself enforces a reinvention and huge adjustment for mothers from ‘who I used to be as an individual’ to ‘who I am now as someone’s mother’.

It can be really difficult to reconcile your pre-existing identity with the new role of mother. This is nothing to feel shame or guilt around. It is a seismic shift in your world that impacts your sense of self. The reward of unconditional love from a child, while beautiful and precious, does not negate how hard this can be and you should not be afraid or discouraged to share that.

The good enough mother

So how do we counterbalance this and move towards a kinder and more realistic view of motherhood and indeed parenthood in general? The first step is to let go of the ‘good mother ideology’ and embrace being a ‘good enough mother’. This is a long held therapeutic concept that demotes perfection in motherhood or parenthood and empowers a flawed approach where mothers/parents should be attuned to their children and their needs most of the time.

This way of thinking normalises occasional failures and highlights that these are not significantly impactful on a child’s development – phew! Nobody in the world is perfect, even those you perceive as perfect have occasional failures, so lower your bar and stop holding yourself to standards that are unattainable at best and dangerous at worst.

When you do have an occasional failure, embrace this with self-compassion. We can all only do our best at any given moment. If we work towards accepting that and seeing our own failures through that lens, inevitably life will become easier with the letting go of guilt and shame. In doing so, you are also modelling self-compassion and humanness for your children, teaching them that it is OK to be flawed and still love yourself.

It is important for them to also see that you are a person in your own right, outside of being a parent. That is an essential lesson for them to learn so invest in yourself without guilt, they will thank you for it when they are on their own paths to independence and self-discovery.

In amongst all that, being a parent is filled with many moments of joy that we all stop and savour. The next challenge in this is to find and appreciate the moments of joy where you let yourself off the hook, where you let go of guilt, where you pause on an unhealthy comparison and talk to yourself in a kind and loving way instead, where you reach out and share the difficulties with a trusted friend or an IACP accredited counsellor without shame and where you accept that you are good enough just as you are. If you feel that you might need a little more help, you can visit www.iacp.ie who have a list of accredited counsellors and psychotherapists with expertise in this area.

Happy Mother’s Day, let someone spoil you today!

Jade Lawless is an accredited Psychologist, Counsellor and Psychotherapist, and Vice Chair of The Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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