Photo courtesy of Leah Bradley
Managing Expectations—and Emotions—as a New Mother
Emotions—as a New Mother
Any mother will tell you: Having a baby changes everything.
Catherine Birndorf, MD, the founder of The Motherhood Center of New York, calls new motherhood a largely overlooked developmental stage in a woman’s life. “Some of it is very instinctual, yes, but it doesn’t always feel that way,” says Birndorf. “New moms are stumbling in the dark.”
And any goop mother who knows Birndorf will tell you: Her work turns the light on. Birndorf’s new book—What No One Tells You, written with reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, MD—guides expecting and postpartum mothers through every high, low, and in between.
One of many themes that stuck with us: New moms desperately need one another, says Birndorf. In a world where we live farther from family support, where expectations run laughably high and the internet isolates as much as it connects, there may be no more valuable resource than community.
In other words, you know that village it takes to raise a child? Well it takes another to support the mother.
A Q&A with Catherine Birndorf, MD
People always talk about the fantasy wedding. But people develop fantasy babies, too—ideas they’ve compiled about what their child will be like or what motherhood will look like.
Often there’s a lot of wishful thinking reactive to your own childhood experiences: What did you do as a kid that you loved? What did you want and not get? In the fantasy, you can get what you want, which can be fun to think about: The baby girl you want because you never had a sister, or the baby boy you want because you loved your little brother. Skipping frilly dresses because your mom always forced you to wear them. Sending your kids to the same summer camp you went to. Putting your kids on the swim team because you want them to be athletes like you. But the higher the expectations—which, for many mothers, are pretty high—the greater the potential fall if things don’t work out the way you’d imagined.
“For emotional health, flexibility is the name of the game.”
When you’re very fixed on that fantasy, when the fantasy is an expectation that needs to be met in order for something to be good enough, or when it’s hard to think about something not going the way you want it to, then it’s a problem.
For emotional health, flexibility is the name of the game. You can have a fantasy and know that it may not work out that way. If you can imagine that you might not get what you want or you might get some but not all of it and you’re okay with that, that’s emotional flexibility. And that helps create emotional well-being.
If you find you’re feeling really rigid about something you want as a mother, you need to find some mental space for yourself and consider the following: Well, what would be the worst thing that could happen? What am I giving up? What am I going to miss in life? What are the implications of something like this for me? Like, maybe you can’t be the Girl Scout Cookie mom if you don’t have a girl, but getting comfortable with what you have (a boy, or a girl who wants nothing to do with Girl Scouts!) is important for learning to parent the child you do have, rather than the one you wish you had.
Many women go into motherhood having always wanted a child. Maybe they feel really confident that they’ll do a fine job as a mother given years of babysitting. Then they bring the baby home and suddenly realize: Wow. I’m a fake. I’m not grown-up enough for this. Who let me have this baby?
“Motherhood is a whole developmental stage, and we haven’t considered it as such because we have this idea it’s supposed to be natural and easy and obvious.”
When you have a kid, you actually have to grow up a little bit. I’m not saying that people are immature before they have kids. But learning how to be a mom—and making space for one of the most profound experiences and changes in life—isn’t as immediate as people think. Getting pregnant doesn’t magically make you grow up. It’s always shocked me that the only thing you need to take your kid home from the hospital is a car seat. No manual. No test. And no returns! You can’t just not be a mother. It can be daunting, and it’s forever!
Motherhood is a whole developmental stage, and yet we have this idea it’s supposed to be natural and easy and obvious, and that it happens overnight when the baby is born. But really there’s a whole process of renegotiating and reworking your own narrative to get to a healthy place where you can successfully and comfortably mother a child. It’s one of those things: It’s not like you have to take a course on it to do it well, but Motherhood 101 wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Isolation and loneliness are very big concerns for new moms. In America, there’s not always a whole lot of intergenerational support; we move away from home a lot more than people in other cultures do, and we have kids later. That culture is great for women for many reasons—independence, education, financial stability, career development, and so much else—but it leaves a lot of new mothers without enough support. It has not been normal, in the course of history, to be alone and do this all by yourself. And it’s hard.
It gets better when you find a peer group of parents and nurture relationships within that cohort. That starts with simple things: mommy-and-me classes, playdates, getting out of the house. And then when your kids start school, in particular, you really start to move with the same group of families. When my own kids started kindergarten, I met other parents who became part of my new friend group. And those relationships have lasted for years—even when the kids outgrew each other. It’s so interesting; you make friends with people you never would have been friends with otherwise, but you bond by virtue of similar circumstances. And that becomes your family and your village.
Competition is in some ways natural and normal, but I think that when you’re among your mommy peers, there can be a particularly pernicious kind of competitive experience. It’s the question of “Do I measure up?” And when people feel insecure, they tend to not be that nice. For moms, that insecurity comes out in parenting judgments: Oh, you have that stroller? You’re not breastfeeding? You work? You don’t?
“Some mothers are going to have it easier than others, and they will face different questions about what is best and what choices are right.”
Trying to prove to yourself that you’re doing motherhood “right” is often an unconscious effort to make yourself feel better, but it may make somebody else feel terrible. And what we really need is to band together—not pick on one another to prove our way is best. To me, this competitive, rather than collaborative, behavior is such a lost opportunity for connection and camaraderie. The problem is not really between one group of women and another other or one mom and another mom. It’s between all women and society. We’re all struggling. We’re all in this uphill battle to find some balance in our lives. There’s no formula for “having it all.” In fact, thinking there is one can be a recipe for disaster, or at least disappointment. Struggling to figure out childcare and make sure our kids have nutritious food—and good grades, and nice friends, and high aspirations—is hard to do while making difficult decisions about our careers and trying to fit in time with our partners.
I think it’s always important to acknowledge privilege. Some mothers are going to have it easier than others, and they will face different questions about what is best and what choices are right. Not everyone can make the same choices; it comes down to opportunities. The questions of work, childcare, food, strollers, all these “little” things—they’re not always up for discussion. And the world of “mommy wars” can do better to acknowledge that we are all challenged in one way or another but that specific context does matter.
There’s so much pressure already to make being a mom look perfect and effortless, and it’s amplified by social media. When we follow aspirational figures online—who get paid to look perfect and effortless—it’s easy to feel like you’re never going to live up to that. But it’s important to remember that it doesn’t reflect the real experience of pregnancy and motherhood. I’ve treated plenty of celebrities, plenty of the super wealthy, and despite the perfect pictures, there’s always a degree of misery and suffering.
Of course you want to share happy news, cute photos, and successes. You don’t do it to make anyone feel bad. But it can ultimately have that effect. A photo and a caption shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. We can be thoughtful and genuine with one another and communicate the grittier, murkier side of motherhood, too.
“A photo and a caption shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.”
It’s time to open up these topics: How do you tell a friend that you’re pregnant when you know they are struggling or just had a miscarriage? How do you talk about your pain and losses when somebody else seems super happy? How do we all tolerate one another’s experiences when they’re different?
I hear it day in and day out: “I didn’t even tell anyone because I didn’t want to be judged,” or “I didn’t ask for help because I thought someone would think I wasn’t a good mom,” or “If I admit I want some time to myself, someone is going to think I’m selfish.” Everything feels like a confession, and it feels like the criticism and the judgemnts will follow. But to have these feelings is so normal. We need to recognize that and bring it into the light.
Catherine Birndorf, MD, is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and obstetrics/gynecology and the founding director of the Payne Whitney Women’s Program at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. She specializes in reproductive mental health, and she cofounded The Motherhood Center of New York for pregnant and postpartum women. Her new book, What No One Tells You, discusses the emotional side of pregnancy and early motherhood.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.