A Podcast Series from The Family Institute
In this episode of Let's Talk, Nikki Lively, Clinical Director of the Transitions to Parenthood program, interviews a first time mother about her experiences in the transition to motherhood. They speak candidly about the real emotions that come up in this transition and explore themes of motherhood from the New York Times article, "The Birth of a Mother," by Alexandra Sachs, M.D.
Nikki Lively: Hi everyone! My name is Nikki Lively and I'm the Clinical Director of the Transitions to Parenthood program here at The Family Institute and I work with a team of psycho-therapists specializing in reproductive mental health. We provide therapy and support to women, men, infants, couples and families during the transition to parenthood. Today I'll be talking to a mom about her experiences transitioning to motherhood. Full disclosure, this mom and I are good friends and we've known each other for many years, but we've never had an opportunity like this one to delve deeper into the psychological, physical, emotional and spiritual transitions that she recently went through. And I think this developmental stage of adulthood that's been called "matrescence," which was a term coined by the anthropologist Dana Raphael, is kind of a misunderstood and not really a developmental period that's talked about nearly enough. 0:53
In fact, Sarah and I were just saying that we had never heard this term before recently. So, I'm really excited to have this opportunity to explore matrescence with Sarah today. Let's talk about matrescence, which for many women will start with a pregnancy. On a psychological level, if you recall when the pregnancy started to feel real to you.
Sarah: Maybe it became most real when you start to show and then when you feel the kicking. That was kind of just like, whoa, this is crazy. So, there was just kind of like this period of wonder of just like, this is an amazing process and stuff. And then as you enter the end of your pregnancy, things are just uncomfortable. And then it's like, well this isn't a wonder. This is just uncomfortable. (Laughing) So I think that anyone who's listening, just understanding that there's going to be a day where it kind of just crashes all at once. There's a transition where things start to turn off. And now your body is trying to figure out, okay now we are dealing with this kind of chemical makeup now. And it's one of those things that you just don't realize until you're in those shoes and just what's going on. And I think one of those things with social media is that moms are often putting out there that my life has changed. I've never felt love like this before. I can't believe that I had life without this. All these magical, wonderful…it's like a Disney movie. For me, I didn't have that. And it's almost like that's where the pressure was like, I don't feel that and so, is there something wrong with me? 2:31
So that’s kind of the crux of it when you don't feel the way that everyone else is saying that they feel. And then you come to find out that a lot more moms probably feel that way, it's just not allowed to be talked about. So, I think that was the journey for me was that this is hard, and this is very different. I was 42 when I had her. So, I was an older mom as well thinking you know, this is something I always thought I would be a mom. And now it's here. And now it's this. But it's just so many different feelings to it all. 3:04
NL: Yeah. I think that's part of why we are doing this interview because it's part of the pressure of I guess how a new mom feels is just not realistic. It's not multidimensional the way it needs to be. So, I am curious about what it was like for you the you first got home with Cici. How she did. If she had any problems, or how she adapted. How you adapted. How the family adapted to her being home. 3:29
S: So, I'm a big fan of my sleep. And I knew, I was scared about that, that I wasn't going to sleep. What happened was, for me, I started to fixate on it. And I was reading everything I could on, well how do you get them to nap. And when will she start sleeping longer and everything? As I would sit and I would feed her and hold her and she would nap in my arms, I would pull out my phone and Google sleeping and stuff. I was fixating on it. So, I was really getting stressed out about it. Also, so, at 42 I had a life where I built a career where I had gotten really good at managing things, and managing chaos, and managing things so you don't get to chaos. That was kind of an eye-opener for me. I thought I could manage this. And I thought I could manage her to go sleep and stuff. And that's kind of one of the first things you learn, maybe it took me a little longer. But you can't manage this. You are actually just guiding her through the process of growing, and her brain and figuring it out and stuff. And it's like you can't control it. You can just guide it. You just have to be there for her. I was never formally diagnosed, but I do think that I had a lot of anxiety. And I had a lot of anxiety issues in the past so I recognized that this is a lot.
I think that the one benefit of being older is that I had good self-awareness. So, being able to judge, okay well this is happening. Do I think this is a moment of I need more help, or can I get through this? It was probably between six or eight weeks when I couldn't stay asleep, and just the anxiety…I was thinking about I should be doing this. I should do this. I should do this. I should do this. And I was fixating on things. So, I talked to my doctor then, and I started medication. And I think that really helped me to get things calm. It's tough, but it does get better. I say that first six months can be a wild ride of things changing every few weeks and all kinds of stuff. 5:38
NL: I just wanted to go back to that article that gave us the term matrescence and just see if you had, what they are saying I guess in this new article is that they have worked with a lot of new mothers, and they are saying every story is unique, like you just said. But they are saying there are some universal aspects to the psychological narrative of matrescence. So, curious what you thought about these themes. The first one that they sight is ambivalence. That being a mom is neither good nor bad. It's both good and bad. I was just wondering if that fit with your experience, and what aspects of your life as a new mom you felt or do feel ambivalent about?
S: Yes. I agree with that. I think the good part are when she smiles and when she laughs, and now she's starting to talk. When she's walking and when she started crawling. When the development is happening and when you see her learning and seeing her brain figure things out and stuff. The bad part if all the work that goes into it. You know trying to figure out, it's like moving to solids. Oh no, I've got to figure out what food she has to eat, and like uh you know? It's that. It's watching her grow into this person. It's the good that makes you smile and laugh. And also, how much joy she brings to other people. That just fills me up so much. She brings a lot of joy to other people. But the bad is the work. It's just a lot of work.
NL: So, the other theme that they cite as part of matrescence is trying to integrate part of the fantasy about motherhood that a woman might hold, and you know that these things are informed by lots of stuff. Like anything that she might see from other things in her life, certainly relative, social media friends in any culture, etc. etc., that kind of inform fantasies. So, I'm curious if you had any fantasies of motherhood and how you were able reconcile those? 7:40
S: I mean, fantasies for me, I loved dreaming about having a child and being able to teach that child, and watching them growing a good person. It was never about, oh I'm having a baby! Like I never dreamed about that part. It was about guiding that person and being able to give them love, and that's what I would think about. And the reality of motherhood, I find it kind of ironic is that I'm the youngest of seven kids, or eight kids, and we are all about year apart. And then I have siblings who have kids, so I wasn't exposed to that every day with their kids. But I pride myself, and I think that I'm a pretty empathetic person, but that like, I never really empathized with my sisters that have kids, like truly empathize with how much work they were going through, even though they told me. It's like you never kind of, because it's just like the frame of reference is so hard. And just how constant that work is. 8:39
NL: One of the other universal things they found was guilt, shame and/or struggling with accepting themselves as a "good enough mother." And in my field, there's a psychoanalyst, he's deceased now, he's sort of famous in my field. His name is David Winnicott, and he's the one who came up with these terms like "the ordinary good-enough mother," or "the devoted mother." He was I think just essentially trying to normalize that most parents are just fine. They are fine for their baby. However, I think the moms that I work with in psychotherapy and respond on the internet and things like that, that the idea of good enough feels like not good enough. So, I'm curious with the idea of accepting yourself as a mom and what you have to offer in regards to Cici.
S: Like, I have those moments where it's like, am I good enough? Or like, oh you know, she doesn't have enough vegetables. You know? And the other thing about us is that we are such a routine that when we get home from work we take care of her first. So, we feed her, then we bathe her, and then we put her to bed. But I have moments when I'm a little bit more forgiving of myself. I think for sure, as I listen to my friends who have older kids and stuff, about their social life and stuff, I feel like it almost gets harder. It's a different kind of hard the older they get and stuff. So, I feel like right now it's just making sure that she's fed and has a clean diaper, and love, and feels safe. And I'm going to guess, so that's going to probably be a lot more complex the older she gets and stuff. So, there is kind of an element of forgiving yourself. She's not judging you, so don't judge yourself. 10:30
NL: The other universal theme is the idea of motherhood being intergenerational. This isn't on here, but I actually read an article once. It was a research study about how a woman's voice, it sounds like her own mother's voice. So, there's this inevitable identification with whatever caregiver, whoever helped raise you that kind of influences your identity shaping as a mom. So, I'm kind of curious if there was someone in your family that might have influenced you on your style of mothering. And if there was anything that surprised you about your similarity or difference from your mother now that you’re a mom?
S: So, my mom is the bees’ knees. She has eight children and I still can't believe to this day how she did it. You know the first couple months when I was calling her every day and crying and stuff, she is telling me stop reading, put the books away, follow your gut. She would say that's what my mom would tell me. We had one book. It was Doctor Spock. You know? And everybody knew Doctor Spock. She would talk about how we didn't have all this research and everything. We just went by our gut. You know? And she had to say that to me quite a few times, but you know it does, it starts to sink in. And you start to realize humanity has existed for thousands of years, and I will figure this out.
NL: The very last theme that they note in this article is that there is a process of learning to cope for what they call a competition for your time, energy and resources. And there's a quote from this article, it says "your friends and family, including your spouse or partner will be competing with your attention with your baby. Motherhood itself will also compete for the time energy and resources you used to invest into your own eating, exercise, recreation, organization, sexuality, finances and work. You’ll have to navigate a shift in your role to all these people, places and yourself." I'm curious if that fits with your experience. And if so, what's been the toughest set of things to manage in competition?
S: So, I laugh because I am just so in the thick of this right now. I feel like we've gotten to a good rhythm. We have things kind of set and sort of know what to expect for the most part. It's not as chaotic as it was when she was a baby. But now I find that I have thought about, for twenty years I had my time to myself because we got married later too. And I was thinking I don't have any time for me. And I was telling my husband recently, like I cannot remember the last time I had 24 hours to myself, you know? And this is maybe where I feel guilty and I feel selfish. I don't have any answers to this other than I'm at a point where I've got to start taking care of myself. It’s funny because there's a constant message of this to moms. Like you've got to put yourself in priority. Don't forget about yourself. It's so easy to get stuck in that though. Because I think that for a few months now, I think I told my husband, I think I'm going to plan a weekend away. And he's like, yeah, totally! But it's like, stuff comes up. And it's so easy to de-prioritize it. It's like okay, I'll figure it out later or something like that. So, it's like at this moment I can see that I'm not my best self, or not my most giving self. I am at a time of like just going through the routine so I can get through it. It's like I feel tired. I don't eat well. So, it's all kind of like making me feel like I've got to take care of myself more. It's just hard because you get tired. I did have a life before this happened and that's what made me interesting and who I am. I guess I should cultivate that. But it's hard. 14:18
NL: I guess I am wondering if there's any other thing that you learned during this period that you wished you had known or wished that someone had pulled you aside and told you this, or you would have loved to have known this.
S: I mean the big thing for me that it is okay to feel more overwhelmed than to feel magically inspired. I think the other thing is that the newborn stage is a series of phases that constantly change, and as you figure out a phase, it will constantly change. But that it is all normal.
NL: I want to thank Sarah for being with us today. This podcast is brought to you by The Family Institute at Northwestern University, a nationally recognized leader in the field of behavioral health. We bring together the right partners to support, children, adults, couples and families across a lifespan. As researchers, educators and therapists, we work with our clients to see change. If you would like to request an appointment, please call us at 847-733-4300, ext. 263. You may also visit us at family-institute.org. And please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for relationship tools and for updates on new podcast episodes. Thanks so much for listening. 16:01
Sachs, A. (2017, May 8). The Birth of a Mother. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/well/family/the-birth-of-a-mother.html.