The Misrepresentation of Parenthood. Debunking the Mother Myth.

By Maria Garcia Tejon

My experience of motherhood cut me open like lightning. Of course you would think motherhood might have that shocking effect, unlike any other thing in this world. After all, I created and birthed a life. How natural and how magical!

And the kind of opening I am talking about is indeed magical and so much more complex than that.

As a new mum I felt petrified. I lived in what felt like a state of emergency, I cried every day unsure of the cause. A feeling I felt would never ever lift. I tried so hard to hang onto any resemblance of who I was, tried to anchor myself to those familiar versions of me that existed before motherhood. My previous selves were like water running out of my hands.

I lost myself. I changed my hairstyle 5 times in less than a year in a desperate need to take control over who I was and how I was seen.

I didn’t recognise myself anymore. In a matter of hours I acquired this new identity as a mother, suddenly dropping all other versions of me. My world dramatically shrunk to a dyad, to a merging with my daughter. Almost everything else seemed to have disappeared, or at least paused. That concentration of my world into that relationship contained an abyss. Miniscule and Vast, both, and coexisting. This is the first lesson of motherhood: how to live in extremes cohabiting constantly. At times, it felt unbearable to hold.

Needless to say I was NOT expecting to feel like this.

My thoughts and those of people who love and care for me were of postnatal depression and so called ‘baby blues’. Now, ‘baby blues’ is a lot of crap, a very misleading and mistaken term. I believe it is profoundly unhelpful.

This is the NHS (2018) definition of baby blues: ‘The baby blues’:

During the first week after childbirth, many women get what’s often called the “baby blues”. Women can experience a low mood and feel mildly depressed at a time when they expect they should feel happy after having a baby. “Baby blues” are probably due to the sudden hormonal and chemical changes that take place in your body after childbirth. Symptoms can include:

  • feeling emotional and bursting into tears for no apparent reason 
  • feeling irritable or touchy
  • low mood
  • anxiety and restlessness

All these symptoms are normal and usually only last for a few days.’

Back to my first months of motherhood. I discarded the diagnosis of ‘baby blues’ because my feelings continued passed those 2 weeks stipulated in the definition above. Anything overstepping that duration is viewed as postpartum depression (PND).

So, I was left with postpartum depression… As any symptoms that don’t fit the absolute bliss of the motherhood narrative (in my case fear, emergency, sadness, anger, confusion) lasting more than 2 weeks fall automatically into that diagnosis.

But my symptoms didn’t quite fit the PND diagnosis either.

So, I started asking around, talking to other mums and explaining how I was feeling.

I was taken aback by the immediate recognition and relatability of my feelings. Suddenly I was allowed into that secret mother’s club, a club you might be allowed in if you are lucky enough to know some honest and open mothers.

The big question for me was:

‘Why aren’t we talking about this openly?’

I started to research motherhood and perinatal mental health supported by my own experience.

The cause of this secrecy and repression stems from the unrealistic cultural narrative about motherhood. The infuriating ‘baby blues’ definition catches the gist of it.

WORDS MATTER. It’s through our vocabulary that we construct and make meaning of the world.

Reducing the birthing person’s experience of the major life changes of motherhood to a chemical imbalance robs us of our agency. Implying that our complex array of feelings that unfold after giving birth are illogical and something to be suspicious about. This view of parenthood amounts to an attack on our wellbeing, having a huge detrimental impact on our mental health.

The misnomer ‘baby blues’ suggests we should ‘bounce back’ as fast as possible, not honouring the sacredness of birth and the life changes that this rite of passage creates and reveals. This leaves parents isolated and unsupported when we most need the support.

‘Baby blues’ ignores the woman’s / birthing person’s experience as the centrality of the transition, reducing them to mere chemical and hormonal changes that should be dealt with within a few days of postpartum.

Something wonderful happened when I came across the work of Dana Raphael (1970), her particular way of understanding motherhood and her term ‘Matrescence.’

In our society the concept of ‘Matrescence’ is mostly unknown, which in itself is highly significant. Alternatively, the concept of baby blues is what we are stuck with and I believe this is such a loss.

The wonderful term ‘Matrescence’ explains motherhood as a transition birthing people step into as they learn what it means to be a parent. A process that develops as birthing people navigate through the tremendous changes of motherhood. Welcoming and honouring a whole array of feelings that these changes awaken. ‘Matrescence’ normalises the emotional turbulence of birth and beyond and gives voice to real and more resolved concept of motherhood.

In contrast, the dominant view of motherhood has been shaped by our western capitalistic, patriarchal and globalised society. And so we are left with a 2 dimensional impossible portrait. If our society addressed the real experience of parenthood we would have to admit its neglect and lack of support that has detrimental effects on mental health.

It is very ‘convenient’ for that type of society to push birthing people and their partners to bounce back immediately after becoming parents. It is my belief that this is done by misrepresenting, ignoring and repressing the real and difficult parenthood experience so they don’t take up resources, pushing them to be producing as quickly as possible at expense of their own emotional and physical health.

Depression during the perinatal stages is unfortunately very common in our society. This is not surprising when the neglect begins with our social care system; collectively we are ignoring the experiences parenthood awakens in people, hence creating the environment in which obstetric violence continues to be accepted. The outcomes being: trauma during pregnancy and birth, lifelong pelvic floor problems, postpartum misrepresentation, depression, and that’s just to name a few. Parents are passive agents throughout the perinatal stages. In 2013 the Birth Rights Charity was founded to protect the human rights of birthing people, ensuring respectful care during pregnancy and childbirth.

From a Gestalt approach I understand depression as a function of the field; the depressive symptoms are a co-creation between the person presenting them and their environment. Our society has created an unachievable model of motherhood. All other experiences that don’t fit this ideal risk becoming repressed (retroflected). For some people, not recognising their experiences as being modelled in our society can result in feelings of shame, isolation, inadequacy, feelings that (they) are not allowed. Unsurprisingly, this usually results in people struggling on their own, turning all those feelings inside, desperately trying to ‘fit in’.

Continuing with the Gestalt understanding of depression it is crucial to attend to the loss that comes with parenthood. The loss that is usually denied and most often silenced by the ideal portrait of parenthood, filled with impositions of happiness and completion for a woman’s life. There is no beginning without an end. The end in motherhood is the loss of previous identity as we step into a new one, the loss of our life as we knew it, how we related to others and our relationships, and how we organised our world. Parenthood comes with massive loss which is rarely acknowledged. As the feelings of happiness and bliss are true, they cannot invalidate the whole of this multifaceted experience. The losses are often resisted and denied at a societal level. Collectively, we don’t support the grieving process of parenthood.

This brings me to the universal agreement that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. In our culture there is no village, family life is very insular, living far away from extended family and friends being very common. This, in itself is a tremendous loss which in current times has been sadly amplified with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Francis Weller (2015) writes, ‘At the core of this grief is our longing to belong. This longing is wired into us by necessity. It assures our safety and our ability to extend out into the world with confidence. This feeling of belonging is rooted in the village and, at times, in extended families. It was in this setting that we emerged as a species. It was in this setting that what we require to become fully human was established.’

Coming back to my early experience of motherhood, I want to acknowledge that I had lost my identity and my life as I knew it. I was overwhelmed by the demands of a tiny human who in order to survive needed me 24/7. My relationships reconfigured, especially the one with my husband. Our union shifted as we became three, my partner and I drifted apart as our past identities vanished. We didn’t know how to meet anymore, because we were different people but we still didn’t know it, we were in the midst of it and we couldn’t see the woods for the trees. It’s impossible to meet the other when we cannot see ourselves. My recovering body pulsating, incredibly corporeal aching, I felt emotionally unable to touch my episiotomy for weeks, producing milk and with my organs slowly finding space encouraged by my baby’s suckling. I fell in love with my body, I felt like a witch with magic powers and I was empowered.

No wonder I was grappling with my experience!

All of this does not take 40 days; postpartum lasts around two years.

There is no ‘back’ to return to, we step into a new identity that will transform us. In my case it is constantly unfolding. It took me around two years to make sense of my motherhood, to find out who I was with this new title, to know myself, to feel myself and to be born as a mother. I am not the person I was before having my daughter, nor do I want to be. Becoming a mother has changed me in ways I didn’t anticipate, redefining my womanhood, my relationships and my path in life.

References

Francesetti G. & Roubal J., (2020). ‘Gestalt Therapy Approach to Depressive Experiences’. Psychotherapie-Wissenschaft 10 (2) 39–45

NHS (2018). Feeling depressed after childbirth. Baby Blues. Reviewed webiste information. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/support-and-services/feeling-depressed-after-childbirth/

Raphael D. (1975) Being Female: Reproduction, Power and Change. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Weller F. (2015). The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.


Hello, my name is Maria Garcia I am a psychologist and psychotherapist; MBACP registered. With over 10 years’experience in mental health and psychotherapy in varied positions and diverse population, I have now extensive experience with adults, adolescents and families from disadvantaged groups, at risk of exclusion, suicide, abuse, self-harm, low self-esteem, anxiety with learning disabilities and addiction problems.

Having worked in the UK, Spain and Germany, I have worked together with the German and Spanish child protection services, and managed a fostering organisation as well as therapeutic and personal development groups.

My special interest is in perinatal mental health. Since becoming a mother I realised how unsupported, misunderstood and misrepresented parenthood is in our society. I offer support to couples and individuals through conception, pregnancy, birth and postpartum.

I offer sessions in English and Spanish. www.mariagarciapsychotherapy.com


UKAGP Newsletter, Autumn 2021
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