In her recent article, “The Birth of a Mother,” Dr. Alexandra Sacks identified four challenges in the process of becoming a mother, or “matrescence”: changing family dynamics, ambivalence, fantasy vs. reality and feelings of guilt and shame.
Hundreds of readers wrote about their own transitions into parenthood in the comments section of the article and on The Times’s Facebook page.
Some mothers talked about the strains of caring for a newborn while suffering from postpartum depression and how the biological need to nurture remains, even after losing a child. Others, including fathers and adoptive parents, shared their perspectives on raising children.
Although her article focused on mothers who give birth, Dr. Sacks said she hopes to expand on the experiences of other parents in a forthcoming book.
“The psychological experience described in my article affects new parents in all kinds of families,” Dr. Sacks said. “I thank the readers who pointed this out and enriched the discussion. Parenting is more than the oversimplified myth of bliss that has been idealized by our culture.”
Below is a selection of comments that have been edited for length and clarity.
‘It made me into a person with a mission’
Becoming a mother was the most transforming thing in my life. It made me, a party girl, a smoker and drinker, into a person with a mission — raise my son the best way I could. I read all child-rearing books I could find, I breast-fed my baby until, close to him being 1 year old, he refuse to take my breast anymore. He was too busy to do so. He was an easy baby and an amazing young kid and then a lovely youth.
My husband and I raised him with immense love. We encouraged him to spread his wings and fly away, and to be absolutely sure that we would always be there for him to turn to.
He is now a wonderful man.
The only thing is, we never tried to have another child, fearing that one does not win the lottery twice. And we sometimes regret it.
‘My body needed to be next to her’
Right up front: I appreciate and deeply respect the experiences of the many caregivers discussing this topic. There are many ways to be maternal (and parental).
However, the process of becoming a biological mother is more than a neat package of anatomical and psychological descriptors.
My daughter (my third child) lived for just three hours after her birth. But for the following 12-18 months, my body wasn’t part of that reality. On what felt like a cellular level, my body needed to be next to her, to touch her, to feed her, to nurture her … because the biological process of gestation had made her as much a part of my own physical self as she had been in utero. No amount of talk therapy or ‘getting on with life’ could change that.
It is this monumental — and irreducible — fact that sets ‘bio-moms’ apart from other superbly qualified parents.
‘A good mother is always a little bit selfish’
I’m lucky. I had my baby in Germany. I had a very difficult time with the birth but this was tempered by the fact that I had an amazing suite of doctors, midwives and nurses, who all worked together and placed just as much importance on the well-being of the mother as they did the baby.
In Germany, every woman has the right to a midwife who visits you at home for weeks afterward (fully paid by insurance). With all my reading, I still had a million questions and she was there to answer them and check on the progress of my baby. Nobody in Germany expects that mothers are superheroes. Most take a year off, and get supplemental money from the state. I used to snicker a bit at this. Then I had a baby.
12 weeks postpartum came and when I pictured having to leave him in day care, the tears streamed down my face. I was lucky, as I worked part-time from home and hired a nanny for 10 euros/hr to help me. When he was screaming and I knew there was nothing I could do, I did not feel guilty handing him over to her for a much-needed mental break.
My grandmother said, a good mother is always a little bit selfish. The U.S. needs to support parents far more than they do — children are our collective future.
‘I couldn’t raise my child the way he raised me’’
My life was transformed when I became a father. Something I still don’t really understand happened when my daughter was born and I started giving her those middle of the night feedings. That’s when my experiences decades earlier during the war began returning — some strange sort of veil was ripped away. And that’s when I had to confront my legacy from my father, and decide that I couldn’t raise my child the way he raised me.
‘Adoption is transformative too’
Becoming a mother through adoption is transformative, too, and this article ought to have at least mentioned it, because the adjustment “postpartum/ante-bonding” issues are similar, yet greatly compounded by society’s view that adoption is “not as good” as “the real thing.”
Adoptive moms can be deeply depressed because grief over infertility traumas linger and the stresses of the adoption process are intense, because of the repressed guilt of having the privilege to take and love someone else’s child, the huge responsibility to give that child “a better life,” the feeling that other people — especially biological moms — are watching you and your children especially closely, waiting to prove that “biological is better” when you or the kids may falter in any public way (tantrums, school problems, troubles with authority, etc., that bio-kids struggle with as well), and because, in the case of transnational/transracial adoptions, people still don’t believe loving a child who looks “so different” could possibly ever work.
I commend the author for emphasizing that the transition to motherhood is psychologically very difficult for many women, even though they want with all their hearts to be a “good mother.” Yet by not mentioning adoptive moms, she perpetuates society’s view that they are somehow unreal, unnatural, less fit beings. Adoptive moms are working doubly hard — to become the mother they’ve always wanted to be, and to be the mother the child’s bio-mother could not be.
‘I’m the primary nurturer as well as the primary breadwinner’’
I am a gay dad with twin sons, born through a process of IVF and surrogacy. I’m the primary nurturer as well as the primary breadwinner. You know, juggle, juggle, juggle. In my own world, a number of close friends and more distant relatives and acquaintances seem quite interested in my own journey into “matrescence” but I never see anything like it acknowledged in articles like this.
While I accept that I belong to a tiny, tiny minority of parents, it still seems weird to me that articles like this equate “motherhood” with conventional biological motherhood, and define out of the equation everyone else: women who adopt, women who use donated eggs, women who use their own eggs but have a surrogate carrier, women who use donated eggs and a surrogate carrier, stepmothers, women with blended families, etc. And not to mention men, who apparently have no emotional or physical involvement with raising children, and who apparently don’t suffer from any of the constricted social roles and expectations that the article discusses regarding women.
‘I was terrified to repeat my postpartum experience’
I waited 8 years to have a second child. I was terrified to repeat my postpartum experience, so in an effort to change my own perception of self-worth, I applied to a Ph.D. program during the last trimester of my second pregnancy.
I was accepted only a few weeks after my daughter was born. The trick I played on myself worked. The overwhelming sense of being “just a mother” never pulled me under as it had the first time.
Still, I’m 3 years into my program now and not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if there might have been an easier way to slay that particular dragon…
‘Motherhood is what you make it’
As a woman who has fostered 3 babies (who all were reunified with family) and is now 7 months pregnant with my first biological child, I think motherhood is what you make it.
I felt like a mother when I fostered, and love those children dearly. I consider this new baby to be my 4th child, not my first. Yes, hormones are powerful. But the parental instinct is also powerful. Every parent struggles, but half the battle is making sure you use/build/develop your support network. Whether that’s ice cream with a friend who’s also in the trenches of parenting or a good therapist (or both).