“Mothers will do anything. I knew that going into my research for this story,” writes Claire Howorth in her cover article for TIME magazine from October 30th, 2017. “But for all the communal aspects of bearing and raising children, for all the prescriptions we follow on the path of shaping another human, motherhood is a uniquely individual experience. Even amid harsh self-reflection, the moms I spoke to who had been let down ultimately concluded as much. “After the birth, I saw how judgmental I was about parenting styles,” New York City mom Margaret Nichols says. “I realized we all have our path and way of thinking, and what works for each mother is exactly perfect for that child.” Says Seana Norvell, who recently gave birth to her third child: “What I’ve learned is there are some things you can control, but there is a lot you can’t. We just have to give ourselves a break and do the best we can.”
Howorth continues, “Motherhood in the connected era doesn’t have to be dominated by any myth. Social media can just as easily help celebrate our individual experience and create community through contrast. Moms have to stick together even as we walk our separate paths. We have to spot the templates and realize there are no templates. We have to talk about our failures and realize there are no failures.”
I highlight these two paragraphs from the end of Howorth’s article because to me, they’re what we should be paying attention to. Her overall message is that women are buying into “The Goddess Myth.” We’re supposed to aspire to — but then feel shame and disappointment if we’re anything less than — the picture of mothering perfection. I agree 100% that this myth can be very hurtful to women.
But I’m not sure that Howorth’s article answers the subtitle: “Motherhood is supposed to be all about love and joy. So why do so many moms feel so bad?” The article seems to claim that the pendulum, now swinging toward choices like “natural” birth and breastfeeding, are why women are feeling so bad about motherhood.
I believe the real reason so many moms feel so bad is that whatever choices they make central to their experiences of pregnancy, birth and parenting — they’re not feeling adequately prepared for the reality of those choices.
Inadequate preparation leads to false expectations. Add to this that most women are socialized to keep up the appearance of mothering perfection (rather than admit to the messy reality that mothering usually is) and the end result is that too many women are being set up.
They’re being set up to feel disappointment in their new role as mother — and this is at least as hurtful as buying into The Goddess Myth.
Why? Because we can’t mother from a place of confidence and joy if we’re stuck in disappointment.
What lies in the space between expectation and reality is always the potential for disappointment. And the farther apart reality is from expectation, the greater the disappointment.
But when we’re talking about pregnancy, birth and parenting, the potential exists for far more than just disappointment. Real, emotional trauma is possible when our reality doesn’t match our expectation, because these events are life-changing.
Where do these expectations come from?
Your Own Birth Story
What were you told about the day you were born? What do you know of your own story? The details of your birth story and the way in which this story has been shared with you over time, create expectations about pregnancy, birth and parenting from a very young age. This information is most often shared by the most influential teacher you’ll ever have — your own mother.
If your mother told you how much she hated pregnancy, that it was a miserable time in her life, this will leave a mark. Likewise, if she tells the story of your birth, describing it as “the worst pain imaginable” you’d be hard-pressed not to have negative expectations about labor and delivery.
In contrast, if she shares with you that pregnancy and birth were intense, but overall, positive experiences for her, then this will become the foundation upon which you build your own expectations about these experiences. Instead of being fearful, you might actually be excited and look forward to becoming a mother.
Back in the day, when a baby was born on TV or in the movies, scenes of birth were never shown. The woman would be wheeled into labor and delivery after giving her partner a kiss goodbye as he’d wait with all the other expectant fathers for the good news. The baby wouldn’t be seen until the end of the show when they’d reunite as a family.
Today, you can see it all — and I do mean all. Today, on TV shows or movies, it would be strange not to rush into the labor and delivery unit right along with the laboring woman and see all the action as it plays out.
If it’s a comedy, she’ll be surrounded by her entourage ripping off witty remarks while she screams, “You did this to me!” or “Give me drugs!” at the top of her voice.
If it’s a drama, her partner will be freaking out as the medical team does everything possible to save Momma and the baby during what will, of course, be an emergency delivery.
But that’s not all, you can go to YouTube and see all kinds of birth!
Here’s a woman following a choreographed dance created by her OB! Here’s a woman having a water birth at home unassisted! Here’s a baby being born on the way to the hospital — and somehow the Dad is driving and filming the birth of his baby at the same time!
All of these images play a part in shaping expectations around pregnancy and birth.
Many women will say these sources of expectation are not influential in creating expectations. But in this interesting study, research shows that many women underestimate the influence that popular media plays in the creation of expectations around pregnancy and birth.
With the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest (among others…) the reality of new mothering has been co-opted to capture only the fun, the beautiful, the “perfect” moments of motherhood.
I think social media probably plays a much larger role than women report (or even recognize) as being influential on their expectations about parenting. But there’s an even bigger issue with social media and that is it has created an arena for judgement without impunity.
It’s too easy to judge one another as irresponsible or inadequate to the task of parenting when we communicate hiding behind the tiny thumbnail avatar we’ve created for our online persona. Most people would never repeat what they say online if they were communicating face to face with a real, live human being.
But no matter the sources of expectation, these expectations get bolstered up by inadequate or incomplete preparation for these major, life-changing events.
It makes no difference where the expectations come from — if we move into pregnancy, birth and parenting without anyone questioning those expectations, without anyone providing a more complete picture of the potential realities of our experience — the distance between expectation and reality will climb. And so will disappointment.
There’s shared responsibility in shoring up this gap between expectation and reality both from parents and those of us who work to support them.
Expectant parents should consider borrowing a method of information-gathering from the field of social sciences called, triangulation.
Triangulation means gathering information from at least three different sources that come to the same conclusion. This way, you can be more confident that the information is accurate and without bias.
It’s easy for us to find information that confirms what we already believe. Confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s own existing beliefs or theories, is a very real thing in the world of birth and parenting.
And while this makes sense — there’s no other time in your life that you’ll feel more vulnerable than when you say yes to becoming a parent — it can be a problem. In an effort to shore up those feelings of vulnerability and insecurity around the big decisions you need to make as a parent, you might end up looking only at sources of information that support, rather than challenge, your decisions.
Triangulation of information might help you feel more secure in making those decisions knowing that they’re based on current, unbiased, and evidence-based information.
But it’s not just expectant parents — we all need to do our part.
In whatever role we’re playing in the world of pregnancy, birth and parenting — be that the mother, the partner, the provider, the childbirth educator, the L&D nurse, the doula, the lactation consultant, the best friend, the new grandparent, the TV producer, the author, the screenwriter — if we’re not creating realistic expectations of all that pregnancy, birth and parenting might be, we’re not helping women step into their new role as mother with confidence or the ability to parent from a place of joy.
As birth professionals, it’s paramount that the information provided be complete and include the benefits, alternatives and risks associated with any decision they might make about pregnancy, birth and parenting.
Women need to know that there really is no “right” way to do these things aside from gathering unbiased and evidence-based information and then making the very best decision they can, ideally using a shared-decision making model with all the members of their birth team.
Women finding themselves disappointed in their mothering reality should question when that disappointment began, and how much it reflects inadequate or incomplete preparation for the realities of pregnancy, birth and parenting.
It’s important that the pendulum not swing too far in the other direction. Lately, there seems to be a wave of essays, articles, videos, and characters on TV shows and movies who share how much being a mother sucks. This seems to be a backlash against The Goddess Myth, but it might be going too far. And I think this is hurtful, too.
The reality of mothering is that it’s more likely to be: “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” (A little nod to the Peace Corps ads from the 70s for this phrase…)
Mothering will challenge you in every way imaginable.
There will be days that you’ll second-guess every decision you make from the minute you wake up until your head hits the pillow at night. You’ll have times when you think this might just be the stupidest idea you’ve ever had and that you’re not up to the task.
But I promise you, you will also have times where you’ll feel more alive and more in love than you ever thought possible. There will be days where you rock motherhood so hard, you amaze yourself!
But in order to have these good days, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.
You need to look for sources of unbiased, evidence-based information. Then, seek out supportive people and professionals who will gently challenge any unrealistic expectations you might have so you can begin to close that gap between expectation and reality.
Once the issue of disappointment is addressed, women can drop The Goddess Myth altogether — and get on with the messy, beautiful reality that is mothering.
Have you bought into The Goddess Myth, or do you reject it out of hand? Have you felt disappointed in your new role and thought to yourself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me it might be like this?” What would have helped you prepare better for motherhood? I’d love to hear your responses.