How Motherhood Changed Me
All too soon, every mother finds herself home alone with her baby. Then a whole new life begins. In Discovering Motherhood Heidi Brennan, mother of five and director of public policy for Mothers at Home, says she had no idea how she would feel once she brought her first child home from the hospital.
I wasn't able to adequately anticipate how I would feel about my new baby as well as about myself and our new life as a family As I left the hospital, I was overwhelmed by unfamiliar feelings of protectiveness and even fear. I did not want to let my new son out of my sight. At the same time, I did not know how I would possibly take care of him.
Although her mother came to stay with her for several weeks, and her husband worked shorter hours to provide her with physical and emotional support, eventually they went back to their professional lives, and this new mother was left home alone in a too quiet house with her son, forcing her to answer the question, "Who was I now that I was a mother?"
While I knew I was the same person, I also felt myself to be different. My bonds with my son had grown stronger. I had begun to change my expectations about motherhood. Having a child had transformed me, and now I wasn't sure what my new life meant and how I was going to live it. I had become an adult in a culture that said, "Don't base your identity on motherhood." Yet how was I to explain my intense desire to give my time to our new baby? I felt that society was asking me to ignore my feelings and to believe that it was wrong to make child rearing the central focus of my life. I was not prepared for this internal conflict, and I felt alone as I struggled with it.
Heidi captures the dilemma many new mothers face in this culture. While they have a professional identity, they haven't yet forged an identity as a mother. So when they come home from the hospital with engorged breasts that incessantly drip milk and they can only fit into maternity clothes and rise every hour or two to answer the call of the wild, life can be depressing. And isolating.
Heidi told me, "That's why I call those early months of mothering the boot camp of motherhood. A woman loses her identity as a worker and is home alone, asking, What is a mother? What's my mission? Do people still value me? How do I feel when my baby cries? What can I do when I feel helpless?"
It doesn't help in those early days of struggle when coworkers and friends call from the office and ask, "When are you coming back?" The struggle to care for their babies and deal with loneliness may be more than some women can handle. Some women cut their maternity leave short because the house is just too quiet, the neighborhood too empty, life too lonely, the baby too demanding. Heidi admits that she felt a decided sense of loss after her baby was born.
Home alone, my adjustment to motherhood was a time of stress and confusion. It was not that I couldn't ever "get out." But trips to the market and walks in my neighborhood did not replace what I needed most the frequent and spontaneous contact with people who knew me, cared about me, respected me and included me in their daily activities. I had enjoyed this type of support at my former workplace, and now I missed it.
Heidi was comforted by the realization that the transition to at-home motherhood was somewhat similar to making a job change. In taking on the new career of motherhood, she knew she would need to learn new skills, handle new responsibilities and find supportive new relationships. She allowed herself to feel sad at the loss of her work identity. "As I started to accept the loss, I was able to get to know the 'mother within me.' " For Heidi Brennan, that meant drawing on the positive relationship she had always had with her own mother and forging a mothering identity that was uniquely her own.
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