The Trauma of Motherhood

Beginning with the sexual revolution, and supported by No-Fault divorce and the New Psychology of Women, women in the last 50 years have found their voice and exercised it increasingly on their own behalf.  While gender inequity still exists and women are still securing their footing, no longer are they accepting a back seat to men in any arena of self-expression, including their sexuality.  Women no longer apologize for having different needs -- such as being too “emotional” or “needing to connect” -- but instead claim the right to satisfy them in their own way.  When husbands cannot rise to the challenge, and/or the needs of her family overwhelm her, women may either become depressed or, in desperation, look outside their marriage to satisfy their needs and revive their withering sense of self.   

How does it happen that modern women, who by all indications should no longer feel silenced or oppressed, nevertheless have trouble being heard and holding onto their sense of self when they marry and have a family? The problem is not just with their husbands.  The problem lies within woman herself.  Women hold onto an insidious double standard that causes them to chronically and unwittingly override their own needs in the pursuit of a happy home.  Women have been socialized –and are physiologically wired—to be nurturers and caretakers of their children, husbands and family.  From day one girls are taught to consider the needs of others as being more important than their own.  Consequently, women learn to feel better about themselves the more they give and the less they cause discomfort by imposing their needs on others.  

Often, it seems, it is the woman who is socialized to hold the greater capacity and motivation to compromise, sacrifice, and consider the needs of others as being more important than hers.  While not a doormat or an unequal partner --indeed even as she grabs her briefcase for work-- the modern woman gladly compromises away her personal desires for the sake of a happy family. She places a greater premium on the greatest good for all; she feels more uncomfortable with the label of “selfish”; she has less tolerance for others’ discomfort.  With each choice and every decision, in what appears to be consensus or compromise, the marital playing field becomes unbalanced due to differently socialized gender roles.   A woman’s reward is harmony, not victory; her primary and personal satisfaction comes from meeting her family’s needs rather than her own.  Not only is the vision of a good wife and mother supported and venerated by society, but it is seamlessly motivated by a woman’s own internal value system and her sense of self worth. From both within herself and outside, the archetypal notion of the good mother is reinforced and secured in place, silencing and subverting a woman’s voice and her essential connection to her self.  

The demands of marriage and motherhood require a kind of devotion and sacrifice that can have vast and insidious consequences.  In the pursuit of the most meaningful, wonderful gift of raising healthy children, a woman can unwittingly do damage to herself.  The good mother –indeed, a “mother” by definition – subjugates her needs to those of her family in order to feel whole and complete.  No longer is she unto herself; no longer is she one.  Now she exists as part of the whole; indeed, she is the very hub of it. The moment her baby’s first cry is heard, a woman’s life changes.  Suddenly her own sense of purpose on the planet is tied to her child’s survival.   Quite instinctively she realizes that now more than ever she needs to secure her own seatbelt, not for her own safety but because her child needs a mother.  Her work life and personal pleasures take a back seat to fulfilling her dream of being a good mother; creating a happy home presides over all her decisions.  The most beautiful, satisfying bond in life operates like a sweet parasitic force, draining a mother of her milk in order to raise a secure, healthy, successful adult child.  A mother’s life is now no longer her own, but instead occupies its rightful place in the long tradition of passing on her lifeblood to sustain another. Nothing –not even her own life - feels as important.  In pursuit of the most meaningful, wonderful gift of raising healthy children in a harmonious home, the good wife and mother ends up damaging herself.  Reinforced by society, by the pride in selfless giving, and by the thriving nature of the child, the spouse, and the family unit, her selfless sacrifices are reinforced and secured in place, silencing and subverting the voices within. Motherhood and marriage – our two most sacred institutions --  can break a woman’s spirit.  

This primary and wholesale shift from self to other can be as traumatizing to women as it is invisible and unnamed.  In pursuit of the happy and harmonious home, using all of the skills she knows, and with the best interest of their children at heart, women everywhere are sacrificing their core well-being to the impossible and outdated ideals of ‘the good mother’ and ‘the good wife.’  So ingrained and universal are these roles; so morally upright are the values they represent, that even the most evolved women instinctively and joyfully pursue these values without hesitation.  Unfortunately, over time, these wise and willing women deplete themselves and ultimately lose their very connection to who they are. Supported and sustained by the emotional deals men and women are socialized to make, these venerated roles often end up causing her to lose the essential lifeline to her core being.  This assault to a woman’s well-being strikes at the core of her ability to function and self regulate, and over time erodes the very foundation on which mothering is based.  No longer are her own needs accessible to her as her desires and yearnings go chronically unmet, unnoticed, and unfulfilled.  The selfless caretaking of ones marriage and family can quite unwittingly destroy a healthy ego and leave behind an empty shell as the years erode a woman’s once vital individuality. Disappearing into the happiness of the whole, an abandoned shadow of her once vibrant self awaits a woman after her work is done.  

Noble and depleted, women from all walks of life appear in therapy offices as faded images of who they once were.  While this can occur at any point in a woman’s life, women are often most vulnerable after the children are grown and their “second adulthood” begins.  This is often the time when women re-awaken and claim the right to take care of their own needs.  With menopause often marking the passage, women acutely feel the clock ticking.  “If not now, when” drives their desire to return to a long abandoned self and author their own lives, lest time runs out.  Although the confusion and despair are deeply disquieting, this “mid-life transition” often marks the opportunity for the greatest change in a woman’s life.  Desperate to return home to herself, this crisis offers the opportunity to revisit and reawaken dormant parts of herself, and reconstruct them into a new whole.