Many women enter motherhood without having their own mothers present in their lives. Whether they've lost their mothers to death or to distance, emotional or physical, motherlessness is especially poignantly felt in the postpartum period when women need tenderness and nurturing nearly as much as their newborn babies do. Creating a baby, giving birth and sustaining a new, dependent life requires a kind of prolonged openness and outflow of energy that can drain even the most resourced of us. In my mind I have an image of a new mother, babe in arms, glancing behind her to see who's there – looking for a face more familiar than her own, who can give her a smile and a nod, conveying her essential safety. She’s looking for arms dedicated to catching her, catching the baby should it fall. She’s looking for maternal sustenance for her own body and soul as she is now sustaining this small being at her own breast. When there is no such maternal figure standing at the ready behind her, the new mother is left to generate and give without the promise of a particularly critical kind of replenishment. And in place of the longed for nurturance and care, a painful emptiness opens inside the new mom, a space in her gut full of grief, fear and longing. Sometimes the grief, fear and longing stem from very old wounds that have always ached a bit but have never made themselves known so viscerally or been felt so acutely until this woman became a mother herself. With the birth of a new baby the motherless mom's pain can be immense, sometimes all consuming. This pain is one variety of the suffering we commonly call Postpartum Depression.
By and large, our concepts of parenthood are created by our experiences as children. In other words, we become parents in response to how our parents cared for - or didn't care for us, from the moment of our conception on. For some, our childhood experiences have a great deal of clarity and consciousness about them; we've given a lot of thought to the parenting we received and we've formed ideas about how we might parent our children based on our assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of our families of origin. For others, less clarity exists and while we are still profoundly influenced by our early lives, we are perhaps less aware of the dynamics at play underneath our parenting styles. As a brand new mom cradles her just born baby in her arms, whether she's aware of it or not, she draws from her own early experience as a baby in her mother's arms. What did mother's arms feel like around her little body? Was it a safe place to be? How did it feel to be seen through her mother's eyes? Was she wanted? Adored? Or was she unwanted, often left alone, perhaps unwelcome in her mother's world? For nearly all of us, there are ways in which our needs were well met and ways in which they weren’t. Those early needs, both met and unmet, become highly relevant during the postpartum period.
When our mother is "good enough", not necessarily extraordinary or perfect, but merely good enough, we are able to attach to her in a secure way. That attachment creates a secure base from which we have the luxury of expanding; our sense of self and of the world at large is based on that early secure template. We draw from this warm connection when and we usually have an intuitive sense of how to be a mother, of how to give without receiving back, of how to go easy on ourselves when we're overwhelmed and also how to connect with our child, through our eyes, our touch, our voices. For those moms who have a healthy attachment history, the absence of their mother in their lives can awaken a deep grief over the loss of her and a longing for what they once had. The circle of life feels broken; as this new mom holds her baby, there is no mother there to hold her. Yet there is a sense of what needs to be given to the new baby, be it cognitive know-how or body memory, some innate knowledge and confidence exists inside the new mom. There is a positive internal reference point for what mothering looks and feels like, there to guide the new mom as she unfolds into her own experience of motherhood. This motherless mom will no doubt be flooded with grief and love in turn, as she connects to the place in her consciousness where her mother exists and as she feels into her yearning for the comfort and support that she is needing now, in her vulnerable fledgling state. Mothering a young infant turns us into babies ourselves; we need the same kind of care lavished upon us that we are lavishing on our baby (food, cleaning, comfort, soothing). And it's the most natural thing in the world to look to our own mothers to guide and support us in this developmental stage. This new mom needs reassurance around having all these messy, seemingly mismatched and conflicting feelings. She needs reassurance that her own feelings won't harm the baby or her connection with the baby. It's alright to be full of feeling, in fact, it's natural! It's alright to be sad and happy at the same time. It's alright to cry and also to ask for a lot of love and support. The baby is a gift, opening you to your grief and allowing you to heal at a very deep, core level. The baby is a genetic, spiritual and psychological connection to your mother.
For moms who didn't have an established, secure connection with their mothers, there is also incredible grief in motherhood. Inside of these moms who received inadequate mothering it seems as though there is no template, no recollection within their bones of how it feels to be mothered.
How do I do this thing called mothering? How do I keep my baby from inheriting all of my emotional pain? How can I reach into the empty place inside of me, where a reservoir of good mothering should be, and pull out something substantial, something wonderful and beyond adequate for this precious new person? Who do I look to for guidance and reassurance? I need to know I'm doing a good job.
These new moms often get caught up in trying to be perfect. A perfect, flawless performance as mom seems like the only way to avoid falling into despair, and/or becoming like mother. Perfection is a defense against feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. The fantasy is...
If I do everything for this baby exactly right, baby will have none of my wounds. Mistakes as a mother are unacceptable.
The path of perfection is paved with high anxiety. Fears of screwing up, of not being a good mom, of baby not loving mom, begin to come alive in mom's consciousness in some predictable places. Perfectionism seems to be both a predictive factor in this kind of anxiety as well as a coping mechanism for it. When there has been no model for flawed but "good enough" mothering in the mom's personal history, she may tend to see motherhood in black and white terms - either all good or all bad. My mother was bad and she hurt me deeply, and I need to be good and never allow my baby to hurt. Or for those moms who are still living under the spell of an idealized (but actually terribly wounding) mother, I too need to be ideal and perfect. An insecure mom can easily misread a baby's fussiness as a rejection of her. If I was a good mom, this baby would stop crying! If I was a good mom, this baby would nurse happily and be well nourished by my breast!
Efforts toward perfection may start in pregnancy and birth, with mom having a very clear plan that perhaps goes awry. As in all critical, highly charged moments, the best possible outcomes are created when mom is respectfully consulted and given choices when circumstances require her to veer from her desired path. A pregnancy or birth that necessitates unexpected intervention or encounters real or perceived threats to mom or baby will likely be deeply disturbing. This is where having a secure, warm connection with a mother can make a profound difference in the speed and trajectory of recovery. Where there is a history of having been mothered well, there is receptivity to support. Where there is no internal template in mom for "How To Be Well Taken Care Of", there will be a more challenging recovery and perhaps a greater likelihood of experiencing expectable postpartum stress as traumatic.
In the early weeks of a newborn's life, a great deal of energy is focused on feeding challenges. Many moms who are committed to breastfeeding their babies, but who encounter challenges with latch, supply, sleep deprivation, illness or pain find themselves torn apart as they are forced to make decisions to feed their babies in ways that don't match their perfect plan.
A spouse who is also a first time parent is often rattled and needy, suffering from stress and sleep deprivation much like mom. He (or she) may have two crying dependents on his hands, neither of whom he feels able to soothe. He may be devoted, determined and dedicated, but he is not a biological mother. His contributions and presence are vital and make an immense difference in a new mom's sense of struggling versus suffering. But in those weeks and months following a birth, a woman feels a particular need for a mother.
A motherless mom's pain is compounded by the cultural expectation that giving birth to a new baby brings bliss and fulfillment. There are so many examples of how easy it should be - moms with multiple children, single moms, moms who also work full-time jobs, (skinny!) new moms in high heels and make-up.
It feels as though it shouldn't be hard. Something's wrong with me. Not only do I not have the support of a loving mother to guide and nourish me, there's also something deeply wrong with me in that I don't love being a mother, that I'm not sure I should have ever had this baby. It doesn't come easily to me, I'm working so hard to hit all the marks with breastfeeding, soothing, connecting...and it feels like hard work most of the time. What's wrong with me?
In those early weeks and months postpartum it's very difficult to tease apart our own attachment wounds from our present day parenting struggles - the unremarkable garden variety ones that while extremely challenging to adapt to, are reasonably expectable. For moms with postpartum depression or anxiety, some significant part of the pain is related to the reality of current loss (of freedom, identity and personal gratification) as well as intense hormonal shifts. But when the tears just keep coming, we become privy to a deeper well of feelings and memories with personal historical significance. Coming into contact with this deeper well gives us access to what we lost or never had in our own connections with our mothers. Becoming a mother opens up this deeper well and throws us in all at once. Full immersion in the waters of this well is terrifying in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But swimming in these waters allows us a unique opportunity to reclaim and embrace integral parts of ourselves.
Motherhood moves us toward wholeness. Through our willingness to delve into the motherless and wounded parts of ourselves and explore our own stories, we can emerge as three dimensional mothers: women who know how to love and care for our babies while simultaneously caring for our own deserving selves. My wish for motherless moms is that you seek out and take in the kindness and nurturance that is your birthright.
Jessica Sorci, LMFT