Today, we are talking about the challenges and struggles of motherhood. Embracing Motherhood is the last part of my series on Becoming a Mother, but certainly not the least. I’ve actually had to break up this part into its own separate sections because I couldn’t stop adding to it. We have talked about pregnancy – from the first trimester, through birth, and into the Postpartum period (also known as the 4th trimester). Now, it’s time to discuss the transformative time that is new motherhood.
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You have undergone tremendous change. As I mentioned before in my post on that Postpartum Period, your world has been turned upside down. And even though you might just find that it is now actually right side up, that change can still be quite rough. Especially for those new mothers during the pandemic, you’ve had to go through this change entirely alone. It’s my intention to walk with you through this transition into motherhood so you don’t feel so alone on the journey.
It’s interesting because, at this time in my life, I’m finding myself drawn toward caterpillars and butterflies. And really, I’m finding they are drawn towards me. My in-laws came to visit recently and I told my father-in-law that I really wanted to grow and release butterflies. The very next day, we found a caterpillar climbing up the side of my house. Within less than 24 hours of catching it, it had already formed a cocoon and was nestled in, ready to make that dream come true.
The reason that is so interesting to me is that as a Native American, I am fascinated by animal medicine. Animal medicine is the symbolism and messages that you can receive from the animals surrounding you. I spoke about my inability to ignore the creative spider medicine in my episode on The Beginning of Root and Rise for me. Now, I’m finding myself surrounded by butterfly medicine, which is all about transformation. The transformation from the larvae to caterpillar, chrysalis, to butterfly.
And the symbolism for the transformation into motherhood is undeniable for me. It’s monumental. At each stage of motherhood, from pregnancy to labor, to birth, postpartum to motherhood, you are transforming. It’s not just one area of you that is transforming either. It’s your body, your mind, your heart, your spirit, and your world. This animal medicine is making me realize that it’s high time for me to do something to honor this transformation.
The Real Real
Now, I could spend this time talking about all of the joys of your transformation into motherhood. Because there are so many joys. But you already see that everywhere. You hear it on other podcasts, see it all over your newsfeed, and can’t avoid it whenever you turn on the tv. It’s everywhere. You are bombarded with the joys of motherhood. Knowing that I want to spend this time talking about something you don’t hear enough of – the challenges and struggles. And yes, there will be joys and lessons mixed in. Because you didn’t think I’d just leave it all dark and difficult, did you?
A New Normal
While becoming a mother, you are experiencing a new normal. There is an identity shift happening. You are learning how to be this new mother version of yourself and yet, still trying to remember who you were before that. Because that person is still there, I promise. For quite a long time after giving birth, I kept telling my husband that I don’t know who I am anymore. And while he always said that nothing had changed, I’m still me, it’s hard to make sense of. Because to me, everything had changed. I would look in the mirror and not even recognize myself. To be completely honest with you, I still have these moments.
This is because you both lose yourself and find yourself in motherhood. And come out of it a stronger and fuller version of yourself. Trust me when I say that you can embrace motherhood, as impossible as that may seem at times. But this is only possible if you can be gentle with, honest, and take good care of yourself along the way. In this article, we will talk about the root of motherhood struggles. I felt it was important to discuss that before my next articles, which will go deeper into all of the ways that you will both lose and find yourself along the way.
Shame in the Challenges and Struggles of Motherhood
With all of that being said, I want to start this episode by saying that I wish someone would have told me that motherhood was going to be this hard. When I pictured becoming a mother, I knew I’d lose out on sleep and definitely be a bit busier. But I imagined it feeling fulfilling, joyous, and purposeful. And I was right. But I was also wrong. It’s not just those things. It’s also frustrating, gloomy, and filled with shame.
No one talks about that side of motherhood though. Probably because it is filled with so much shame. And since no one is talking about it, it just creates more shame. Both for ourselves and for all of the other mothers out there. Because silence is a breeding ground for shame. We are stuck in this cycle of shame and it’s time to break free of that.
However, as soon as you mention the dark moments of motherhood, those long days without a break. The moments where you feel like this messed up, completely lost version of yourself. People assume you don’t love motherhood. Which then translates to not loving your kids. And this could not be further from the truth. So, I want to break that motherhood mold, the one where we only discuss how beautiful motherhood is. I’m going to be real and raw with you. Because I wish someone had done that for me.
Though, since I feel that same shame as well, I do feel the need to tell you that I love my son. More than I ever knew I could possibly love someone. So much so that I hear Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” playing in my head when I watch him sleep. Yes, I love him so much that I sometimes just watch him sleep. As I talk about my struggles with motherhood, you need to know that it does not mean I don’t love being a mother.
Because it has given me a new purpose in life, I feel like I’ve found something I never knew I was missing. And when you have those same dark thoughts that I’ll talk about passing through your own head, I hope you feel seen by me. I know you still love motherhood, I know you love your child. And I know how hard motherhood can be.
Whoo. Alright, let’s start this at the root of many motherhood struggles: society. Society has so many expectations of women, and even more of mothers. In traditional gender roles, women are expected to care for the children, care for the husband, and care for the house. With laundry put away immediately and food on the table when the husband comes home.
You are expected to do this with hair done, full face of makeup, all while fitting into a certain dress size. Because society also expects your body to just “bounce back” after childbirth. Of course, this was all before women entered the workplace. Now, you are expected to do all of that on top of having a job, should you choose to work after having children.
Challenges and Struggles of Motherhood for Working Moms
So, let’s talk about those working mothers. Trying to pursue your career as a mother faces its own unique set of challenges. While trying to maintain your families’ happiness, your home’s cleanliness, and everything else that your personal life might require, your work has a separate set of needs from you. The pressure is really on for you to perform well while juggling all of the different hats that you wear. At work, it is generally frowned upon to have your motherhood overlap with business. Kids sick? Family emergency? Baby up all night? Work will not be forgiving.
In fact, there is a lot of discrimination against mothers in the workplace. A lot of your coworkers or employers can have a hard time seeing you as anything other than a mother. But, think of those pressures that I talked about, having to perform well juggling all of those hats. It means that somehow, even though they can’t see you as anything other than a mother, they expect you to work as if you are not a mother. And don’t get me started on the lack of support for pumping in some workplaces because that is just cruel.
Aside from all of that, working mothers have enough emotional struggles to deal with. Unfortunately, there are people who will judge you for being in the workplace instead of being home with your child. And if you don’t hear it outright from people, you might still feel that judgment from society. Or maybe you judge yourself. Because while you are at work, doing important things, you are potentially missing important moments. You cannot be there for every “first” that your child has. It can be incredibly heartbreaking to know your child had a monumental moment while you are away.
This goes for all parents, not just mothers. My husband also struggles with parts of being a full-time, working parent. He has told me about how hard it can be to miss out on the fun and happy moments that my son and I have during the day. Parents might come home to a crying, overtired baby and miss out on all of those happy moments entirely. My husband leaves before our baby is awake. This means that if he works late, my husband doesn’t even get to see our baby awake at all that day. I know that it can feel like you are missing out on a lot while you are at work.
Challenges and Struggles of Motherhood for Stay-at-Home Moms
But being a stay-at-home mom is no walk in the park either. Not having a mother present in my own life while I was growing up, I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom so bad to make up for it. I’m not going to lie to you, I envisioned it to be a day filled with baby snuggles, giggles, and plenty of time to get housework done. The thought of a happy baby and a clean home was, of course, very enticing. I know I’m not the first person to picture staying at home with your children to be easy. Or, really, being completely unaware of the amount of work and the struggles and challenges that stay-at-home mothers face.
Having played that role, I can report back to you that the fate of your entire day is dictated by a small human (that doesn’t giggle as easily or as often as you might think). That’s a small human who can somehow make so many demands of you throughout the day without speaking an actual real word. Oh, and forget ever hearing any real words all day. You can become so desperate for a real conversation that you are ready to bombard your partner, neighbor, or random stranger at the store just to have a real adult conversation.
That housework takes a backseat to your child. Because being present for your child is the most important work. The dishes or laundry cannot get done when your child needs to eat, requires your supervision for play, or comfort for their many meltdowns. It felt like a lot of days where my husband would get home to a messy house, me still in my pajamas, no chores done, and beyond ready for a break. Because there are no breaks when there is no one around to give you breaks.
During the day, I always have high expectations of what will get done. Dishes, a load of laundry, water the plants, the list goes on. When the days come that my son is particularly clingy, won’t nap, or won’t even allow me to step away to use the bathroom without screaming, it gets tough. Mentally and emotionally tough. I feel like a failure when I accomplish nothing on my to-do list and it wears on my patience pretty quickly. Even though I have checked off the most important box of all – taking care of my child.
Now, I am somewhere in the middle of a working mother and a stay-at-home mother. I work part-time and mother full-time, without any help with childcare during the day. The pandemic has produced a lot of other parents in this same situation. Trying to juggle all of these pressures of work while being under the same roof as a child that requires your care.
Truly, it deserves a spot of recognition and respect on your resume. Because being a “work and stay-at-home mom“ requires an entirely different set of skills and strengths. That dedication and resiliency should speak volumes to any future employer. I commend every mother that is chasing their career dreams, facing the challenges of staying at home, or juggling both.
And if you haven’t yet heard the terms “mental load” or “emotional labor” yet, motherhood will quickly introduce you. This is all of the invisible work that happens below the surface. Work that is unseen and unpaid. And I don’t mean paid in the traditional sense of the word, I’m talking about payment in the form of acknowledgment or thanks. Work that you do over and over, every single day, without notice or any sense of recognition.
The mental load is trying to remember to schedule appointments or naps, give medications, keep track of how often your baby is eating or going through diapers. Plus the added tasks around the home, like baby proofing, washing bottles, knowing where your child needs to be at developmentally, or what toys or language they should be using. And while you may not actually be the person executing all of these tasks, you are most likely the one exerting energy and thought keeping up with all of them.
Now, these may seem like small or simple tasks to keep up with, but trust me when I tell you that they will quickly occupy a lot of your brain space. They will not leave much room for anything else. And that is the root of the famously foggy and jumbled “mom brain” for me.
Emotional labor is managing your child’s moods, needs, and feelings. You are no longer responsible for just yourself. In fact, your own needs are probably on the backburner as you try to help your baby work through theirs. Even if you get a break or your partner relieves you of a task, that emotional labor perpetuates as you worry about how things are going while you are away. This emotional labor extends to your partner as well, since you care about whether or not they are getting enough love and attention from you.
A Real-World Example of Challenges and Struggles in Motherhood
To give myself a break from it all, I went for a massage around 5 or 6 months postpartum. It was a gift from a close friend and my very first outing away from my baby. As you can imagine, I was definitely anxious about it. Before I left, I wore myself out trying to ensure that my baby and husband were set up for happiness before I left. I scheduled when to feed him, tried to time it so that he would nap during that time, changed his diaper, set out any items they might need while I was away, and the list goes on. This is the mental load.
Then, I went on to continue worrying during my massage. I worried about how my baby was acting for my husband. And how my husband was coping with being alone with our baby for the first time. I felt guilty for leaving my baby, selfish for doing something for myself, and pressure to race home quickly. There was no real release, no real break, and no real relaxation for me. This is emotional labor.
A Mother’s Duty
It ended up being a fairly easy experience for the two of them. Honestly, I’m still unsure whether my mental load actually helped to make it better for them or not. But, I do know that the emotional labor I ended up taking on was unnecessary. I wished I would have allowed myself a true break from even thinking or worrying about it. And that I would have asked my husband to take on some of the mental load. A load that was so invisible, he had no idea I was carrying. But taking a break and asking for help are not things that come easily to mothers.
While it’s not vocalized by myself, my husband, or even flat out said by society, it is something that I feel, as a woman, is my duty to take on. We’ve been taught that this is normal, that this is just our responsibility as mothers. Women are told they can “have it all”. We are sent the message that we can and should do it all. With a smile on your face, a sense of ease, and not a single complaint. How realistic does that really sound? I don’t know about you, but I lose my mind when I’m trying to meet that impossible expectation. It’s not healthy for anyone to function on that level long-term. Something’s gotta give or else we will.
Push and Pull of Motherhood
Trying to meet these unrealistic expectations, I was pouring everything into my son. And when he was napping, I was pouring everything into keeping up with work and maintaining a clean house. But clean houses don’t really exist with children. It was a never-ending battle for me. I ended up crashing and burning, more than a few times. Then, I would become so overwhelmed from trying to do it all and not asking for help, that I would just break. I needed a break.
Needing time away does not mean that you don’t love your baby or spending time with them. It also doesn’t mean that you are a bad or selfish mom. Asking for help to get a break does not make you a failure. It means that you are human. With your own human needs. And one day it will be good for your child to see those needs and watch you take care of them for yourself. It displays true self-care, self-love, and self-respect.
Admitting that you can’t do it all or be it all will give your child the grace to be human as well. That will take the pressure off of them to be perfect. Letting your child see you ask for help will not make them think of you as weak or incompetent. It will teach them how to let others in. They will learn that they can rely on and trust others for comfort, support, or wisdom.
More Personal Fails
I have to admit that my struggle with stepping away has been a little harder than I expected. I know I mentioned in my episode on Intergenerational Trauma that I wouldn’t become the opposite extreme of my own absent mother. And I am here to have it on record that I was wrong. My mommy issues are coming out to play hard. Sometimes I feel like I can’t leave my son alone, I can’t step away. Even when my husband has him, I still find myself fussing over him.
It took my sweet friend Bethany pointing out that it might be a good lesson for my son to see me leave and always come back. It was such a powerful realization for me, one that brought tears to my eyes. Being able to see beyond my perceived negative action allowed me to see what my son could gain from it. Taking that step back also made me realize what my husband could gain from it. He wasn’t getting the bonding time or building the confidence of fixing problems himself when I was always swooping in to deal with it.
Even knowing the benefits that we all got from me stepping back a bit, I continue to struggle. Every moment that I stepped away from my son, I immediately missed him. My husband and I have a running joke where about an hour after we put our son to bed, I start to miss him so much that I want to wake him up. That is motherhood. You could spend all day trying to get a break from them but then miss them as soon as you get it.
Rozsika Parker wrote about this push and pull, or maternal ambivalence, in “Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence”. She writes about how it’s a normal experience of motherhood to want your baby close and to want your own space. Motherhood is a balancing act of give and take. We are not used to allowing ourselves to feel both the want for closeness and the desire for solitude. However, accepting duality within those truths will allow us to accept ourselves and the realities of motherhood. This can help release our expectations of motherhood – it’s not all good or all bad – it’s good and bad. Learning to replace that “or” in your language with “and” can make a huge difference. You can simultaneously be in love with motherhood and hate it at the same time.
Dreaded Mom Guilt
Admitting that motherhood can be bad at times isn’t that easy though, right? That’s when mom guilt comes to hang out. She tells you that you should be loving motherhood. That you should do better, and more, for your baby. That it’s selfish to put yourself first. Society sets the expectation that motherhood means you are a martyr. We don’t have to accept constant suffering. You continue to sacrifice and ignore your needs. Despite what you see on social media or tv, this is not sustainable or realistic.
You need to ask for help. Now, I am not saying that’s easy, because trust me, I know it’s not. Since I know that I am capable of doing each individual task, I feel like I should be capable of doing ALL of the tasks. Especially when I was able to do it all before having a baby. But we don’t have the same priorities or free time as we used to. I’ll repeat myself here: you can’t do it all. And there is nothing wrong with saying that.
Do you want to know the beautiful part of admitting that you cannot do it all? You release that burden from other mothers. It starts with us. Change starts with us honoring our own needs and advocating for the needs of other moms out there. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Sharing my innermost motherhood world with you has been painful for me at times. But my focus is you. And making your motherhood experience a little bit lighter than the one before. I’m here to show you that you don’t have to live life with an empty cup.
Fill Your Cup
Peanut is a really great (and completely free!) app for making mom friends. It matches you with other moms in your local area based on if you are trying to conceive, your stage of pregnancy (or the age of the child), and your personal interests. I’ve made some wonderful mom friends through that app.
As a new mom, building your “mom tribe”, as silly as it sounds, can help you in motherhood. Having other strong mothers who can relate to your experiences will keep you from feeling alone in the challenges of motherhood. Sometimes just hearing another mother validate your feelings is enough to keep you sane on the hardest of days.
Fill Your Cup
It’s impossible to fill from an empty cup. If you are pouring everything into your child, and then into your house, and then into your partner, and then into your work… Really, what is left over for yourself? Nothing. It’s a recipe for burnout. That is no way to live. You cannot be a present or pleasant mother if you are unable to care for yourself. We need to spend just as much time worrying about our own sleep, emotions, and needs as we do our babies’. These are basic fundamental human needs.
So please ask for help, as hard as it may be. Have someone you love come over and just hold your baby so you can read, do yoga, or paint your nails. Do whatever it is that makes you happy. Hit the reset button. And if you need some ideas, check out my article on postpartum self-care to see a list of things you can do to love yourself.
There are many mothers out there who find themselves in a position where help is not available. I understand that struggle more than you know. As a military family, we don’t have our support system near. And having given birth during a pandemic? No one was even really able to interact with my baby for almost 9 months. No additional help was available. It came down to my husband and I learning how to balance breaks between the two of us. Even when I have people around to help with my baby, I don’t realize that I can ask for help because I’ve gotten so used to doing it all alone.
How Motherhood Changes You
Don’t fall into this trap. Between society’s unrealistic expectations of you and your unrealistic expectations of you, motherhood is challenging enough as it is. Why make it harder on yourself than it needs to be? Motherhood is painful. And it’s transformative. It makes you question who you are. Truly, it feels like losing yourself and meeting yourself all at the same time.
Spend the limited (and precious) energy that you have to care for you. Because it’s important to do what you can to love and support yourself through this transformation. Continue on with me in the next episode: Embracing Motherhood: How Motherhood Changes You to talk about losing yourself in motherhood.
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