I want to be an awesome mom. I want to wake up in the morning with endless patience. Meet all my kid’s needs. Be mindful and present as they grow up and help them feel empowered with each milestone. Pack Pinterest-worthy lunchboxes, be there for carpool and cheer them on at sports games armed with healthy organic snacks I whipped up straight from the garden. I want to cook wholesome homemade dinners, read books and help with homework. And SOMEHOW also find time to workout, blog more, date my husband and socialize with my friends. Oh, and just effing take a shower.
As a woman, I feel like I’m constantly told that I can (and should) do it all, but the truth is I can’t. It’s an illusion I’m tired of chasing—which is why I fell in love with the work of Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist in NYC and co-author of the new book What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood. She encourages women to share their struggles without shame and helps unpack the myth of “the perfect mother” while making sense of the massive psychological shift that comes with becoming a mom.
While there are thousands of apps and books to guide women through pregnancy, childbirth and baby care, there aren’t a lot of good resources to help moms take care of themselves and navigate their new life. Dr. Sacks is on a mission to change this through her TEDTalk (a must-watch) and Insta account which is full of truth bombs and sage advice. She also started a binge-worthy podcast called Motherhood Sessions where real women share honest, authentic stories about their struggles to embrace a new identity.
Dr. Sacks was kind enough to answer some of my questions about adjusting to #momlife, which I’m sharing with you all here. I hope you find it as helpful and reassuring as I did.
You refer to the experience of becoming a mother as “matrescence” – why?
It’s not a coincidence that the word sounds like adolescence. Both are transitions in hormones, in body, and in identity. And change is hard, right? So while we expect teenagers to feel awkward and out of sorts, we expect mothers to feel like their instincts are naturally guiding them and that’s unrealistic. Becoming a mom is a profound transformation – socially, biologically and psychologically – and it makes sense that moms feel things other than happiness. We need to normalize that.
That was me. I did all the hippie baby prep—hypnobirthing, supplements, midwives, doulas—and assumed the motherhood part would come naturally, too…it didn’t. I felt like I was learning a foreign language and took a long time to identify as a “mom.” You’re saying that’s common?
Oh God, yes. Our culture has idealized motherhood in a way that makes it difficult to talk about anything except the good stuff. Women are told that once they meet their baby it will be love at first sight and they will feel completely fulfilled being a mother. That’s just not the case for many women. You can love your child but not always love the job of parenting. Having a baby can be tough on your marriage. The birth doesn’t always go according to plan. Breastfeeding doesn’t always go according to plan. And so many things are out of your control. It’s natural to feel unsettled and even at times unwell when you’re going through so many dramatic changes.
What should more women know about motherhood?
A perfectly natural question is… “I had this feeling today that I wanted my old life back. I didn’t want to be doing this and I asked myself did I make a mistake having a baby? Am I not cut out to be a mother?” It’s a thought most new mothers have at least once, but are afraid to admit. Because there’s nothing more shameful than being a “bad mother” and only a “bad mother” would think that, so then it gets buried under a rug. Now she’s keeping secrets and artificially sharing with friends that things have never been better. And it’s a really upsetting experience for people to have to cover up those feelings of distress.
What can we can do to make things easier?
Women need to share their uncomfortable emotional experiences around the identity of motherhood without feeling shame or that they can only talk about the good parts. Being a mom is hard enough. We shouldn’t have to pretend that we’re also perfect! There are so many different forces pulling on moms and so little support. We need to give ourselves permission to be human and the wonderfully complex creatures that we are. The more we are able to share what our lives are really like, the more we can reduce social isolation, stigma and relieve the tremendous amount of pressure on women so we all feel less alone.
The fear of mom-shaming can make it hard to be honest. How can we overcome that?
We can all be more vigilant about not giving mothers judgmental messages. Motherhood is scary because there are no right answers. It’s hard to know what to do to help your child sleep at night. It’s hard to know what to do if you want to breastfeed and you can’t. It’s hard to reconcile questions about childcare and going back to work. But I think a common problem is that when we try to make ourselves feel better about our choices, we tend to say things like, “my choice is the best.” This implies to another mother that your choice is better. And that brings up a lot of shame and self-doubt. Try to speak from the “I” — I found this to be helpful or this works for me. And be curious about how other mothers do things without judgment. There is no one right choice for all of us in marriage or friendship and motherhood is no different. It’s important to convey a sense of inclusivity and support for other mothers, even if you’re feeling nervous about whether you made the right choice.
How do we nurture our marriages when the kids take up so much time??
It’s hard to be interested in romantically connecting to your partner if the first thing you want to do is get more sleep or exercise—or just be alone. If that’s what you crave rather than your partner, then you probably need to be doing more of that first before you’re going to be ready to connect. And know that you can’t give all of your energy to the kids if you want to protect your relationships. Just because you’re doing the work of parenting together doesn’t mean you don’t still need to connect in other ways.
It’s been easy to lose myself in motherhood. How can I stay connected to the “old” me?
You’ve had decades of your life prior to this moment of becoming a mother. Honor that. I encourage women to make a list of the experiences and activities they loved most before kids. Then figure out how to carve out time to keep doing them—whether that’s help from a babysitter, grandparent, spouse or swapping childcare with a friend. Remind yourself that self-care is not selfish. To give your children energy and empathy, you have to show up with your cup full. You only get there by taking good care of yourself. And that’s a good model for children to see! Taking care of your body and having independent interests and hobbies is a good model for children to have to take care of themselves. It also gives them breathing room to grow, which is ultimately what kids need. Perfection is not even good for kids. It puts too much pressure on them. If you love your child and are doing the best you can, that’s called good enough mothering and it’s all your child needs.