“I wanted a baby so badly, but now I don’t feel connected to her. This is so hard.”
“My partner and I were in such a great place. Now I’m just angry all the time. What if we ruined our relationship?”
“I love my baby but I feel trapped.”
“Maybe having a baby was a mistake.”
“Every part of my life has changed. I miss my old life.”
These are just some of many stories we hear from new mothers marked by ambivalence and regret. They often say, “I can’t talk about this in the new moms group.” But in our offices, if we can demonstrate that we can hold their experiences without judgment, these women tentatively share the thoughts that have been swirling around in fear, guilt, and hopelessness. In therapy, we decrease shame through normalizing their experience; we highlight the broader sociocultural contexts in which they’re parenting; and we explore the meaning attributed to these feelings and make room for grief and loss. And in this work, women can reflect on and begin to bear these experiences of motherhood.
“How has motherhood been, compared to what you thought it would be like?”
By inviting discussion of the divergence of expectations and reality, we demonstrate that we can tolerate a range of feelings and experiences of motherhood. Messages from partners, grandparents, Instagram, even strangers at the grocery store can morph into one loud proclamation: “You’re supposed to love this baby and this experience of parenting unconditionally.” In contrast, we say, “I know that’s not always the case. What’s it been like for you?”
We can share that we have supported other women struggling with these dark thoughts about motherhood. Acknowledging that having hope feels unattainable in this moment, we hold the hope for them: “Not everyone feels that overwhelming burst of love for their baby at the birth. Some do, but for others, it comes a few weeks or even months later. Not feeling it now doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel it.” Education about early infant development can further normalize a wide range of experiences in the postpartum. The “fourth” trimester framework with a rough timeline for social smiles, increased visual interaction, and reaching and grabbing can illustrate some the reasons why connecting with early newborns can be challenging, as there’s minimal interaction or day-to-day feedback. For women with low maternal self-efficacy, this stage can be especially overwhelming.
When we have the opportunity to work with women with their babies in the therapy office, we can also validate all that they are doing with and for their babies. For the women with difficulty bonding, we can support them in learning how to “be with” their babies and identify how those actions form the foundation of a secure attachment; this communicates that they can meet their babies’ needs enough of the time even while they are wrestling with the connection.
“Our society does not have enough policies that support new families.”
Ambivalence can arise no matter how challenging or how easy the tasks of parenting are for a mother; however, sociocultural stressors magnify the negative thoughts. When childcare is a scarce and expensive resource, social support is limited, or there is work pressure around length of leave, schedule, or role, looking back at life pre-baby longingly is understandable. We must also address experiences of discrimination within or barriers to health care; the challenges military families face; and the effects of racism, homophobia, or other oppressions. If systemic forces are working against a new mom, acknowledging that challenges are not “all in her head” is vital. We can encourage the new mother to connect with others who may have also experienced these challenges or injustices. Perinatal Support of Washington support groups are a good place to start.
“What’s the narrative you’re creating?”
Identifying the interpretations a woman is making about her feelings of ambivalence or regret can be helpful. With the woman who states, “I love my baby, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t have a baby again. What kind of mother says that?” we can use interventions from cognitive behavioral therapy. We can explore her beliefs about “good” mothers and her self-evaluation. We can support her in the process of identifying cognitive distortions, evaluating the beliefs with nonjudgmental curiosity and developing a reframe like “Even if I feel suffocated by the responsibilities of motherhood right now, I know that I love my baby, am doing a good enough job, and will be able to find a piece of myself again.”
Introducing dialectical behavioral therapy’s wise mind – the integration of reasonable and emotional mind – can also help illustrate that it’s possible to hold the juxtaposition of “I love my baby” and “I miss my old life.” By creating the space for those experiences in the therapy room, women can practice holding the both/and. We invite reflection about what she has lost in the experiences of pregnancy, birth, and parenting and what she has gained. We then support women in crafting and integrating a narrative of motherhood that allows for grief.
Finding maternal resilience
New mothers with ambivalence or regret often come to therapy with feelings of shame and despair. In therapy we make space for these “difficult” feelings, create context for some of the challenges of parenting, normalize the experience, and cultivate hope. We demonstrate a nonjudgmental acceptance of a range of maternal experiences and help her tolerate her own responses to motherhood. We also work on change by restructuring beliefs about motherhood, encouraging connection with others, or considering taking action for better policies that support women and families.
In their research from a two-year psychoanalytic group with mothers, psychotherapists Lisa Baraitser and Amélie Noack concluded that “maternal resilience can have a chance to develop not only when a space is made available for the exploration of ambivalent feelings towards our children, but when we focus on the strain mothers endure in managing the experience and meaning of ambivalence on a daily basis” (Baraitser and Noack, 2007)
As all of us – in any role we have working with pregnant and postpartum women – make space for a range of experiences of motherhood, including ambivalence and regret, we can support women in enduring those feelings, we can help them develop resilience, and we can work against the stigma that women face.
Baraitser, L., & Noack, A. (2007). Mother courage: Reflections on maternal resilience. British journal of psychotherapy , 23 (2), 171-188.
Laurie Ganberg, LICSW, CLC, is a clinical social worker who specializes in supporting women in pregnancy and early parenthood. She currently provides outpatient therapy and works in the Day Program, a perinatal mental health partial hospitalization program, at the Center for Perinatal Bonding and Support at Swedish.