Parenting

PART 3. Motherhood... A Grief Process

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS DETAILS OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION, ANXIETY & A DISCUSSION OF GRIEF


Motherhood... A Grief Process

I know that the Kübler-Ross theory (2014) has more facets that anger, isolation and depression. But for my journey, and my experience of motherhood, I feel that it’s been predominately an interplay between those three aspects of the stages of grief. I didn’t find that I followed any particular flow, but that the feelings I’ve personally associated with motherhood can translate into the grief model. But maybe that’s because I wish to find an explanation for the emotions I had for some years?


With the ‘final stage’ of grief, I can’t say that I feel I’ve reached a point of acceptance about motherhood, as I think it’s still a work in progress. My life is much calmer as I can see the gains that have come from my losses. Without the loss of my own identity, I don’t think I’d appreciate the opportunities for personal growth it’s provided me with. My work towards acceptance has created a deeper level of love for my children, strength and determination to be their role model where my own mother couldn’t be. I aim for unconditional love towards them but know that I often fail, “sometimes we catch ourselves mistreating our children the way that we were mistreated” (Viorst, 2002. Pg. 214) and no longer hold myself accountable to the expectations from the ‘child-centered’ communities or those of my husband.

 

“Many counsellors are unaware of the way in which negative experiences from the past are also re-lived in the relationship between themselves and the clients, and so do not make as constructive a re-learning from them as they might otherwise do.”

(Jacobs, 1996. Pg. 11)

 

Prior to becoming a psychotherapist, I worked on the assumption that grief was a linear process, when one stage of grieving ends then there’s space for the next stage or to begin processing a different loss. In reality, I feel loss and grief could be multi-variant in nature. That one loss process feeds into another regardless of the ‘stage’ reached or whether a theory suggests the finality of the process. Having read the ‘Dual Process Theory’ of grief and bereavement (Strobe & Schut, 2010), I still don’t believe that all my losses to motherhood fit into that model neatly either; unless I only look at one aspect of my grief rather than the interrelatedness that I feel is there. Does each loss I experienced (independence, sexual, physical) have an entitlement to its own grieving process or do they all sit within my overarching sense of identity loss? And will that grief ever feel like its concluded or do I merely accept it as a given based on duration passed? I feel that the notion of time being a healer doesn’t feel fitting for me, yet for some clients it does. That it’s almost a question of society deeming a time-limiting process, that I only have permission to acknowledge the losses for so long before it becomes unacceptable, “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned” (Doka, 2002.Pg.160) I question as to whether I still recognise the aspect of myself that I felt ‘died’ when I became a mother and as such I’ve absorbed this aspect as being a configuration of myself? (Mearns & Thorne, 2006. Pg. 120-143) The confident, professional, independent woman that I once was still serves ‘her’ benefits in my present life which may be why I can’t, or even won’t, grieve a loss of ‘her’ entirely.

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series of a personal account of postnatal depression, anxiety & loss.


References 

Doka, K (2002) Disenfranchised grief. In Kenneth J. Doka (Ed.) Living with grief: Loss in later life (pp. 159-168) Washington D.C.:The Hospice foundation of America

Kübler-Ross, E. (2014) On death & dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families. Scribner: New York

Mearns, D & Thorne, B. (2006) Person-centred therapy today. New frontiers in theory and practice. Sage: London.

Stroebe, M. & Schut, H. (2010) The Dual Process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description. Death studies (23) 3: pp 197-224

Viorst, J. (2002) Necessary Losses. The Free Press: New York

Photograph by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

PART 2. Motherhood... Depression as a constant companion.

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PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS DETAILS OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION & ANXIETY


Motherhood... Depression as a constant companion.

Being left alone with my first child to care for was terrifying. I’d set expectations that I’d be returning to my career as a project planner six weeks’ post-partum. I’d also undertaken an evening course during my pregnancy that allowed me to apply for a place at University of Sussex to study linguistics. That was to happen 12 weeks’ post-partum. My daughter was to go into full-time childcare from 6 weeks, that was my naïve plan. Having not had the birth I’d fantasied about or acknowledging how that impacted my initial bonding with my eldest, combined with being housebound due to recovering from major abdominal surgery left me feeling that every aspect of my life was out of control. The entirety of my carefully laid out plans began to unfold and I was unwilling to accept it. I didn’t defer my place at University until the week I was due to be on campus and I couldn’t pluck up the courage to face the embarrassment and my own self-perceived failure of not being physically able to return to work. I was denying the fact that I’d become a mother of the stereotypes I had previously mocked due to their gender definition, and that it added to my feelings of failure due to being the opposite to the life I’d built myself. Once, I’d been independent, well-rested and spontaneous. Yet now I was negotiating with a child over how many more spoonfuls of food they’d eat. For all the unconditional love I experienced from my children, I still longed to have my ‘old’ life back for quite some time.


Having had my children in a city where the only people I knew were professionals, where I had no family or friends locally was isolating. It’s around this time that I recall becoming more aware of my anxious thoughts. Not only around trying to keep the baby safe and nourished, but around whether I was ‘doing it right’. Coupling these kind of thoughts, with the loneliness I experienced having a partner who worked 80 hour weeks in a different city, and endeavouring to fulfil all the other pressures that I’d absorbed from the kids playgroups and social workers. I learnt to only project the ‘good mother’ to the outside world, whilst behind closed doors I crumbled.

 

My journey into motherhood meant questioning and considering parenting approaches, as I had no positive parenting template to work from. In my immediate social groups (playgroups & breastfeeding clinics), the approach was mainly ‘child-centered’ which was, and is, “emotionally, physically and financially intensive” (Pedersen, 2012. Pg.231) I only began to realise just how intensive this style of parenting was when I had my second child. Whilst my first pregnancy was planned, my second pregnancy was a surprise. My reaction was of denial and blaming my husband for ‘getting me pregnant’. Combined with the loss of a parenting ideal and my partners shifting expectations, I felt I didn’t allow sufficient space for me to grieve for my eldest daughter. In that I lost the one-on-one time I could devote to her as I now had another baby, and the shift this caused in our relationship left me feeling resentful. “Women are so afraid of this loss of connection that their expressions of anger are frequently accompanied by tears, guilt and sorrow” (Lerner, 1996 Pg. 56) That through my expression of anger, through acknowledging my loss of self, I felt I would be alone and outcast. Whilst I would give my life for my children and love them unconditionally, there were points where I felt that I genuinely couldn’t be the mother they deserved and that I was unworthy of their abundant love.

 

I know I calmed my anxious thoughts with the idea that if I’m a ‘good mother’ then no harm will come to my children and they’ll love the ‘unlovable’ me. But through focusing my efforts into my partners and societies ideals as to what this ‘good mother’ looks like, I ended up burnt out. What my children actually need and want is a mother who is her self, who loves herself as unconditionally as she loves her children, who puts as much effort into their safekeeping as she might her own. I remember at this point of acknowledging my own self-care, I had been in personal counselling for about a year as I’d hit rock bottom with life.

 

Depression reared its head through aspects of my own self-care. I didn’t care how I looked, I ate badly yet ensured the kids ate healthily, was sedentary and lacked any form of motivation. I didn’t cut my hair for over 18 months & needed two teeth extracting after binging on sugar. “Blocked anger is often a factor in obesity… something is preventing the matter consumed as food from turning into energy” (Judith, 2004 Pg.217). And the more I ate, the worse I felt physically and mentally. I didn’t recognise myself anymore, I didn’t know who I was.

 

In my grief process, I felt that depression was a constant companion whilst anger was unpredictable. I became angry because my children weren’t living up to my idealisation of what childhood would mean for them; surely if they have a stable, loving home then I’d completely avoid this notion of temper tantrums? How wrong I was. The mundanity and futility I felt towards the children’s emotional outbursts was disheartening, they were reflecting back the same emotions I displayed to them. I was frustrated and detached and that served to feed into my depressive mindset…


This is Part 2 of a 3 part series of a personal account of postnatal depression & anxiety.

References:

Judith, A. (2004) Eastern Body Western Mind (revised): Psychology & the chakra system as a Path to the Self. Random House: Berkeley, USA

Lerner, H. (1989) Women in therapy. Harper Collins: New York

Pedersen, D. (2012) The Good Mother, the Good Father and the Good parent: gendered definitions of parenting. Journal of Feminist family therapy (24): pp 230-246


PART 1. Motherhood... My Anger and Me.

Photo by  Zach Lucero  on  Unsplash

Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST IS A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION & ANXIETY


Motherhood… My anger & me.

“So if you are to subdue & suppress women… to think human connection frail & unreliable – you must target the vagina”

(Wolf. 2012, Pg. 114)


Anger is the unspoken dimension of Motherhood that, in my experience, society seems unwilling to acknowledge. Anger flies in the face of the attributes women are assigned in their gender role as mothers: caregiver, nurturer and calmness personified. Held up as having the virtues of a Goddess, “she is of even temperament, always in control of her emotions. She loves her children completely and unambivalently” (Viorst, 2002. Pg.214), society places guilt at our door as mothers for expressing anger towards our new roles, “So strong are societal prohibitions against female anger that the angry woman may be condemned” (Lerner, 1996 Pg. 52). We ‘should’ be happy our kids are alive and healthy, we ‘should’ be content that they’re feeding so much through the night as it means they’re growing and we ‘should’ be thankful we’ve a partner to support us where others parent alone. My internalised comparison of the ‘good mother’ society urged me to be and the ‘bad mother’ I felt when I failed at those expectations, left me feeling suffocated and invalidated. The taboo of expressing my own losses at the hands of Motherhood, led to my depression and its aftermath.


I’ve reflected on the losses I experienced as I became a Mother and my reticence at writing this blog has only served to demonstrate to myself how emotionally charged this change still is. Kübler-Ross (2014) suggests that in grief we have several stages that allow us to fully process our loss, sometimes progressing from one stage to another and repeating others. Whilst primarily the focus of Kübler-Ross theory (2014) is bereavement, it resonated with my transition into motherhood as I had experienced several of the stages (Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance). Some stages featured more prominently than others, but through acknowledging that I did lose my own sense of identity in motherhood, it’s made me feel less ashamed that I felt the way I did. That ‘mother’ is just one ‘configuration of self’ that serves a purpose to nourish and protect my children, where my own mother failed to do so for me. In the words of Judith Viorst (2002) “Parenthood can be a constructive developmental phase in which we heal some of the wounds of our own childhood” (Pg. 230) Maybe I’ve created in myself the mother I needed as a child?


Being raised without a stable, mentally healthy and loving mother figure didn’t ease my transition into being a parent which is no surprise as evidenced by Fuchs, Resch & Kaess (2015), “children who grew up without an acceptable role model of parenting might have difficulties in adopting this role themselves” (Pg. 179). The early stages of parenthood threw up all the anger and rejection I felt towards my mother at my own loss of childhood. Having watched this body physically change in pregnancy, being monitored and tested by medical professionals, my body felt invaded by them and by the baby.

 

“The myth of the feminine woman as devoid of anger and aggressiveness could not have so vigorously survived over the ages unless both sexes shared deep intrapsychic fears of female anger”

(Lerner, 1996 Pg. 53)

 

Anger was one of the primary drivers for my entry into personal counselling. I’m aware that my initial anger in motherhood was towards the medical professionals, as I felt violated and as if they’d ripped my baby from my womb whilst I was unconscious. Consequently, I’d missed my opportunity to experience the home birth I’d planned and so my expectations of birth versus the reality became my source of anger. My anger towards the medics subsided, rational Jo engaged ‘I was alive and so was my baby’. The fact that I didn’t birth ‘naturally’ cast me as an anomaly to the ‘natural parenting’ community in Brighton, which pushed me even further into my eventual depression.

 

The first aspect of myself I felt I lost was my identity. I’d been a relatively independent woman prior to birth, at work people knew who I was due to my reputation of being able to deliver on projects and my foresight to identify risks to the business. Now I’d failed to deliver a baby and hadn’t foreseen the risky business of birth. In the hospital, I was referred to as the lady ‘In Bay 3’ and then latterly as ‘Star’s Mum’. It was the first occasion I had been identified with my role and responsibility instead of my name (and the awareness that I feel my name as an important part of my identity). I couldn’t fathom why nobody explained to me that ‘Jo’ had died in the operating theatre so that ‘Star’s Mum’ could be given life. There was an element of confusion for me around this time as I grappled with being thrust into this new self.

 

Angry because my breasts were now for nourishing children rather than for sexual pleasure. And coupled within that, I was lackluster in my connection with my sexual self and the remainder due to my lack of self-confidence. My womb hadn’t done what it was supposed to so how could I trust my vagina to please my partner?! I hadn’t realized how my sense of self was tied up in my sexual pleasure. Without feeling fully ‘womanly’ in that respect, I couldn’t fathom why my partner still found me sexually attractive when I had no drive or inclination to be intimate with them, “impossible expectations, unmet needs and unmeshed needs are continuing sources of marital tension & strife” (Viorst, 2002. Pg.195). That for me, sex and intimacy went hand in hand...  


This is Part One in a 3 part series of my personal experience of postnatal depression.


References:

Fuchs, A., Resch, F. & Kaess, M. (2015) Impact of a maternal history of childhood abuse on the development of mother-infant interaction during the first year of life. Child abuse & neglect (48): pp 179-189

Kübler-Ross, E. (2014) On death & dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families. Scribner: New York

Lerner, H. (1989) Women in therapy. Harper Collins: New York

Viorst, J. (2002) Necessary Losses. The Free Press: New York

Wolf, N. (2012) Vagina. A new biography. Virago: Great Britain