Women

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