You are here

The Mask of Motherhood

Two-month-old Ryan was finally napping. It had taken hours to soothe his cries and his mother, Raychel Cohen, was on the brink. She hadn't strung together more than two hours of sleep at a stretch since his birth, and she was feeling overwhelmed, angry, and incompetent. "I felt guilty for thinking so negatively because I love Ryan with my heart and soul," says the New York City artist. Cohen went to her bedroom crying, afraid her hyperventilating would wake the baby. She almost ignored the ringing phone, silently cursing another intrusion. It was a colleague asking how things were going. In a composed voice she said, "Great. He's a joy. Best thing I ever did."

The reality is, in order to be seen as a "good mom," many of us project a public face of serenity, control, and self-assurance. This artificially sweet image is what I call the "mask of motherhood." This mask hides that, while the rewards of parenting are tremendous, the physical and emotional slog are equally great. Motherhood is an endurance test, and rising to its challenges is one of the most demanding jobs a person can do.

The result of this conspiracy of silence is that most women embark on parenthood woefully unprepared for its challenges. They perceive other women as exuding an eerie aura of patience and good cheer, while they are floundering and experiencing secretly mixed feelings about their beloved babies. In researching my book The Mask of Motherhood (published this year by The New Press) I found that most moms are making it up as they go along, while pretending they've got it sussed out. Sure, some people are more "maternally inclined" than others, but no one escapes the anxiety, tedium, and occasional teeth-baring rage that caring for children inevitably provokes. Becoming a mother is a process  -- not some kind of hocus-pocus that happens with the cutting of a cord.

Dropping the mask means feeling your own feelings about motherhood  -- not someone else's idealized version of it. Here are some guidelines to help you reveal your true colors so you embark on motherhood with your most honest face forward.

Reveal Thyself

Negative feelings are part of every relationship in life. For the most part, we accept this as a condition of being human. Yet when it comes to mothers' relationships with their babies, being human is apparently not good enough.

Psychologists tell us that negative emotions only become detrimental when they are unacknowledged and unexpressed. At first, it may seem scary to admit that you're not always in control, contented, or confident. I remember the first time I attempted to go shopping with my then week-old daughter and couldn't get the stroller to open. I stood in the parking lot struggling and sweating, convinced that every mother who passed was looking at me with contempt. I wanted to shout, "I know I look like an idiot, but I have a Ph.D." I wanted to have it all together  -- yet I couldn't find the release latch. I should've had a good laugh and asked somebody for help.

Wearing the mask of motherhood offers about as much protection as swaddling yourself in plastic wrap. By acknowledging weaknesses and vulnerabilities, you'll be more in tune with your strengths. You'll be able to adjust your expectations about parenting  -- some of which are bound to be fantasy  -- and prepare yourself for upcoming challenges.

Finally, revealing the true you will be wonderful for your baby. By feeling less uptight about your parenting performance, you'll save a surprising amount of emotional energy  -- energy that can be reinvested in positive and low-stress interactions with your child.

Don't Let the Guilt-Mongers Get To You

Once a woman is more honest, she should expect a backlash. One reader was outraged that in The Mask of Motherhood I refer to mothers whose sleep is "disturbed" by wakeful babies. "If a crying baby 'disturbs' you so much," she wrote, "why did you have one in the first place?" First of all, I didn't have one, I had three. But in reality all kids drive their parents nuts. Show me a woman who has never been "disturbed" by her baby's crying, and I'll show you a woman who is either callous beyond imagining or lying.

People who make you feel guilty about your less-than-Madonna-like feelings are probably struggling with their own unexpressed anger or yearning for more time for themselves. Instead of feeling guilty, extend your sympathy and support. In the case of the woman who was bothered by my honesty about my baby's crying, for example, I'd try to avoid being defensive. Instead, I'd attempt to find common ground  -- perhaps by asking her how she handles her feelings when her baby cries.

Whatever you do, don't get bullied into playing "Comparative Babies," an unwinnable game played by mask-wearing women who imply that their babies are developmentally marvelous. (Has yours got a tooth yet? Does yours just love spinach?) I'll never forget how traumatized I was at my first baby playgroup, between the mother who bragged that her little darling slept through the night and the other who stated that pacifiers were a form of child abuse (as the sound of my baby's energetic sucking filled the room). I find that targeted humor is the best approach. ("Well, my baby isn't crawling, but she speaks French and drives to daycare.")

Most people who muscle in with unsolicited advice simply want to be heard. Listening will only cost you a few minutes, and you may learn something. But you don't need to defend your choices. Remember, it takes two to create a competition and to create guilt as well.

Take Advice With a Grain Of Salt

Much parental anxiety has its roots in the mismatch between our optimistic expectations of motherhood and reality. Before I had my first child, I read in one of the countless parenting books I hoarded that "all babies do is eat and sleep." Imagine my surprise when my baby stayed up the first eight hours of her life, and 12 of every 24 hours after that.

The problem with general advice is that your baby doesn't exist "in general." Parenting is a highly specific enterprise because every baby, family, and community is different. Too much reliance on the gurus means ignoring your own experience, instincts, and inner wisdom. Maybe you feel you don't have any of these, but the learning curve of first parenthood is steep.

And while we're on the subject, never forget that most of the real experts haven't written a book. Your sister, your mom, and the working woman down the street with twin toddlers may not have degrees in child development, but they have hands-on experience that probably puts many book authors to shame.

United We Stand, Divided We Crawl

The journey of motherhood can be tough if you go it alone. The road is full of women just as excited, worried, frustrated, enraptured, and sleep deprived as you. Cracking through their armor is usually only a matter of letting down your guard.

Studies show that a major risk factor for postpartum depression and distress is "social isolation." Our society's structure encourages lone women with lone babies to stay in separate homes, cut off from adult companionship. In virtually every nonindustrial society in the world, mothers with young children spend their days communally with other women, rotating infant care, domestic work, and other forms of productive work. Postpartum depression is practically unheard of in these communities. We can't change our culture overnight, but we can change the way we function within it. Seek out existing places where mothers congregate, such as classes, playgroups, breastfeeding support groups, or via the Internet.

You may have to shop around to find women you can relate to. I ejected myself from one playgroup after it became clear that all the moms were full-time homemakers about 15 years my junior. Fortunately, I met one woman there with whom I had a lot in common. We exited the group and have been friends ever since. If your baby is fussy or has other special needs, find women who share that issue who can offer support, advice, and a good laugh.

Give Yourself a Break!

We all know that mommies care for children, but who cares for mommies? Part of dropping the mask means admitting  -- shock! horror!  -- that mommy has needs, too. The self-care specifics will vary from one woman  -- and one stage of life  -- to the next, but I speak for all new mothers when I say that in the first months, the most desired break is sleep. Once my youngest passed the baby stage, my greatest need was for solitude.

For many, self-care is energetic  -- and the gym or the pool can become a haven. Taking piano lessons helped me through my second postpartum experience, and writing a book was my "therapy" for my third. My friend Mary refurbished her garden shed as a painting studio. My sister took up furniture restoration.

Every Day Is Father's Day

Research conducted by Philip Cowan, Ph.D., and Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D. of the University of California, Berkeley, found that most people agree that fathers should shoulder an equal load when it comes to parenting. Yet the Cowans found that less than a quarter of men were actually doing so. The reasons why are many and complex, but some experts believe women often unwittingly encourage the problem.

On the one hand, we complain about men's lack of participation when it comes to the nitty gritty of childcare. But on the other, we may sabotage their efforts. ("What are you doing with that bottle? Let me do it.") It's no wonder so many dads find their parenting spirit broken before their baby's first birthday.

The idea that "mother knows best" is one of the most self-defeating features of the mask of motherhood because women then shoulder the vast child-rearing load. Remember that your partner has a right to his own style of parenting. Allow him to make mistakes and to feel the joy of learning from his successes.

Dropping the mask of motherhood calls for honesty, openness, and a sense of humor. It means trusting your own experience and observation more. It's about refusing to compare your baby with others. It's about building community with other parents, instead of walling yourself in behind a fortress of unrealistic expectations. Ending the masquerade takes guts  -- but oh, the glory!