Karen Kleiman: A Letter to New Moms

When we talk about having a baby, we often hear how exhilarating it can be. We hear about the promise of personal fulfillment and the brilliant glow that accompanies the miracle of life. We hear stories of abounding joy and delight as mothers seemingly glide through the various phases and tasks by which they are confronted. We are told we will beam when we're pregnant, we will bond instantly when we hold our baby for the very first time, and we will evolve naturally and gracefully through this transition into motherhood.

We all hope it will be like this when we have our baby.

The picture, however, is not always so perfect. Of course we also hear about the many loads of laundry we will do with our eyes shut from exhaustion and how many showers we'll take in 30 seconds flat with the door open while our baby screams for attention. And though, to some extent, we are geared to compromise our previous lifestyle, most women find themselves inadequately prepared for the unpredictable adventure they have embarked upon.

We live in a culture that romanticized motherhood. Even today — when we find ourselves surrounded by enlightened and progressive thinkers — the myth of the perfect mother persists. That is, the good mother is, with absolute commitment, self-sacrificing and nurturing. She provides unconditional devotion to her family and is motivated by endless self-denial that will ultimately fortify her children's emotional well-being.

All of this sounds good on paper.

A woman may hear how motherhood will change her life forever. Indeed. But what is often not said is that some of these changes will be profoundly disquieting, often launching her into a crisis, the likes of which she has never known.

What does a mother do with the burden of ambivalence she feels toward the baby she has longed for?

How does she reconcile her desire to be the best mother she can be with her yearning for the life she had before her baby?

To whom does she dare admit her secret wish that she never had this baby?

What does a mother do with the burden of ambivalence she feels toward the baby she has longed for?

How can she sleep at night as she tries to balance the unsettling thoughts that constantly race through her mind and the imposing guilt that follows?

Can she be a good mother if she struggles, at times, with abrupt feelings of discontent, resentment and anger toward her baby?

How does she resist temptation to surrender to the loss of control and the assault to her self-esteem and identity?

Will she ever, again, reclaim her feelings of sexuality and passion for her former self?

Is this what being a mother is all about, or will she ever truly feel like herself again?

Our mothers didn't tell us about these changes and the losses that can take place after we have a baby. The medical community doesn't tell us. Often, our friends and family don't tell us. Yet, if we look very closely and listen very carefully, we can see the labored smile that marks the face of a mother lost in the challenge of her lifetime. It is the story of a woman who looks very good on the outside — one who tries desperately to maintain the illusion that everything is fine, that this is, in fact, as easy and as pleasurable as it appears to be for every other mother. It is also the story of a woman who doesn't know where to go when she needs to say out loud that being a mother doesn't always feel so good. Just when she expects this to be the best time of her life, she is often left feeling as if she is doing something wrong, she's just not good at this; perhaps she was not cut out to be a mother?

Sometimes, it's easy to claim rights to the hardships of motherhood. It is easy for most mothers to identify with the dreadful sleep deprivation, the brutal colic wail, or the breakfast dishes from yesterday never quite finding their way to the kitchen sink. But when a woman endures the pain of disconnection from her baby, or fails to meet the expectations dictated by her critical mother, or can't face her own reflection in the mirror because she has lost touch with the soul within — it's hard for her to know where to turn.

And this leaves us with a simple thought: Sometimes being a mother doesn't feel good.

Let's face it — it's hard, it's constant and the endless work is rarely something for which we are thanked or rewarded. Sometimes even when we are doing our best it doesn't feel as if we're doing quite enough. Other times, no matter what we do or how hard we try, we are left feeling depleted, overwhelmed, angry and exhausted. Clearly, some of that just goes with the territory. There are times, too, when depression sets in, complicating the picture. But whatever the context, it is urgent that we debunk the myth which perpetuates the notion that the transition to motherhood comes easily and naturally to most women. We need to challenge the presumption that good mothers take better care of her children than they do of themselves. In doing so, we can begin to set the stage for women to be released from the expectation that they manage this mother role perfectly.

So what do we do?

We need to modify the messages they hear. We need to tell them it's okay to make mistakes. We need to tell them it's okay to ask for help.

And we must remember that it is essential that we, as mothers, be selfish sometimes. We must put our needs at the top of our priority list, without feeling guilty. This is not easy to do. But it's important. We need to rest when we can. Eat well. Get some fresh air, reach out to our friends, avoid people and things that make us feel bad, set limits, or simply take a walk.

We need to nourish our spirits.

Only then will our children have an opportunity to truly experience us at our best, be enriched by our efforts and thus derive the most benefit from what we have to offer.

Karen Kleiman, MSW, LSW is co-author of "This Isn't What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression" and author of "Therapy and the Postpartum Woman", "What Am I Thinking: Having A Baby After Postpartum Depression" and "The Postpartum Husband: Practical Solutions for Living with Postpartum Depression".

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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  1. I loved what you said about "romanticizing motherhood". Gosh, that is such a perfect term. Such an ironic term because once motherhood begins, early motherhood at least, romance in all forms goes right out the window: not just the romance between partners (duh, that's a given), but the romantic view of who "I" am as a person.
    Thank you for this eloquent letter.

  2. Lauren Hale says:

    Perfectly stated. Thank you.