A 2017 study of 2,000 first-time moms conducted in the UK revealed that the top three words to describe new motherhood were “chaotic,” “tiring” and “stressful.” If you’re a mom, these findings probably don’t surprise you. The first year of motherhood is often filled with sleepless nights and feelings of helplessness and loneliness.
According to Dr. Pixie McKenna, spokeswoman for Nurofen for Children, “the unknown is what throws women completely off balance.” The transition into motherhood often involves enormous changes in lifestyle and shifts in self-perspective. Women who feel confident in their own abilities and live independent, autonomous lifestyles transition to having very little control over their daily lives and constantly questioning whether they’re doing things right. But setting realistic expectations for new moms is challenging because it’s not just a handful of siloed incidents that make motherhood hard, it’s the hundreds of micro stressors that moms experience every day.
According to self-determination theory, human beings have three basic psychological needs: autonomy: the need for independence and freedom; competence: the need to feel accomplished; and relatedness: the need to feel connected to others. All three of these needs are significantly impacted when women become mothers. Let’s break it down:
Autonomy - moms of young children, especially babies, have very little control over their daily lives. For new moms, even the simple task of going to the bathroom involves seeking help from others.
Competence - there is no guidebook to parenting. Moms are just winging it and hoping for the best, which makes them constantly question their abilities and decisions.
Relatedness - motherhood can be extremely isolating. Another UK survey revealed that 90% of mothers feel lonely after having a child and 54% felt friendless after giving birth.
Given that these basic psychological needs are key elements to our well being, it’s no wonder that women feel like they struggle through motherhood.
While we’re not psychologists or researchers, we have some thoughts on what existing and expecting moms can do to create a better motherhood experience. Based on our own research, conversations within our mom community and our own experiences as mothers, we’ve observed that moms often say they need help but those cries seem to fall on deaf ears. One barrier may be that our requests for help are not specific enough. In light of this, we’ve developed the ‘HELP ME’ method outlining six actionable steps to help moms improve their motherhood experience.
H – Have support in place
E – Embrace your evolution
L – Leverage your partner
P – Prioritize growth
M – Meet mom friends
E – Eliminate expectations
1. Have support in place. Asking family and friends for help is a great first step. It might feel uncomfortable to ask someone to do your laundry or dishes, but you’ll be glad that you did. Your family and friends will also likely be happy to help. Be specific by planning days/times that they can come and provide a list of responsibilities they can help with. If you don’t have family or friends close by, consider investing in a Doula, at least for the first few weeks. If you’re having a baby shower, consider adding the following support items to your gift list:
Having a good support system in place can benefit all three of your psychological needs. It will allow you to find time to do things for yourself, make you feel connected to others, and, when your workload is reduced, you’ll feel more confident in making decisions.
2. Embrace your evolution. “Losing yourself in motherhood” is a popular phrase, but we think ‘evolving in motherhood’ is much more accurate. The truth is that motherhood does change you, and that’s okay. Take the time to appreciate the changes that have taken place. Being authentically yourself will help you build better and more meaningful connections with others, and increase your confidence.
3. Leverage your partner. One of the biggest injustices of motherhood is that the physical and mental workload of caring for children and managing the household continues to fall disproportionately on mothers. There is a huge opportunity to close the labour gap between parents. This doesn’t mean you need to split everything 50/50, but you shouldn’t be responsible for doing ALL things related to the baby. Remembering to bring snacks, sunscreen or diapers shouldn’t always fall on you. Take turns packing the diaper bag. Consider dividing up tasks like attending doctors visits and taking sick days. If you do most things related to the baby, ask your partner to do more around the house. These conversations should start before the baby comes and should continue on an ongoing basis. Having ongoing discussions can save you from resentment and arguments in the future. Schedule a “check-in” with your partner every couple of months to discuss the current workload and upcoming plans, and create a plan that feels fair to both of you. Most importantly make sure your plan includes “me time” for you both, and make it a priority over any household duties - the dishes and laundry can wait. Having time to yourself is key to reclaiming your autonomy and improving your well-being. Check out the Fair Play Book and Game by Eve Rodsky for further guidance on sharing responsibilities with your partner .
4. Prioritize growth. Start thinking about something you’d like to do just for you. We’re not talking about self-care type things like reading, long baths, or hanging with friends. We’re talking about things that you enjoy and also challenge you, like art, dance, playing an instrument, cooking classes or even starting your own business. Learning new things and growing your skills will help you feel more competent.
5. Meet mom friends. An 80-year-long Harvard study has confirmed that good relationships make us happier and healthier and lead to a longer life. Connecting with moms who are in similar situations provides validation, solidarity, and encouragement to keep going. Invest the time in finding mom friends who you can be vulnerable with. Having meaningful friendships can serve as your lifeline in motherhood and fulfill your need for relatedness. Find your mom friends through mamaraderie.ca.
6. Eliminate expectations. Remove any expectations you have of yourself to be a perfect mother and anyone else’s expectations about how they think you should mother. Do what you feel is right for you. This doesn’t mean you should “just give up” or lower your standards. Eliminating expectations removes the unnecessary pressure of doing things a certain way. In motherhood, things often don't go as planned. It's okay to go with the flow. The most important item on your to-do list is keeping your little human(s) alive. That's a lot of work on it’s own. Don’t add things to your to-do list that don’t serve your well-being. Doing less and removing the pressure of expectations will make you feel more competent in doing the things that matter.
Here's a quick recap of which action steps to use for each of your psychological needs.
Autonomy - have support in place & leverage your partner.
Competence - embrace your evolution, prioritize your growth, and eliminate expectations.
Relatedness - meet mom friends.
While we recognize that everyone’s motherhood journey is different and these steps aren’t going to remove every difficult aspect of motherhood (we wish that was possible!), we believe that fulfilling these three basic psychological needs will have a positive impact on your well-being and as a result improve your motherhood experience.
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