What the Health: How to support women as they adjust to motherhood

15 Dec 2021

“I was completely happy with going back to work…I realised that it was something I had to do. But, you feel a little bit guilty. I am doing something for me rather than staying home with the baby. You feel like you have to justify why you are back so early. Justification always comes at the end of what you say, even when you don’t realise it. Realising it [that going back to work] was something that I had to do for me…and not to feel guilty or bad about it”.

This is what a mother described to me when I asked about the times she felt judged in her role as a mother. She wasn’t alone. In all of my interviews of Australian mothers, all said that they had experience judgment. Some even said that it was a very frequent experience. Mothers often described feeling guilty when they were judged. But, when we look a little more closely using Gilbert’s evolutionary framework, what we are actually talking about is shame. Now, why does this matter? Because shame is toxic. Shame is about feeling that you are not a good enough mother, or even a bad one. More shame is related to poorer psychological adjustment for women becoming mothers, and less desire and willingness to seek help for distress. A potentially lethal combination.

But, there is hope. A lot of hope, actually. Compassion. Cultivating compassion for the self (self-compassion) and others is shown to be powerful in reducing shame and psychological distress, and enhancing well-being, for mothers. So, how does compassion work? Compassion is based on the soothing system. This is a system associated with peaceful states – feelings of being safe, calm, and content. When activated, this system allows us to soothe others and ourselves. Imagine the feeling that comes over you after soothing a crying baby. Your baby looks up at you. You feel warm and fuzzy inside. You may even look into your baby’s eyes. Seeing them look right back at you. Feeling that connection pass between the two of you. As you do this, you both breathe slowly, deeply, and relax into one another. This is the soothing system in action. We can use this same soothing system for ourselves when we are feeling shame, distress, pain, loneliness, or the myriad of human emotions.

So, the next time you feel shame? That sinking feeling come over you. Feeling exposed, vulnerable, and alone. You may want to run away, submit, or become angry. Acknowledge how difficult it is to become a mother. It triggers all sorts of emotions. It doesn’t mean you are a bad mother. It means you are a mother. Doing your best, like all of us, and the many that have come before you. Then do something kind for yourself. Treat yourself like you would treat a very close friend. If this is hard, imagine a great mother figure – it may be your own mother, grandmother, aunty, or a women you feel loved by. Imagine what they might say to you. Listen to their wise, kind, and loving guidance.

Nothing is going to prepare you for motherhood. And, that is okay. Be very kind to yourself during this time, and find people who are going to be kind to you.

Dr Julia Caldwell is a Clinical Psychologist. She was awarded her PhD from The University of Queensland. Julia will commence work as a Postdoctoral Research Associate - Maternal Mental Health at Southern Cross University in 2022. Julia has worked as a Psychologist since 2008, and a Clinical Psychologist since 2014. She has worked with adults, children, and families in both public and private organisations. Her clinical and research interests are in shame, compassion, and perinatal psychological health.