Why It's Okay to Grieve the Woman You Were Before Motherhood

November 06, 2020

This original article appeared on Shape, written by Faith Brar

After undergoing an emergency c-section, Missouri-native Lex Brown-James was glued to her couch for weeks. So much so that she developed gluteal amnesia (aka dead butt syndrome), a condition where your body forgets how to activate your butt muscles properly. Between the pain, discomfort, and responsibility of taking care of a newborn, one day she just couldn't even remember who she once was anymore.

"I saw my friends and colleagues doing these amazing things that I felt I could do and do well — but instead, I was stuck, sitting with my butt losing muscle mass, covered in baby throw up," says Brown-James. "I had attributed motherhood to feelings of pure joy, but what I felt was a mix of anxiety, inequitable fear, and frustration."

Over in New Jersey, Amanda Marziliano was overcome with similar emotions after undergoing a traumatic, 21-hour-long, unmedicated delivery with her first child. "I ended up pushing for four hours, which caused me to break my tailbone, and I ended up with an emergency c-section anyway, where I didn't have working anesthesia," recounts Marziliano.

The birthing process left Marziliano feeling a complete and utter loss of control. Six weeks later, she couldn't shake the feeling. "It was Mother's Day, and I remember thinking, 'No part of me feels like a mom' even though everything in my life was about my son," she shares.

During her maternity leave, Marziliano had to learn how to breastfeed with the help of a lactation consultant, attended numerous doctor's appointments, and struggled with serious sleep deprivation — all while recovering from major surgery. Things didn't get any easier when she went back to work either. It didn't take long for her to realize that being a mom meant sacrificing every bit of 'me time' she had.

"I wasn't prepared for how drastic the life changes were going to be," admits Marziliano. "Being a mom became my first and only priority. I felt a complete loss of self, but I couldn't admit it because motherhood is supposed to be the best thing that can ever happen to a woman."

Now, there's no denying that there are plenty of incredible things women gain when they become a mother. But there are losses as well, leaving many women longing for, say, the nights when they could grab impromptu drinks with friends or for the weekends when they could take a quick getaway with only one duffle bag. Neither of these things — among many other aspects of prenatal life — feel as accessible after giving birth due to the whole "responsible for another human being" thing. And all this loss can come with a sense of grief, which, more often than not, goes undiscussed.

 

 

Why Grief Is So Misunderstood

For many, the word "grief" conjures up images of death and funerals — but it's not always about the passing of a loved one. It's about loss, which comes in many forms. You can grieve a broken heart, stained career, changes in politics, and a declining economy (especially when there's an ongoing global pandemic). You can also grieve a loss of self, which is common when you're going through a huge transition such as motherhood, according to Paige Bellenbaum, L.M.S.W., founding director of The Motherhood Center.

"Huge transition" is an understatement. Just think about it: You're recovering from months of pregnancy and delivering a child, enduring a rapid and drastic change in hormones, learning to manage the new responsibility of being a parent, pushing through seemingly perpetual exhaustion, the list goes on. "It's indeed a drastic life-changing experience," says Megan Gray, M.D., an ob-gyn at Orlando Health Physician Associates

 

 

 

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“Becoming a mother involves an identity shift, and is one of the most significant physical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Yet when a woman gives birth, society puts pressure on new mums telling them it should be one of the most joyful moments of their lives. Of course, it is, but the struggles of parenting are hard and can at times overshadow the joys. The perception and reality of the day to day are so different, it creates confusion.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ These unspoken challenges mean that women often struggle through this in isolation, ashamed to admit how they feel.⁠⠀ There is little that is written about the challenges of becoming a mother; a process that has been named...#matrescence.” @sophieebrard ⁠⠀

A post shared by Matrescence® Skin (@matrescenceskin) on

 

 

Turns out, there's a term for this transitional period: matrescence, which sounds similar to the word "adolescence" for a reason, says Bellenbaum. "Moving from childhood to adulthood is awkward, cumbersome, uncomfortable; the mood swings are all over the place, your body's changing, and you're confused." It's practically a universally accepted truth that adolescent is unpleasant. But during matrescence, women are expected to rejoice and be grateful, when in reality, they're going through somewhat similar, albeit far more drastic, changes. As women strive to understand their new role in life, it makes sense that many lose their identity in the upheaval of it all, explains Dr. Gray.

"There's this fear that you'll never be able to live life like you used to," says Bellenbaum. "You feel as if that person you were before becoming a mom is truly lost forever. Unbeknownst to most moms, these are completely natural and normal thought processes. These are signs of grief."

The degree to which a mother experiences loss and grief over her old self can also contribute to her postpartum mood, which may result in postpartum depression or anxiety. That being said, grieving your pre-baby self isn't indicative of serious mental health issues unless it becomes pervasive, consumes your thoughts, and negatively impacts daily activities, explains Dr. Gray. (And if the latter sounds familiar, then you should consult a doc.)

How Long Does This Grief Last?

You've likely heard about the theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., which suggests that people go through five distinct stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But grief — and the process of moving through it — doesn't always unfold in that exact order. "It's important to remember that the grieving process isn't linear and is different for everyone," says Bellenbaum. "It also may never end." For most women, grief is most intense right after giving birth and it can look different throughout the seasons of life with growing children, adds Dr. Gray.

Marziliano recalls that her grief was more prominent during the first six months of motherhood. "My son is now the best part of my life, but I missed my brain," she says. "I was someone who took pride in devoting 100 percent of my brain to work. But now I was constantly worried about my son at daycare, 'How was he doing?', 'Was he fed?', 'Why haven't they sent me a picture of him yet?'. Before becoming a mom my job was who I was, now I struggle to give 70 percent of myself to it."

Brown-James shares that she grieved after she had her first child, and then again after giving birth to her second. "I thought after my first child, the feeling would go away, but then with two kids, I was still sobbing nightly because I was jealous of all the things my counterparts were doing," she says. "Being a parent was the only thing I could give my hundred percent to every single day — not being a partner, a daughter, or even a CEO."

Turns out, women like Marziliano and Brown-James, who are high-functioning, successful, and driven, tend to struggle the most after becoming moms because they feel an immense loss of control, says Bellenbaum. "Women who have bolstering careers, are often fulfilled by mastery and we know that raising a child is not a perfect art," she explains. "For some of these women, it's challenging when after becoming a parent, A plus B no longer equals C."

All of the things that might have served these women professionally, may not serve them when they're moms. "All of a sudden you're at the beck and call of this little eight-pound being, so there are times when these women find themselves falling into a sense of despair," she explains.

That isn't to say that women aren't capable of balancing both things — they are. But at the same time, they're forced to constantly make choices about how they're going to invest their time. And their own selves always end up on the backburner, furthering this feeling that the woman they used to be no longer exists.

"Perhaps mothers struggle to settle into this new role because we're asked to give up more, and either be full-time parents or divide our time more when we work outside the home," says Marziliano. "The workforce especially isn't designed for working parents — so if and when someone needs to take a step back from their career, moms are always making the bigger sacrifice, which forces them to give up a fulfilling part of themselves."

For most moms though, things start to turn the corner after six months. "As you emerge from the fog of the first six months, you finally start to find who you are in all the change that comes during matrescence," says Bellenbaum. "You're more rested. Your baby's more interactive. You start to become more comfortable in your new role. You may be able to better appreciate your new self and reflect on your personal development. It's particularly hard to do that in the first three to six months after delivery."

But even after that, you're grief may come and go in waves. For instance, you might feel as if you've finally gotten to a place of acceptance as a mother, but when your child gets a fever ten minutes before your first date night in months, you might go right back to a place of anger and sadness — and that's okay. "There's no right or wrong way to grieve and there's no right or wrong time to grieve," she adds. "But you have to acknowledge it for what it is to make transitioning into motherhood as healthy as possible."

However, that can be easier said than done, especially when "there's a lot of perceived judgment around the notion of not loving motherhood," says Bellenbaum.

"The narrative now is that everyone should love being a mom," says Marziliano. "Don't get me wrong, I do love being a mom and appreciate it, but it's also the hardest thing in the world. The worst part is, it's hard to admit those feelings, let alone talk about them, because of shame and fear of judgment."

 

 

 

It Does Get Better

Full disclosure: There's no "quick fix" to accelerate the grieving process when it comes to motherhood or anything else. Overcoming grief begins by understanding that the feeling is normal to an extent, explains Dr. Gray. "You need to know that most women feel this way at some point and to some degree, so you are not alone."

That's why reaching out to trusted friends and family members and commiserating over each other's experiences can be quite helpful, she says. Marzilioano, in particular, found this tactic to comforting: "Talking to mothers who are going through the same thing at the same time has been so incredibly helpful to me," she shares. "Navigating the identity shift with other people has made the process so much easier."

Practicing serious self-reflection can help too, adds Dr. Gray. "Reflect on your 'old' self and identify the top three things that defined you before your baby," she says. "Write them down. Consider the importance of these qualities in your life. Then find ways to incorporate them into your new life daily."

This is likely to take some work initially, cautions Dr. Gray. Don't beat yourself up if you feel as if you need to put in even more effort to bring these old you aspects into your life. There are more barriers in place now, so be patient with yourself and consider asking loved ones for help meeting this goal.

Personally, Brown-James couldn't get to a place of self-reflection until she was on baby number three, at which point, she sought out therapy to help her start "planning ways in which to feel present and more like myself," she says. "It took me that long to realize that I needed more than just 'mommy-ing', to feel fulfilled."

The truth is, if you decide to have children (because, yes, it's not a given) your two iterations of self — the person you were before motherhood, and the person you are now — can co-exist. They just might not exist at the same intensity at the same time, says Bellenbaum. Either way, you shouldn't feel the need to completely sacrifice your sense of self to feel like a good mom.

"Being a mother doesn't require complete self-sacrifice," says Marziliano. "You're a better mother if you hold on to parts of what defined you before. To be a good parent, you need to be a fulfilled person."

 

Original article appeared on Shape, written by Faith Brar





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