I don't know if it's because Mother's Day recently happened or because the change of seasons makes people more reflective but I have noticed something in the past couple of weeks: mothers don't get enough opportunities to be themselves.
The mothers I see in my therapy practice fill a dizzying number of roles in their lives. They are ambitious professionals, dedicated partners, engaged community members, devoted friends - and on most days they show up in each of these ways before lunchtime!
When people think of mothers and mental health what often comes to mind are stereotypes. One of the tropes that is commonly associated with therapy is the notion of 'the bad mother.' Freud's infamous theories of psychoanalysis contributed many intriguing and useful concepts to the field of psychology, but it also began the narrative of 'mommy issues.' The adult son who can not commit to anything without his overbearing mother's permission. The daughter who always feels insecure in the shadow of her high-achieving mother. The mother who treats her children like toys and not actual, fully-feeling human beings. The stereotypes of bad mothers are so prevalent that sometimes when clients begin therapy with me, they quickly rush to clarify that issues with their mothers are not the reason they are coming to counseling. They do not want me to assume their mothers were or are tyrants.
We have been led to believe that inattentive, distant, catty, or cruel mothering is at the core of all psychological pain. Sometimes, this is the case but not always. The mother is not always the bad guy. Sometimes, the bad guy is bigger: systems of oppression that keep generations of families in poverty, prevent access to basic human rights and constantly keep people of color in fear.
In light of all of the challenges that the world throws at us, it makes sense that being a mother can often be stressful work. Mothers don't want to mess up. They don't want to be that mom. Whether a mother carried children in her womb or someone stepped in to take care of another human, mothering demands equal parts perseverance and faith. Those in mothering roles are often the heart and foundation of their families, the ones people come to when they need affection and when they need hope to keep facing challenges.
In my experience as a psychotherapist and as a woman blessed with many mother figures, I have noticed that while many mothers relish the opportunity to serve others at the same time it can be exhausting. Constantly putting others needs before your own can lead to burnout ('I barely have enough energy to do the things I have to do'), bitterness ('If I wasn't giving so much I could be happier') or feeling unappreciated ('They don't even notice how much I do for them').
The most effective way I have found to work against these feelings of stuckness and fatigue is to encourage mothers to claim their identity. Too often my clients say that even though they love their children and families, they are treated as if being a mother is the fullness of their experience. People only seem to ask them about their kids - and sometimes, mothers don't know who they are outside of their children, either.
Mothers and mother figures are so much more than the people they take care of on a daily basis. I invite clients to think about the topics they are passionate about, dreams they still want to pursue, parts of themselves that they want to explore - and then go after them. This can mean taking the initiative to start the conversation with other adults about topics they care about or going back to school. It can mean teaching their children about who they were before they became a mother or learning more about the mothering figures they respect.
A key part of mothers living into their full identities is for them to practice self-care. My mothering clients wiggle uncomfortably when I tell them this but unless caregivers take the time to attend to their own needs and goals, they will not have the stamina, flexibility, and resilience needed to successfully mother. As mothers, it is not selfish to take care of yourselves. It is smart because you are ensuring that you can be around for the long haul. Additionally, and this is the part that really hits home for my mothering clients, it models for your children and dependents the importance of them pausing to take care of themselves so that they can fully be present for their loved ones. That is an early lesson that can go a long way in strengthening their mental health.
So mothers, be yourselves. Recognize that what makes you a good mother is your complete self, not the kind of mother you think you have to be because of the media, other parents around you or your mother. Make time for your hobbies and your friends. Ask for help and let people help you. Love your families and love every part of what makes you you. You don't have to be perfect but you do have to be good to yourself so that you can be a good mother for someone else.