“In giving birth to our babies, we may find that we give birth to new possibilities within ourselves.” - Myla & Jon Kabat-Zinn
In the Beginning
I was primed to be a “good” mom. As a social worker trained in counseling others, I had spent many years in my own therapy gaining a deeper insight into myself. A more refined self-awareness served me well in navigating a privileged life—selecting a career to which I was well suited, choosing a loving partner, and deciding whether or not to become a parent. That last choice, made with thoughtful and careful reflection, was bolstered by the confidence of knowing both who I was and where I was. In a place with every resource at my disposal, family help, a supportive husband, financial stability, health, and the desire for a child, I was predisposed to becoming a successful mother. Or so I thought.
Instead, my entry into motherhood could suitably be described as a “failure to thrive.” The term usually refers to infants whose growth is stunted by a lack of nourishment. As a new mom, I suffered from not knowing how to feed myself. The cultural mandate to breastfeed successfully, lose the baby weight rapidly, sleep-train effectively and (co)parent seamlessly overpowered all the self-knowledge and all the professional experience of helping others. My transition to maternal life became a messy, painful journey. Every emotional, physical and spiritual part of my being was poured into child-rearing, leaving a depleted shell of the woman I had worked so hard to know well. By all accounts my baby was, thankfully, healthy and seemingly happy. Did that make me a good mom? If so, if this was what good mothering required, I didn’t know how I would survive it. Starved of “soul-food,” my pre-parent self was eclipsed by a hostile, short-tempered, unrecognizable being.
This became strikingly apparent when my son reached a month old. Seated on a slowly-deflating exercise ball with my baby cradled in my arms, I had just entered into the second hour of a slow, rhythmic bounce, trying unsuccessfully to woo him to sleep. And then my husband called.
“Hi Sweetie, I just left the office.”
“I’m on my way home. I just wanted to call.”
“Did you see the moon? It’s huge and full. Just beautiful.”
“The moon? Did I see the moon?! No! I didn’t see the fucking moon! I didn’t see the moon because I’ve been trying to get our child to sleep for the last hour by bouncing my ass off!”
So much for romance.
Donald Winnicott, MD noted British pediatrician and psychoanalyst researched and wrote extensively about the mother-infant relationship. He affirmed what we all know intellectually, that a perfect mother does not exist. “Perfection,” he stated, “belongs to machines.”1 Winnicott made a case for the fundamental importance of a mother who is imperfect—who is merely “good enough.” The “good enough” mother is one who strives to meet most of her child’s needs, but not all.2 As baby grows, mother gradually allows her to develop her own capabilities, providing opportunities to learn to overcome challenges. In so doing, the hope is she will become a secure, independent person in her own right.3
Even if it were possible, striving for maternal perfection would be futile, doing a disservice to both a mother and her child. And frankly, as I discovered, simply striving to be “good enough,” is hard enough. Contemporary psychoanalyst and feminist Jessica Benjamin, PhD takes Winnicott’s notion one step further. In not meeting her child’s every need, the “good enough” mother also allows a chance for her child to develop a fundamental understanding—that her mother is also a person in her own right.4 Learning to recognize mother as an individual can help the child develop a “shared understanding”5 the basis of empathy, and is essential in being able to connect and build stable relationships.
As a new mother, every day presents innumerable moments to grow into the parent one hopes to be. With each of these moments also comes the challenge of finding a balance between the needs of the child and the needs of his mother. Though the birth of a baby happens in a matter of hours, the birth of a mother is an on-going, evolutionary process. As a baby explores the new world around her, a mother is similarly exploring and growing into her new role. How does one reconcile the woman she once was with the mother she is becoming? How can she be not only “good enough,” but also thrive? How can she find time to gaze at the beauty of a full moon?
Figuring out how to do these things—how to feed not only my child but also myself— changed my life for the better. It also informed the trajectory of my professional work; dedicating myself to exploring a subject so under-researched, I had to give it a name “mothercare.” There is no shortage of material on how to raise a happy, healthy baby. But how to raise a happy, healthy mom? That was a subject worthy of exploration. This labor of love revealed some game-changing information, of the sort I wish I had known after I gave birth. For example, I regret not being told that moderate exercise might have been as effective (or more?!) than medication in treating my mild postpartum depression. I wish I had known then that acupressure can promote lactation or that particular foods might have helped me manage the sleep deprivation. (I really wish I had known that one!) How might my experience of early motherhood been different if I had been exposed to an art therapy group, such as the one I came across in my research?
The International Journal of Art Therapy looked at the healing impact of a 20-week painting group in the United Kingdom for new mothers and their little ones. The researchers specifically studied the effect of participation on maternal self-esteem, depression, and mother-infant bonding.6 By self-report, researchers noted that participants’ self-esteem had risen an average of 70% and depressive feelings were reduced. A measure of the quality of the mother-infant relationship had improved by 63% over the baseline at the start of the study. Observers of the group noticed the mother-child relationship growing closer as they painted together, even being able to document some of the more intimate moments in photographs, which were then given to the mothers as mementos of the artistic journey they shared together.
Winnicott wrote of the importance of establishing a “potential space” between a mother and her baby.7 This concept refers to an imagined area in which the two share in creative and relaxed play together. The “potential space” is a prime opportunity to enhance communication and healthy relationship-building. Painting together can be a way of making room for this “area” to be realized. By affording a safe, welcome escape from the monotony that accompanies early child rearing, a mother is given the possibility of relating in a new way both to her baby and also to herself. Between birth and age 3, the kind of attachment a child makes with her mother or primary caregiver is profound. The quality of that first relationship has lasting implications for all the relationships that follow, establishing a model upon which all others will be based.
My research and writing about these kinds of evidenced-based, effective tools to bolster new mothers evolved into a blog, Mother Matters and ultimately into a book of the same title. I hope my work will initiate a long-overdue movement toward making mothercare as common a part of our vernacular as “childcare” or “eldercare.” I hope it will inspire new mothers to recognize that “mother”dom need not be synonymous with martyrdom. I hope it will serve to affirm that the birth of a mother deserves to be tended to in much the same way as the birth of a baby, with attention, devotion and the deepest kind of love.
Dayna M. Kurtz, LMSW, CPT is a leading authority on the subject of mothercare, and serves as the Director of the Anna Keefe Women’s Center at the Training Institute for Mental Health in Manhattan. She is a licensed social worker and NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) Certified Personal Trainer with an additional certification in training the pre- and postnatal client. Dayna is an expert-contributor on TheBump.com, writes the “Mother Matters” blog at The Huffington Post and has written or been consulted on articles for the websites of Today, Pregnancy & Newborn, SkinnyMom and others. She is the author of the upcoming book Mother Matters: A Practical Guide to Raising a Happy, Healthy Mom (Familius Press, Spring 2018.) An avid runner who trained for and ran her first marathon after her son was born, Dayna lives with her family in New York City.
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dayna-m-kurtz-lmsw-cpt-22120351
“Real Answers Expert” @ TheBump.com
- Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd. p. 163
- Winnicott, D.W. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena—a study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34, 89-97. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1745-8315
- Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Benjamin, J. (1995). Recognition and destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity. Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Ibid. p. 42.
- Hosea, H. (2006). “The Brush’s Footmarks”: Parents and infants paint together in a small community art therapy group. International Journal of Art Therapy, 11(2), 69-78. doi: 10.1080/17454830600980317
- Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.