As a mothers’ advocate, I get to meet seriously interesting people. One of my favorites is Jennifer Kogan who has been counseling individuals and couples in her Washington DC psychotherapy practice for 17 years. With two children of her own, and a current client base that’s 90% mothers, she hears more about the maternal experience than most. We talked recently about her observations and insights.
Q: Do the mothers you see professionally have much in common?
A: Yes. Mothers have a hard time taking care of themselves because they are so busy taking care of everyone else. People talk about the beauty of motherhood, but not about how hard it can be. This is because we live with the myth that motherhood is all sunshine and roses. Despite what we see in the media, being a mom is not always wonderful. It can be hard and messy and unpredictable. The way to cope with the reality of motherhood is to acknowledge our true feelings and to put our own needs into the equation. I remind moms that just like the instructions we hear on an airplane, we need to put our own oxygen mask on first so we can be alive and present to take care of our kids.
Q: How do women react when their expectations and their experiences as mothers don’t match?
A: The new moms that I meet are usually feeling pretty blindsided by the enormous life change that has occurred. They often tell me that no one warned them it would be this hard. I believe that part of what makes this transition so difficult is because when you are pregnant, you have time to take care of yourself. The focus is on you and how you are feeling. But the minute the baby is born, the focus shifts to the baby. Sleep is interrupted and nothing goes as planned. Women who try to express their conflicted feelings are often met with the well-intentioned myth (from family and friends) that new motherhood should be a happy time. Sometimes it is but sometimes it really isn’t.
Q: What else do the mothers in your practice identify often as a source of stress?
A: Two things come up pretty regularly. The myth that ‘Breast is Best’ does not always help mothers. A postpartum support colleague of mine recently recommended we say, “breast is best except when it isn’t.” Women are made to feel like they are committing a crime if they decide not to breastfeed. In fact, there are many valid reasons why not breastfeeding would be better for mom and baby. Chief among those is a mother’s emotional and mental health. A baby needs a mom who is feeling healthy and strong.
Secondly, many parents today live far from their families. We lack built-in support systems for women. Many women that I meet with do not have friends who have babies. They are missing a sense of community and support. It is hard to feel validated when you don’t know anyone else who is doing what you are doing.
Q: Do you think mothers are more susceptible to guilt than non-mothers?
A: Mothers do carry a lot of guilt and some of that may be tied to pressure and the sense of responsibility they feel from the moment their baby arrives. It may also connect to the family culture they grew up in, how they adapted in their first family, and what they bring to the family they are in now. Research shows that raising children can be the most stressful time in a couple’s relationship. However, the family a mother and father (or mother and mother) creates can become a new blueprint for success. Staying connected is possible but it takes work. Developing an awareness of one’s own feelings, and communicating those feelings and needs in a clear manner can really help. Being 100% in charge isn’t good for anyone. I try to help women find ways to ask for what they need from their partners.
My goal is to help mothers with children of all ages look at themselves with kinder eyes. Learning to voice our feelings and needs is the best way to counter the very real societal pressure that we must “do it all.” Connecting with other women and speaking up when we notice a mothering myth is key. It is also a very real investment in the future of our own sons and daughters.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington