When I was pregnant, other mothers routinely warned me of the isolation awaiting me. I assumed they were referring to single friends I’d lose as my social life evaporated, but that wasn’t what they meant.
The gutting loneliness of modern-day motherhood comes from going it alone, without the web of women who once held, bathed, fed, kissed, counseled, laughed, massaged and guided us during the most vulnerable time in our lives.
Without such weaving of womankind, I found myself in the bewildering position of having never been around a newborn until I birthed one of my own. And now that she was here, it was up to me to learn on the fly and off the cuff how to mother.
Motherhood awakened in me a visceral knowing that how we raise children in this culture is painfully unnatural. Maternal-activist Beth Berry echoes this: “The fact that so many mothers experience high levels of anxiety, loneliness, overwhelm, and stress on a daily basis is not simply par for the course... It’s a red flag of collective maternal distress. It’s evidence that something’s wrong with the circumstances within which we are mothering.”
In the absence of basics like intact communities, living wages, affordable healthcare or parental leave, mothers find themselves making one compromised, counter-intuitive choice after another. We know instinctively that something’s wrong with the way we’re parenting… and we assume it’s us. When we can’t keep it together, we internalize these societal shortcomings, believing instead we’re “just a bad mom.”
The heart-wrenching experience of falling short of your expectations doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom. It’s our body’s way of telling us that having to choose between work and kids, disposable or cloth, organic or affordable, isn’t just disempowering –it’s traumatizing.
Trauma doesn’t have to be obvious or overt (as with abuse or neglect) to qualify as trauma. We know that chronic stress (the likes of which is considered “normal” for most Americans) is damaging to the body. Worse still, is the imprint it leaves on our children’s brains.
During the ultra-impressionable zero-to-three age, even seemingly insignificant stressors can permanently change the structure, chemistry and function of the brain, taking root in the most unconscious, “reptilian” parts of our grey matter. Investment in our children’s wellbeing during this critical window has powerful economic implications; every $1 invested in early-childhood care yields a $7 return over the course of a person’s life in terms of their contributions (or costs) to society. That’s a 600% return on investment –a real no brainer.
Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist specializing in childhood trauma and resilience, has come to the conclusion that the single greatest buffer against childhood trauma is positive connection with healthy adults. Unfortunately, few early-childhood interventions take into account parental wellbeing.
It’s easy to be loving, supportive and encouraging to our kids when we feel rested, resourced and respected, but throw in any of a million everyday stressors (parenting solo, pumping in a bathroom stall, comparison with or criticism from fellow moms, working when we don’t want to, not working when we long to, struggling with our changing bodies, birth injuries, tight finances, children with special needs… etc.) and all Instagrammable-idyllics fall to pieces.
But rather than taking these shattered pieces personally, it’s imperative that we piece ourselves together again with reasonable expectations –we are evolutionarily wired for greater degrees of intimacy and interconnectivity than our culture affords us. We are not meant to do this alone.
We don’t need more expert advice or time-saving technology –we need a culture that values and empowers collaboration and connection between the mothers of this world. The health of our children’s brains and society as a whole depend on it.