When Women Become
And the Impact of Family Self-Esteem
By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.
When I became a mother for the first time, I was 22 years
old. This April I will become a grandmother when my 22 year old daughter
gives birth. It seems that my life is poetically navigating through the
family life cycle. Giving birth and becoming a mother were powerful forces
in forming my identity as a young woman. Meeting life energy during labor
and taking responsibility for the life of a small child turned me inwards
to develop my core self. I became stronger over the years, but not without
battle scars along the way.
I also came face to face with the cultural loading that
being a mother entailed. For to be mother carried
with it a far greater cultural expectation for responsibility for emotional
development of children than did fathering in the family. The sense of
responsibility was more weighted. If something went wrong in a childs
life, the role of being mother meant that I would not only
feel the natural empathy for the child I loved, but I would also suffer
the feelings of blame that society reserved for me... especially for me,
As the years passed and my two children grew towards adulthood,
I grappled with the balance between my needs and theirs , my relationship
to my husband, my career and so on. And I learned about the way that others
see mothers in the world, and the unconscious expectation for women who
are mothers to nurture others, to cooperate, and in general to defer to
others needs. Part of my identity was forged by discerning when
an unconscious assumption that I nurture automatically was being made,
and then by discriminating whether or not I wanted to do it. The
most enlightening of these turning points in awareness did not come from
my family, but from a male coworker who assumed I would bring snacks and
supplies to work party meetings that we both co-led for students in training.
Though nothing was asked overtly, I came to recognize the lack of acknowledgment
when I did do it, and a surprised affect when it was not done
as an unconscious pressure on me to cartake others in the professional
setting. My own ability to see this opened up choices to me. I could take
charge of when I would or would not nurture. This awareness sustained
my sense of self and I felt the power of my own determination.
In the family, a similar awareness created opportunity
for lively discussion and intimate sharing. My very loving and attentive
husband criticized me jokingly when I was only able to get dinner on the
table 4 out of 7 days of the week with the help of one day of take out
food. The children each cooked one day a week as teenagers, and my husband
cooked one day. I was able to point out that I was taking responsibility
for 4 of the 7 days, and wondered whether the fact that he had experienced
his own mothers cooking 7 days a week growing up might be his automatic
expectation for comparison. Naturally, I felt it an unfair one as I was
also working outside the home and contributing to income for the family,
which was not one of the expectations for his mother. Luckily for me,
my then 15 year old son who had been studying these things in social living
at his high school came to my defense, and a very rewarding, humorous
and enlightening discussion ensued.
Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia, Western
civilization has a history of unrealistic expectations about mothers.
They are held responsible for their childrens happiness and
for the social and emotional well being of families. Mothers are either
idealized...or bashed in fairytales and modern American novels. We all
think of our mothers with what Freud called primary process thought; the
thinking style of young children. We have trouble growing up enough to
see our mothers as people. Everyone has strong associations to their
own mother, and it is difficult for women who are mothers to not get caught
in the projections of others. Most of us as adults have grown up with
very little knowledge of our own mothers as people. Early childhood disappointments
can be experienced by women as pressure to fulfill unrealistic and unconscious
nurturing fantasies in others.
Women who are also mothers need to feel that whether they
work outside the home or not, whether they bring in money or not, that
they have equal power when it comes to decision-making in the family.
Their positions should not be automatically compromised by expectations
by themselves or their partner that she should defer to a partners
schedule, unless it is agreed to ahead of time. This kind of discussion
and relating between partners ensures that when deferral to outside work
priorities occurs, there is appreciation and goodwill. Likewise the favor
can be returned in some way, when it is acknowledged! Partners benefit
in giving up automatic and unconscious culturally predetermined power,
they gain true intimacy and sharing in their primary relationship. Appreciation
and goodwill are truly at the heart of healthy family esteem.
We can and do love our children and our motherhood.
However the need to fulfill individual aspirations, dreams and talents
does not die with giving birth. And including yourself as a person, as
well as a mother; to yourself as well as your family, your children in
particular; will light the way for your own childrens appreciation
of you. Appreciation in a family creates warmth, goodwill and reward.
The self-esteem of the family as a whole is increased when mothers, fathers
and children are equally appreciated for who we are as people as
well as for the roles and responsibilities we fulfill in the family.
Recently , a good friend and colleague of mine, Barbara
Lewis, also a therapist and mother of three grown children decided that
we would give a workshop on the topic of womens identity. We wanted
it to be a group for women who were also mothers, with the focus upon
women themselves as whole people, including the important context of motherhood.
It was to be named A Group For Women Who Are Also Mothers.
In the course of promoting the workshop through a local family organization
and preschool, the name underwent an unconscious translation to be advertised
as "A Group on Womens Identity to Explore Being a Mother
and a Woman. Again and unconsciously, cultural definition of women
when they become mothers dictated that the expectations or role of mother
was to be considered before the sense of self in discussing the topic
of womens identity.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Sharing feelings with other women who are also mothers
can be of great benefit in supporting and nourishing ourselves. The following
suggestions are some of the ideas that arose out of the group interactions
around this topic. They are based on the belief that women can best serve
their children by being human, and that showing and sharing vulnerabilities
appropriately with other family members allows children to see their mothers
as people with their own needs and frustrations, who also nurture and
love them. When a mother feels appreciated, her children benefit. When
she feels seen and heard, especially by her parenting partner, despite
the fact that her work with the children ( if she is primary caretaker)
is unpaid, the children benefit. Self-esteem is developed through acknowledgment
of our own needs and by our ability to be sensitive to others.
Children can feel powerful when they are able to give to someone else,
especially their mothers who give so much to them.
- HAVING FUN WITH YOUR CHILDREN: When asked, What
do you want your child to know about you as a person?, one very
insightful woman shared that, though she was a person who her colleagues
and friends experienced as a lot of fun, she grieved the fact that this
part of her personality did not get expressed with her children. Because
of her feelings of duty and responsibility, she did have fun with them.
Yet, this was an important part of her identity she wanted them to know
and experience. Just this awareness can liberate us as women to bring
more of ourselves into our interactions with our children. By doing
so, we counteract the potential for falling into stereotypic relationships
with the people we love. Relating to and through a stereotype deadens
intimacy and pleasure in family relationships.
- MAINTAINING PERSONAL GOALS: Many women in the
group expressed difficulty in getting enough time to sustain their own
friendships, physical exercise, or other personal goals. When you become
a mother, it is true that your time grows thin. It is very easy, even
tempting to forget about your own development completely. To many women,
the idea of lowering expectations, but maintaining them was a
novel idea, one they were initially resistant to embrace. However, finding
a middle ground is essential. It is not necessary to completely sacrifice
yourself, although compromise is, of course, an inevitable and natural
part of parenthood. It is true that you may be unable to keep up the
same exercise schedule you had before becoming a mother, however it
is possible to lower your expectations to a realistic level and meet
them, thereby keeping this part of you developing, though at a different
pace than you have been used to doing. Likewise support groups that
meet every other week or even once monthly can be an important source
of continuous nourishment. Because you cannot keep up your old schedules
should not lead you to completely abandon yourself. Commit yourself
to a different pace. You will feel an accomplishment in having met your
redefined goal. This kind of continuation of your own interests will
keep you in touch with your own development. When time becomes more
available as your children mature you will find that your interests
have not died or vanished on you, but are ready for increased involvement.
- EXPRESSING YOURSELF: Another woman with a 4
year old son shared the manner in which she was able to cry in front
of him, explaining to him that she was having a difficult time with
some specific thing and that she was also all right and able to take
care of him, too. This ability to let your children know what is going
on for you, without threatening their sense of security, can offer them
valuable insight into their mothers as people. And it keeps women from
internalizing feelings which can lead to depression. Healthy expression
and release can help you more readily recover your sense of self.
Karen Johnson in Trusting Ourselves writes, Women
need to take charge of the definition of motherhood. ..to question the
source of burdensome and unrealistic expectations of their own mothers
as well as similar expectations of themselves. There must be room to be
a whole person-not simply a stereotype. She encourages women to
get to know their own mothers as people. On a personal note, motherhood
brought me a unique opportunity, if not a dilemma, for maturation. Somewhere
in my own development... and I cannot say exactly how it occurred or when...I
came to deeply respect, love and appreciate my mothering as an aspect
of my identity. I began to value the act of love and nurturing, indeed
a devalued and invisible task in our society. Our culture undervalues
qualities of personhood that can be brought out by motherhood. Each of
us must find our own answers along the way, our own personal balance in
being a woman and a mother.
Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing
in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in
her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An
Easier Childbirth, Birthing
Normally and her latest book, Making
Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships
appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert
in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and
Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board
for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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