Engorgement, mastitis, thrush, vasospasms, milk blebs… oh, the glamour of being a newly nursing mother! (See also: oversupply, undersupply, poor latch, tongue tie… and the list goes on.) If you are not familiar with these terms, you are one of the lucky ones. However, many new mothers experience some degree of breastfeeding difficulty soon after giving birth; and yet, the multitude of complications that arise are a surprise to many. When breastfeeding represents a dominant cultural value – as it has in the United States for several decades – the public messages and images surrounding the topic tend to be misleading for new mothers. We are fed images of mothers lovingly gazing at her newborn as it peacefully and easily suckles at the breast. However, when breastfeeding does not easily function, causes physical pain or emotional distress, the private experience may be quite a different picture.
Despite the “Fed is Best” movement that began in 2016, both research and clinical experience indicates that mothers in the US still feel immense pressure to only breastfeed their newborns, even when physical, emotional or practical limitations present significant challenges. A new mother can be then vulnerable to feelings of shame, failure, inadequacy and guilt if she feels she has not fulfilled cultural expectations nor provided the “best” for her child. In vulnerable postpartum moments, it is too easy for a new mother to blame herself and her body for not meeting expectations. After all, isn’t this what our bodies were meant to do??
Whether it is breastfeeding difficulties or another aspect of becoming a mother that is causing you emotional distress, seeking professional support can be hugely beneficial in the postpartum period. Feelings of shame, inadequacy, guilt, sadness, confusion and worry are all very common among new mothers. However, these feelings can be scary and disorienting if your fantasies of motherhood had been very different prior to your little one’s arrival. In fact, becoming more aware of our expectations of what motherhood “should” look like is an important first step toward narrowing the chasm between reality and fantasy. Simply acknowledging that we held expectations, hopes, and dreams about becoming a mother can reduce the intensity of the disappointment experienced when things do not go exactly as envisioned. Putting words to our experience rather than being hooked in by the “shoulds” and “musts” of preconceived notions can be a helpful tool to shift negative emotions to a more neutral place.
Another crucial element of postpartum psychotherapy is to support women in developing kindness, compassion, and flexibility for themselves as new mothers. In the exhausting haze of caring for a newborn, it is easy to become discouraged when - for example - our bodies do not cooperate by producing enough milk, or we cannot induce our baby to latch on properly. Self-critical thoughts about ourselves, our bodies, and ultimately our mothering can run rampant. Thus, in treatment it is important to identify, examine, and challenge self-critical beliefs so a more balanced and compassionate perspective can be constructed. It is often helpful in therapy to gather evidence to disconfirm self-critical beliefs by identifying the myriad ways in which one’s body has, and continues to serve her (and her child) well. By acknowledging the aspects of mothering that are going well, we can help construct a more nuanced and compassionate perspective that more accurately reflects reality.
Once a roadblock is hit with breastfeeding or any other aspect of new mothering, we can be vulnerable to overgeneralizing and labeling oneself as a “bad mother.” Overgeneralizing and labeling occur when we assign judgments of value to ourselves based on a very limited set of experiences (rather than the whole). These judgements can then lead to overly negative thoughts that are psychologically damaging. In the case of breastfeeding, too often a woman’s ability to breastfeed is conflated with her love for her child and her aptitude as a mother. Challenging the logic of this thinking, we might ask her to consider whether she would make these same judgements about a good friend or a sister. We might ask her to identify and embrace the ways in which she is succeeding in tending to the needs of her child. Or, we might ask her to consider the fallacy of “emotional reasoning” – the belief that “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” In fact, when real-life evidence points to the contrary, our emotions may not be true, and may not be serving us well.
On the journey of becoming a mother, there are both emotional and physical stumbling blocks nearly all women encounter. In our culture, breastfeeding is one of the most emotionally- laden topics, and can also be one of the most physically demanding. At CTWPS, we are well-versed in how these difficulties can impact a woman’s mood and mothering experience. If you or someone you know is struggling with any aspect of becoming a mother, we would welcome the opportunity to support you through this journey with compassion, care and expertise.