The New Mom’s Guide to Avoiding an Identity Crisis

new moms
By Dr. Daphne de Marneffe

In parenthood there are no right answers, and social pressures certainly don’t make major challenges and questions of identity easier to navigate for new moms.

Should you have children around the same time your parents did, or instead, when your friends on Facebook are? And once you have a child, how much time should you stay around the house? How do you know when it’s right to go back to work?

After speaking with the “mommy” expert, clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe on the second edition of “Maternal Desire“, she reveals that ultimately, motherhood is a journey of self-discovery. These are all questions you must look deep within yourself to answer, though it’s always okay to ask for help or seek out new advice.

Below is an edited transcript on a wide range of common questions new moms have that Marneffe’s book hopes to answer.

On the “maternal desire”…

Q: What is the maternal desire?

The easiest way to think about it is in terms of a love relationship. When we have an intimate love relationship we want to be close, know the other person and be known by the other person. There is a sense in which people feel they are expressing who they are and enacting a creative part of themselves. There is a strong desire from the parent to do that and to care for, and protect their child.

Q: Why is the maternal desire important?

It’s been a very complicated and conflictual element of identity for a lot of women. Because they feel like if they’re devoted and invested in parenthood, and find it hard to leave their child because they are so dependent upon a little person’s wellbeing, they wonder who they are as a separate person, as an individual.

On navigating social pressures…

Q: How can a young woman know if she wants children or if society is just putting pressure on her?

The reason it’s called “Maternal Desire” is because I’m very focused on what people are passionate about and what they want as an individual person, to help them figure out who they are in this world.

One of the main purposes of the book is to help readers on that journey of the questions: What do I want? How can I disentangle that from what my parents want? From what society says I should want? From what my friends want? Or what my partner wants? Who am I?

People often hit a time in their late thirties or early forties where they are tortured by these questions. Since we live in an era where women have birth control, much more sexual freedom and more opportunities in the outer world, this question can kind of be deferred or back burnered. Part of what I try to do is encourage people to think about it and to not see independent identity as so closely tied to everything you do apart from having children.

Q: What’s the biggest struggle new mothers share nowadays and how does that affect us as a society?

I would say they are being pulled in so many different directions and feel so many different pressures. Some people I see in my practice, and that I talk to, feel that it’s become such a slog. Though the good thing about current society is that people of all genders and sexual identifications are in a place where they can practice roles that are a lot more flexible.

People of all kinds are in the workforce, are parents and are doing all roles. This means people feel extremely pressured and burnt out by all the different paths they’re wearing.

Daphne de Marneffe

I’ve noticed there becomes a huge source of tension between partners and co-parents. In other words, this question of “who’s doing what?” What is equal? Is this fair? Is everyone pulling their own weight in terms of the emotional labor of raising children?

Not to mention, I think there is an increased sense to be a parent based on the look of success, which really takes people away from their own internal barometer of “how is this working for me?” There is a lot of pressure in terms of perfectionism, looking effortless and keeping your body together, a lot of stuff that is even more pronounced.

Q: Is there any way for people to deal with these social pressures?

If there’s one hope for this book it is that it helps them have a moment, a pause to just sit with their own inner life. The subtitle is “Children, Love, and the Inner Life”, and it’s really about how the more we are outward focused and worrying about keeping up toxifies the inner atmosphere.

How do you find that voice in yourself, that sense of what’s working and what’s not working? Compassion and acceptance towards your own experiences can really be the best anecdote. This can be expressed through friendships, online relationships, mom blogs, therapy. It can be expressed through finding those places in your life that feel nurturing and safe to discover what is the struggle for you and what needs to change.

On managing your identity…

Q: How do you think new moms can manage their desire to be with their child at home, their desire for social connection and going right back to work after having a baby?

The first thing I would say is don’t treat this as an either/or question. Hopefully your identity expands over your life as you take on more roles, more time and emotional investments.

Unfortunately, society is built to make this extraordinarily difficult for parents to actually combine identities in a very humane, positive way. Certain aspects of the culture are adjusting. I think gradually men are getting a little more equality in wanting kids and wanting to spend time with the kids too.

The point I’m making is not to internalize the dysfunction of the society and start thinking of it as you. In other words, you as a parent, are deeply attached to this child- that is a good thing for you and for them. Having the time and space to really be nurtured is a supreme human value. The fact that the workplace puts that in a little box and tells you “oh, don’t be that person”, “don’t be so attached”, can make you internalize that as a social problem. Do what you can to change it, but you as a human being, and as a parent, should feel comfortable and happy trying to have both those roles be as useful as possible.

Q: Since you have three children of your own and years of experience as a psychologist, how did you manage not to lose your own identity as a young mom? 

Every hour you’re changing diapers or taking care of the kids you might not be doing something else that could be very fulfilling. I think sometimes that can make people feel like they are drowning and that they just don’t have enough time to do those other things that feed their sense of who they are.

I think people need to take that seriously and really be honest with themselves about how much time they need with their kids in order to feel fulfilled, but not completely depleted. They need to ask themselves, “can I arrange my life to optimize that?”

Mother’s are guilt-tripped incessantly and they hear a number of voices in their mind. Partly, I am trying to help people free themselves enough to say, “what works best for our family?” Maybe what works best for our family is that my partner is actually much happier doing the day to day with the kids, and I am actually much happier not. There are a million different things people can do but it’s always about how you are struggling within yourself and how you can come up with the best solution for what your constraints are or what your situation is.

On child development

Q: What is the importance of parents spending time with children?

I think we have this kind of split consciousness about children in this culture and what is important to the parent-child relationship. On the one hand, everything in neuroscience, in psychology and in the psychology of attachment development is telling us that close relationships, presence and secure attachment is the foundation of human success on every metric.

Whether it’s being able to think, control impulses, or being able to be a productive worker, all these things are based on a close, warm, responsive relationships with an attachment figure. AKA a parent.

However, the whole society is designed to make it incredibly hard for parents to do that. And even with good day care, the turnover rate is way too high. If we know that secure attachment has to do with close and consistent relationships, then we know if the person they’re attached to at day care is leaving every three months, that’s not really great for the child. There are all these things in society that don’t work towards what we absolutely know contributes to human flourishing.

It’s hard in a capitalist society because the prime ambition years map exactly onto the prime childbearing years, and people are making trade offs all the time about how to get ahead. It’s just very hard to do both these things.

On fear and rocky family relationships…

Q: Quality of relationships matter for the gender and psychological development of a child. Is there a fear among new moms not to become like their own mothers?

I think that’s an incredibly deep and complicated question and it’s been written about in psychology a lot. If you think about family life and the journey of independence and autonomy for a young girl it is by nature going to be, “how am I the same and how am I different from my mother?” That’s part of how we individuate.

In the olden days when women had no opportunity, the 70’s daughters of 40’s mothers were really thinking, “oh she was stuck at home. She was oppressed. My dad ruled the roost and now I don’t want to be like that. Maybe I won’t have children. Maybe I’ll stay single forever.”

We live in a society now where people have much more variable roles, they live longer, so there is much less of that gender polarization which used to occupy a family.

We usually develop our identity in contrast to our mothers. How do I want to be like her? How do I want to be different? Depending on the kind of mother you had, that can be really scary. They might think, “I’m afraid if I have my child I’ll repeat the worst parts of that.” That’s a normal fear most people have.

Q: How can new moms work to avoid this fear of becoming like their mothers?

I’m a big advocate of insight and awareness. Nobody has the perfect relationship, certainly no perfect family relationship or love relationship. So again, it’s really a matter of saying, “wow, is that what I’m afraid of? Why am afraid of it? How didn’t it go well? What would I not want to repeat? What am I afraid of when I think I’ll turn into my mother?” 

I wouldn’t say this is something you solve, but part of the process of getting to know yourself, what you want, and figuring out how your relationship with your own mother plays into that.

Q: Do you think new moms should worry about fixing their relationship with their parents or work on dealing with it?

It’s pretty messy so I don’t believe you can simply fix your relationship and then move on to be a parent, but I think it is a really interesting opportunity to open up your thinking about, “what can I expect from my mother and what can’t I? What do I feel I really want to invest emotional energy into resolving with her and talking through with her?”

Daphne de Marneffe, PhD, is a psychologist and the author ofThe Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together” and “Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life“. In her clinical practice, she offers psychotherapy to couples and individuals. She teaches and lectures widely on marriage, couple therapy, adult development and parenthood.

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