As I meandered through the jungle of postpartum depression, I seemed to encounter article after article about other women who were suffering the same despair that I felt. It appeared that there was so much more awareness about postpartum depression. Was the stigma of postpartum depression evaporating?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
Recently I came out of the shadows with my own struggle and was met with many people who divulged that they too had battled postpartum depression. People still seem to be in the shadows about it. Prenatal depression is even more shadowy than postpartum depression. Most people that I speak with aren’t aware that ‘that’s a thing’.
Yet even as our culture hammers down the final nail in privacy’s coffin, there is still an invisible line that you just don’t cross, when it comes to new mothers. There are things that you simply don’t say.
“I regret having a child.”
“It wasn’t worth it.”
“I don’t love my child.”
“This was a terrible, terrible mistake.”
These expressions are harsh – but don’t stop reading yet.
In the dark corners of the internet, you can find women (or men) who have anonymously posed such questions. They whisper into the cavernous internet world if anyone else feels the way they do.
The world always seems to reply swiftly with a strong “NO” filled with judgment and condemnation.
I felt all of those things. I never felt guilty about it. But, that’s how I’ve always been about feelings and emotions. I believe that people should always have their feelings validated, because you can’t change how you feel. It’s just that – it’s a feeling – not a logical puzzle to intellectually work through. Through careful analysis and some good questions, you can change your perspective to help you feel differently or process your feelings and move on, but feelings (even if they’re ‘wrong’) are real and valid.
So as such, I didn’t feel bad about having those thoughts, I just wondered why I felt that way when no one else did. I was just aware that that was where I was, emotionally. I never thought for a second that those feelings made me a bad mother, either. Is not loving your child the move of a bad mother? Why would it be? To define what it is to be a good parent, the Systems Engineer in me looks to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow outlined a hierarchy of needs that we as humans require to achieve self-actualization. It seems reasonable that parents should strive to give or enable their children to obtain these needs.
As parents, what do we want for our children? They’re telling us that after the generation of helicopter parenting, we shouldn’t desire happiness for our children, but rather that we should strive for our children to be capable of tackling the spectrum of emotions and experiences that they will face. I really love what Elisabeth Duckett states in her April 9, 2015 article in the Huffington Post about why she doesn’t wish happiness for her child –
…people don’t grow from joy. The meat of life is in all those other emotions; fear, sadness frustration. That’s where we do our growing – facing and learning how to navigate those feelings.
So how does this relate to self-actualization? Well, self-actualization is defined as self-fulfillment. What a perfect description of what a parent should actually want for their child. Key characteristics are acceptance and realism, problem-centering, spontaneity, autonomy and solitude, as well as continued freshness of appreciation.
To me, that list sums up what I want for my child as he grows and becomes who it is that he will be.
But that returns us to our original question: what does it take to be a good parent?
If you accept the position that as parents we are driving toward building self-actualized little humans, then the next logical step would be to review each level of the hierarchy.
The bottom tier is physiological. This refers to physical needs such as food and shelter. Good parents should provide food and shelter on a consistent basis. No argument there – I’ve got this one taken care of.
Next is safety. Good parents should provide a safe environment for their children. We did research on a safe and clean day care and ensure that our son is always supervised by one of us or a babysitter that we trust. We provide financial security by working hard at our jobs and creating emergency funds via life insurance, nest eggs, mutual funds, retirement. Check.
The third tier is love/belonging. OK, so my kid needs to feel like he is loved and that he belongs. I’d say that regardless of how I actually feel, he feels loved and like he’s part of the family unit. We interact with him, read to him, give him kisses and take him with us all the time. From that perspective, my feelings really don’t come into play as long as I’m ensuring that he feels loved. You know – “fake it till you make it”? My love just took a little longer to come – and that’s OK. Great, filled in that bubble.
The fourth tier is esteem. So my kid needs to feel valued and accepted. This is probably the trickiest one. Fortunately for most of the time that I was having those feelings, the little guy was barely aware that he had ten fingers and ten toes. But ensuring interaction goes a long way in helping him feel valued. I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose how I act with my baby. I can ask myself, am I presenting a person who values and accepts her child? Even if I don’t feel like I do on some days? Yes.
So by hitting all of those tiers, I’d say you could make the case that I’m a good mother, regardless of those feelings.
Feelings are what they are – they don’t make you or I a bad mother for acknowledging them. I mean, let’s be honest here. You mean to tell me that you don’t regret having your kid in the moment when they proceed to get into their diaper and paint the walls in human excrement? You really think it was all worth it when it’s 2AM and you haven’t slept because your kid’s teething? The thought never occurred to you that maybe this was all a huge mistake when you’ve got this five week old blob that won’t sleep, nurses for four hours straight and basically screams when you try to put him/her into the crib? You really feel like you truly love that two week old baby who doesn’t smile, doesn’t make eye contact, rubs your nipples raw and exited your body via brute force?
You might not be able to relate to that, and that’s OK. I think that’s great. You’ve really got a great handle on patience, love and looking at the big picture.
But for those who can relate – these feelings are real and they’re OK. Later that day, when your eight month old lights up when you look at him and squeals delightedly when you squeeze his chubby thighs, those terrible feelings might fade away. Or if you’ve suffered from postpartum depression, maybe it takes a couple of months.
But note the emphasis. The feelings are terrible, not the mother. Your feelings don’t define you. They don’t make you a good or bad parent.
Your actions do.