When it comes to being a mum we are all doing the best that we can, with no training, no manuals, and with only our experience of being mothered (or cared for) to go by. Naturally, no matter how good we’re doing, we want to do and be better mums, and this is where therapy can help.
Therapy is based on the understanding that we’ve all been parented, and that it is through this relationship that we learn and grow. It is also through this relationship where we can experience early ruptures that will have ripple effects throughout our lives, including our mothering.
Becoming a mum was a baptism of fire for me, I distinctly remember thinking, “what the F is this?!” many, many times a day. One of the greatest discoveries of my life, was my four-year art therapy training and by its mandatory association, personal psychotherapy – it taught me the essential child development knowledge that was missing from anything I had read about being a mum. Mostly though, I learnt the self-compassion that was missing not just from my mothering, but from my life too.
Psychotherapy gave me a whole host of things, including emotional regulation, understanding of attachment and the confidence to mother in ways that I hadn’t been aware of.
Here, are my five most important lessons from therapy that have helped me to be a better mum:
It’s okay to hate being a mum and to hate your baby
Yep, I said it! And the first time I heard it, I was overcome with relief and understanding, like a veil had been lifted. It’s psychologically important for mums to be able to connect with the disagreeable aspects of not only herself but also her child, and therefore, mothering. Because it is in the denial of these aspects that causes the most psychological disturbance. If mum feels that she cannot hate it, she will turn that hate inwards – she will hate herself, feel that she is wrong or bad. However, when you come into healthy contact with your hate, you realise that much of life is based on duality: that I can hate something and love it at the same time. That to hate and to love makes us human, not a bad human, just human.
The clinging is necessary (and the tantrums)
Totally necessary for secure child development, even though for you it may feel like cruel and unusual punishment. Your child has big needs and big feelings, and they need the loving guidance of you and that can feel like a tall ask 24-hours a day. But our children don’t need us to be perfect or to be at their beck-and-call, they need us to be able to regulate their emotions and needs – which doesn’t mean perfectly, constantly, denying them or being ambivalent. It means finding ways to healthily attune to those needs and to be consistently responsive to those needs. We do that by being consistently responsive and healthily attuned to our own needs and feelings. When we do that we give ourselves more capacity to be there for our child’s needs.
Not to overly worry because repair is also necessary
We can become so consumed with getting it “right”, that we deny ourselves the grace of getting it wrong and therefore learning. It’s important to mess up for our children for two reasons – firstly, it teaches them that mistakes, and wrongs are a natural part of life, that it’s no big deal or a reason to beat yourself up. Secondly, it gives you an opportunity to repair and to model how to be sorry – our children need to know that adults can apologise when they’re wrong. It’s also a much healthier way to live and mother, with the conscious awareness that I may f*ck up, and when I’m consciously aware of this possibility I’m not so hard on myself when I do and I’m also not so hard on others when they do because they will.
To be okay with “good enough”
Thank God for Winnicott! Our children don’t need perfect mothers, they need mothers who are sensitive and responsive to their needs – and this is the important part: most of the time. Winnicott was a child psychotherapist, who coined the term ‘good enough mother’ and who believed that responding to an infant in this way allowed them to become appropriately dependent and to transition to a more autonomous position. Within this it allows both mother and child to come to terms with and tolerate the frustrations that comes from growing and developing together in a (hopefully) secure relationship. What I love about it is, it’s realistic – that both parties can have frustrations, tantrums, can get it wrong AND form a bond that is entrenched with love, tolerance and understanding.
The attachment bond can feel overwhelming
It’s meant to be intense, it’s hard-wired into our DNA, as mothers we are biologically primed for the development of a secure attachment. What has got in the way is societies lack of understanding about this, and so we have family systems that don’t support it either. Demands on women to get back to work or even ‘normality’ are in actuality absurd and get in the way. If a mum feels overwhelmed in her attachment bond it’s because her environment isn’t supporting her, the messages she is getting are conflicting with her innate instinct. She’s not wrong, the world around her is – and while she might not be able to do anything about the world, there is something in knowing that what you deeply feel to be right, is not wrong.
That I’m pretty normal
There is relief in knowing that the things that you feel and the things that you think are “normal”. You’re not some weird and horrible person who should be banished into exile for thinking that you would much rather have your nails pulled out by pliers than be with your baby for every hour that God sends. No, just normal and that is satisfying.