Developing "Mother Development"

"Mother development might help us normalize certain feelings, experiences and stages that many healthy mothers go through." - Elizabeth Sullivan 

Developing “Mother Development”
by Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT Intern

A mother may always be a mother; but what about the woman whose children have grown and left her daily care? One part of the job of a mother is to anticipate and facilitate not being needed, to make ourselves unnecessary. Still, once we begin, we are mothers for the rest of our lives. When a tiny creature is clinging to you for life, it creates the kind of deep-soul entrainment that requires a Dali-Lama-level of grace to loosen. And yet most mothers still manage to do it. That is part of why I consider mothering a kind of spiritual practice.

Madeline Levine, a wonderful writer and Bay Area psychologist (author of “Teach Your Children Well” and “The Price of Privilege”) had a striking op-ed in the New York Times May 11, 2013 called  "After The Children Have Grown" about her experience as her children grow up and leave home. It is so beautifully written that I am pestering everyone to read it. You must read it too!

I especially love these lines: “We suffer from a surfeit of information on child development and a complete lack of information on mother development. “Mother development.” The phrase even sounds odd.”

I was electrified by her phrase (it is not awkward to me!) because she captured my mission statement right now and in a way I have never thought of before. I am trying to create a sense of mother development for the women I see: more understanding of the emotions and cycles of mothering and thus more perspective, more pleasure, less angst. I believe that this idea goes against the overly-sentimental perfectionism and cynicism of a lot of the mothering literature right now and can instead help de-pathologize the feelings and experiences of a broad range of moms.

Why create a model of mother development? Well, it is much like the way understanding child development can at times be so helpful when raising children.

For instance, a defiant 2 year old is acting in a developmentally healthy way—as frustrating as it can be when you want to put on his shoes and go outside. Without this knowledge, it seems that a cheerful, cooperative kid has some terrible emotional issue going on, it could easily become a cause of worry or discouragement.

Mother development might be helpful because there are just certain patterns of the mothering experience that are not intuitively understandable, especially because we are mostly raising kids in the nuclear family, without the support of the tribe and the wisdom of older women.  It can be so relieving to understand that something your child is doing that is making you feel worried, is probably developmentally ok. The same is true for us mothers and our development.

And as Brene Brown says, the most powerful thing you can hear when you are vulnerable is someone saying, “me too.” Tracking development is kind of like this. Lots of 2 year olds are defiant, lots of six year olds can’t read, lots of twelve year olds don’t want to talk about their day in school. Moms of newborns are sleep deprived and that makes them weepy and forgetful; moms of toddlers are being defied all day and that makes them irritable. What you do from this developmental knowledge is, of course, another matter. But most of these issues can be solved, if we think creatively. They can’t be solved if we don’t understand them.

But how do we think about mother development itself? That there are stages and milestones; that there are normal struggles that can be overcome; that there are inevitable changes that bring their own crises.

Perhaps just to begin to play with this idea we can define four general stages as:

1. “survival/crisis”: identity shift from “person” to “mother”; learning all the skills of newborn care; coping with major sleep deprivation; some missing out on normal adult life or being in a bubble; coping with the big emotions of major life change.

2. “early growth and mastery”: balancing child’s needs with mom’s needs; learning all the skills of toddler/young child care; thinking about the values of your family, such as where your kids will go to school or how you will deal with conflict; probably balancing home life with outside work; perhaps rekindling some romance with partner.

3. “increasing independence”: contributing to your own pleasure, goals and happiness in balance with your kids; recognizing ways you can step back and let your kids fail/learn; investing in your own relationships and world so you do not need your kids to provide your life for you; offering more emotional support and less physical hands-on care, and thus needing to find your own wisdom.

4. “advising” (for older kids) : not giving advice unless asked;  asking lots of questions; stepping in to make boundaries only in emergencies or when there is a real threat; commiserating and comforting but not “doing for”; offering reflection and recognition to your kids.

Mastery (in the sense of wrestling with and solving the crises of development) is a key aspect of mother development, just as it is for children. A first time mother may worry that her 14 month old is not yet walking; a second-time mother should get to feel more relaxed about it (assuming both kids are healthy).  A mom of a newborn might only leave her child reluctantly, and may be distracted or worried while she is gone; the mother of a six year old should be able to enjoy some well-deserved time for herself.  These ideas are not to add to the list of shoulds but to see the course of healthy development as a gradual process on which we can depend.

Mother development might help us normalize certain feelings, experiences and stages that many healthy mothers go through. A lot of moms I see express the idea that other moms don’t seem as troubled or desperate as they feel. Where new mothers might feel isolated, or like the only one struggling, mother development aims to create a shared meaning that helps all of us let go of unfair, unrealistic and sexist ideas about what a mother “should” be like. It’s tricky because there can be a tyranny of child development knowledge too and it can feel hard to relax when we think our kid is outside an important norm. But just as we learn how to effectively gauge our kids against milestones, we can learn that for ourselves as mothers. For instance, I’ve learned that I’m the kind of mom who needs some adult conversation and intellectual stimulation in my day or I feel bad. I’m probably never going to enjoy multiple days alone with the kids. So the milestone of getting back to school or work after my kids were ready for babysitting was a positive one for me: I missed them but felt more myself, more whole.

Mother development is also a paradoxical process of gradually integrating all the parts of being a mother and then gradually un-integrating them as your kids grow up. Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your two year old; teach your 10 year old to remember to do it himself, then don’t say anything about it to your grown child—and of course, always protect your own skin too!

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is in a 2012-2013 Fellowship at the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center, a program of SFCP. She practices in San Francisco. 

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