“Giving birth” defines motherhood in the biological sense, but research has shown that becoming a mother is more difficult than we think. Many people assume that mothering comes naturally to women—that they automatically feel comfortable as mothers.
Women today rarely have any way of gaining a real understanding of what to expect in the weeks and months just after birth. Mothering is a learned experience – and it takes time. Some new mothers feel a lot of pressure as they try to look and act as if they feel comfortable with their “new Mom” role, before they are truly ready.
Research is still being carried out in order to find out how new mothers feel about their new role during and after pregnancy. Below, you can see some of the results of several studies of new mothers.
There is a wide range of reactions to becoming a mother, and they change over time. In one study, new mothers were asked to answer the question: “Do you feel comfortable in your role as a mother?" The questions was asked at various times from pregnancy to the end of the first year after the birth of their first baby. The results showed that many mothers took quite some time to feel comfortable in their new role, as you can see in the table below.
Do you feel comfortable in your role as a Mother?
Since pregnancy 3%
Since the baby was two weeks old 33%
Since the baby was two months old 49%
Since the baby was four months old 64%
Since the baby was nine months old 85%
Since the baby was 12 months old 96%
If you are a new mom, don’t be surprised or feel un-motherly if you aren’t instantly “head-over-heels” about this new role during pregnancy or the first few months after your baby is born. As you can see from the table above, many new mothers needed a lot of time to adjust. As their babies grew and the moms became more familiar with being called “a mother,” more mothers began to feel comfortable in their new role. But clearly a few moms were still working on achieving a comfort level in their role when their babies turned one year old.
But feeling comfortable in their role is not exactly the same as feeling competent. Feeling comfortable means you are OK with labeling yourself as a mother and with being called a mother by others. Feeling competent means you feel you know how to respond to your baby’s needs. Competency is much more difficult to grasp.
Gradually over the first weeks and months, mothers begin to know their babies and know how to respond to their needs – which constantly change, by the way. All of a sudden, what worked last week doesn’t work anymore. For example, your baby starts teething or goes to a daycare or stays up too late two nights in a row. Suddenly, all the things that worked before aren’t working any more, and you feel horribly incompetent. But you keep trying to learn, and after a few challenging days or weeks, you arrive at the new right combination of things that work. And you reach a new plateau of competency. Just remember – almost every parent goes through periods of feeling incompetent as part of being a parent.
In your new mothering role, you will need to come to terms with a number of challenges that parenthood brings. The following list includes some of the most common ones that new mothers face as they try to become comfortable and competent in their new role.
Not having or finding any personal time: This was the most common challenge for new mothers in most surveys. Mothers found they had little time to eat meals, bathe and apply makeup or to talk with their husbands. Although the hectic pace decreases over the first year of the baby's life, for many women, this remains a major challenge of motherhood.
Lack of knowledge and preparation on how to deal with typical baby behaviours: When mothers don’t know about normal yet challenging infant behaviours, this can cause them to feel incompetent. Mothers dislike feeling unprepared, and frequently complain about it. This information can help prepare moms and dads for not just the typical things that come along, but some of the not-so-typical ones, too.
Lack of sleep and night-time care of the baby: Something called "super-ordinate fatigue" rules the three or four weeks following delivery. For many new moms this develops into ongoing tiredness, which interferes with their efforts to become a successful mother. Fortunately, there are a few things a couple can do to reduce the lack of sleep due to infants and toddlers who have a hard time sleeping through the night. And feelings of comfort and competency increase as the mother gets more sleep – particularly over the first 4 months. However, tiredness and night-time care remain a key challenge for many mothers throughout the preschool years and beyond.
All-encompassing demand: Throughout the first year of their baby’s life, many mothers feel "a loss of freedom," like they "always have to be there." This makes it hard for a lot of them to feel comfortable in their new roles. Motherhood is often so demanding, it can wear away at a mother’s good intentions.
So how can mothers overcome these challenges? As new moms, coping with the challenges of your role can be very discouraging at times, but you can learn to overcome them with support and the right assistance. Researchers have uncovered the following factors that help mothers as they try to learn their new role.
Previous experience: Some new mothers know things from prior experience with babies, like babysitting, or coming from a large family where they helped to care for their own siblings. If you have had these experiences, you will draw on them as you learn to know your own baby.
Knowledge: Some new mothers have learned about child development and parenting strategies through books or courses, and may have even had a chance to practice.
Baby's behaviour: Things become more manageable once new mothers learn about the parts of a baby’s behaviour that are inherited (called “temperament”) and the parts of each developmental stage that are easy or difficult.
Social support: New mothers can really benefit from the support of their husbands, parents, friends, experienced mothers and other first time mothers. Fortunately searching for good supportive people seems to come naturally. Most first-time mothers are on the look-out for those people they can count on to give them support.
Above points reference R.T. Mercer (1985) The process of maternal role attainment of the first year. Nursing Research
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