The Emotions Of Motherhood

I love the movie Inside Out. I mean I really love it! Then again, I really love all of the Pixar movies. Ask me to tell you my favorite movie and I’d either say Shawshank Redemption or Toy Story 3. And I’m a grown-ass adult! But those Pixar movies can incite a whole host of feelings and they just amaze me every time we watch one. Back to Inside Out though. It was so well written and produced. It addresses so many different sides of emotions. It juxtaposes all of the emotions and shows how they work together to make a person whole. Anger, for example. We need Anger. At the end of the movie, Anger gets fired up (literally) and Disgust uses the flames coming out of Anger’s skull to torch a hole in the window, saving Joy and Sadness. Then there’s the end of the movie. Joy realizes that before many of the big events in Riley’s life, Sadness was there first. Sadness came first. Then came Joy to help repair the sadness. So awesome!! 

Today’s article is about, you guessed it, emotions. We all have them. We all control them differently. We all experience them differently. Yet, no matter how much we attempt to education and prepare ourselves for how we will act or how we will handle these emotions, there is no real way to accurately predict our behavior and reactions until we’re really in it. Really experiencing the emotions. 

I’ve had my fair share of opportunities in my life to test my ability to manage my emotions and, I will be the first to tell you, I am horrible at it. I have a feeling this will be my life-long struggle - dealing with and handling my emotions. As a company commander of our 165 Soldiers, I got my first dose of controlling and handling my emotions, as it wasn’t good for business to fly off the handle at every mistake, nor was it always acceptable to be tough and stoic. 

As a mother of two young boys though, I’ve realized that my training was severely inadequate and I really need to get a grip on my emotions. 

I want to hit that training piece again real quick though. Whether it’s a catcher practicing blocking a dirt ball, or a Soldier training for a combined arms gap crossing, the subject of the training is known. The purpose is clear, the key tasks are clear, the end state is clear, and in these examples, there are clear steps and procedures to follow. Sure, sure, there are several unknowns to these examples, but the catcher and the Soldier both know what they are training for and the purpose of their training. 

But, unlike these defined and designed training situations, there is no true, real way to train for the emotions of motherhood. You can train to change diapers. You can practice swaddling and bathing and shooshing. You can take classes on childbirth and postpartum preparation and preparing to breastfeed. You can buy all of the things. You can read books. You can serve and work in child care or early childhood development or a doula or even the maternity ward. 

But nothing, I’m dead serious when I tell you this, nothing, will prepare you for the emotions you will feel as a mother. You may break your wrist, sprain your ankle, or dislocate your thumb - all of which allow you to judge your level of pain tolerance. You may work 18+ hour shifts, stay awake for days on end, or get irregular sleep - all of which will allow you to know how you function (or not) when you have limited sleep. And you may meet some of the prescreening criteria during the prenatal period that indicates an increased risk for a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD) during the postpartum period (implying that you’ve got a small bit of experience with this). While I don’t wish this on anyone, it could absolutely be a blessing to be a bit more informed and experienced on how you may feel after baby arrives. “May feel” being the optimal words in that sentence. 

I didn’t intend to do this but I sure made the early postpartum period sound pretty bleak, didn’t I?! Let me switch this up and let’s get to the meat of the article. There are many articles, much information, and an ever increasing (much needed!) body of research on the topics of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs), especially perinatal depression. Psychologists and other mental health experts are continuing to learn more and more about other mental health complications and disorders associated with the perinatal period. I wanted to write an article to specifically for this month, World Maternal Mental Health Awareness month, but I wanted it to be a bit different from the other articles already available. So, this article will focus on the emotions of motherhood, all of them! 

As you’ve come to learn from my past articles, I like research, data, and supporting “evidence” (quotes because it’s purely anecdotal evidence). When I’m personally hoping to gather this type of information, I turn to the Experiences In Motherhood Survey Group. And let me tell you, they did not hold back when it came to talking about the emotions of motherhood. It was a wonderful week of polling and reading comments and connecting with the ladies of the group who got real raw, I’m talking real raw. Vulnerably raw. And supported. It.Was.Amazing! 

48 Hours Of Emotions

The first question I ask the group was, “over the past 48 hours, select all of the emotions you’ve felt because of or towards your children.” Let’s see what they said…

 A poll of the range of emotions moms experienced in a 48 hour period. 

A poll of the range of emotions moms experienced in a 48 hour period. 

A tie for joy, laughter, and love as the emotion most experienced. That doesn’t surprise me at all. From my experience as a mother, even on the worst days when I’m covered in poop and have those super-cool salt streaks on my cheeks from the massive amounts of crying I’ve done, I KNOW I’ve still felt love and maybe even laughter with my boys. I mean, if you can’t step back and laugh at poop (especially as a mom of boys), it’s going to be a rough mothering experience! 

There are also some emotions on this list that don’t often make the spotlight - disgust, sadness, embarrassment. I’m so grateful for the ladies who selected these because, well, it’s true. You’ll notice not too many ladies selected these emotions, but they happen and I’m so glad to present that and remind you about this. It’s perfectly natural to feel these emotions! It’s how we handle these that really matter. 

Intense Motherhood Emotions

The next question I asked the group was “what emotion do you feel more intensely since becoming a mother?” Here’s what the group said: 

 Mothers were asked to select the one emotion they feel more intensely since having children. 

Mothers were asked to select the one emotion they feel more intensely since having children. 

Love. I thought this was really interesting. Not surprising, but interesting. I am fully convinced that the ladies who contributed to the poll and the conversation have previously experienced love. Some are happily married. Some have extremely close friends. Some have fabulous relationships with their parents. Yet, for most, the emotion they feel more intensely since becoming a mother is love. Interesting, right? 

This type of love is called storge love, or familial love. It is “the fondness born out of familiarity or dependency and, unlike [some of the other types of love], does not hang on personal qualities.” The love of our family! Sure, we’ve had family before. But having children of our own and creating our own immediate family is different even from the familiar love we experienced previously. I speculate that one of the reasons we said we experience love more intensely, despite likely feeling storge previously, is because we “Never Knew Love Like THIS Before,” like Stephanie Mills sang in her 1980’s R&B song. The love of our own child(ren) is new, exciting, and therefore, experienced more intensely and remembered better. 

Surprise Emotions of Motherhood

Before I talk about the second most-intensely experienced emotion, let me bring in the next question I asked the ladies. The next question I asked was: 

 Mothers were asked to vote for the one emotion they were most surprised to experience since becoming a mother.

Mothers were asked to vote for the one emotion they were most surprised to experience since becoming a mother.

Check that out! I’m not alone (that’s always refreshing to realize)! 35 ladies in the group also indicate that they experienced more worry than they previously experienced and more worry than they expected to experience. This is me all the way.  

Are you surprised to see that the most unexpected yet experienced emotion is worry, and that fear was the runner-up emotion to the most-intensely experience emotion question? I’m not! Not surprised at all! Mainly because this is personal for me! Mama-bear behavior erupted for me almost immediately after my oldest was born. Along with this protective instinct, for me at least, came fear and worry. I think there is a very large sliding scale for levels of fear and worry. Psychologists and other mental health providers have a different name for fear and worry, but the fear and worry we’re talking about here is slightly different than that. I’m talking about the less intense end of the sliding scale. I worry about so many things for my boys. Never in my life have I ever worried as much as I have since becoming a mother. I could spend an entire article on my worry since becoming a mom. Shoot, I could write a book about it. And so could the ladies who also experience this. Jamon said it best when she said, “I feel fear more intensely than before. I fear for their safety every single day - whether it’s just playing and watching them jump off the bleachers knowing they are about to break their ankles, OR seeing how much the world has changed since I grew up and am fearful for what the world is going to be like for them and their children.” This is exactly where I’m at too. This is the scale I’m talking about and I love that she described the whole scale in one sentence! 

Sadness, Depression, and PMADs

The last question I asked the ladies was about sadness, baby blues, postpartum depression (PPD), and other Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs). Despite my best attempts, I feel that I will not be able to adequately portray the amount of emotion and experiences the ladies shared regarding this question. Many ladies in the group shared some deep struggles with these topics, as you can see from the chart below. 

 Mothers indicated their experiences regarding sadness, depression, and PMADs related to their childbirths.

Mothers indicated their experiences regarding sadness, depression, and PMADs related to their childbirths.

I want to highlight just a couple of the data points here. The other data point I want to point highlight is that 10 ladies, 11% of respondents, experienced a PMAD after their subsequent (second or later) childbirth. Of these 10 ladies, 3 of them had not previously experienced sadness, baby blues, PPD, or another PMAD. This is something that’s not frequently discussed - that it’s absolutely possible to experience some sadness (somewhere on the scale between sadness to severe PMADs) after a second, third, fourth, etc childbirth without experiencing it with the first birth. 

The second point I want to highlight is the 21 ladies who indicated they experienced “undiagnosed postpartum depression after my first child.” So 21 out of 89 ladies, or 24% of the participants in this poll indicated they likely experienced some forms of postpartum depression for which they did not receive any sort of care. This is substandard care. Lindsey shared her story with the group: “After my first, I definitely suffered undiagnosed postpartum depression. Between her complete disinterest in breastfeeding and colic, I felt like she hated me. I felt like a failure because I could never get her to latch and ended up pumping. Her colic made sleep near impossible and not being able to soothe her/figure out what was wrong did not help my ‘I’m a horrible mom’ complex. Being that I was active duty (Army) at the time, the thought of getting help was terrifying because I knew the stigma associated with receiving treatment (especially for females) - which just added to the stress.”

 

There are many different factors that contribute to these feelings. Some are of the factors are situational, while other factors are hormonal. From the information provided by the ladies in The Group, my own experience, and the experiences I have heard from others, I fully believe we need to do better at supporting the mental wellness of mothers of newborns/infants. Take Sara, for example. Sara likely didn't meet the screening requirements because, as she said, "I really didn’t think I had anything because I never felt suicidal, just overwhelmed, alone, and frustrated with a child that wouldn’t stop crying. I think lack of sleep played a huge role in my ability to handle my emotions." In this example, Sara didn't have a severe PMAD, but she certainly could have benefited from some attention to her mental health during those early days, weeks, and months with her babies. 

I wonder how different the responses above would be if every mother had someone caring for and tracking her mental health in the same capacity that we care about and track the baby’s wet and dirty diapers. 

Fortunately, changes are on the horizon. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently released a committee opinion on “Optimizing Postpartum Care” and it’s the first step necessary for deep change to the standard of care for postpartum women. It includes recommendations for more comprehensive prenatal screening for PMADs, earlier and potentially more frequent visits with care providers in the early days and weeks in the postpartum period, as well as more individualized care. This is a huge step forward and, while it’s only a recommendation and not yet a policy, it’s absolutely a step in the right direction to help catch these women who suffered silently. 

There are dozens of books, websites, blogs, therapists, and other amazing resources available for self-help on the topic of maternal mental health. Yet, despite the abundance and availability of these resources, many of us moms struggle to get the real support we need at the time when we critically need it most. Whether it’s because we feel too sad and overwhelmed to leave the house or we feel like we’re alone and that what we’re experiencing is something rare and we’re not sure where to start, America is struggling to really help. I have high hopes for the improved future of maternal mental health care - this impacts more than just the mother. 

A Sequel to “Inside Out”

In fact, all of the mother’s emotions impact more than just her. Research shows that the child’s emotional availability is highly dependent upon the mother and her emotional processes. In fact, M. Ann Easterbrooks and Zeynep Biringen wrote that “emotional availability has been referred to as the ‘connective tissue’ in mother-child relationships.” The topic of attachment and the emotions of the mother-child diad. Good, bad, or indifferent, our kiddos learn emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, and the basic expression of emotion from us! 

So, that love that feel more deeply because of them, they are learning how to feel that same love. And the fear and worry that caught us by surprise, well, they are learning that too. An yes, even that sadness. These emotions, every single one of them, make us who we are. We all experience emotions - that’s the awesome part of being a human being. How we handle them and react to them, now that’s what makes us individuals. 

One final thought to leave you with. I do a lot of driving and, therefore, I listen to many podcasts. One that I’ve enjoyed lately comes out of UC Berkely and is called The Science of Happiness. Specifically, about 2 weeks ago, I listened to Episode 5: Walk Outside with Inside Out’s Pete Doctor. Walking outside AND learn more about the movie straight from the mouth of the director?!?! Holy Insight, Batman! Yes Please! 

Mr. Doctor’s revelation is too good, and too relevant, to summarize. Here’s what he says:

 Directly from the Director's mouth: Here's Director Pete Doctor's insight on why Inside Out ended the way it did. Podcast and transcript available from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts/item/walk_docter_inside_out

Directly from the Director's mouth: Here's Director Pete Doctor's insight on why Inside Out ended the way it did. Podcast and transcript available from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts/item/walk_docter_inside_out

 Sadness and Joy. Together. In concert with all of the other emotions we experience. It’s interesting to think there is not only a space, but a need to experience these emotions. 

The complexities of motherhood may slightly rewire how our pre-kids emotions interacted, but the interactions still occur. For me, I doubt there was much of a connection between Fear and Disgust in my pre-child life. Now, that connection is strong - (keep in mind, my youngest is potty training…) Fear that we’ll have the world’s most massive blowout while at Chick-Fil-A. Which quickly turns in to reality and my Disgust-o-meter reaches its max! Yup, never really went so quickly from Fear to Disgust in my previous life! A light-hearted example, to hopefully bring you some Joy! 

If any of you reading this article have connections with the writers and producers at Pixar, hook me up! I think we might have the foundations for the motherhood/35-year-old-Riley sequel to Inside Out - this time the emotions could be Love (familial, specifically), Fear/Worry, Frustration/Anger, and maybe Guilt. I’d certainly watch that movie. I may need an entire bag of popcorn, a full-size box of Kleenex, and a bottle of cabernet, but I’d be first in line to see it! 

Stay blessed, 

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Kari Haravitch PCD(DONA)

P.S. One last thought before I let you go…one emotion or feeling that we didn’t discuss much here is guilt. I am highly considering an entire article on guilt because it’s that present for me. I also feel guilt much more as a mother than I ever experienced prior to taking the mom title. If you like my style and you’re interested in hearing our perspectives on guilt, please let me know. I plan to research and write this article at some point in the future, but I will do it sooner if there is interest now.