Stages of Motherhood

We look at how to find yourself when your children find their feet in the world
By Helena Kingwill

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Jenny Thornton* (41), a teacher and mother of two from Rondebosch, sighs as she pushes my two toddlers in their tandem pram. I am glad of a chance to walk normally instead of tilted at a 45-degree angle to the ground to keep the momentum. Her two haven’t needed a pram for a long time. Perhaps offering to push the pram is part of her broody hankering after those cute, cuddly days. She is one of those mothers who stayed at home with her children for five years before sending them to pre-school. Now Tom* is ten and Fin* is eight. They are both in junior school. Jenny tells me she has much more time to herself. “Tom no longer needs me as much. He is no longer an extension of me. Now I have more of me back, but I am not sure who I am,” she tells me.
 
Her words set alarm bells jangling in my head. What she is going through must happen to most mothers at some point. The demands of little ones are so all-encompassing that when they move out of the mommy bubble, it must leave mom feeling quite bewildered. Although Jenny taught night classes part-time, the role of mother is the axis around which the wheel of her life has turned for the past ten years. Now her boys have come into their own and, although they are still young, they do not need to be waited on hand and foot as much. Jenny has been walking through a dark night of the soul, but is not sure why.
 
Anne Pleshette Murphy, former editor of the American Parenting magazine and author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood insightfully describes her own journey, as she looks back with a bit of perspective. When her son was five his ballooning vocabulary became a sign for her to step back. “Letting him express himself, not trying to read his mind, was a challenge because it ran smack up against my desire to be needed, to maintain my place as the centre of his universe.”
 
Learning to let go
 
It all begins when you see that second stripe on the pregnancy test. A big shift begins to take place, a magical flowering of some powerful inner bud which has been waiting inside since you were a little girl: that potential to give birth to a gift of love. It is a huge identity shift, which sets off all kinds of emotional and hormonal tides within a woman’s body. A powerful innate new sense of purpose is discovered in living for someone other than yourself. The idea of being needed and depended on may be a terrifying responsibility, but it is also empowering.
 
“As excited as I was to be pregnant,” writes Pleshette Murphy, “the first trimester was really rough emotionally. I think I felt two things: this huge lack of control, and loss. I just kept thinking about how I was giving up my career and losing my body and making lots of sacrifices.”
 
Being pregnant turns one’s whole life upside down. Everything looks different in this phase of morphing into a new mother. Psychologist Daphne de Marneffe puts it profoundly in her book Maternal Desire – On Children, Love and the Inner Life: “Motherhood puts women in a different relationship to themselves... not as some sort of pale ‘shifting of priorities’, but as a new relationship to experience.”
 
The theme tune of the motherhood movie, ‘Learning to let go’, begins as early as pregnancy, when controlling your life and even your body take on a different meaning. One of the biggest challenges of the roller coaster ride of labour is allowing yourself to open up, trust the process and Let Go. I learned in labour with my second child that when I opened up and allowed the contractions to wash over me instead of fighting or flinching from them, I made most progress.
 
Life shift
 
In the months following the birth or ‘the fourth trimester’, as it is fondly called, mother and child need to retreat into a soft warm nest together and get to know each other, adjust to their new life together and begin their unique relationship. This is acknowledged in some African tribal societies where a reed is placed across the door of the hut to indicate that the new mother and child’s privacy should be respected. It is an important time for consolidation and adaptation to the new identity of motherhood and to physically recover from the birth experience.
 
Many women experience post-natal depression in these months. Part of it may be the sense of emptiness in your limp-balloon womb, part may be the hormonal plunge, and part may be due to the change of life. Depression is a common symptom for any life crisis, or identity shift. This is the first of many moments in your life when you may be thrown off kilter by your baby taking a tiny step away from you.
 
It is natural to want to withdraw into the safe cosiness of that nest and hold the circle of family protection for your children while they are young. However, it is easy to get lost in it, to forget your previous identity in society and become what your children need you to be, a ‘Mommy’. Some do not emerge from it for years. (All that time alone at home with your child can make even the most brazen socialite socially insecure.) On the other hand, you may fight the entropy of it and if you are a single mom you have no choice but to go out into the jungle, like a she-wolf to hunt for your family… that is once you have been through the wrenching process of finding satisfactory child-care options.
 
Finding a new way
 
Then one day you find you are not needed as much. Your children have become more independent. You celebrate your child’s growth and achievements, yet some parts of you resist with a strange kind of terror. Daphne de Marneffe observed this in her studies of mothers and their relationships with their children: “When a woman was anxious,” she writes, “the anxiety did not arise from letting the child go, but rather from the void that is left by their absence and the need to find a meaningful new way.”
 
The ‘void’ is a fearful feeling which sends many a woman on frantic feel-good shopping trips, to the fridge for a binge or into the arms of a man who is not her husband but the handsome prince she thinks she has been waiting for all her life. Others throw themselves into charity work to recover that sense of purpose.
 
The alternative to the reckless running for comfort is to take a deep breath and look within. “It is important to recognise what the gap inside you is,” says Paula Kingwill, Cape Town-based drama therapist. “A conscious awareness of what you are going through will immediately empower you to make more healthy choices about how to deal with uncomfortable (even unbearable) feelings. Realising what is driving you can also prevent you from making mistakes that may have a negative impact on your life and the people around you.”
 
Mary Ovenstone, an American therapist, life coach and international speaker based in Cape Town, who runs workshops and seminars dealing with the Midlife Transition, has a hopeful message for my friend Jenny. The depression, anxiety, guilt and self-reflection she is experiencing are common for someone going through what Jung termed ‘the middle passage’ (a process of individuation) – the transition into midlife.
 
At the end of the dark tunnel, after the demons, shadows and skeletons in the closet have been forgiven and brought to light, a true integrated self is discovered. However, this may be hard to believe if you are starting out at the bottom of, what my friend Jenny describes as, an abyss.
 
It is interesting that mothers often go through this transition at a time when their children are letting go of their early childhood and becoming individuals themselves. These are all healthy processes of growth and letting go, which allow you to move on in life and to break patterns from your own upbringing, which may be holding you back.
 
“If you have not successfully weaned yourself from your own childhood, it’s harder to wean your children, or free them into the world,” says Ovenstone. She explains that up until the age of around 40, one is driven to live and bring one’s children up according to a code of conduct created by the way one was brought up. “Around 40 you suddenly realise that life is bigger than the code. Then, you can break those patterns and live your life your own way. Real power comes from personal authority. I think we are only ready to have a sense of personal authority when we’re in our 40s and, after that, it just increases.
 
“Many people tend to change jobs, move homes or change partners in their 40s as a way of unconsciously dealing with their confusion and discontent,” says Ovenstone. (This can be very tough to deal with especially if your ‘life crisis’ leads to divorce and you find yourself a single mom of teenagers, which is not uncommon.) If parents are unaware that they are going through a big internal transition themselves, they may just be reacting to it unconsciously and be unavailable to support and mentor their teenagers.
 
If you started a family later in life you may be hitting ‘the big four oh’ while dealing with the whines and tantrums of little ones. This can become extremely stifling when you have your own big stuff going on in your head. Finding ways to take time out and nurture oneself in order to let off some steam can become an urgent matter for the benefit of all.
 
“As a mother you are nurturing all the time, so you have to make time to nurture yourself,” says Elaine Hackner, massage therapist and (single) mother of two boys (9 and 11) from Kommetjie. “Your children are still attached to your etheric body until around seven years old when they become more self-contained. As they grow out of it, you feel your energy return.”
 
Finding a balance between knowing how much to let go and how much to nurture and protect is a theme one is never allowed to forget in one’s life as a parent. As you watch your child growing from a little bundle of innocence to an independent individual, you yourself have the opportunity to be transformed into a more authentically powerful adult, but it does not come without hard work, and I’m not just talking about the hard work of being a mother, I am talking about work on yourself. If becoming a parent is about sacrificing yourself and your life, as you knew it, your 40s seem to be about finding a new you to make up for it.
 
* Names have been changed.
 
Soul work steps
 
1. Find a mentor – someone you respect who can help you understand what you are going through.
 
2. Think positive. Write a list of your achievements up to now, including your achievements as a mother.
 
3. Recognise this opportunity for growth and look honestly at that empty feeling inside that’s driving you. What are you frightened of?
 
4. Go for a good massage.
 
5. Take up some form of exercise, such as yoga, that teaches awareness of the body and quietens the mind.
 
6. Meditate; go for long walks or jog.
 
7. Write a journal. Write poetry, paint and express yourself.
 
8. Find supportive friends. Look up your lost girl friends or find new ones.
 
9. Treat yourself to classes of a creative art you have always wanted to do but never had the chance.
 
10. Get back to your career, or start something part-time.
 

11. Accept and forgive yourself for not being perfect.

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