The letters keep coming to our advice column on PsychCentral. New moms wonder if there is something wrong with them if they aren’t over the moon about their little one every minute of every day. Others worry that they aren’t doing it right or that the things that have gone wrong will scar their kids for life and ruin any chance for them to be successful adults.
Why? Because every lifestyle magazine and hundreds of books perpetuate myths of motherhood that are guaranteed to make new moms feel anxious and inadequate. These five cultural mommy myths are more likely to cause damage to the moms more than the well-intended moms are likely to damage their kids.
Myth 1: You’ll love your baby instantly.
Maybe. Some mothers instantly fall in love as soon as their newborn is placed on their stomach. Some adoptive moms report the same feelings when they first get a glimpse of the child coming into their lives. But here’s the reality: Every child, whether birthed to you or brought to you as a step, foster or adopted child goes through a process of “adoption.” Some new moms are just too exhausted, too ill, too anxious or too scared to let themselves fall in love immediately. Like some of the best romances, these mother-child relationships develop over days and weeks of getting to know one another.
As one mom told me, “After a difficult birth, I could barely look at my son. I was hurting. He was hurting. I was exhausted. He didn’t look like the pretty babies on the diaper boxes because he had the weird cone-head that some babies have. I remember lapsing into an exhausted sleep, thinking I’d birthed a changeling or something. It wasn’t until we’d both had a few days to recover, that I took a new look and discovered that the changeling had changed into a son I love.”
An adoptive mom relayed the same type of experience. “We’d waited for a baby for months. Then, without any warning, we got a call from the agency saying that a little girl had become available and were we interested in having her join our family in two days! Two days! Talk about a short pregnancy! Yes, I wanted the baby. But the hurry to get supplies, take a leave from work, and attend to all the legal details got in the way of thinking about bonding with a baby. When things settled down a week later, I remember looking at her and finally saying, “Hi there. You’re mine and I’m yours.”
Myth 2: You’ll know what your baby’s cries mean.
Good mothers know the difference between a cry for hunger, pain, gas, discomfort, sleepiness or general crankiness, right? Wrong. Some do. Some don’t. Some babies communicate with different kinds of whimpers and cries. Others just squinch up their little faces and squall regardless of the cause. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the grownups recognize that something is up and respond.
Most of us run through the rotation: Wet? Hungry? Gassy? Tired? Lonesome? Sick? Hurt? Angry? None of the above? Right. Let’s go through it again. Wet? Hungry? Gassy? Tired? Lonesome? Sick? Hurt? Angry? After going through the list a number of times and trying just about everything, baby settles down and it’s as much a mystery as ever what exactly was the matter. It’s okay. Baby is now dry, fed, burped, healthy, feeling safe and loved and napping. Baby is happy and so are the parents.
Myth 3: You can trust “mother instincts.”
Probably not. In the old days of extended families that lived within acres of each other, girls grew up watching their mothers, aunts and grandmas parent. They absorbed those “instincts” through their skin. Kids who grow up far from relatives and in families of one or two kids just don’t get that same accidental but important training. The result? Many of today’s moms rely on books, Google, TV, the pediatrician and, often, each other. That’s okay. What’s most important is the willingness to ask for help and advice when confused, overwhelmed or uncertain.
Myth 4: Having a baby will bring you closer to your partner.
Maybe. Some couples find new meaning and new appreciation for each other and their commitment when they add a child to the emotional mix. But such couples are already strong. Either before or during the pregnancy or while going through the process of adoption or blending their families, they made the decision to make a family together. They see themselves as a team and are ready to take on the additional challenge and joy of parenting.
Couples who are thrown together because of an unwanted pregnancy or who aren’t already firmly committed to being together are unlikely to get closer. Any issues that weren’t resolved pre-baby probably are still festering. And the stresses of sleep deprivation and scheduling life around a baby’s needs will bring all the problems, resentments, and issues to the surface.
Myth 5: You have to do it perfectly or you’ll scar your child for life.
If I’ve learned nothing else in my 40 years as a parent educator and family therapist, it’s this: Although there are certainly some very wrong ways to do it, there isn’t a clear right way to parent. Abuse and neglect are never okay and do have far-reaching and often negative effects. There’s no excuse for hurting kids — ever. Nonetheless, even most of the abused kids survive and even thrive. It’s an amazing testament to the resiliency they were born with.
As for the rest of us who do our best to do our best: Forget about perfection. It’s enough to give children all the love we can, to try to be even-tempered and fair, and to set appropriate limits to keep them safe.
Every parent makes mistakes. Every parent who is honest about it will look back on their parenting when the kids are grown and wish they had known from the beginning what only their experience as parents taught them along the way. If you’re one of the lucky ones, when your kids get to be about 30, they will let you know that your love and efforts may not have been perfect but were enough.