Interesting news out of the Netherlands: A team of researchers tracked nearly 85,000 women through their pregnancies and beyond, and found that self-esteem in pregnant women and new mothers fluctuates: It dips during the 30th week of pregnancy, rises until the child is six months old, and then declines for at least the next two and a half years. The good news is that maternal self-esteem eventually did recover: When the researchers followed the women for subsequent pregnancies, they found that the women had returned to their previous level of self-esteem.
Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Lifehacker/GMG, photos via Shutterstock
Previous studies of American parents have also found that having a baby lowers the self-esteem of mothers, more so than it does of fathers. It seems clear that the transition to motherhood comes with certain mental-health challenges, specifically that of what social scientists call "maternal role attainment", or how we navigate and find satisfaction in our new roles as mothers.
So, what can we do? Maintaining one's self-esteem might get lost in the struggle for daily survival. And yet, it's important, says Sarah Verbiest, the executive director of the Center for Maternal and Infant Health at the University of North Carolina and a leader at the 4th Trimester Project, which investigates women's health in the postpartum period. How mothers feel about themselves influences what they bring to their families; as Verbiest says, "My taking care of myself is also taking care of my family."
So what can we do to protect ourselves, our relationships and our self-esteem? Verbiest offers three suggestions.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
One of the interesting findings of the Norwegian study was that relationship satisfaction and self-esteem are linked: The better the romantic relationship, the better the woman's self-esteem, and vice versa. Verbest told me that she found this correlation interesting: "Something that's come up in the 4th trimester project is that relationships — partners being supportive, not being supportive" are important elements in mothers' happiness.
While the subject remains taboo, most parents have a favourite child. The Wall Street Journal points to research that supports this — in one recent study, 75 per cent of mothers confessed they felt closer to one of their adult children, while another report found that 70 per cent of fathers and 74 per cent of mothers acted on those feelings and demonstrated preferential treatment.
"The relationship [between the parents, when you have a baby] can change a lot, particularly around being intimate with each other, and in so many complicated ways that we don't even talk about... like what does it mean to always be touched, particularly for breastfeeding mums? What does that do to your relationship?" In an ideal world, Verbiest says she like to see "relationship mentoring", similar to what some faith communities offer to newlyweds, but in the months and years after a couple has children. "I don't think we provide a lot of support to couples with young children to help them understand that, yes it's normal — this child might change your relationship in some profound ways, some good, and some perhaps more challenging."
In the absence of that mentoring, and, if time and money don't permit counselling, Verbiest says "keeping an open communication with one's partner, and not making assumptions on how [each partner] is feeling, and taking the time to talk about it is important. Conversations can get very 'daily survival', and it's important to keep digging into the deeper issues."
Set up Some Filters
Verbiest says, "People want to give women so much advice. It's often 'one person says this, one person says that,' [about various child-rearing decisions] and there's a lot of feeling judged."
It can make even the most confident mother doubt herself and her choices, and Verbiest recommends shutting down some avenues of information if you need to by "creating some filters — I think mums get a lot of conflicting advice, and ultimately it's OK to get off a listserv or stop reading child-rearing books."
Incidentally, social media, with its endless pics of kids happily eating farm-picked peas and cheerful spouses barbecuing on the deck, can also make you feel crummy, but remember there's no snap of that the epic fight that couple had later that evening or the tantrum the toddler threw before bed. Laura Venuto, a psychologist in New York specialising in postpartum issues, told me in an email, "I think there's a real connection between self-esteem and social media usage," and this can be doubly true for parents. "Social media users are only documenting their happiest moments, and/or presenting idealised versions of themselves." It's OK to do a Facebook fast if you need to recalibrate your sense of self.
Do Things That Make You Feel Good
I really dislike the term "self-care" for mothers, because I think mothers should be a little more cared for by other people, rather than admonished to DIY, but the fact remains that it's easy to fall into a downward spiral of actual self-neglect and harm.
Verbiest (and everyone who's ever been a mother) acknowledges that when you're exhausted and stressed, it's very easy to neglect your own physical and emotional health — and that it's important to find time for small moments of pleasure. "Find something that makes you feel good about yourself and prioritise some time for that, whether it's a pedicure or a daily walk or something that will help you keep a hold of that part of you until you have a little bit more time."
My husband calls this "the shim", that tiny little act that make you feel more in control of your life, because when you have babies and toddlers, it's too easy to abandon all sense of health, happiness and order.
All of these measures, of course, are puny in the face of actual government-supplied assistance for new parents, like the postpartum home visits that Dutch women enjoy — supports that indicate to mothers that, culturally speaking, they are valuable and cared for. It would be interesting to see the Norwegian study replicated elsewhere and see how much of self-esteem, health and well-being can be traced to large-scale family-friendly policies.
In the meantime, Verbiest says, "It's important to recognise that we matter too."