From a talk given in Berkeley Spring 2015
Johanna Murphy, PhD
I have always wanted to gather moms together to share ideas around how to feel more engaged, uplifted, and present with the work of mothering our kids.
I am a mother of a 12-year old girl and a 9-year old boy.
I am also a psychologist and have been in private practice for over ten years. My curiosity about people led me to study psychology here at Cal as an undergrad; after a stint in LA, Asia and then New York, I ended up back in Berkeley for graduate school.
I soon developed an interest in women’s health, specifically peri-natal issues, after working in a prenatal clinic right out of college. Because I spoke Spanish, I was presented with this amazing opportunity to work with pregnant and post-partum Latina women. The strength and determination I saw these women display around giving birth and taking care of their young children inspired me. This positive female/maternal identification was a stark contrast to the LA I was use to, and where the female role models I had grown up with weren’t always so positive. What I particularly noticed was that the women who were invested in their prenatal care had much better birth outcomes and post-partum experiences. I became interested in preventative health care and feminist issues, which paved the way for my future graduate work.
In my talk today I will share with you what I believe are the elements that foster a better parenting experience and a greater ability to be in the moment….in the now.
The name Nowstalgia came from an interaction I had with another mom after an exercise class where childcare was provided. I saw her bonding with her baby after class, and mentioned to her how precious this early parenting time is, and also how quickly it passes by! She mentioned that she had been bumping up against her own bittersweet feelings of love mixed with some sadness. How could she take in and appreciate all that’s wonderful about being a mom right now, when she is ceaselessly distracted by the daily grind of mundane tasks and nonstop exhaustion? I told her that I had been thinking a lot about this very paradox in my own work, and about how we as psychologists might help moms not only appreciate the memories of precious moments long gone by, but actively and consciously create those very feelings right here, right now.
Half joking, half serious, she said, “It’s like a sort of Nowstalgia!” Yes! That was exactly the right word! Instead of looking backwards, how great would it be if we could experience all the same feelings of love right here, right now? Nowstalgia means consciously recognizing in the moment whatever is happening with you and your child, and mentally capturing it as something special. It is intentional memory-making. It means seeding the moment with love and appreciation, so that same seed will flower into its own special memory.
Nowstalgia is taking the time to stop and recognize that this moment is somehow different. By seeding our minds so consciously, we intentionally create memories that will nourish us from this moment forward….acres and acres of memories. Rather than recalling fuzzy memories of good moments long gone by, nowstalgia empowers us to create the now we want. Then we don’t have to be sad or afraid of all the good that seems to have unconsciously passed us by in the fog of our daily grind. During times of life transition we all sometimes get stuck in thoughts of the past, which only leads to us fantasizing about the future; this ping-ponging can be hard on our moods because it creates a sort of restlessness. Being in the now allows us to rest in what actually is (rather than what was, or what might be). This is the best place to parent from.
So, NOW is the time to enjoy your young child. It is so easy to let this precious time pass by in the swirl of constant flux. Remember, it’s not only your child who is doing all the growing and changing. So too are you, as you shape shift and blossom into your new archetype of mother. How can we be more present to our children and ourselves and claim this moment? I am reminded of some lines from a Leonard Cohen song:
“Ring the bells that can still ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
What I have noticed in my private practice over the years is how hard new moms can be on themselves. We all want to feel that becoming a mom should come to us naturally. But what if it doesn’t? I am constantly impressed by the many stories I hear of women becoming the kind of mom they want to be…. even if it means being different from their own mother, or the other mothers around them.
What I also see is stereotypes getting in the way of women becoming the kinds of moms they consciously or unconsciously want to be. Some women are great at being stay-at-home mothers. Others aren’t. Even though leaving their children at day care is the hardest thing they have ever done, going back to work is what allows them to feel like themselves again, which in turn allows them to be a better parent. There are also those who begin to realize that if they are going to go back to work, then that work needs to be something they believe in. This can be a difficult process to negotiate when you have just had a baby.
Being a mom requires that we get in touch with who we really are. Not some idealized, sensationalized version of a mother. This is how we can claim being happy and being a Mom.
Why is it that our children want to hear the fairy tales again and again? It is because they know that we have to face the hard, the difficult, and the bad in order to win the good. We need to model what it means to be present to the good, the bad and the ugly, since this is what will bring us to the “ happily ever after.”
I believe that taking better care of our selves as mothers leads to a better experience for our entire family. We want this to be a happy time for our children, our partners, and ourselves. So how do we navigate the huge transition into parenthood?
I am now going to address specific self-care issues that are really the foundation for feeling our mental and physical best. I will start with better understanding your own mood. In our culture, it has become very common to think that something is wrong with you if you are not “happy” all the time. The paradox is that when we learn to actually be with some of the harder, darker emotions, we actually have a greater capacity to feel the lighter happier emotions. In a book called Healing through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan talks about our fear of our darker emotions (especially grief), and how that fear can actually exacerbate depression and anxiety:
I think it’s important for us to pay attention to our emotions, in general. Too many people have never learned to do this, because they’ve never been encouraged to do so. We have the notion that our emotions are not worthy of serious attention.
Naturally we have less difficulty with the so-called positive emotions. People don’t mind feeling joy and happiness. The dark emotions however are much harder to sit with. Fear, grief, and despair are uncomfortable and are seen as signs of personal failure. In our culture, we call them “negative” and think of them as “bad.” I prefer to call these emotions “dark,” because I like the image of a rich, fertile, dark soil from which something unexpected can bloom. Also we keep them “in the dark” and tend not to speak about them. We privatize them and don’t see the ways in which they are connected to the world. But the dark emotions are inevitable. They are part of the universal human experience and are certainly worthy of our attention. They bring us important information about ourselves and the world and can be vehicles of profound transformation.
So obviously there is a difference between dark emotions (which create a space to feel more deeply) and depression, though they can be hard to differentiate. In this talk I am trying to address how to handle the general sluggishness and apathy we feel around taking care of our children. It is hard work! In working with many women during this phase, what I see pretty consistently is that mood is improved by taking care of the basics. Therapy can be an important support for many women who find it very difficult to do the work of mothering, despite their best intentions. The psychological reasons for why we don’t take good care of ourselves often run deep, But sometimes having a little bit of insight into these reasons can make all the difference. Knowing “the why” often leads to being more conscious, which in turn can then lead to making unconscious links conscious. Examples might be: when I’m angry, I overeat. (Or) when I talk to my dad I notice I get more irritable with my husband later. Recognizing and understanding these links can help you to untangle them and thus act from a more conscious place.
The fact that women allow their physical, emotional and psychic being to be taken over in the post-partum phase is no small matter. There are many identity issues that need to be negotiated during this phase.
As mothers, we are encouraged to be selfless. There is a righteousness that our culture creates and projects onto us. A good mom is often seen as a selfless mom. But sometimes this becomes lopsided, and the pressure of living up to perfectionist standards leads to our burning out.
Hormonal fluctuations can also make things feel wobbly, which can be very disorienting. The intensity of feelings can be overwhelming, but remembering that much of all this is due to hormonal shifts can really help. None of us like it when our partners ask if we are “PMS-ing,” but usually we can admit it when we are. Often in the post-partum phase there aren’t the normal markers of mood that we can gage our emotions against (like our period). This coupled with the intense bonding that we are doing with our baby can make us feel like we are drifting out to sea, unable to recognize ourselves any more. Creating balance around parenting and self-care is a tricky dance to learn in the beginning. We are hard wired to take care of our children and to put them first. There is a reason that every time we fly on an airplane, we are told to put on our own oxygen masks first before putting on our child’s-it goes against instinct.
This part of parenting does get easier with time because your child is less dependent on you as he or she ages. It doesn’t feel like a matter of just keeping your child safe and alive.
Sleep: I have found that to really assess mood, you need to try by whatever means possible to get some sleep. Sleep is what will improve your mood. Sleep deprivation can make you feel crazy. It is hard to do, but the saying “Sleep when your baby sleeps!” is so true. If you can work towards getting 4 hour stretches at a time, you will feel so much better. One of the patterns that I see women getting into (myself included) is staying up late to get some “me time.” And while we all need to do it once in a while, if it becomes a pattern you are not getting enough sleep; this can affect everything. I like to tell new moms to try and get a little extra sleep at either the beginning of the night (going to bed at 8pm to get that first stretch) or getting more sleep in the morning by giving your partner the first AM shift.
This early phase is an important time to bond with baby and slow things way down. What does this look like for you?
A clinical example I really liked is hearing a pediatrician say to a mother I was working with to get in bed with her baby for 24 hours and “just literally surrender to the bed.” Sometimes the attachment we need to build is not just for our babies but also to be soothed ourselves. We need to feel good about how we are mothering and creating a cocoon, especially in the early stages. This can help you to feel the connection to your baby that you may need to feel. This cocoon is something we will return to again and again as our children grow. Each new stage brings with it a need for parents and children to flex and accommodate these changes. Just as in the stage of rapprochement –where the child goes forward and then looks back to make sure we are there — so too we need room to figure out how to be our best selves as parents by taking steps forward and then giving ourselves time to retreat back to the cocoon and integrate what we’ve learned.
Support from community and in therapy:
If community supported better self-care for young families, everyone could enjoy this time more, which would greatly benefit our children. Having a baby can be such a lovely time, in terms of feeling the world reach out to us and these little bundles of joy. How can we slow down enough to let this interaction nurture us? We are giving so much to our babies we need to let the ways that we can be nurtured be reciprocated.
Just as the mother is doing a lot of mirroring for her child so too does she need to be mirrored by others. I find that getting some kind of support so that the mother has the ability to reflect on all this transition can make a huge difference. I think therapy even in short stints can make this transition much smoother.
I also find that when we are in transitional or liminal phases, there is a lot of potential for transformation where we can often stretch beyond what we have thought our selves capable of. I really like working with people who are engaged in this process and hopefully supporting them in landing in a better place.
Many women are greatly buoyed by being in community and being around other new moms. Getting to be around other moms whom you feel comfortable with is important.
Many new moms can feel judged by how their birth went, or how breastfeeding is going (or not going), and it is important to remember it is not for others to judge what is right for you. How can you find a circle of like-minded moms that you can do things with in this early time so as not to isolate yourself?
Are you getting enough good quality food and water? Whether or not you are breastfeeding, eating well will make a huge difference in your mood. Keeping on going with your prenatal or a good women’s vitamin can also make a big difference. If you are taking care of these basic needs, you will feel better physically, which is such a big part of feeling better emotionally. How can you make little steps towards eating better and more consistently?
What I hear a lot of is “I can’t find the time to eat!” And I know it is hard, but looking at where your time is going and learning to be very disciplined about taking care of the basics can make a huge difference. I also find that harnessing this discipline in these seemingly basic areas really builds a confidence that is essential to taking care of a baby. If you take good care of yourself, then you can take better care of your baby. A confidence grows out of showing yourself that you have this ability for self-care. I see that for some women a kind of regression can happen where it becomes so hard to give oneself that which you are having to put out for another. But the real trick is giving it to yourself so that you have the gas to give it to baby.
Body image: It is really such an important time to eat well and not worry about the baby weight. But if this is where your mind is going, how can you be gentle to yourself through this time? Can you appreciate your body for what it has just accomplished and give it the time it needs to heal? Bringing a baby into the world is an amazing, creative feat. I find that for some women it is second nature to be hard on themselves about physical appearance. But this actually may be easier than sitting with even more dark feelings. It is bringing these dark feelings to light that usually allows things to come into better perspective. Feelings around your weight can often be a symbol for deeper pain.
Exercise: In my practice I always ask people to consider how they are taking care of themselves physically. It is just so basic to our feeling good. But it can be hard psychologically to motivate for all kinds of reasons. This is not one of those times to put it on the back burner though. The hormones shifting during this time are so intense; we need to allow room for this and not just resist it. Exercising will decrease anxiety and enable you to see things more clearly. If you want to feel better mood-wise so that you can be there for your baby and enjoy the intense bonding that is happening, make sure to get some exercise wherever you can. Getting stronger physically can lead to feeling more empowered and having more agency. This is what we need to navigate the transition into motherhood. Literally an “I can do it attitude.”
Partner: Having a baby is hard on a relationship because it is a big adjustment for everyone. We are trying to figure out how to be the best parent we can be, and so too are our partners. I have heard the analogy that having a baby with someone is like starting a small business with them. We all have our own ways of wanting to do things. But when you have to negotiate parenting styles, it can bring a lot of conflict. I find that learning to connect with each other again can be critical for both parents. This can look very simple, like remembering to make quality time with each other and remembering to keep communications positive. Taking time to remember the good between you is essential in this hugely transformative time. Another important piece is knowing that this is just a phase; and although the stages keep shifting, it is quite a huge adjustment for many couples to have “baby in the middle.”
Prompted by my daughter being on a nostalgia kick of her own where she looks at baby pictures on the computer, I was reminded of how I would often just say to myself “make it work” during this time. It was this attitude that carried me through a lot of stress and exasperation of early parenting. I have nostalgia for these early days but I too am reminded of the Nowstalgia I have worked so hard to establish; and so I gaze at this big girl in front of me with those same adoring eyes of earlier days. It is so important to remember to go towards the good which is right here, and not feed the longing for being somewhere else.
I realized that what my daughter is looking for in those pictures is a story, and what every child wants is a story of a happy Mom.
Gate C22 by Ellen Bass
At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn’t look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.
But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you’re lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.