Motherhood Is Rotten For Women’s Self-Esteem

Our long history of viewing motherhood through rose-colored lenses has left us with a good many blind spots toward the more disagreeable parts of making and raising children. Only recently have doctors and researchers begun to examine the physical and emotional fallout, documenting how and why the transition to motherhood is so hard for so many women.

A recent example of this comes from Norway, where researchers conducted a study for which they tracked nearly 85,000 women from pregnancy through the first three years of their children’s lives and asked them questions about how having children affected their self-esteem. The findings are dispiriting, if unsurprising.

The team, led by psychologist Manon A. Van Scheppingen, had participants fill out questionnaires rating their self-esteem and relationship satisfaction throughout this time period. They found that self-esteem generally decreased during pregnancy, increased for a six-month period after childbirth, and then gradually decreased until the child reached 3 years. Fortunately, it’s not all downhill from there.

While self-esteem tended to take a hit in the early years, the researchers found that “having children did not trigger substantial long-term changes in maternal self-esteem.” But it also didn’t lead to increased self-esteem, at least over a period involving two pregnancies. This assessment is supported by the comparison they made between the self-reported self-esteem levels of the mothers who took the survey twice, for two different children.

The study also asked mothers about relationship satisfaction and found, unsurprisingly, a positive correlation between how women feel about their partnerships and how they feel about themselves. The less happy a woman was with herself, the less happy she was with her partner. However, while self-esteem declined during pregnancy, relationship satisfaction remained steady during this period. But once the baby came, partner-derived contentment took a big hit, and continued to steadily decline until the child turned 3. According to another study referenced by the authors, the decline in relationship satisfaction was especially strong for women who stopped working when they had their first child.

There are some limitations to note here, qualifications that might help mitigate the quiet desperation, or, perhaps, white-hot rage, such findings might inspire in women of childbearing age. One, as the authors acknowledge, the women did not fill out questionnaires before getting pregnant or after their children’s third birthdays. As a result, there is little insight into the long-term effects of having children. Also, these findings might be influenced by the likely self-esteem-boosting fact that these women were all living in a country where maternity leave is universal and well-paid (though paternity leave is, unfortunately, less so), and child care is affordable. That said, according to anecdotal accounts, there is a monoculture surrounding parenting in Norway that sounds oppressive and possibly self-esteem deflating. Lastly, the concept of self-esteem is nebulous and subjective, and anyway, the value of having a good self-esteem might matter less than many of today’s young parents were taught to believe.

Some of the self-esteem dip found among mothers of young children is an inevitable byproduct of taking on something as demanding, and life-altering, as having a child. It would be strange to not harbor a few self-doubts when taking on such a daunting task while simultaneously stopping doing much of whatever it is made you feel like you. “New mothers are primed, biochemically, to attend to the needs of their children. It’s a state of hypervigilance,” says Miriam Schultz, a reproductive psychiatrist. But the external forces, surely a factor here too, don’t help. We’re making babies in a world where the definition of “good mother” is still rigid. We not only feel like we have to mother in a certain fashion, we also feel like we have to sincerely effervesce while mothering in that fashion, and then go and perform this joy in a world where the value of care work has yet to be truly acknowledged. Extra points for keeping all physical evidence of motherhood to a minimum during pregnancy and erasing it all as quickly as possible afterward.

“There is so much messaging out there, and it doesn’t just tell women that there is a right and wrong way to do this, but also that’s there a more right way than what they are doing. It’s, at best, exhausting. At worst, it evolves into significant self-doubt and depression,” Schultz says.

Roshie, a mom in Las Vegas, said her self-esteem took a hit when she had children. She found her field of broadcast journalism to be particularly inhospitable to pregnancy and early parenthood, so she stopped working and put her “individuality on hold.”

“Growing up, you hear how important it is to be a mom. It’s almost ingrained in our culture that all women are supposed to have kids, and if you don’t want them there’s something wrong with you. But when you do finally have them, you’re penalized for it,” she says, explaining why she believes she lost her bearings. Kristina, a mom in San Diego, says she felt similarly. “It stripped me of my sense of identity. I don’t know how to evaluate myself. I feel like I am floating in space.” She notes that other moms seem to get a self-esteem boost from the act of parenting, be it sleep or potty-training, but it’s never worked like that for her.

Catherine Birndorf, a psychiatrist and co-author of the upcoming book Mother Mind, says that when she and her writing partner, Alexandra Sacks, were researching their book, one of the biggest patterns they encountered was the deep ambivalence with which many women approach motherhood. This feeling is incredibly common, and yet rarely discussed. “There is a wide range of normal between bliss and blues, all kinds of emotions including jealousy, competition, guilt, and they are not an illness,” Birndorf says. “It’s awesome to see more and more celebrities coming out with their postpartum depression stories, but we also need to hear more stories of moms who don’t have an illness, but still feel conflicted. Because conflicted is okay, and it’s normal.” (My conflicted confession: I love my baby but don’t enjoy much of what’s required to parent a baby. I’m not in a rush to reach the toddler years, but I will be happy when they arrive.)

Birndorf and Schultz both believe that expanding our idea of what it means to be a good mother would do a lot to boost the self-esteem of women struggling with early parenthood. The fact that we still embrace the concept of the “good enough mother,” posed in 1953 by British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, is evidence that we have yet to do just that. (Winnicott discovered that children tend to do better when their parents let them fail sometimes so they can learn to accept the eternal messiness of human existence.) It’s a shame that, 70 years later, we have not evolved enough to drop the “enough,” and come to view that realistic and nearly universal type of parenting as “good.”

Another shift that would likely make new moms feel better: treat tending to children as the challenging and intellectually and emotionally engaging activity that it is. While the rest of the internet freaked out about David Brooks’ recent, and largely absurd, insights into sandwich ordering with the working class, I felt far more outrage over this bon mot from last month. In his advice to college students on how to build “identity capital,” he writes: “If you are going to be underemployed, do it in a way that people are going to find interesting later on. Nobody is ever going to ask you, ‘What was it like being a nanny?’ They will ask you, ‘What was it like leading excursions of Outward Bound?’”

I can’t be alone in finding taking care of children far more interesting, and less one-note, than sleeping in a tent every night, far away from civilization.

We also need to stop treating women’s bodies during and after pregnancy with the same taxonomical intensity with which Charles Darwin treated the fauna of Galápagos. A recent People headline represents this behavior at its logical extreme: “Beyoncé Hasn’t Started to Work Out Since Delivering Twins Last Month, Source Says.” The fact that it is not just notable, but headline worthy, that a woman has not worked out since delivering twins a month ago—despite the fact that most doctors would advise against it—is downright dystopian.

And now, some hope. For many moms, the challenges of parenthood, from the practical hustle to the psychic wrestling, ultimately bolster their self-esteem. I put out a call on Facebook for thoughts on motherhood and self-esteem, and the stories I heard were, to my surprise, often positive. One recurrent theme in many women’s responses was the feeling that motherhood gave them permission to silence the inner critics who had long demanded perfection in front of the mirror and at work. Instead of being the straw that broke the camel’s back, motherhood was the straw that made them realize the game is rigged and they don’t want to play it anymore. Some were emboldened to stop playing it safe professionally and take risks; others stopped worrying so much about looking a certain way or achieving a certain professional milestone.

For many, the presence of their adoring children became a self-esteem boost as their children grew up. “I am less afraid of failing at work or in my art because none of that matters to [my daughters],” says Bianca, a mother and actress in New York. For others, the process of becoming a mother, while difficult at first, ultimately led to a firmer sense of self. “Raising daughters has forced me confront a lot of things and I want to be strong for them, which has meant finding ways to be strong for myself,” Debbie, a mother also in New York, says.

Whether motherhood has a neutral effect on self-esteem, as the study suggests, or ends up bolstering it, as the women I heard from explained, it’s not reason enough to grin and bear those dark early years. Three years, or six years if a woman has two children, is a long time to feel down on yourself; it’s enough to change the course of your life. While it was outside the scope of the Norwegian study to determine causality or make suggestions for how to improve things, the act of documentation that it provides is in itself a great service. It offers the many women whose self-esteem suffers after having children the small comfort of knowing that what they are experiencing is normal, and, hopefully, encourages everyone to quit it with the outsize demands we put on new moms—including moms themselves.


Images via Pexels

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