Motherhood and Shame

Don’t co-sleep; Do co-sleep.

Don’t birth at home; birth at home.

Don’t work outside the home; go back to work.

Breast is best; it’s okay to bottle feed.

Vaginal birth; choose a caesarean.

Vaccinate; don’t vaccinate.

Too much screen time; no screen time.

Each day we are bombarded with opinions about how to give birth and raise our children. From the moment we plan to conceive or find ourselves surprisingly pregnant, a whole new world opens. For many, entering the world of motherhood, for the first time, is like walking through a vortex.

On one side of this invisible shield lives all the mothers who have gone before us, and on the other side is the world ‘out there’. How this separation came to be is another blog post in and of itself.

Let’s agree that there is a world unto itself that is not visible or understandable until you have been initiated into the ‘tribe’ called motherhood. Pregnancy is the first phase of initiation in which we learn, rather quickly, that our bodies become the gawk and opinion of strangers and ‘experts’. Need alone, for many first-time mothers, growing another human inside of our wombs is a strange experience that can for some, feel ‘alien’ and foreign. Somehow, we are supposed to love and connect and take care of this growing embryo.

The doubt sets in early. Is my body strong enough, healthy enough, and capable of bearing children?

Prenatal Shame

Many women experience shame if they miscarry or struggle to conceive. Often left unsupported and silenced throughout these experiences, it is a rare woman who doesn’t think that their body failed them and that they are somehow, defective. And for those who ‘get’ pregnant, the worry sets in deep. Will my body ‘hold onto’ this one?

The famous Brene Brown, on vulnerability and shame, shares that shame is an emotion attached to the core beliefs – I am bad/defective/wrong. Whereas, guilt is an emotion connected to the mindset that I have done something – I have made a mistake/done something wrong/done something bad.

You can hear and feel the difference between these two challenging emotions – guilt and shame – shame focuses on a belief that ‘you are flawed’ whereas, guilt focuses on a belief that ‘you did something wrong’.

Neither guilt nor shame are comfortable emotions to feel. However, there is a sense that with guilt, you can do something about the situation – you can change it or make it better or learn from the mistake. Whereas, with shame, you become debilitated by it and there is a sense that it/you cannot be changed. At such a core level, the shameful beliefs define who you are (even if they are lies).

Childbirth Shame

Back to motherhood. If women did not experienced shame about their bodies failing them prenatally, many will experience shame about their bodies throughout the delivery.

This shame sounds like: ‘I couldn’t give birth vaginally’, ‘I tried for hours but my body wouldn’t progress’, ‘I just wouldn’t go into labour’, ‘I tried everything and nothing worked’, ‘I wouldn’t stop bleeding’, ‘I didn’t have room for my baby to fit in my pelvis’, ‘My baby was in the wrong position (and it was my fault due to my lifestyle)’, ‘I just couldn’t give birth’, ‘The experts knew best’ etc.

Underneath each of these statements are often the core beliefs – ‘my body is flawed, I am flawed’, ‘I failed, I am a failure’, ‘I did it wrong, I am wrong’, ‘my body is broken, I am broken’.

Mothers protect themselves from feeling shame. This is instinctive. We are motivated to move away from pain. Shame produces an enormous amount of emotional pain. Shame produces more shame, and the cycle repeats itself, feeding off each shameful belief like a hungry ghost.

It is impossible to thrive in motherhood if the underpinning of becoming a mother is founded in shame.

Postpartum Shame

Let’s explore the next opportunity for mothers to experience shame. If shame did not present during labour and birth, it can rear its nasty head in the postpartum. All of a sudden, a woman magically becomes a mother and is expected that she know how to raise this human being. Most mothers are afraid of ‘fucking up’ and ‘ruining their child/ren’. There is a lot of pressure to ‘do it right’. This poses the question: What is right parenting?

The pressure appears immediately after the birth in that mothers are expected to know how to breastfeed. Women’s boobs are being grabbed, pinched, and yanked in an attempt to ‘get the baby to latch’. There is so much stress focused on the act of breastfeeding, that even if the birth went as planned, mothers feel anxious about not being able to breastfeed. Again, denoting one’s worth as a mother.

Breastfeeding, at the deepest level, signifies the mother’s ability to nourish her child.

There is a huge psychological hurdle one must go through if they cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed. Somewhere deep within the psyche there is a worry (shared collectively) that if I cannot nourish my baby, I am somehow defective. And from a survival point of view, my baby could die. Even if this is not conscious, you can imagine the amount of stress a mother would feel to ensure that her baby is nourished; the newborn’s life is dependent on her doing just that.

If there is any indication that she may not be able to nurse her baby – not enough milk, difficult latch, baby losing weight – she will be quick to move towards formula feeding to mitigate any risk of malnourishment. Thankfully, because of technological advancements and food production, we can ensure that our babies will be fed.

However, this does not address the fact that many mothers feel devalued as a mother if they cannot breastfeed. Once again, pointing towards the shameful core belief – I am defective/I am a bad mother.

Raising the question: When does a new mother have the time to focus on these deeper core beliefs and debilitating emotions to heal them?

Time takes on a new meaning in motherhood. Time warps. Days turn into nights, and nights turn into days. This changing time schedule is a challenge for many modern mothers to adjust to. Giving rise to sleep deprivation and another layer of shameful thinking that sounds like ‘my baby won’t sleep through the night (and this is a reflection of my parenting)’, ‘I can’t sleep, there is something wrong with me’, ‘I can only sleep with my baby (and this is shunned by friends and family, so I am a bad mother), ‘I can’t sleep when my baby is next to me, so they sleep in a crib (and this is shunned by friends and family, so I am a bad mother).

Shame shows its ugly face every turn of the way as a mother.

I have not even touched on the topic of postpartum mood disorders (PPMD). Lately my sense is that more women fear PPMD more than they fear childbirth. To begin, I would like to rephrase the term ‘mood disorders’ to that of ‘postpartum mood and mental unrest’. Where did the notion that the postpartum period would be smooth sailing come from? That somehow our lives would not be turned upside down and inside out?

My sense is that, generally speaking, mothers are surprised by the immense and intense changes experienced in the postpartum. I hear mothers say that they spent all their energy preparing for the birth, and had no idea that motherhood would be so hard.

I think we have glorified pregnancy and mothering, like a cool hip trendy idea that comes with new gadgets and wearing apparatuses. We have glorified the image of the beautiful good mother, who is smiling and engaged, and has it ALL together.

And we failed to be realistic about the harsh truth about transitioning into motherhood.

So, we are left with an either/or mentality, striving for something unrealistically portrayed by pop-culture. If we experience anything less than the glorified image of motherhood, we are left to silently question our role as a mother as not being good enough.

The ultimate failure as a woman, who has children, is to fail as a mother.

There is both an external and an internal burden to perfect motherhood. Because anything less would/could result in ‘messing up’ our kids. And to live with the knowing that our children have suffered because of us, as mothers, is almost unbearable to experience.

Thus, we avoid feeling our shame, questioning our assumptions, and transforming our beliefs.

From my perspective, when we avoid getting to the nitty gritty of our shame, we live from a place of chronic anxiety and/or depression (deep insecurity and unrest). And, from this place we are motivated to fill the void, the painful ache within, to silence the ‘not good enough’ voice with external ‘stuff’. We consume anything that will offer a moment of comfort and hope - ideas, courses, activities, food, wine, sex, more kids, Netflix etc. You get the idea.

We look outside of ourselves to find the answers that can only be found by going within.

Shame pushes us to our edges, to our limits. Fostering chronic self-image of worthlessness. If we have not been shown how to be with our shame and transform it, it can feel like a daunting and terrifying task. As it seems, very few mothers escape motherhood without feeling shame.

Just the other night my grandmother, of my maternal side, spoke about all the ways she failed as a mother. How today’s mothers have more help, resources, and knowledge about how to be a ‘good mother’. And how she wishes she could do it all over again. She was choking back her tears, as she spoke this.

On the surface, it may appear that modern mothers have all the answers and resources at their fingertips, and yet, I would argue that the pain of motherhood still exists in full force. Probably even more complicated because we are expected to be more self-aware nowadays and many of us are not in survival mode in the same ways that our pioneering foremothers have experienced.

** see note at the bottom of this blog that speaks to all the mothers who are in survival because of historical trauma, violence, oppression, marginalization, and discrimination **

Generally speaking, today’s western mother has more resources, more knowledge, more supportive partners, more money than our western foremothers and yet they are still struggling and in shame? Why is that?

Because shame is an imprint.

Let me explain. Our natural state is not one of shame. One might argue that our natural state is that of love and compassion. Shame is a patterned response to stressful and adverse circumstances. It is hard to imagine that shame has any productive purpose except to keep us small and insignificant.

I can’t help but think about one reason why staying small and believing that we as mothers/woman are insignificant, that reason has to do with patriarchy. In order for patriarchy to survive and thrive, women need to believe that they are inadequate, defective, and ‘crazy’. Within western civilization, we live within a patriarchal worldview, and this cannot be argued. And we have been trying to fit ‘motherhood’ and ‘womanhood’ into this perceptual lens. It has not been easy.

We are imprinted by both the dominant societal beliefs, and our family of origin’s historical beliefs and experiences. What if that shameful voice that is experienced as being real and yours/mine does not belong to you?

What if you were taught to feel ashamed…for generations. Taught to be ashamed about your body, your gender, your sexuality, and yes, motherhood. What you may be experiencing today, is a result of a belief system that is systemic and intergenerational. What if it (shame) is bigger than you and outside of you, but not you?

We now know that when the fetus is developing within the mother’s womb, that the mother downloads information about the world, via chemical transactions, into the fetus’s nervous system. How the mother internalizes stress, trauma, adversities about life, directly impacts how you experience the world and tolerate stressful circumstances.

Yes, I know this sounds like ‘mother shaming’. Like somehow it is the mother’s fault if you came in with an imprint in which you experienced and internalized your mother’s shame. So, we blame our mothers for ‘fucking us up’. But wait, how far back can you go? What about her mother? And the foremothers of your lineage? Where does the ‘shame’ imprint take root? Has it ever been safe to be a woman or a mother? This is a deep wound. (Yes, the paternal figure impacts the child as well, but not through direct chemical transference of stress hormones).

The wound I am referring to is the mother wound.

I am no historian. Thus, I cannot recount the history of women with accuracy. I was not in the department of Women’s Studies while attending post-secondary school, but I have been ‘studying’ women over the past 20 years as lived experience. My overall sense, based on stories I have heard throughout the years and the imprint I hold as a woman, is that for centuries patriarchy has reigned with an agenda to silence and destroy women’s instinctive powers. To be clear, patriarchy is the system in which we live within, it does not refer to men in general.

How Do We Get Imprinted With Shame?

Allow me to paint a picture: A baby is developing in the womb and its nervous system, which includes the skull brain, heart brain, and gut brain is being encoded with survival level hormones (information). The mother is directly informing and imprinting the baby’s nervous system. As a biology being we need this information downloaded throughout our system so that we can function as a biological organism.

Once we are born, we are in a symbiotic (enmeshed) relationship with our primary care givers. We experience what our primary care givers experience during this primary period (roughly up to age 2 or when we begin to talk). We feel and interpret the world through the experiences of our primary caregivers. All of which is communicated via something called ‘mirror neurons’. Our primary care givers are ‘encoding’ or informing our brain about the world we live in. As primarily social beings, we need them to help us make sense out of the world and to feel safe.

Ideally, we want to be raised in an environment in which we were loved, nourished, and attuned to our primary caregivers. This is rarely the case (however, more of us are working really hard to make this a reality). We also need to learn how to handle stressful circumstances and adversities, giving rise to resilience. How our primary caregivers tolerate and integrate adversities imprints our nervous system with either a healthy adaptive stress response or a dysregulated response. Few people have been taught how to respond to stressful circumstances in an adaptive manner.

Stay with me here, I am about to explain how shameful beliefs get imprinted into your nervous system and give rise to your current challenges as a mother.

If your mother and the women within your family of origin have not had the opportunity to heal their own ‘mother wound’ (most of us have one), then you can make the assumption that the shame was passed onto you (even if it skipped a generation). As such, the way in which your mother and foremothers made sense out of their adversities gave rise to a shameful state of being, most likely sounding similar to your internally dialogue. I call it the ‘shame voice’ within.

For example: I can’t do anything right. My body is disgusting and a disgrace. My body is broken. I am a terrible horrible mother. I am insignificant as a woman. I do not matter. I am unlovable. I am bad. I am a failure as a person. I can’t do anything right. My voice doesn’t matter. Nothing I do is good enough. I am disgusting.

Can you relate to any of these statements? Do they sound familiar or similar?

The fact that we can relate to these statements or something similar means that the voice of shame cannot be an isolated way of thinking and feeling, it is a collective way of being. It exists in the collective mind, not just ‘your’ mind. You are not battling this alone, and yet, shame isolates and makes us feel totally 100% alone in our lack of worth and disgust.

Now what?

Taking into consideration the proposed notion that we are imprinted by our maternal lineage and that we have a shared intergenerational shame voice, then how do we change it? It feels so real and debilitating, and gives rise to much of the mental unrest we experience, yet, it seems impossible to imagine living without shame.

What if it were as simple as no longer believing the shame voice?

Easier said than done. I know. I was totally debilitated by my shame voice for years, and I am still working with it. Everywhere we turn there is evidence to suggest that our shame voice is real. We can list a thousand reasons why we should be ashamed. For example: I yelled at my kids, I left my baby to cry it out, I wanted to throw my baby across the room, I can’t stop crying, I didn’t want my baby, I couldn’t breastfeed, I am depressed etc.

It is not the statement alone that produces a shame response, it is what we believe about ourselves in response to these circumstances that triggers shame.

  • I yelled in rage at my kids, I can’t take it anymore…and what does that mean about you as a person?

  • I left my baby to cry it out… and what does that mean about you as a person?

  • I wanted to throw my baby across the room… and what does that mean about you as a person?

  • I didn’t want my baby…and what does that mean about you as a person?

  • I couldn’t give birth the way I planned…and what does that mean about you as a person?

  • I can’t breastfeed… and what does that mean about you as a person?

Most often we can trace it to core beliefs such as: I am a bad mother. I am bad. I am defective. I am worthless. I am insignificant and inadequate.

What are some alternative perspectives that may give rise to a more balanced response?

I yelled at my kids in rage because I was overwhelmed and all alone, I snapped in a moment of weakness because I didn’t know an alternative, and my family yelled at me growing up, and now in retrospect I can see that I made a mistake. I am allowed to make mistakes. I am going to take a look at what is challenging for me and see if I can get extra support. In the end, I am doing my best given the circumstances I am in, and I will try and change that which I can change.

Bringing our conversation to a close. I have taken you on a spiraling and winding journey into the concept of motherhood and shame. I raised some deep perspectives and acknowledge that I only touched the surface of many of these statements. My hope is that something within this post ignited a desire to explore more, question more, and heal more. Most importantly, that you walk away having heard: a) You are not alone in your shame b) Shame is not yours alone, it is a shared worldview c) Healing and changing your core beliefs is possible (although I just touched on this topic) and d) If you are not in survival, you have an opportunity to heal (and your healing will help the collective whole for all mothers).

Note: There are still far too many mothers who are in survival mode due to historical trauma, violence, oppression, marginalization, and discrimination due to race, creed, or religion. And for my sister mothers who are struggling to stay alive within a dominant world view that devalues their humanity, need alone their motherhood, my body rages and walks alongside you as an ally. I see you and honour you, and I cannot fathom the huge barriers you face to move beyond survival towards a thriving life. My hope is that the collective work of all Mothers, who can engage in their healing, will do their work, so we can hold hope together that you too shall step out of terror, and into a collective community of dignity, love, and authentic honouring. Peace.

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Jennifer holds an MA in counselling psychology and is a Certified Canadian Counsellor with nearly 20 years of experience in the field of maternal health and psychology. Located in Canada, she uses her expertise and voice to help advance the dialogue on trauma-informed care, maternal mental health, and healing.

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