Help for "Beautiful, Messy Transition" into Motherhood
Kate Rope’s book, Strong As a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood, is the one all expecting and first-time mamas need on their nightstand. Based on her personal experience with postpartum anxiety, Kate combines advice from experts and quotes from other moms to delve into the harder aspects of motherhood that aren’t often discussed: mental health, self care, and how to co-parent. Strong As A Mother acknowledges and validates all experiences of pregnancy and new motherhood with the goal of helping moms feel less alone.
MF: What inspired you to write this book?
KR: I had a medically difficult first pregnancy and after I had my daughter, I developed postpartum anxiety. While I was pregnant I’d undergone a lot of tests and had taken steroids for a medical condition, so I was constantly worried that all of those things could have damaged her in some way. The books I was reading warned against taking anything, even an aspirin. And here I was going in for CT scans and nuclear medicine scans. I felt like a freak when I compared myself to the way motherhood is talked about in so many books and blogs. I didn’t want to feel like an outlier. I wanted to know that my experience fit within some realm of normal and that I would be okay.
MF: A lot of people have heard of postpartum depression, but postpartum anxiety and perinatal mood disorders and anxiety was a new term for me (PMAD). Can you explain what that is?
KR: Most new moms will experience intense emotions right after giving birth, usually called the “baby blues.” For most women, that clears up after about two weeks, but 20% of new moms can develop a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder such as postpartum depression. Experts now recognize that there’s a spectrum of conditions and symptoms that includes postpartum depression, but also issues like postpartum anxiety and OCD. And they can happen anytime during pregnancy or in the first year after delivery.
Often these conditions manifest as extreme irritability, rage, or anxiety. Over the years I’ve talked with so many new moms over who’ve had similar experiences. None of us felt depressed because we were all incredibly active. You get this brochure when you leave the hospital of a sad woman in bed and we didn’t feel like that, but we couldn’t stop moving, we couldn’t stop thinking, and we couldn’t stop doing. Motherhood is a huge transition and it’s going to involve struggle—whether it’s about sleep, or time for yourself, or mental illness. It’s a huge spectrum, but there are solutions to all these problems. The idea was to normalize struggle so that wherever a woman fell on the spectrum, she wouldn’t feel ashamed to ask for help.
MF: Reading your book felt like having a conversation with a close, knowledgeable friend. Why was this approach so important for you?
KR: I’m trying to give information and hope. Motherhood is hard, and that’s okay. I’ve been having conversations with moms for the last eight years and it’s remarkable what one conversation can do. It’s remarkable what validating someone’s experience—and offering them hope—can do. Let’s talk about the ways in which it’s hard and the ways we can make it easier so we can find our way forward together. The more we can talk honestly about struggle and the more we can share all of motherhood—the hard, the not so good, the great—the more everyone will feel comfortable sharing.
MF: So many of our cultural norms for motherhood are based on self-sacrifice, but you make the case for self-care and self-compassion instead. Can you describe what brought you to this realization?
KR: In American society we have a lot of faith in the individual and believe the individual can accomplish anything they set their mind to. When that’s combined with the pressure on moms, it’s like “You can do it!” But there’s no support. There’s no paid family leave, we don’t have a visiting nurse service that visits you after birth, there is no nationally subsidized daycare, and many of us live far away from our families. This means that we don’t have the necessary support system to raise children. What’s expected of moms is unrealistic. And to fall short is human, because you’re part of a society that doesn’t give moms and families the support they need.
Evolutionary biologists now understand that our ancestral mothers relied on what are called “alloparents”—other members of the tribe—in order to actually raise the children. We don’t have that anymore, but we still have the expectations that moms work, that you’re a totally present parent, and you’ll be involved in the PTA. When moms fall short of these unrealistic expectations, they often blame themselves. But if things aren’t working well in a family, there’s a lot of societal and institutional blame for that. I really want to get moms off the hook and move away from individual blame, like the popular hashtags “#parenting fail or “#bad mom.” I know they’re meant in fun, but let’s dial back our expectations of ourselves, and our kids. And let’s ask for more from our society and government.
MF: You reference Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst from the 1950s, and his notion of the “good enough mother.” In many ways that seems antithetical to much of today’s parenting approach (for example, attachment parenting). Can you talk a little about what Winnicott’s work and why you think it’s so important?
KR: Winnicott was a mid-20th century psychiatrist and pediatrician who was progressive for his time and had some radical notions, like that play is important for everyone. He also believed that when mothers are what he called, “ordinarily attuned” to their babies—and provide food, clothing, shelter, and soothing—the baby learns the world is a safe place. Over time, the mom begins to fail the baby in small ways, like not picking them up every time they cry, and that teaches the baby resilience and self-soothing. As a mom, you just can’t do it all and there are going to be times when you aren’t going to be there. You’re showing your kids what it means to be human and giving them moments to rely on themselves. Winnicott wasn’t saying that “good enough” is just okay, he was saying that “good enough” is the goal. Good enough is the optimal relationship.
I’m not here to advocate for any style of parenting. I’m here to say let’s be flexible and open-minded so you can adapt. Some things work for some people and don’t for others. And parenting changes with your kids’ needs. If we could be all more flexible about the way we think about parenting, then everyone would feel welcomed in the conversation and more confident in their choices.
MF: We hear from a lot of mamas about their breastfeeding and pumping journeys. Almost all of them recount struggle and difficulty, yet they persist. What are some of the most important things that breastfeeding moms should know and understand?
KR: However you choose to feed your child, it can be really helpful to prepare for it during pregnancy. If you’re planning to breastfeed, look into classes, lactation consultants, local breastfeeding groups, and what the hospital offers for new moms. Know that you might really struggle and there’s going to be a learning curve. With the right support, you’ll probably move through it, but if you don’t, know that there are other choices you can make. It’s great to have a plan, but it’s also important to consider all your options and to talk about them so you can be open to things changing.
And give yourself some time with the whole motherhood thing before you start pumping! I was very scared of my pump. It felt like when you have a paper due in college and you don’t want to start it. I was staring at it in the corner in this big black box and it felt so imposing. But then, once I tried it, it really wasn’t that bad.
MF: The vision of motherhood that’s so often portrayed in movies, popular culture, and social media depicts a blissed-out new mom. Maybe she’s a little sleep deprived, but other than that the picture is overwhelming positive.Your book makes a strong case that it’s time to revise this vision of motherhood, or at least expand it. Why?
KR: The modern image of motherhood is really photoshopped, gauzy, and blissful. And while motherhood is a beautiful thing, anything that amazingly beautiful also has to be that amazingly hard. To think that you could do something as monumental as make and raise a person and that it wouldn’t involve hardship? That’s crazy. Motherhood is a beautiful messy transition, so let’s make it okay to talk about all of it, and give moms the tools they need to move through it.
Kate Rope's work has appeared in The New York Times, Real Simple, CNN.com, Shape, Glamour UK, BabyCenter, Parade, Parenting and more.