In her book, To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage and the Modern Dilemma, clinical psychologist Molly Millwood explores and illuminates the oft kept silent challenges and complexities women face as they transition into motherhood. Combining her personal experiences becoming a parent, clinical experience as a therapist and extensive research, Dr. Millwood provides a new lens for examining the impact of new motherhood on wellbeing, identity and marital relationships. We had the opportunity to chat with the Vermont-based Dr. Millwood about her new book.

Much of your book is about dispelling “myths of parenthood” – what do you think are the most important parenting myths to bust, and why are they so persistent?

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One reason the many myths of parenthood persist is that we need positive illusions in order to take the leap and have a baby. It is perhaps a strange thing to say, but to some degree the survival of our species depends on these illusions. If we all knew ahead of time exactly how challenging it would be, many more of us might opt out of the endeavor altogether. That is a biological, evolutionary explanation but I think it’s a really important one; it’s important to understand that at a primitive level we are wired to expect good things out of parenthood, and to discount or minimize any negative murmurings we hear.  

If we look at the myths of motherhood in particular, I think they persist because of strong socio-cultural forces that impede honest discourse. In a culture that often views mothering as the ultimate achievement of a woman, and that can value a mother’s skill at parenting over her well-being as a person, it is very difficult for women to talk openly about how much they fumble in their roles as mothers and how depleting and aggravating and confusing it really is.   

I think the myths that are most important to dispel are the ones that shame parents for experiencing negative emotion toward their children. So, for instance, if we buy into the myth of parenthood as the greatest source of joy, and then we find that actually what we feel in the presence of our children is a great deal of boredom or irritation, we then wonder what we’re doing wrong, or what’s fundamentally wrong with us as human beings that we don’t derive more joy from our children. We’d be so much better off if we knew to expect a full, messy array of emotion in relation to our children. 

You highlight the importance of recognizing and grieving the “fundamental sense of loss” a woman faces when she becomes a mother (e.g., loss of autonomy, personal freedom, sleep, predictability, and so on). How can we better prepare ourselves and our fellow mamas for this loss?

I wanted to emphasize the experience of loss in motherhood because there has always been so much emphasis on what is gained. The construct of motherhood is saturated with notions of growth and expansion – there is a growing belly, a “new addition,” a new identity – so that women are often blindsided by the loss, constriction, and stagnation that are just as integral to the experience of motherhood. We need to be able to recognize and name those losses in order to grieve them, but we don’t even have a mental framework for taking that critical first step of recognition.

The human brain has a real problem with dichotomous thinking; it’s either a gain or a loss but it’s not both. I think we need to create a new narrative of motherhood as metamorphosis. It is a change of monumental proportions that involves losses and gains, constrictions and expansions. If mamas-to-be could visualize themselves about to undergo a metamorphosis, they might be much more able to cultivate a stance of curiosity about – and acceptance of – all of the ways they feel themselves changing once their baby is born.   

Why do you think shame is such a prevalent feeling among new mothers, and how can women avoid the “shame hole” you describe in your book?

First of all, isolation breeds shame, and in our culture the conditions of new motherhood are inherently isolating. We are sent home from the hospital or birthing center – and all of the care and support that we had there – too soon. We take leave from work, so we are no longer in daily contact with other adults. Our partners likely take little or no time off work, so they’re not home with us. We are confined to the couch or the bed all day while breastfeeding. It’s tough to pack up and get out of the house with an infant, and so forth. This is a major piece of the shame puzzle; motherhood was not meant to be done alone, and yet for most of us there is a tremendous amount of aloneness in the early weeks and months.

Many new mothers are steeped in both shame and guilt, and I think it can be really helpful to distinguish between the two. Guilt is about doing – it comes from a negative judgment about what we’ve done or not done. So if I snap at my child, I might feel guilty about that. Shame, on the other hand, is about being – it comes from a negative judgment about who we are at our core. So if I snap at my child often enough, I might begin to think, “What kind of person am I to speak so sharply again and again to my innocent little boy?” That gives rise to a feeling of shame, and when we feel ashamed, we most certainly don’t want to broadcast the issue that stirred up our shame.

Shame makes us want to hide, and when we hide and isolate ourselves and keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves, that isolation and secrecy breeds more shame. So it’s a vicious cycle, and breaking that cycle requires the brave choice of transparency. We have to give voice to whatever it is we’re scared to say out loud. Why is that so important? Because when we take that risk of sharing, we are sure to learn that we are not alone. Others will say, “Me too!” We break through the illusion that other mothers are navigating motherhood with grace and perfection, and we learn that we’re all just fumbling along quite imperfectly. When these messy truths of parenthood are shared without hesitation, we can let go of any shame about the mess existing in the first place.  Shame finds no home in the broad daylight. 

Your chapter on how “It takes a village to raise a mother” speaks to something we talk about often in the Mindr community: the importance of social interconnectedness and finding your tribe. What suggestions do you have for soon-to-be moms and/or those who have not yet found their tribe? Where and how did you find yours?

There are few things more important than this for coping with the strain of early parenthood. I now understand that one of the reasons my own transition to motherhood was so difficult is that I really lacked a tribe. As I wrote about in my book, my husband and I had moved to the opposite coast from both of our families, and all of the friends with whom we had longer histories had scattered. Although we had forged connections with other couples in our new Vermont life, we were the first among them to have a child. There were various other factors that made it difficult for me to connect with other, like-minded mothers, especially in a face-to-face way, and at the time I really did not appreciate what an essential thing that is. 

I think I was under the illusion that because I had a strong bond with my husband, that he and I would weather the storm together and I didn’t need more than that. More and more couples are raising children in this way, in insular environments with no family or good friends nearby, and that has some troubling repercussions. I address this issue in my book – the danger of relying on only your partner during such a trying time. If we have only one person to whom we can turn for relief from parenting and for emotional support, that person will inevitably let us down, and that becomes fertile ground for conflict and resentment.

It was not until our older child started kindergarten in the small town where we live that I began to feel I had a village. I think my life has been incredibly enriched by this feeling of interconnection with other parents who live just down the road, whose kids are friends with our kids, who lend a hand when we need help with transportation or childcare just as we do with them. It was a long time coming, and I feel a great sadness when I think back to myself as a new mother without a village. I want every new mother to know that it isn’t enough to have a partner and some long-distance family or friends. We thrive on face-to-face interaction with other women and without that we truly suffer. And I want new mothers to know that cultivating connection is an extremely worthy use of their limited resources; time and energy are in short supply, but using some of it to be in touch – literally, if possible – with other women will have big payoffs.

What impact do you hope your book will have on mothers, fathers and the larger ‘village’?

I have a lot of hopes for what impact my book may have, but I’ll zero in here on just one. Above all, I wrote this book in order to illuminate and normalize the emotional complexity of the typical transition to motherhood, because this is a transition that has the potential to rattle and rearrange a woman more than anything else she has experienced before. I want people to realize that in motherhood, we discover feelings, impulses, thoughts, and wishes within ourselves that we likely never would have encountered had we not become mothers. This “full catastrophe” of motherhood is the norm, rather than the exception, and it includes a great deal of negative emotion. 

Negative emotion tends to be resisted and pushed away, and in women especially, it is pathologized – it is construed as an indication of depression or emotional instability. In actuality, mental health involves being able to recognize, and allow ourselves to experience, the full array of emotion our human existence brings. I hope my book helps people in that crucial endeavor. I hope that when readers see themselves reflected in the stories I’ve shared, they will find language for naming their experiences and permission to claim those experiences as perfectly natural and understandable.

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