New mothers are biologically and psychologically wired to be especially attuned to the needs of their infants. Also known as maternal preoccupation, a theory postulated by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, this temporary state causes you to fixate on your child while everything and everyone else comes second.
Sound familiar? Although the exhaustion of infancy left me with blurry memories, I remember the feeling of fixation vividly. Nothing else mattered besides the basic needs, followed by the emotional needs, of my child. What does my baby need? When does my baby eat, get changed, sleep? Why is my baby crying? Is my baby hot? Is my baby cold? I’m exhausted from my baby. My breasts hurt because of my baby. When she was not in my arms, my anxiety rose. Is she ok? Is this person holding her correctly? Will they drop her? Does she need something from ME right now? Should I take her back to soothe her cry?
Winnicott believed maternal preoccupation is an important part of motherhood, contributing to the survival and healthy development of your child. It begins a few weeks before birth and usually continues for the first few months of an infant’s life. During this time, mothers shift some of their own sense of self onto the baby, ensuring that mom has an acute sense for what their baby needs. The problem becomes: how long does this preoccupation truly last for each individual, and how does that take a toll on Mom?
I remember that months after my daughter was born, I could still barely hold conversations with family and friends when we got together. I found that 95% of my focus was on my daughter. I thrive off relationships and this left me feeling frustrated and depressed. I also started to feel aimless; I didn’t have any goals and I had very little motivation. I had zero time to myself and was definitely not taking care of my own needs. In fact, I had lost touch with what those needs even were!
Some will argue that maternal preoccupation stays with you for your lifetime. To a degree, that may be true. However, its intensity needs to dissipate in order for a mother to return to a healthy state of well-being, rediscover her identity and regain her confidence as an individual! Some mothers naturally emerge from the intense state of maternal preoccupation. I believe that, for others, it is more difficult. Some mothers don’t realize that they are in this state to begin with, or perhaps the anxiety about their child’s well-being feels too difficult to overcome. Whatever the reason, I believe that without conscious emergence from this preoccupation it can last far too long, resulting in overwhelm, stress, depression, anxiety, perfect mother syndrome, and loss of identity and sense of self. So, when I experienced some of these symptoms, I wondered, “was I ever going to be able to incorporate the things that were important to ME back into my life?”
The answer was yes, but it wasn’t easy. It took time, determination, reflection and growth. I discovered that there are many different things that can help you emerge from maternal preoccupation in a healthy and meaningful way. The path looks different for everyone, but here are some tools and strategies that can help.
Evaluate Your Values and Priorities
Take time to evaluate your values and priorities. Fill out a Values Worksheet or think about what brought you joy in your past. What is important to you? What are your priorities aside from taking care of your child? What about your values makes you the unique individual you are? What small or big things would bring you joy in this moment? What are your strengths? How can your values help you create boundaries; on what do you truly want to expend energy and resources? How can you better care for yourself through your values?
Self-care is a broad term that encompasses the things you do for yourself that are relaxing, healing, energizing, healthy, or joyful. The current societal endorsement for “self-care” might be too intense for you, adding to the shame you feel for not having enough time to dedicate to it. Depending on where you are in motherhood, you may have more or less time for self-care. There are several ways to practice self-care, however. If you are having trouble finding time for yourself, find one minute here and there throughout the day to ask yourself “what do I need right now?” Maybe it is to drink water, or be by yourself in your room for 1 minute, or to turn on a podcast while your child is playing, or to practice 30 seconds of deep breathing. We can find small ways to practice self-care to help reconnect to our mind and body. Also, how are you talking to yourself? Self-care also means letting go of criticizing yourself. It means talking to yourself with more compassion. It means noticing when we’re overwhelmed and offering ourselves love. If you can muster up some more time, discover what brings you joy and do it! Get up a little early and drink coffee on your porch while reading the news. Take a long bath once a week. Go for a walk. You may feel like there is no time; I hear you. I want to encourage you to try and make time. Have your mother, friend, partner, or babysitter watch the baby for an hour here or there. Prioritize connecting with yourself–an important part of emerging from maternal preoccupation.
Move Your Body
Your body feels different after having a child, so the way you want to move your body may have changed too, and that’s ok! Do you like going for a walk, dancing, Yoga, running, Pilates, biking, playing with your child? As we all know, moving your body improves your health and mood. What a great way to begin taking care of YOURSELF.
Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment and being present. Instead of focusing on the past or anticipating the future, you become aware of your here and now state. An important part of mindfulness is not only awareness, but also acceptance. Rather than judge or avoid your thoughts and feelings, you observe and accept them with objectivity. This can help you let go of negative feelings about being away from your child and help you focus on yourself. Mindfulness can also bring you into the moment WITH your child and help you with conscious parenting. Instead of fixating on your child’s needs, you can observe them with curiosity and non-judgement, opening your eyes to a new kind of respect for your child.
Create Personal Goals and Pursue Them
WHAT DO YOU WANT?! Do you want to finish that a thousand-piece puzzle? Do you want to start a business? Do you want to exercise 3 times a week and eat healthy? Do you want to go back to school? You deserve to have your own goals aside from raising healthy children. Having your own goals is motivating and empowering. What is just one small step you can take this week to move towards a personal goal?
Connect with Others
I promise you that all new mothers are sharing in some of your struggles and challenges. Connect with them! Find them on social media, take a parent and me class, exchange numbers in the park, join BumoWork! Do you see a mother with a baby passing on the sidewalk? Strike up a conversation! Connecting with others and sharing stories is a powerful tool in helping you cope, reflect and grow.
Emerging from maternal preoccupation often occurs with many strong feelings, including guilt, fear and anxiety. Remember, it does NOT mean you are abandoning your child. It does NOT mean you are loving them any less. You will forever prioritize your child’s needs and well-being, there is no doubt about that. A mother who takes care of herself, however, will be more present and conscious as a parent, only benefiting your child further. You will bring more patience and acceptance into the relationship. And remember, it is healthy for your child to know that someone else can take care of them besides you!
Finally, you are modeling an invaluable lesson for your child; prioritizing your physical, emotional, and mental health will improve your overall well-being.