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The Kansan - Newton, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Mother feelings

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  • Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York City’s mayor, described her feelings as a new mother in a magazine article and was criticized by the media, which distorted the meaning of her words. She had described difficult realities of motherhood – the loss of independence and the unremitting responsibility. She was a woman who had always worked and found it hard being with a child full time. She asks, “Will we feel guilt forever more?” and answers, “Of course, yes.”
    McCray said out loud what many women feel but don’t feel safe saying. The response to her words tells us that the idealization of motherhood and ideas about what womens’ roles should be are alive and well despite all the advances of women and the real changes in their lives. Despite these changes, the guilt she speaks of plagues many women.
    Mothers, too, share the belief that full-time mother care is essential, and those who work often believe that their children are being disadvantaged in some way by their absence. The attempt to compensate for the imagined deprivation of their children has brought about some of the things for which mothers have been criticized. Mothers’ attempts to make up for their absence leads at times to giving to children in ways that may be inappropriate. The wish to make any time shared “happy time” makes it difficult to set limits and to stay in charge.
    Moreover, the idealization of motherhood and mother care has an impact on public policy, preventing the kind of support that would be significant in positive ways for families generally. The unwillingness to relinquish ideas about a woman’s “place” has prevented the kind of universal child-care program that would go a long way to relieve damaging feelings of guilt – and improve the lives of children.
    The seeming investment in motherhood does not appear to extend to support for the job of caring for children. Those who engage in child care are not respected or paid in proportion to the importance of their work. Mothers, of course, do not get raises or promotions that tell them when they are doing a good job. On the contrary, they are subjected to much criticism of the job they are doing.
    Everyone has, or has had, a mother. Our childhood memories may lead us to think of mother as all giving and caring, or the opposite, as demanding and critical. Hopefully, as adults we can accept our mothers as real people, not all good or all bad. As parents ourselves, we know that caring for children is stressful. Young children in the process of being socialized can be self-centered and express their needs and wishes in behavior that can be quite difficult to deal with at times. They see us as the source of their frustration – which we are as responsible parents.
    Page 2 of 2 - Unfortunately, as mothers we are subject to the unresolved feelings of others toward their mothers that accounts for both the idealization and unfair criticism we receive. It is a challenge to maintain our self-esteem in the face of unrealistic demands made of us and that we make of ourselves. The fact that children are too hard to be with at times, that we may sometimes wish to be free of them, that we are unable always to be loving and patient, should not be feelings that are unsafe to express.
    Poets and writers have given voice to the true feelings and concerns of motherhood. They express unspoken feelings of many. Mother feelings reflect the realities of life with children. In turn they play a role in shaping those realities.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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