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Kathleen Miller interviews Elizabeth Clark Stern 
for BABYMAP Magazin

September 17, 2009

Kathleen: Briefly describe your practice and yourself.

Elizabeth: I’m a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Lake Forest Park, just north of Seattle. I raised two daughters and have a six year old granddaughter.  Both of my daughters are married and live in the area. We see each other often, and in adulthood continue to have a really great time together. I am terribly grateful for this. It took a lot of work, on many levels, but the rewards of being a mom have been profound. I work with families, couples, individuals, children and adolescents. I have a master’s degree and a state counseling license, but the greatest teacher by far has been my own experience as a wife and mother for over 30 years.

Kathleen: Share some insights on  how intense the parenting journey can be for moms of young children, and your perspective on “taking a break,” even for a day from parenting and family responsibilities.

Elizabeth:  Carl Jung wrote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” I love this quote. The parenting journey is relentless, in its joys and its demands. No one can really prepare you for it, no matter how many books you read. I wish I had heard this reference to the “unlived life,” and taken it to heart, when I was parenting my daughters in their early years. Like most moms, I simply wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it can be to care for an infant 24/7. Looking back on it, I think some of my frustration and burnout could have been avoided if I had been pro-active about structuring “me” time, right from the beginning. The connotation of the “unlived life” implies that you must stay in touch with your deepest self. Knowing who you are and what gives joy and meaning to your life is critical. 

A “drained” mom who has lost sight of her inner fire not only lives a depleted, often depressed life, but her baby is very sensitive to this and will pick up on the fact that her mom is “tuned out.” Studies of babies with depressed mothers show that an infant will become active, smile and make noise, in an attempt to enliven mom and make her happy. This is harmful to the child, who can grow up feeling it is her job to care for mom, not the other way around. Perhaps the most important single element of this is for moms to keep their own dreams alive. If you love to laugh with a friend, take a walk, paint, dance, work out, go to a ball game, play an instrument-- make the time to do it, even if it is only for an hour a few times a week. Don’t impose your “unlived life” on your baby.   

Kathleen: Moms with young children frequently comment to me about the feeling of “losing herself” - that everything she used to identify with being - her work, her hobbies and interests got “swept away” when the baby arrived and the confusion she feels over being very happy about being a mom and loving her child while not enjoying at all the feeling of being diminished as a person in order to be a mom. From your professional and personal experience, and give some strategies regarding what moms can do when they feel they are losing their identity and joy in an effort to be a “good mom.”

Elizabeth: This is huge. I remember so well the agony of being torn between my love and joy for my child, and my desperation to hang onto a sense of my self. There is something very seductive about being the mom of an infant. All those maternal hormones kick in, and often you literally “lose” yourself in the wonderful, joyful bond with this tiny, perfect little human being. It has been equated with the same intensity of feeling as falling in love. I think it can be the greatest challenge of young motherhood to know when to take a step away from this primal bliss, and say, “Now, wait a minute, how do I structure time in my new life for my own personal growth?” Knowing you are still a separate person, with her own likes, loves, and passions makes a huge difference to your development, and to the healthy development of the baby. Some moms also become strongly identified with being the perfect mom. 

The motivation becomes to please others, present an image, and often results in spending every waking hour obsessing on your child. This is a big mistake. Psychologist D.W. Winnicott coined the phrase, “the good enough mother.” By this he meant that healthy infant development is impaired if a mom anxiously hovers over the baby and never allows the child to experience any frustration. Babies need to learn the self confidence to soothe themselves. This doesn’t mean to let them cry for hours. “Good enough” means you are sensitive, attentive, and responsible, not smothering.

Taking care of yourself requires discipline, intention, planning, and ultimately, high self esteem. Far too many women with low self esteem attempt to find all their worth in being the mom of this amazing little infant. It is a mistake, and a set up for anger and frustration when the child begins to test and push boundaries, and the “bliss” of the early months turns into a power struggle. A child who tests the parent is asking for clear boundaries. It is much easier to set limits and stick to your guns when maintain and nurture a solid sense of your own identity. Then you know who you are and can balance love and limit-setting with confidence. The root of the word “confidence” means “fidelity to the self.” Strategies for not only retaining but growing a strong sense of self include prioritizing your needs, finding support - (baby-sitters you trust, day care, mom groups, co-ops, relatives who can take the baby overnight, girlfriends...) managing your time; scheduling regular time for yourself to just relax, get a massage, or read a book that isn’t about parenting your child!  Expand your horizons by taking a class in something you’ve always wanted to learn. Take stock once a week: are you “losing yourself”, and how will you know if it is happening to you? This is especially important if you work, either full time or part time. Many moms become “enslaved” to their work on the one hand, and their children on the other. 

Make no mistake, being a parent does require sacrifice. You now have to plan everything. You can’t jump up and go off to a party if the baby is sick. Sometimes - many times - you have to adjust your pre-baby life style. But with careful planning and support, this needn’t be a major sacrifice, and it often helps both parents shed the childishness in their own nature. It is important, also to remember that there is a huge difference between having a self, and being “selfish.” A young mother who feels she is losing her self in her efforts to be a good mom is suffering from a lack of self. The healthy self needs to be nurtured. Being selfish is about neglecting your child because you are not mature enough to accept that you no longer are one. This is the professional woman who stays too late at the office to avoid coming home to  the “boring” job of parenting. Or the woman who leaves her child with a sitter every night while she goes out on the town. The energy of this selfish mom is distant and avoiding, and children suffer greatly when they sense their mom always has one foot out the door, emotionally if not literally. Self care does not equal neglect, and the difference is readily apparent.  

Kathleen: What advice do you have for moms who are contemplating taking some time away from their families for a day, weekend, or week, but hesitate because they think their partner isn’t up to the task of being a solo parent?  

Elizabeth:  We are fortunate to live in a time when fathers have good role models for active parenting. I believe it is important to set the expectation from the inception of the child that each parent will have equal responsibility in raising the child. And I mean this in the psychological sense, regardless of time and schedules, which must often yield to the demands of adult life, each parent is a committed equal, and views the other parent with love, trust, and support. It can cause a lot of conflict and pain in a relationship when the mom takes on a disproportionate burden in child rearing. If she is reticent to ask her partner to take the child for a weekend for fear that he can’t handle it, this is another way of treating him like a child. It can also be a way of inflating your own primary significance to the baby. Both parents both need one-on-one time with the child, to establish the special nature of their relationship. It is an act of respect, and confidence in your partner to say, “I have a chance to visit my sister for a week, can you take that time to be with our daughter” 

Operating out of fear of burdening the other partner is also a set up for resenting them. Both parents must share the joy, the responsibility, and ideally, support the freedom of each parent to have time to nurture their own independent self. For single moms, it is critical to build a good support system of friends, baby-sitters, neighbors, and, ideally family members. Loving grandparents can be a particular godsend. They too can be free to develop their own relationship with the child, to parent in a very special way without the mom on hand to “direct” the interaction. This gives the child another experience that enhances development.

Kathleen: What are some signs that a mom is really hitting her “wall” in terms of “mom burnout” and needs to take a break and/or pay more attention to self care?

Elizabeth: Major symptoms of “mom burnout” run the gamut : sleeplessness, eating too much or too little, irritability, outbursts of crying or rage, lethargy, exhaustion, feelings of worthlessness, resentment, envy, anxiety, depression, loss of interest in sex or “quality” intimate time with your partner. Sometimes you can go into “overdrive”, getting too perfectionistic about the care of the baby, housework, or “being a perfect mom”. This loss of self can find its expression in simply not being excited about life, not caring what you look like, or what you wear. I knew one breast-feeding mom who described herself as a “cow”, and felt like one. Wistful longing for the “old days” when you didn’t have to get a baby-sitter to meet a girlfriend for coffee usually means you need to do it. You have to summon the will not to indulge in wistfulness for what was. Create the life you want and need, and your child will love you for it.

Kathleen: What is the value to our children, particularly our daughters, of modeling good self care and taking time to recharge our batteries.

Elizabeth: Studies have shown that mothers who exhibit independence, self care, and high self esteem produce daughters who are “self-starters”, who become independent and strongly motivated young women. These daughters tend to view relationships as egalitarian, and have little inhibition about expecting their partners to take an active role in parenting. Having a working mother is also correlated with higher grades among their daughters. I have so often observed - and remember from my own life - that I returned to parenting renewed from a retreat or a work trip. I had more energy, more ideas to share, and gave this love and excitement to my daughters.

Kathleen: What is the value to our partners of “recharging”

Elizabeth: We are much more fun! Instead of being exhausted and cranky, you are renewed, alive, and bring a sense of adventure and energy to the relationship. There are daunting statistics about how many marriages fall apart in the first year of the baby’s life. I believe, in some cases, this can be averted if the parents each take time for themselves, and also do a weekly “time for us.” Sometimes when you become a parent, you start calling your spouse, “Daddy.” This reflects an identity shift that can be a drain on the relationship and take the passion and fun out of the “two of us”. Guard your intimate time with your spouse and nurture it. When your husband starts to see you as only “mom”, this can be big trouble.

Kathleen: What suggestions do you have to moms who can’t afford to attend a week long retreat or even a weekend getaway but still feel a need to “recharge”? What are some things they can do on a budget, with just an hour here and there, to help “feed their soul”?

Elizabeth: Explore lower cost retreats. Some retreats have a barter system where you can help with setup and clean up in exchange for a reduced fee. I know several women who go to day-long retreats at their church, at nominal cost. Even overnights with a church or women’s group can be in the range of most people’s budget. If you only have an hour, work out a cooperative child care swap with another mom, a neighbor, a friend. Physical exercise - especially in the fresh air, renews the soul as well as the body. Take a yoga and/or meditation class. Meditate and do yoga or pilates at home when the baby is sleeping. Read spiritually nourishing books you can get at the local library. I love authors like Pema Chodron or Jack Kornfield, the poet Rumi.  Poetry works especially well if you have only a short amount of time. 

Explore what gives you a sense of peace and renewal. I suspect it will be something unique, quite different from what I am drawn to, but still available at the library or on the internet. Listen to your favorite music while you change diapers! Be conscious of bringing wonderful soul-nourishing practices into your life. And eat good, whole foods, drink eight glasses of water a day, even after you stop breast-feeding! Taking good care of your body also nourishes your mind, your soul, and your sense of well being. As much as you adore your new baby, you owe it to both of you, to adore and cherish you own dear self.

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Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Clark Stern