“Where did you learn to burp a baby like that?” a friend commented while I awkwardly held my newborn's chin with one hand and patted his back gently with the other.
“The internet,” I replied.
This friend knows about my life and my history well. In that moment, it was a completely valid question and an honest answer. As a new mother, the internet has been my primary resource for most topics involving caring for a baby. And as I have asked around to other new moms, it’s been a resource for them as well. From mommy-blogs to motherhood Instagram accounts, we are turning to internet resources more and to our actual mothers less.
It’s true that we know more about the science of babies than we did when our mother’s were mothering us — new research on baby and child development emerges every year — though there is something primal about hearing stories of the challenges and rewards of new motherhood passed down from generation to generation opposed to a webpage we view on our cell phone screen. The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” still rings true, yet we still resort to Google for parenting questions instead of leaning on our families.
There is a notion in the therapy world that many people come to talk about their mother. As a family therapist, I can confirm that many individuals I have worked with over the years do struggle with their relationship with their mother, and it can cause a great deal of distress as an adult, particularly when they begin to grow their own family. I believe that our early life experiences strongly influence our view of the world as adults and the dynamics of the mother-child relationship is a phenomena worth looking into.
The shift in identity for a woman as she becomes a mother is strong. Some aspects of new parenting feel instinctual, like second nature, while others feel foreign and confusing. Though birthing and raising children is incredibly common, it is not necessarily natural and definitely not easy. From the moment of conception, the woman’s body begins to build a home for their child. After birth, their hormones continue to work together to create an environment that assures the baby’s survival and creates a strong bond between them — though as many of us know, this strong beginning-of-life bond does not guarantee a positive future relationship. It does, however, create a lifelong connection that can be challenging to define. But why does this relationship that literally generates new life become so complicated for some people?
Challenging mother-child relationships hold patterns that are passed down from generation to generation. The individuals that enter therapy with a desire to talk about their mother are not intending to place blame but instead are working toward breaking those patterns and securing healthier habits in raising their children. I have reflected more recently on the challenges I’ve watched my clients face with their relationships with their mothers and pondered on questions related to what it means to be a "good parent" or a "good mom." I know I am not alone in my thoughts; any parent has likely thought similar things, though with the many hurdles in life, some of these ideals are easy to lose sight of over time.
Fortunately, in today’s world, there are efforts being put forth to normalize the challenges of motherhood and the relationship we have with it (though we still have a long way to go). The more we normalize the complexities of this life-altering experience, the greater empathy we can have for those who struggle with the mother-child relationship. In turn, we can support them in healing it. Furthermore, if we allow ourselves to openly discuss the idea that the most rewarding experience of life can also be the most difficult or if we continuously remind mothers that caring for themselves (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually) allows them to be better caretakers for their children or if we work toward recreating the supportive village that many families have lost — then we are helping to set mothers up for success in securing positive future relationships with their children.
As a new mother myself who is interested in breaking generational, unhealthy mother-child patterns, I commit to empowering mothers with the following goals:
1. Be a role model of confidence and self-love so our children can learn to love themselves.
2. Allow our children to grow into who they are instead of who we want them to be.
3. Respect our children as much as we want them to respect us.
4. Listen to our children twice as much as we talk.
5. Commit to being authentic and vulnerable in everything we do.
6. Heal our own mother-child wounds so we don't pass them on to our children.
7. Embrace the idea that we are worthy of care and support.
Most acknowledge that no parent is perfect. Ultimately, we are merely a product of the environment we grew up in, and we do the best we can with the knowledge we have at any given time. Though growth is hard and change takes time, the path toward a future with healthier mother-child relationships is undoubtedly worth the effort.