It is a human need to experience ourselves as competent. When we are mothering children, whether we feel competent can play a significant role in determining how satisfying we find this role. While some women come by a sense of competence easily after becoming a mother, others may have a more difficult time. Some women find the infant and baby stage easy, but feel at a loss when their child becomes a toddler. Others may not feel as though they hit their stride until their child is older.
Whatever our initial experience of motherhood may be, it is undeniably true that we will face defeat again and again as we parent our children. Some defeats are small – we throw up our hands and give up on trying to switch from white to whole wheat pasta. Other defeats carry grave and permanent consequences that alter the shape of our lives.
An Algonquin tale illustrates how we are defeated by motherhood, and gives us an idea of how we might grow from this experience
Glooscap and the Baby
Glooscap was the mighty hero of the Algonquin people. He had conquered a race of giants, and cunning sorcerers, wicked spirits, fiends, cannibals, and witches. He boasted that there was nothing left for him to defeat.
But an old woman laughed. “Are you so sure, oh Great One? There is one adversary who remains unsubdued, and no one can conquer him.”
Dismayed, Glooscap asked the name of this foe.
“His name is Wasis, but I advise you not to have any dealings with him!”
Wasis was a little baby who sat on the floor sucking a piece of maple candy and cooing to himself as he slobbered. Glooscap had never married, and had no idea how children were to be managed, but he was very confident that, if he could handle a race of giants, and a pack of witches, and some cannibals, he would make out just fine with one small baby.
He smiled at the child. “Come here, Wasis!” said the great Glooscap.
The baby smiled back, but didn’t move. Glooscap tried to coax the child by imitating a beautiful birdsong. Then he motioned again for the baby to come to him. Wasis laughed in delight, but still did not do as he was commanded. He just went on sucking on his candy.
Now Glooscap worked himself in a terrible rage. He was not used to being defied in this way! He shouted angrily at Wasis, demanding that he okay, but this only made the child erupt in deafening wails that were so loud and distracting, Glooscap could barely hear himself.
Then the mighty warrior summoned all his great powers. He recited all the magical incantations he knew, and recited all of the most powerful prayers. But Wasis just sat and sniffled a little.
Finally, Glooscap rushed from the hut in utter defeat, while Wasis the baby went back to cooing.
For women who may have lived heroically before becoming having kids, motherhood can pose special challenges. If we have defeated the giants and witches of academic or professional challenges, we may be very used to feeling competent. For some women who fit this description, having a baby can indeed mean finally meeting their match.
My client Aimee was a successful attorney. When she became pregnant with her first child, she was excited to become a mom. She shared that she wasn’t particularly worried about juggling parenting and work, because she had identified a trustworthy nanny, and her husband had a flexible schedule. She first came to see me a few months after her daughter was born.
Aimee had a difficult birth, and healing from it took many weeks. She hadn’t expected that labor would carry such lingering physical difficulties. She was also unprepared for how all-engrossing caring for a newborn would be. Her physical difficulties, sleeplessness, and postpartum hormonal soup left her profoundly disoriented. Though she had hoped to go back to work after six weeks, she found that wasn’t possible. This significant defeat caused her to re-evaluate assumptions about herself and her life she had long taken for granted.
For Aimee, the reality of motherhood and birth was a significant defeat for that part of her determined that life should go on as before. She had to admit that things would never be the same for her. This admission opened her up to question values previously taken for granted. It gave her a chance to re-evaluate her priorities and engage with aspects of herself that had long been neglected.
Aimee did return to work eventually, though she admits she is a different person now than before her daughter was born. Though she did lose aspects of herself, she gained others.
“I have a broader perspective now. I think I am more accepting and understanding of the people I manage. Overall, I think I’m a better lawyer now because of this.”
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.