The mother of all Feminists, Simone de Beauvoir, famously wrote “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In The Second Sex she describes how society conditions us to be become women at every stage in the journey of life. Becoming a mother is also a journey. We are conditioned to become mothers, but our conditioning is not just a societal one. Becoming a mother is a physical, physiological, psychological, neurological, hormonal, emotional and societal experience.
We are not born, but rather become, mothers.
What it feels like to become a mother
I once read that becoming a mother is like discovering a room in your house that you never knew existed. The analogy doesn’t quite work for me: you can shut the door of a room; a new room doesn’t fundamentally change the layout of the rest of the house; discovering a new room can only really be positive.
Motherhood, by contrast, cannot be shut off and ignored. Motherhood fundamentally changes everything. Motherhood can feel both positive and negative.
For me, becoming a mother was more like a violent refurbishment. Becoming a mother was taking the roof off my house. Every room was transformed. The light flooded in and lit up every nook and cranny of my being.
Before I became a mother I saw out of the corner of my eye that hidden in the shadows were problems waiting to become real. Because the problems were in the shadows I was able to ignore them. When I became a mother and the lights were switched on the problems became real.
The cracks in my relationship could no longer be hidden. The differences between my partner’s and my values, goals, morals and ethics were suddenly in the spotlight. I was a mother, really and truly and forever, and the question was, what kind of person, what kind of mother, would be reflected in my child’s eyes?
No longer could our differences be pushed into the dark nooks and crannies. Our separation was inevitable and for the best.
Becoming a mother – the neurobiology
Nothing can fully prepare a woman for becoming a mother. No amount of reading or research or observation or discussion with women who are already mothers can adequately convey the power of the experience.
Becoming a mother, which anthropologists call ‘matrescence’, is a unique experience for every single one of us. Each of us has a slightly different cocktail of hormones tinkering with the structure of our brains and governing our emotions. Becoming a mother is a journey which plays out differently every single time and for every single one of us.
Even before we give birth, pregnancy alters our brains. A flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period increase empathy and social interaction. Hormones trigger feelings of overwhelming love, although not necessarily instantaneously, and fierce protectiveness of our babies. These hormones are nature’s way of helping a new mother bond with her baby.
But these hormones also trigger fear, anxiety, a fight or flight response, panic at the enormity of the responsibility suddenly thrust upon us. The push and pull of wanting a child close, and also craving space (both physically and emotionally) are entirely normal maternal feelings. But for some of us it is too much. Postnatal depression, anxiety, baby blues, post traumatic stress disorder are commonplace and poorly understood amongst new mothers.
Becoming a mother is full of contradictions
Becoming a mother is not instantaneous. I didn’t become a mother the second I became pregnant, or indeed the second that my son was born. Becoming a mother, the birth of a mother, takes time.
Becoming a mother is an identity shift. My role in the world changed.
As a mother, I feel massively protective of Cygnet but I am also, at times, entirely focussed on trivial matters. I focus on whether he finishes his peas and whether he gets enough protein, when in the grand scheme of things what really matters is climate change, global politics and funding of the National Health Service in the UK. These are the things that could fundamentally alter his wellbeing as he grows up.
As a mother I am wise yet neurotic. I insisted that Cygnet wear a helmet as well as elbow and knee pads when his Grandpa decided it might be fun to wheel him round the garden in a wheelbarrow. They were even on the grass!
As a mother, I am sexy yet sexless. Mothers are sexy because our offspring are clear evidence of us having had sex, but nurturing is not sexy and our bodies have been ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth.
As a mother, I am monumentally important but I am also deeply silly. I am monumentally important because I have contributed to continuation of the human race. I am deeply silly because I have proven that aged thirty-five I can spend hours cooing, gurgling and blowing raspberries. I am pleased to have recently progressed to short conversations with Cygnet, usually about cars or dinosaurs.
Becoming a mother, giving birth to a new identity, can be as demanding as giving birth to a new baby. When the physical scars have healed, the psychological, neurological, hormonal and emotional changes continue.
There is an abundance of research on the birth of the baby and on baby development. There is comparatively little on the woman’s identity transition, the birth of the mother and what becoming a mother really means.