One is not born, but rather becomes, a mother

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.

becoming a mother

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

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

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.   

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30 Comments

  1. June 14, 2017 / 9:10 pm

    I totally agree, and as much as I became a mother in an instant, it took me a long time to become the mother I wanted to be. Some days I’m still not quite there, 13 years on! #brillantblogpost
    five little doves recently posted…Geronimo Festival 2017My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:11 pm

      I don’t think I will ever quite be the mother I want to be all of the time, but life is a journey right. I think I am heading in the right direction. thanks for your comment. Pen x

  2. John Adams
    June 15, 2017 / 4:39 am

    Considering how she treated some of the women in her life, I’d politely question that description of Simone de Beauvoir but perhaps we’ll swiftly move on! This was an interesting post because you sort of confirm a belief I’ve long had. Whether mother or father, you do “become” a parent. It is not instantaneous and I don’t believe its instinctual, it is learned. Thought provoking stuff. #BrilliantBlogPosts

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:10 pm

      Thanks John.

      I’d agree with the description of Simone de Beauvoir. She is widely seen as the mother of all Feminists, but she didn’t live by Feminist values all of the time. Pen x

  3. June 15, 2017 / 9:50 am

    Phenomenal post on motherhood-you’ve underpinned the experience perfectly. I’m not sure any other post on motherhood has resonated with me as much as is this one. Thank you x
    Honest Mum recently posted…Brilliant Blog Posts 15th June 2017My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:08 pm

      Thanks for such a lovely comment Vicki. Pen x

  4. June 15, 2017 / 5:50 pm

    What fantastic insight! The essence of being a mother is so difficult to capture with words, isn’t it? I love your take on it! #coolmumclub

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:07 pm

      Thanks Nicole. Pen x

  5. June 15, 2017 / 7:31 pm

    This is a brilliant post. You’ve captured it all so well. I love your contradictions at the end and I definitely agree that it’s a complete house renovation rather than finding a new room #brillblogposts
    Lucy At Home recently posted…#Blogcrush Week 18 – 16th June 2017My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:07 pm

      Thank you Lucy. Pen x

  6. June 15, 2017 / 7:51 pm

    I love this, I often describe the first time I saw my first child as being so overwhelmed with love that I felt like I’d been sucker-punched right in the solar plexus! However, it wasn’t until my youngest was born and I found myself raising two at once and realising I had the newborn stuff down because I’d done it once already that I felt like a truly accomplished, confident mother. #coolmumclub

    • thesingleswan
      June 15, 2017 / 9:03 pm

      Hi Claire, thanks for your comment. I only have one child so I don’t know what it would be like second time round. thanks for your comment. Pen x

  7. June 16, 2017 / 5:05 pm

    I don’t think being a parent comes naturally to anyone, but I do believe some people cope with the demands and changes better than others, which is why some people call others who cope well, natural parents. It’s something we have to learn as we go. Great post. Thanks for linking up to #ThatFridayLinky
    Emily recently posted…The Benefits of Using Essential OilsMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 16, 2017 / 9:29 pm

      Emily, thanks for your post. You are right. I most definitely was not a natural parent. Pen x

  8. June 16, 2017 / 6:32 pm

    Becoming a parent is definitely a journey and it’s different for every mother. A great read. #ThatFridayLinky

    • thesingleswan
      June 16, 2017 / 9:27 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Pen x

  9. June 17, 2017 / 7:01 pm

    I agree. Motherhood is one full of contradictions and a complete identity shift. I am not sure if I will ever feel like I know what I am doing. I am still trying to work it all out #FridayFrolics
    Emma recently posted…Why I feel badly let down by Theresa MayMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 18, 2017 / 9:49 pm

      Hi Emma,

      I don’t think that I will ever truly work it all at. I guess the day when we think we have it all figured out, is when we give up trying. Thanks for your comment. Pen x

    • thesingleswan
      June 18, 2017 / 9:47 pm

      No, you are right. I will never truly feel like a mother. I am also aware that I will be a totally different mother in two years time to that which I am today. thanks for your comment. Pen x

  10. June 17, 2017 / 9:29 pm

    Very thought provoking we become a mother or father but definitely grow into being a parent great read Thanks for linking to the #THAT FRIDAY LINKY come back next week please
    Nige recently posted…I Have Been A #DadTaxi For 21 Years My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 18, 2017 / 9:45 pm

      Thanks Nige. Pen x

  11. June 18, 2017 / 3:53 pm

    Great post. I completely agree that being a mother is something that is learned over time and something that changes you and your outlook on the world completely.
    Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes 🙂
    Debbie
    Random Musings recently posted…The Million Dollar Blog: Book ReviewMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 18, 2017 / 9:44 pm

      Thanks Debbie. Pen x

  12. June 18, 2017 / 11:54 pm

    What a wonderful post, nailing the process with beautifully written words. Very impressive! ##FridayFrolics xoxo
    Lisa Pomerantz recently posted…Won by one each timeMy Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 19, 2017 / 9:37 pm

      thanks for the wonderful comment Lisa. I’m very flattered. Pen x

  13. June 19, 2017 / 1:10 pm

    Beautiful and so true. I found it to be a complete change of identity that took a while to get used to. Thanks for linking up to #FridayFrolics

    • thesingleswan
      June 19, 2017 / 9:35 pm

      Thanks Claire. Pen x

  14. June 22, 2017 / 3:04 pm

    ‘Monumentally important and deeply silly’ – love that! I think it about sums it up! Thanks so much for joining us for #FridayFrolics
    Silly Mummy recently posted…Friday Frolics – 16th June 2017My Profile

    • thesingleswan
      June 22, 2017 / 9:53 pm

      Thank you. Pen x

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