The one thing that surprised me when I became a mum

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

My internet search history from the time shortly after I became a mother in 2010 would suggest I had "mummy" issues. Alongside the usual hunts for pictures of newborn poop and sleep scheduling, I was looking for things such as "how to fix relationship with mum after new baby" or "I really don't like my mum now that I'm a mum." That I was using the Internet for guidance on how to deal with what I felt was a not-so-great relationship with my mum was kind of sad and, well, unexpected.

"Mothers and daughters instantly bond with a new baby," is what I thought I remembered reading, before I had children, in every magazine, book and blog. Despite the predictably rocky times born in adolescence, I believed that when a daughter becomes a mother, a kind of rebirth happens where mothers and daughters suddenly change into fast friends who actually like and "get" each other. But as I learned, this doesn't always happen. Or, if it does, it may not happen right away.

"It's like a well spring," says Juli Fraga, a psychotherapist who specialises in maternal mental health, "of expected and unforeseen feelings for both mothers and daughters and mother/daughter unions." In her clinical practice, she says she sees two things happen to mother/daughter pairings after a baby arrives. Sometimes, a baby brings a mother and daughter closer. This can happen with relationships that were either good or bad pre-baby. In the second scenario, Fraga says, mother and daughter relationships don't change or, in some cases, get worse.

My mum and I seemed to get worse after I had a baby. Rather than making us closer, it magnified our differences. But, surely, I imagined back then, most other women had happier stories, right? Wrong.

"Motherhood was supposed to fix us!" one friend told me. But that didn't happen. Instead, she became more distant, more unhappy with her mum and overwhelmed with memories of her childhood. Another mum said, "It's as if motherhood has lifted a veil, and I can now see my childhood more clearly, see my mother clearly and better understand what was going on."

Fraga says this "veil lifting," or re-remembering of one's childhood, is normal and to be expected. She says this is the thread that links all stories of mothers and daughters after a baby. Motherhood, she says, "opens up long-forgotten memories about our own childhoods and parenting experience."

All new mums must figure out their identities, what they believe in, what they don't believe in and how they want to raise their children. This often causes new mums to look at their own mum and her parenting decisions more critically. Usually, these moments are benign, hinging on minor grievances such as whether to return to work or how to "properly" put a baby to sleep or whether breast-feeding or formula is the best way to go. But, sometimes, these moments bring up hurt feelings about the past, and create anxiety about how to be different from your own mum, particularly for women who have daughters.

The experts I spoke with all say there really isn't a right or wrong way for women to figure out or assert their maternal identities, which can (and often do) change over time. Mother/daughter relationships are also constantly evolving and developing. Although some of the changes happen with time and experience as mothers, most change occurs when, and if, the daughter takes steps to try to make things "better." 

To do that, the experts I spoke with provided these tips:

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Try to understand your mum 

Marriage therapist Flori Willard says that trying to build a relationship with your mum after a baby requires "a depth of understanding and trust." She says that it's important that new mums understand where their mums may be coming from (considering things like their cultural and social backgrounds) when they share what may feel like outdated advice.

It's important to understand, Willard says, that your mum probably isn't trying to hurt or criticise you. She cares and wants to help.

Set boundaries

Fraga says that becoming a grandmother often awakens in our mums a desire for a do-over. Sometimes, this comes in the form of a lot of unsolicited advice that may not feel helpful. Try to establish gentle yet firm boundaries with your parents and in-laws before the baby arrives.

Seek therapy

Becoming a mother stirs feelings about our own journeys as daughters - what we had and experienced, what we didn't have and experience, what we wished for but didn't receive. In all of these complex feelings, Fraga says, there is often grief. Sometimes naming this sadness for yourself and talking about it with a therapist or trusted confidante can be helpful.

Accept what you can't change

Talking about the past can be helpful for mums hoping to explore and connect with these memories and the feelings they evoke. But it's important to keep perspective, Fraga says. You can't change your mum. If your mum is always critical and controlling, it's safe to assume that this behaviour won't change. But what can change is how much you allow it to affect you and your choices.

I considered writing about this in 2014, in the midst of my struggles with my mum. I'm thankful I didn't, because our relationship has changed, for the better.

I've grieved, gone to therapy and grieved some more. I've set boundaries and learned to accept her for who she is and love myself for who I was (and am) becoming. All along I just wanted a mum who could share my joy and pain on this new and sometimes scary journey of motherhood.

I can now more clearly see that what I wanted wasn't missing. I just hadn't found it yet.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on The Washington Post