When Women Become Mothers
And the Impact of Family Self-Esteem

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

When I became a mother for the first time, I was 22 years old. This April I will become a grandmother when my 22 year old daughter gives birth. It seems that my life is poetically navigating through the family life cycle. Giving birth and becoming a mother were powerful forces in forming my identity as a young woman. Meeting life energy during labor and taking responsibility for the life of a small child turned me inwards to develop my core self. I became stronger over the years, but not without battle scars along the way.

I also came face to face with the cultural loading that being a “mother” entailed. For to be “mother” carried with it a far greater cultural expectation for responsibility for emotional development of children than did fathering in the family. The sense of responsibility was more weighted. If something went wrong in a child’s life, the role of being “mother” meant that I would not only feel the natural empathy for the child I loved, but I would also suffer the feelings of blame that society reserved for me... especially for me, the mother!

As the years passed and my two children grew towards adulthood, I grappled with the balance between my needs and theirs , my relationship to my husband, my career and so on. And I learned about the way that others see mothers in the world, and the unconscious expectation for women who are mothers to nurture others, to cooperate, and in general to defer to others’ needs. Part of my identity was forged by discerning when an unconscious assumption that I nurture automatically was being made, and then by discriminating whether or not I wanted to do it. The most enlightening of these turning points in awareness did not come from my family, but from a male coworker who assumed I would bring snacks and supplies to work party meetings that we both co-led for students in training. Though nothing was asked overtly, I came to recognize the lack of acknowledgment when I did do it, and a surprised affect when it was not “done” as an unconscious pressure on me to cartake others in the professional setting. My own ability to see this opened up choices to me. I could take charge of when I would or would not nurture. This awareness sustained my sense of self and I felt the power of my own determination.

In the family, a similar awareness created opportunity for lively discussion and intimate sharing. My very loving and attentive husband criticized me jokingly when I was only able to get dinner on the table 4 out of 7 days of the week with the help of one day of take out food. The children each cooked one day a week as teenagers, and my husband cooked one day. I was able to point out that I was taking responsibility for 4 of the 7 days, and wondered whether the fact that he had experienced his own mother’s cooking 7 days a week growing up might be his automatic expectation for comparison. Naturally, I felt it an unfair one as I was also working outside the home and contributing to income for the family, which was not one of the expectations for his mother. Luckily for me, my then 15 year old son who had been studying these things in social living at his high school came to my defense, and a very rewarding, humorous and enlightening discussion ensued.

Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia, “Western civilization has a history of unrealistic expectations about mothers. They are held responsible for their children’s’ happiness and for the social and emotional well being of families. Mothers are either idealized...or bashed in fairytales and modern American novels. We all think of our mothers with what Freud called primary process thought; the thinking style of young children. We have trouble growing up enough to see our mothers as people”. Everyone has strong associations to their own mother, and it is difficult for women who are mothers to not get caught in the projections of others. Most of us as adults have grown up with very little knowledge of our own mothers as people. Early childhood disappointments can be experienced by women as pressure to fulfill unrealistic and unconscious nurturing fantasies in others.

Women who are also mothers need to feel that whether they work outside the home or not, whether they bring in money or not, that they have equal power when it comes to decision-making in the family. Their positions should not be automatically compromised by expectations by themselves or their partner that she should defer to a partner’s schedule, unless it is agreed to ahead of time. This kind of discussion and relating between partners ensures that when deferral to outside work priorities occurs, there is appreciation and goodwill. Likewise the favor can be returned in some way, when it is acknowledged! Partners benefit in giving up automatic and unconscious culturally predetermined power, they gain true intimacy and sharing in their primary relationship. Appreciation and goodwill are truly at the heart of healthy family esteem.

We can and do love our children and our motherhood. However the need to fulfill individual aspirations, dreams and talents does not die with giving birth. And including yourself as a person, as well as a mother; to yourself as well as your family, your children in particular; will light the way for your own children’s appreciation of you. Appreciation in a family creates warmth, goodwill and reward. The self-esteem of the family as a whole is increased when mothers, fathers and children are equally appreciated for who we are as people as well as for the roles and responsibilities we fulfill in the family.

Recently , a good friend and colleague of mine, Barbara Lewis, also a therapist and mother of three grown children decided that we would give a workshop on the topic of women’s identity. We wanted it to be a group for women who were also mothers, with the focus upon women themselves as whole people, including the important context of motherhood. It was to be named “A Group For Women Who Are Also Mothers”. In the course of promoting the workshop through a local family organization and preschool, the name underwent an unconscious translation to be advertised as "A Group on Women’s Identity to Explore “Being a Mother and a Woman.” Again and unconsciously, cultural definition of women when they become mothers dictated that the expectations or role of “mother” was to be considered before the sense of self in discussing the topic of women’s identity.



Sharing feelings with other women who are also mothers can be of great benefit in supporting and nourishing ourselves. The following suggestions are some of the ideas that arose out of the group interactions around this topic. They are based on the belief that women can best serve their children by being human, and that showing and sharing vulnerabilities appropriately with other family members allows children to see their mothers as people with their own needs and frustrations, who also nurture and love them. When a mother feels appreciated, her children benefit. When she feels seen and heard, especially by her parenting partner, despite the fact that her work with the children ( if she is primary caretaker) is unpaid, the children benefit. Self-esteem is developed through acknowledgment of our own needs and by our ability to be sensitive to others. Children can feel powerful when they are able to give to someone else, especially their mothers who give so much to them.

  1. HAVING FUN WITH YOUR CHILDREN: When asked, “What do you want your child to know about you as a person?”, one very insightful woman shared that, though she was a person who her colleagues and friends experienced as a lot of fun, she grieved the fact that this part of her personality did not get expressed with her children. Because of her feelings of duty and responsibility, she did have fun with them. Yet, this was an important part of her identity she wanted them to know and experience. Just this awareness can liberate us as women to bring more of ourselves into our interactions with our children. By doing so, we counteract the potential for falling into stereotypic relationships with the people we love. Relating to and through a stereotype deadens intimacy and pleasure in family relationships.
  2. MAINTAINING PERSONAL GOALS: Many women in the group expressed difficulty in getting enough time to sustain their own friendships, physical exercise, or other personal goals. When you become a mother, it is true that your time grows thin. It is very easy, even tempting to forget about your own development completely. To many women, the idea of lowering expectations, but maintaining them was a novel idea, one they were initially resistant to embrace. However, finding a middle ground is essential. It is not necessary to completely sacrifice yourself, although compromise is, of course, an inevitable and natural part of parenthood. It is true that you may be unable to keep up the same exercise schedule you had before becoming a mother, however it is possible to lower your expectations to a realistic level and meet them, thereby keeping this part of you developing, though at a different pace than you have been used to doing. Likewise support groups that meet every other week or even once monthly can be an important source of continuous nourishment. Because you cannot keep up your old schedules should not lead you to completely abandon yourself. Commit yourself to a different pace. You will feel an accomplishment in having met your redefined goal. This kind of continuation of your own interests will keep you in touch with your own development. When time becomes more available as your children mature you will find that your interests have not died or vanished on you, but are ready for increased involvement.
  3. EXPRESSING YOURSELF: Another woman with a 4 year old son shared the manner in which she was able to cry in front of him, explaining to him that she was having a difficult time with some specific thing and that she was also all right and able to take care of him, too. This ability to let your children know what is going on for you, without threatening their sense of security, can offer them valuable insight into their mothers as people. And it keeps women from internalizing feelings which can lead to depression. Healthy expression and release can help you more readily recover your sense of self.

Karen Johnson in Trusting Ourselves writes, “Women need to take charge of the definition of motherhood. ..to question the source of burdensome and unrealistic expectations of their own mothers as well as similar expectations of themselves. There must be room to be a whole person-not simply a stereotype.” She encourages women to get to know their own mothers as people. On a personal note, motherhood brought me a unique opportunity, if not a dilemma, for maturation. Somewhere in my own development... and I cannot say exactly how it occurred or when...I came to deeply respect, love and appreciate my mothering as an aspect of my identity. I began to value the act of love and nurturing, indeed a devalued and invisible task in our society. Our culture undervalues qualities of personhood that can be brought out by motherhood. Each of us must find our own answers along the way, our own personal balance in being a woman and a mother.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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