In my psychiatric practice, I have worked with women in many different stages of their lives: young adults finding and building their careers; mothers-to-be trying to anticipate life with children; mothers navigating the challenges of raising kids, and mothers re-adjusting to letting their children go. A common theme among many of these women is a never-ending quest to keep all sides of themselves “alive” through these giant life changes.

Motherhood is a joyous time for many women, but many experience conflicting feelings when they put their careers on the backburner to raise a family. Why is this? 

When I was a little girl, I used to place all of my dolls on my bed in a straight line and feed each one of them painstakingly with a little pink spoon. All in the same day, I pretended to be a trial attorney, an actress, a teacher, and a dolphin expert. In childhood, when there is enough opportunity for free and creative play, kids seem to be able to balance many different selves at once.

Fast-forward thirty or so years, and the maternal self often competes with the professional self. Why? When women have chosen to—or felt forced to—put away their professional selves in order to become mothers, many feel incomplete and unsatisfied. Although some women feel guilty and troubled by this, it is normal to miss a part of yourself that’s been put away. I have found this is when depressed feelings, anxious feelings, and eventually angry feelings can arise.

I sometimes notice what I refer to as the “garbage-can” experience of motherhood. We would all agree that we depend enormously on garbage cans; they help us create order in our worlds and help us get rid of and contain our many unwanted and unmanageable things. They are the unsung heroes of our homes. A cherished garbage can gets emptied out regularly and is never allowed to overflow; its insides contain a lovely, odor-cancelling garbage bag that is replaced frequently by a very caring owner. Mothers who are endlessly focused on their children’s needs without taking time for themselves can sometimes feel instead like the garbage can you might find outside the local bar down the street at the end of a long Saturday night: overflowing with old food, body fluids, rage, and despair.

Donald Woods Winnicott, a renowned psychoanalyst and pediatrician, calls the parental role a “holding environment” and describes it as an atmosphere that a mother creates in order to impart enough stability and security for her children to become independent and capable of self-soothing. By repetitively feeding, clothing, bathing, listening, containing, and managing unmanageable emotions in your child, you are creating the infrastructure for him/her to develop his/her own mind and self. You don’t have to do this perfectly, and you don’t even have to enjoy this. In fact, according to Winnicott, the limitations you have will only help your child learn to navigate the frustrations of life.

Like garbage cans, this containment role often gets no respect or recognition. It can make a parent feel very frustrated, abused, and resentful since children are still in the process of learning empathy and gratitude. And while parents or other caregivers can look to each other to provide recognition for one another’s hard work, even in ideal situations, parents need recognition from other sources, and the workplace can help enormously with that. When we can access our feelings and talk openly about the anger, sadness, or incompleteness in parenting, it helps us create the energy and motivation to reignite lost parts of ourselves. Amazingly, finding and creating separateness from our children helps us embrace them even when they treat us (as they sometimes need to) like a garbage can!

When it’s time to re-enter the workforce, how can women know and own their capabilities? 

In my practice, I sometimes sense that mothers see their professional selves as damaged goods, as if an employer would need to grant them a special favor to allow them to work. These thoughts can deflate their deeper ambitions and dreams of accomplishing something outside of the domestic sphere. This internal conflict can lead to anxiety and sometimes even depressed feelings.

Women can experience their competence and ambition as complicated in all sorts of ways. Perhaps separating from your children makes you feel panic. Or maybe it’s hard to admit that you felt more capable and powerful when you worked than you do as a mother. Perhaps your own mother did not return to work, and the feeling of surpassing her brings out guilt. Maybe you are convinced you will be a bad, self-centered mother if you work, or you will be a mediocre professional if you take care of kids. I have found that psychotherapy can be useful to help you get reacquainted and comfortable with the competitive and ambitious sides of yourself and to integrate them with your maternal self.

We know that mothers learn patience, empathy, teamwork, persistence, organization, reliability, multi-tasking, and creative problem-solving when managing children. Returning to work after being a full-time parent is an opportunity to reinvent yourself armed with new skills. Sure, you might be rusty at some things; however, tolerating yourself patiently as human learner, sometimes struggling but always growing, is a mother’s every day job that is applicable in the workplace.

A balanced life between parenting and accomplishing the other important goals in our lives is not easy. If we first recognize our tremendous value as the “garbage can” that keeps our families contained, if we nurture the other parts of our lives that might have fallen by the wayside, and if we own the fact that parenthood has matured us and strengthened us for the other work will do, we might find our way back to our multi-dimensional selves.

Michele Rosenberg, M.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. 

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