A recent study on the happiness and well-being of moms showed a U-shaped curve across a child’s development, with mothers of infants and adult children being the happiest.
The low point? Middle school.
Why aren’t we talking about this?
Mothers of young children can feel understandably overwhelmed at the sudden and total transformation of their lives. We admit this, and happily talk it to death in blogs, parenting groups and on social media. What we don’t talk about is the way much the same thing happens again, when we reach the middle school years.
If you do any kind of reading, web-surfing or talking to other parents prior to having a child, you’re pretty clear on some of the reasons new motherhood is hard:
Uncertainty. We’re awash in “am I doing it right?” in the face of this new role and this new tiny person, and everyone we meet is ready with opinions, criticism and judgment.
Our bodies. The physical elements of childbirth and recovery, the rush of hormones post-delivery, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation, and a body that looks very different than it did nine months ago.
Loss. No matter how wonderful the reason, every transition brings with it a sense of loss for what we’re leaving behind – this is why weddings are so emotional. In the case of new parenthood, of course, the change touches every corner of our lives and all our relationships. It’s natural to grieve what your life looked like before, even as we welcome the change.
When I was pregnant, suspecting these challenges were coming helped me to be prepared. I soaked up support and encouragement wherever it was offered and before long settled into my new role with some growing pains, and a lot of gratitude and joy. The early years were intense, but by the time kindergarten happened, things were looking up.
The ‘latency’ period of childhood (from six or so until the onset of puberty) was, for me, one of relative calm. It was like the second trimester of pregnancy, where there were certainly changes going on, but everything was mainly cute, fun, and stable. Her increasing independence meant that parenting wasn’t quite so intense, but Mama and Daddy were still her sun and moon.
And then puberty happened. And those old challenges I thought were behind me, reared up in different form.
Uncertainty. I still wonder if I’m doing it right. There’s precious little encouragement for a mom in our current culture, and I’m almost used to that, but in adolescence, the stakes are so much higher. Their brains aren’t fully developed but they have the autonomy and ability to do things that will impact the rest of their lives. I have the sense of time growing short; we have about four more years to help her become a functioning adult, to make ourselves obsolete – a fact that makes me gasp for air if I think about it too much. I no longer worry about what other people think of my parenting; now I worry about what SHE will think of my parenting. I wonder how my decisions, the life and the home we made for her, will stand up to the passage of time. Whether it will always be clear how much we loved her; what damage is done by the times we missed the mark.
Our bodies. Perimenopause – that long on-ramp between our most fertile years and menopause – is like both adolescence and the postpartum period, where it feels like my body is just doing its own thing, whether I like it or not. Physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and a libido that’s all over the map combine to make daily life in my body more challenging than it used to be. My body also doesn’t look like it used to, as years and gravity take their toll.
Loss. This is closely connected to the changes in my body. I’ve never been much of a flirt, don’t often dress provocatively in public or use my sexuality as a tool (though I have zero problem with women who do any of those things). Because I wasn’t overtly sexy as a matter of course, I thought I had nothing to lose with the coming of middle age – that I would continue to occupy the same smart, edgy and funny public space I always have. Instead, I’m feeling a terrible, creeping invisibility as I age out of my sexual prime. I’m choosing to fight it, but it still registers as a loss – and a hard one.
Loss also creeps in through my role as a mother. Parenting a blossoming and independent young woman is a daily joy, but I still mark the loss of those years when we were her sun and moon. While I knew they wouldn’t last, their ending still comes with a pang.
The antidote to these challenges as a new mom was knowing they were coming, and knowing I was not alone. We can be this same antidote for other women if we start talking about it, laughing about it, sharing our wisdom.
The joy and gratitude are still here, too. In the same way the uncertainty is compounded by the high stakes of adolescence, so are the joys. Watching her take her first steps pales in comparison to watching her discover who she is.