What Happens When Mothers Don't Feel Motherly?

Has the role of parent become so confining that it is making us sick?

Posted Jun 17, 2014

Just as we no longer speak of autism, but of Autism Spectrum Disorder, it turns out that Post-Partum Depression is not an accurate label. Instead, we know that maternal mental illness is a much larger, non-specific category: "Postpartum depression isn’t always postpartum. It isn’t even always depression. A fast-growing body of research is changing the very definition of maternal mental illness, showing that it is more common and varied than previously thought." (Emphasis added)

It turns out to be oh, so complicated because there is paternal mental illness (not a recognized disorder). Fathers, both living with their children and otherwise, are subject to depression around parenthood. “I’m not sure that the male/female part has as much to do with it as we all thought,” says Karen Kleiman, founder and director of the Postpartum Stress Center and author of This Wasn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression. “It’s just hard to have a baby. It’s hard to have a baby and continue to work, at work and at your relationships.”

Okay, so fathers have post-partum depression. And it's not post-partum. But that last part of Kleiman's formulation doesn't even sound like depression, more like adjustment disorder. Where does that leave us? Mothers don't always feel they way they should, or that we think they should, or that they think they should. Sometimes that absence of "appropiate" maternal love turns lethal, but rarely. That leaves quite a large place in which mothers reside, from those who live and breathe for their children at one end, to . . . . what goes at the other end? And is it always bad, or pathological?

Here's one such atypical mother:

I talked briefly to a hospital psychologist last year, after my mom died and I was in a bad spot; The psychologist asked me what motivated me to change, want to live, and so on. I told her, kind of brashly, that I knew what she wanted to hear was my kids and how important they are to me, which I said was true.  

Why can't we all be happy like her?

I write about kids being the most notable source for recovery from addiction, so I'm a great believer in parental connections. In Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict, Ilse Thompson and I write in our chapter, "Embrace: Self-acceptance and Forgiveness," about people who fail to make these connections, as both the parent, and the child, and how these are often connected to addiction. There is, for example, the father who prefers being at the bar to going home, or the child who feels deprived and resentful of a mother's emotional detachment, or simply the absence the child feels of the kind of devotion we expect from a parent.

Let's return to our unusual mother:

But I told her the truth was actually my work was important, and I found enjoyment in hobbies and being entertained. Those were my real reasons for living life. Of course I love my kids, and family and friendships, but ultimately they are outside myself and what makes me feel good is inside me (as in, if I were all alone, I'd still have myself, and I can't hate myself). I suppose that makes little sense to people who say things like "My kids are everything." But I think that's not the entire picture of a person. Not too many people are just fulfilled by having a child, they do have to have other motivations to do well and be well.

In addiction, kids are often the saving grace. But here is a person who has children (and presumably is a loving, responsible parent), who has emotional issues, but she remains non-child-centered. She frankly writes that there is a part of you that remains independent of children or other loved ones, and she believes that that's normal and healthy, even though in saying that she feels she makes people (like her psychologist) uncomfortable.

Can this woman be saved? Or is she onto something that might liberate others from traps that strike a broad range of parents?

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program.  You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.

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