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Should We Stop Preaching Self-Love to New Moms?

How to better support the transition to motherhood.

Key points

  • Mental health can be challenged in the process of becoming a new parent.
  • Self-love can be helpful for those in matrescence.
  • We can better help mothers by encouraging self-love.

Self-love is the intentional practice of accepting, caring for, and encouraging oneself. From the moment that I first learned about this concept, it has been paramount in my mental well-being. It has spilled into my work as a mental health counselor and educator. Seeing diverse people with different presenting concerns, what remained consistent was that they were all in need of self-love. On top of that, cultivating self-love helped to promote their mental wellness. Paired with my personal experience, this recognition motivated me to create the Self-Love Workbook. Several people have shared their stories with me after using the book, and they parallel those of my own and my clients. For some, it has evoked defense. Over the years I have had mothers share with me that while they want to believe in the power of self-love, it is not accessible for them.

“I see how this could work for others, but it’s not possible for me.”

“I have to put my children first.”

“Thinking about self-love just reminds me of what I can’t have.”

Throughout my work with self-love I had learned that it looks different from person to person, but is essential for us all. Could I have been wrong? When I hear remarks like those above, I empathize with disappointment. Was this a humbling reality? And if so, what do mothers need? When I became pregnant I realized that with this new chapter comes the opportunity to gain an improved vantage point. I remained tethered to my core—the belief that self-love is important—and remained open to learning why it may not be important at this time. One year later, I believe I have a much better personal and professional understanding. This post explores expert opinions from mothers as well as suggestions for how to better support new mothers.

The birth of a mother

The perinatal period is an important time for a mother and child. In pregnancy, there is an emphasis on the well-being of the mother, as the primary source of wellness for the child. In Western culture, the split in focus surfaces at birth as energy is directed to the newborn whereas the reality is that not only is a child born, but a mother is as well. A half-century ago, anthropologist Dana Raphael coined the term matrescence to mark a phase of transition, much like adolescence, in which physiological, mental, and social changes coalesce as identity evolves. While this phase can bear many positive aspects, it can also be challenging.

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Jesscia Bloom explains, “The transition to parenthood can be overwhelming. For many families, the huge adjustment to the established family dynamics can range from disruptive to impairing. If your child additionally struggles with colic or the mother or child have any medical challenges, it can be catastrophic to the day-to-day functioning of the mother and family unit.” Practitioner Scherina Alli explained, “Becoming a mama for the first time is an experience that simply cannot be explained. You become a totally different adult, a new version of you. Is it overwhelming? Yes. Because it all happens so quickly, and there is no time to really process since at the same time, you’re caring for a tiny human being – it can seem or start to feel like you lose yourself.” These mothers are not alone in their experiences, and for many, the challenge can grow into a serious health problem for the entire family. Thousands experience post-partum mental health concerns in the year following birth—an estimated one in five mothers overall. While this diagnosis can be partially attributed to hormonal fluctuations, a prime factor is lack of support.

Why do we preach self-love?

It doesn’t take much to presume that a new mother needs support. The alarming statistics related to post-partum mental health concerns should be enough to convince us. This likely pushes us to encourage a new mother to take heed out of fear of what will happen to her or her child. We may think we know how to help, based on what we have been told or perhaps our own experiences. But each individual is unique, and in an expert’s opinion or your own story you can lose sight of the woman before you. On the other hand, we may be bewildered as to how to help. Perhaps this transition is foreign to you or you walked the path many moons ago. But we don’t need to live identical lives to offer support.

Before we know it, we find ourselves repeating new motherhood mantras such as “sleep when baby sleeps,” simply because they seem to make sense. Well-intended reminders can be received warmly, but you can find yourself walking a fine line between lecturing and supporting. Nevertheless, what we wish to convey as genuine encouragement can miss the mark in this sensitive transition if we lose sight of the person we strive to empower. “People full-on lectured me about how important it was to continue to do things I love – which I completely agree with, but to me, it was important to do those things in a new way that included my baby and my new role as being a mama,” Scherina shared.

Similarly, Bloom reflected, “I remember being told ‘you HAVE to take care of yourself’ and at the time that felt like a Herculean task. Well-meaning platitudes can add undue pressure and don't reflect the realities of a new mom.” When we preach self-love, what we intend to convey with compassion risks becoming a set of demands overlooking a new mom’s actual effort and lived experience. Is it loving to tell someone to love themselves more when they are already doing their very best?

Should we stop preaching self-love to new moms?

While self-love is important for us all regardless of gender, role, background, faith, etc., it holds a subjective interpretation for each of us. It is not our responsibility to make someone adhere to our rendition of self-love, or to guess what self-love means for them. The compass of self-love exists within. If we want to maintain compassionate intentions but shift to a more effective method of supporting new mothers perhaps we can move from preaching self-love to encouraging it instead.

How to encourage self-love in new mothers

Since self-love is subjective, if you wish to support a new mother’s mental health, encourage her to define what self-love looks like for her. Offer warmth and patience over persistence and pressure, especially if self-love is a novel concept. Even if the mom is an avid believer in the power of self-love, leave space for her, and her definition, to evolve in this new phase. Following are some examples of what the self-love segments may look like in this phase. This list is not all-encompassing by any means yet it can be used as a reference to inspire a new mother to recognize how she can better love herself in this phase, and potentially how she can allow others to help her.

  • Recognizing your strengths and areas for growth
  • Asking for help
  • Taking a class
  • Advocating for your needs
  • Resting
  • Cuddling
  • Taking a bath
  • Meditating
  • Prayer
  • Journaling
  • Spending time outside
  • Going for a walk
  • Eating a nutritious meal
  • Accepting yourself
  • Honoring your growth
  • Being kind to yourself
  • Designing healthy boundaries
  • Practicing gentle self-talk
  • Regulating emotions
  • Attending a support group
  • Seeking therapy

If self-love seems like an intimidating ask, start by helping her focus on self-care, the specific segment of self-love that recognizes present needs and how to manage them. Scherina shared her recognition that self-care for new parents comes in a variety of forms; however, we often overlook that reality. “We tend to tell parents what self-care is and isn’t and I think that just looks different for everyone," she says. "For some, it’s having a family member care of the baby three days per week so they can go back to work, and for others, it’s extending their maternity leave. Some moms can’t wait to get back into the gym and others can’t wait to start a new hobby. Some moms look forward to a structured schedule and routine and some prefer to have no schedule and cuddle with babe all day.”

Self-love doesn’t only look different from person to person; it can vary within one person as well. The art of reflecting on the context and caring for yourself with that in mind is self-love. For example, in one moment it may be offering to help with the baby so she can rest and in another it can be assisting with tasks such as cleaning and cooking so she can bond with her baby. You can empower a new mother by asking and trusting her needs while being mindful that these will likely change through the post-partum phase.

How can we better support new mothers in their self-love journeys?

Self-love is essential for us all, but especially in periods of transition, such as matrescence. For some mothers, the concept of self-love is just being introduced at this time and for others, their previous rendition evolves in motherhood. Regardless of where they are in their journey, we can improve maternal mental health by supporting their ability to cultivate self-love. The key is active listening: hearing what they have to say without judgments, assumptions, or presumptive answers. An authentic connection of trust can be achieved from the foundation of listening.

From listening you will inevitably hear needs. As we transition from preaching to empowering, think critically about how you can offer support while balancing being mindful of her autonomy, energy, and resources. Pediatric hospitalist and Clinical Assistant Professor Sheena McKenzie believes we can foster the mental well-being of new mothers by improving community connections. She shared that preparation courses and resources for support can be helpful during pregnancy and throughout the post-partum phase. Scherina also noted that maternity pay and coverage can help alleviate a variety of stressors that may impede a new mother’s ability to foster self-love and wellness. Finally, if a mother you know is showing signs of mental health concerns, you can share a postpartum checklist, encourage attending a support group, or assist in finding a postpartum mental health clinician.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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