As I was rocking my baby to sleep for his nap this morning several hours earlier than his regular nap time, I remembered my first weeks with Everest and how uncertain I often felt as a new mother. As sleep has always been one of our most challenging areas (with both boys), I often consulted The Books to see if I could glean a new tip that would help me help my baby to learn how to sleep. They always said the same things, none of which applied to my son, but all of which reinforced the nagging feeling that unless my baby slept twelve hours a night and took two three hour naps a day, I must be doing something wrong. It took me several months before I grew my mother-legs, tossed The Books, and started to trust that my baby and I were doing just fine.
There are certain transitions that we expect to be hard: moving, breaking up, divorce, death. But for many other transitions like getting married, becoming a mother, and buying a house, the expectations and fantasies of pure bliss propagated by our culture make it challenging to acknowledge, talk about, and work through the difficult feelings that naturally arise. When my engaged clients realize that they’re not head over heels in love with their partner, that they don’t have the butterfly feeling they had in the beginning (or ever), when things about their partner bug them (often to the point of obsession), and they sometimes think about that jerk of an ex that did create a chemical explosion down to their bones, the contrast to the fantasy is so stark that they wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Maybe I don’t really love my partner.” When my new mother clients feel so overwhelmed that they can’t feel their love for their baby, when they’re flooded by their grief about closing out their old life, when they ache with loneliness and they long for the one-on-one time that defined their pre-baby marriage, the contrast to the fantasy is so stark that they wonder, “What’s wrong with me? Maybe I don’t really love my baby or being a mother.”
There’s nothing wrong with you. There is, however, something terribly wrong with a culture that upholds getting married and becoming a parent as the pinnacle of joy and fulfillment in a person’s life. There’s something wrong with the message we receive from the time we’re cognizant enough to ingest information that defines love as a feeling of intoxication and motherhood as a state of unblemished bliss. When I encourage my clients to access the truth about their relationship and their feelings about motherhood they honestly don’t know what the truth is, so indoctrinated are we in the lies that lead to a litany of “shoulds” that lead to guilt and interfere with one’s ability to enjoy any aspects of these transitions.
The guilt is further amplified by our culture’s dysfunctional focus on the positive. Someone buys a house and the response is, “How wonderful! You must be so excited! When do you move in?” Of course, buying house is exciting, but it’s also a host of other emotions that aren’t inquired about. When you buy a house, you also have to endure the transition of a move. A first time homebuyer is often struck by the level of responsibility triggered by the purchase of something so large. Just as getting married and having a baby are the biggest commitments one can make, buying a house is the biggest financial responsibility one makes and, as such, initiates a new stage of adulthood. A first time homebuyer often finds him or herself clinging to remnants of childhood or the child-self as the largeness of the purchase looms before them. So alongside the joy and excitement are fear, grief, and uncertainty.
When the person dares to acknowledge these difficult feelings, she’s met with, “What’s wrong with you? You should be so excited.” So the person then wonders, “Oh, yes, what is wrong me? I should be excited and I’m feeling grief and fear. Maybe I’m making a mistake. Maybe it’s not the right house.” And then he has what we call “buyer’s remorse,” which has nothing to do with the actual house (just like engagement anxiety has nothing to do with the actual choice of partner in most cases) and everything to do with the pool of emotions that we think we shouldn’t feel and so displace onto the tangible object of the house.
We need to make room for the idea that several emotions can exist simultaneously, and that this is especially true around transitions. Until we shift our consciousness around transitions, when the difficult feelings arise we’ll wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” The taboo needs to be broken, for each individual, in our families, our communities, and in our culture at large so that we can pass through life’s pivotal stages with the grace that will allow us to heal and grow instead of truncated by the guilt that we’re not fulfilling expectations based on pure and unattainable fantasies.