When Misty Ginicola became a mother, she experienced “pure shock” over the difference between “what I thought would happen and what actually happened.” Our culture perpetuates a “myth of motherhood,” Ginicola says. “Women before they become mothers think it will fulfill them in a big way and don’t realize the challenge. It’s a lot of work, and the fact that it is such a challenging role is not talked about enough.”
Ginicola, an associate professor of counseling and school psychology, has been on sabbatical this semester, conducting a study on consequences for modern mothering. Her research looks specifically at “the transition to becoming a mother, the role of gender role orientation, mothering myths — what you think motherhood will be like before becoming a mother — and postpartum depression and anxiety.” She is also looking at the unique issues that face academic mothers. One piece of the research is an online survey — “Gender Role Identity, Role Conflict and Consequences in Mothers” — that received 400 responses in the first week after going live. Clearly, Ginicola’s work resonates.
Cheri Smith, a professor of counseling and school psychology and a mother, is another investigator on the research. Angela Stachowiak, a research assistant, is a current graduate student and also a mother. Both have assisted with idea generation and focus groups and will assist with the analysis and publication.
Ginicola explains she is doing the study because the lack of support for new mothers in Connecticut is staggering, and she wants to “give a voice to those who don’t have a voice.” Through her work as a developmental consultant and counselor, she has learned that mothers today are going through more stress and lack of support than in previous decades. She points out that gender roles for women have shifted dramatically: older mothers in particular were sold on the idea that women could “have it all,” she says, and younger mothers were raised with that assumption. Meanwhile, cultural expectations for mothers have remained the same. Mothers who work outside the home are expected to perform in their jobs but also to be primary caregivers. “Certainly men are stepping up with regard to parenting, presuming heterosexual couples,” Ginicola says, but “mothers feel more pressure.”
Working mothers often experience “role overload,” the feeling that they have to be everything to everyone, at work and at home. They feel they must perform perfectly in all these tasks and consequently leave no time to take care of themselves. “So what we have,” says Ginicola, is a population of “exhausted, overloaded women who feel guilt and pressure to be perfect in an environment that is wholly unsupportive of mothers.” Ginicola cites the lack of paid maternity leave in the United States and the high cost — and scarcity — of good quality childcare as examples of such an environment.
“It used to be that new mothers had family and neighbors around for support,” Ginicola says. “They had people to help them. But nowadays, often women have moved away from family and because of work they don’t have time to get to know their neighbors.” Ginicola sees a lot of post-partum depression and anxiety in mothers; she says over 20 percent of new mothers have post-partum depression, and post-partum depression and anxiety in a mother can affect a child’s development.
A mother’s childbirth experience can also impact her sense of self. Women often have an illusion of control over pregnancy and childbirth, Ginicola says, “but things don’t always happen the way you think they will.” Some women have post-traumatic experiences after they give birth – they may be bullied into having a C-section, for example – and such surgical interventions can interfere with breastfeeding or the mother’s ability to bond with her baby. There is cultural pressure to give birth naturally, Ginicola says, and the birth experience lives into the post-partum period. So if a mother’s delivery doesn’t go according to her wishes or expectations, she may have feelings of being violated or believe she failed in some way.
“It’s so taboo to talk about not loving every aspect of being a mother,” Ginicola says. Women are afraid to say they don’t bond with the baby right away, she says, citing a cultural myth that new mothers bond to their babies immediately. She adds that the “social networking and Pinterest generation” doesn’t help matters. “People feel like they need to say these positive things on Facebook and post happy pictures of babies. It can make a mother feel isolated if she isn’t having that kind of experience with her baby.”
Once the taboo around being honest about motherhood is broken, and mothers can speak about their experiences, emotional support becomes available, Ginicola says. “In a supportive environment you don’t have problems” such as post-partum depression and anxiety.
Reading the responses to the survey has made Ginicola realize that mothers don’t have a voice, and that they need to talk about their experiences. As a result of her research, she says, she hopes to provide better information for health providers so that they understand what their clients are going through.
The survey will remain live until the end of January: