Children, Teens, and Families
On the Road to Empowerment: Fierce Self-Compassion for Mothers
by Alison Rogers
Psychotherapist, Yoga Teacher, and Author
“This is a wonderful gift to any new mother. When we cultivate inner warmth, kindness, and health it not only helps us as mothers, but also helps everyone around us, including the new life we bring into the world. This book will help you care for your body with gentle yoga poses, and to relate to yourself with more wisdom and compassion so that your experience of motherhood is as fulfilling as possible.” – Dr. Kristin Neff, Author of Self-Compassion
Compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering—that of others or ourselves— and can be ferocious as well as tender.
Mothers are both fiercely and tenderly compassionate towards their children, but not as often towards themselves. Kristin Neff wrote the words above in response to the Kavanaugh hearings and the #MeToo movement. But it feels just as pertinent when we think about mothers today. Self-compassion can be an antidote to the intense self-critiquing and cultural judgement of new mothers. Sometimes mothers need tender self-compassion, and sometimes they need to be ferocious about resisting shame, caring for themselves and asking for what they need. New mothers often feel conflicted and uncertain about the many significant decisions they are required to make. They are faced with layers of conflicting and contradictory social and cultural expectations with few realistic options for meeting those expectations. Work or stay home? Breast or bottle-feed? Crib or co-sleep? Any one of these choices can make a woman feel like the wrong sort of mother.
And this type of double bind — doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t — results in many women feeling powerless, ashamed, and conflicted. No wonder many new mothers feel anxious, exhausted and lonely.
Mindful Self-Compassion practices encourage mothers to take time to listen to their feelings and thoughts without becoming over identified with them, to feel kinder and more protective towards self, and to realize that all mothers struggle with conflicting feelings, unrealistic and contradictory expectations, and at times, isolation.
In a recent article in Elle magazine on the resistance to mother shaming, there was reference to a national poll conducted in 2017 by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that found that 6 in 10 mothers have been judged for their parenting, most often by family members. And that in another poll that year, sponsored by the baby food company Beech-Nut, found that 80 percent of millennial moms said they’ve been criticized by someone they know. “Guilt and shame are the watchwords of today’s mothering,” says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and a senior fellow on the Council on Contemporary Families.
In 2011, I conducted a small pilot project for mothers diagnosed with postpartum mood disorders. Each workshop consisted of guided mindful yoga, a sharing circle and self-compassion practices. At the end of the workshop series, 8 of the 10 participants had higher scores on the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS) and lower scores on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Women in the workshops reported that they felt more relaxed, capable and less alone after the workshops. I attribute many of the benefits to the practices of self-compassion that were woven into every aspect of the movement, discussions and meditations.
In our forthcoming book, Breathing Space For New Mothers, Erin White and I invite new mothers to take short pauses to practice self-compassion through breathing, and short mindful yoga.
In 10 chapters we offer mothers practices to increase awareness, and self-compassion, so that they can find their own authentic voice as they make the challenging and deeply meaningful transition into motherhood.
Yoga is Embodied Self-compassion
“Mindful yoga is a physical expression of self-compassion. We offer compassion to our body, mind, and heart by giving it some loving attention through stretching, soothing, and opening. Yoga moves us out of our heads and into our bodies by yoking the breath with movement and focusing attention on the body and its sensations rather than the thinking mind. Yoga gives you the tools to relax and reset your nervous system. As the nervous system relaxes, it becomes easier to pay attention with gentle compassion toward yourself.”
From Comparison to Kindness
Self-compassion reduces anxiety and the sense of isolation in mothers. Self-compassion is not self-pity. We’ve come to understand self-compassion as a kind of friendship with ourselves. From an early age, women are taught how to be good to our friends, to listen to their stories, to bolster their spirits in difficult times. To look at them with generous eyes. This is how we can see ourselves. We can be curious, loving, patient, impressed with all we have accomplished, excited by the great adventure of our lives. At first it can be hard to see ourselves this way! But early motherhood is the perfect time to learn how. In this period, we have more capacity for love than at any other point in our lives. So why not include yourself in that expanding circle of love, protection, and care? Sylvia Boorstein says, “let me greet the present moment as a friend,” which seems like a great place to begin a practice of compassion. Because if you can greet this moment as a friend, you’re greeting it with generosity and love. And by greeting it, you are, in a way, greeting yourself. Not the self that you were—or that you hope to be or wish to be or think you should be—but your present-moment self.
As mothers, we need connections, not comparisons. And we need compassion. The shift from a comparing mind to a kind mind is more important even than mindfulness. You can practice self-compassion by pausing and resting long enough to ask yourself how you feel—and long enough to wait for an honest answer. “
When a woman feels less anxious, more aware of her own emotions and more tender and fiercely compassionate towards herself and others, she is empowered to resist shame and step out in her own unique imperfect, and good-enough version of motherhood.
“The transition to motherhood offers endless opportunities for harsh self-judgment. But the opportunities for growth and a new and profound form of love are just as endless. Love for your baby, but also love for your imperfect self, your imperfect life.
For some of us, self-compassion is a new concept, but there is no time like the transition into motherhood to learn the skills of self- compassion. We can learn to be as gentle with our new motherself as we are with our new baby. Self-compassion makes it easier to have compassion for your own parents, partner, friends, and colleagues.”