When a friend told me to listen to my instincts when I was a new mother, I wondered what she could mean.  At the time, not only was I unable to tune into my instincts, I had little idea that they even existed.  My instincts might have been a group of old women, draped in shawls and patterned head scarves, amulets and herbs in their pockets, crowded in a corner of my consciousness, waiting to be heard.  What would they sound like, if I were to listen to them?  Would they be shaking their heads in frustration at being ignored for so long?  Would they be sitting with arms crossed, watching me with their heads cocked to one side, chuckling at my inability to find my way through this labyrinth of new parenthood without their help?  Would they be brewing up a cup of tea, ready to offer me a seat when I chose to be in their company?

Darjeeling-tea-first-flush-in-cup

Those instincts: where had they been all my life?

It took a long time to tap into their voices.  I’d ignored them for so long that they’d atrophied.  Their voices faded away to whispers, and their intervention became less frequent.  Life seemed to be going along fine: I was a successful, well-educated woman, and I was content.

But when I became a mother, I sank into depths of unhappiness previously unknown.  My post-natal depression may have been, in part, owing to chemical imbalance, experiences growing up, heredity.  But there was also an element of feeling utterly alone, while at the same time being surrounded by other mothers.  It seemed that each mother was responding to her child in the culturally expected way: breastfeeding for no longer than six months, letting babies cry it out, trying to teach their babies to self-soothe.  I listened to their stories, and wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to do those things.  When I applied for the job of mother, I must not have read the job description carefully enough.  I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t up to the task.  So when I found myself in a group of mothers, I wanted to feel like a sessile object, like I belonged.  But in reality I felt out of place, a cork bobbing in the waves.

When my baby cried, I felt helpless.  Should I pick her up?  Or would that be spoiling her?  Should I breastfeed her?  Or would that teach her to rely on breastfeeding for comfort?  Maybe I should pass her on to someone else who might be able to soothe her better than me?  I interrogated every decision, in much the same way I’d been taught to interrogate and research ideas during my education.  And all the while, those old women, those instincts, rumbled and plotted and began to beat their drums within my heart until I could ignore them no longer.

I wish I’d known about those instincts way back then.  I wish their voices had been louder, that I’d tuned into their signals earlier.  I could have saved myself a lot of pain.  I could have saved my baby many moments of unhappiness.  It took so much time and practice for me to learn their language.

Even now, more than ten years later, the pain and confusion of those days is raw.  An editor asked me to write about post-natal depression, and I spent the night lying awake, drenched in sweat, reliving the experience of being lost at the bottom of a well, hoping desperately that someone would throw me a rope and tow me out.  The next morning I wrote to her and turned down the assignment.

“Listen to your own instincts.”  I say it to mothers all the time.  I wonder whether it has the same hollow ring for them that it once had for me.  Or perhaps mothers these days are becoming more conversant with the language of that huddle of women who sit in a woman’s consciousness, waiting, drinking tea and guiding her from within.

What do you think?  Were you immediately aware of your own instincts, or like me, did it take you time and practice to hear them?  I’d love for you to share your stories in the comments.

©Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.

Photo credit: By David J. Fred [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Tapping Into the Mothering Instinct
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22 thoughts on “Tapping Into the Mothering Instinct

  • 19/04/2013 at 9:59 pm
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    Wow Lisa, this rings a lot of bells. Didn’t have PND but sure struggled w finding those old shawled women!! Second time round I’ve been much more true to them; haven’t had time n energy not to! but still would do some things differently if I cd return to those early days w second baby. Your mums yoga workshop sounds beautiful, wd love to come but I’m in Manchester! Xx

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:05 pm
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      Hi Jessica,
      Thanks for stopping by. You raise a really important point: often by your second child it’s somehow easier to listen to those instincts. Perhaps their call is louder or our ears are more attuned. Or maybe we have more practice of listening, so we know what to look and for and feel more confident that it’s the right thing to do.

      What do you think?
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 19/04/2013 at 10:13 pm
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    Oh Lisa, I am sorry it was so hard. I’m the opposite–I trusted my instincts absolutely when it came to the babies. Even though I struggled emotionally after two of the births–quite a bit after the 34-week emergency surgical birth–I knew what to do for the baby (not always for myself, though). I still marvel at the confidence I had, bringing my first home 12 hours after his birth and placing him in the center of our king-sized bed because I’d decided upon co-sleeping and we hadn’t bought a crib. Where did that confidence come from, especially considering I’d chosen to mother my baby completely differently in every way from the way I’d been mothered? I’ve no idea. I “get” babies, but I falter when they get older. Now that there are no babies at all in the house I never feel sure of myself, never feel that I’m doing exactly what my child needs. I have no idea most of the time. I miss the sure-footedness and confidence I felt when I had babies.

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:10 pm
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      Hi Amy,
      Given others’ comments it seems that your experiences have hit home for many. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

      You mentioned that it was easier to listen to your instincts when they were babies, but as they get older it seems harder. My experience has been similar too. For me, the decisions have become more complicated. A baby tucked up in a sling has such basic needs, but a child on the cusp of puberty just seems so much more complex.

      You say that you have no idea whether you’re doing exactly what your child needs most of the time. I’m wondering what sort of indicators there might be that we’re on the right track…? Food for thought, perhaps.
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 19/04/2013 at 10:46 pm
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    I always follow my instincts as a mother and in my life in general. I have never regretted it. This was a lovely post, thank you for bringing up the topic.

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:10 pm
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      Thank you KC. It’s lovely to hear that your instincts come across loud and clear! 🙂 xo Lisa

  • 20/04/2013 at 9:40 am
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    What a beautiful post Lisa – it easy to brush those times under the carpet and try our best to bury them but they shape us into who we are. Like you I struggled to tap into my instincts and was confused by all the conflicting advice. I’d struggled with depression before having children so I had plenty of self-help techniques to keep me reasonably sane but it was still hard. LLL helped me to realise that my instincts were valid and worth listening too. It’s a shame that society puts so much pressure on mothers to do the ‘right’ thing when it comes to parenting. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:15 pm
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      Hi Louise,
      Depression is hard to talk about, but perhaps talking about it gives other women the chance to say, “yeah, me too.” I hope so.

      I feel that writing this post was a little like taking a match to the tip of the iceberg– melting away some of the sadness I still feel about that period of my life. You’re so right: those experiences shape who we are.

      At the time I was so grateful for my baby, and the relationship we had. It’s what kept me going through it all.
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 20/04/2013 at 11:36 am
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    oh gosh, my darling daughter is 2 and I am still struggling immensely inside- I love her to bits and want to be happy but am realising being ‘alone’ is the issue even though people can be around me I am still lonely or have to travel a long way to feel I am with ‘safe’ people. that seems intrinsic to my instincts and happiness………………

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:26 pm
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      Hi LC, thanks for commenting. It *is* hard to be alone. Being with other supportive mothers who also listen to their own instincts makes such a difference. Just this week I was having a rare meet-up with friends like these, and I found myself almost skipping and smiling to myself in the morning. I knew that it would help me, and it did.

      I hope you find people who will make you feel this way, even if it means travelling every so often.

      I think that a lot of mothers of young children are lonely. It makes such a difference when someone reaches out…
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 20/04/2013 at 12:54 pm
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    Oh gosh, Lisa, you poor thing. I didn’t have pnd but know what you mean about feeling others are doing it differently from the way that’s right for you. I definitely felt that at the start but, despite a few short isolated trials at “what they were doing”, I managed to stick to what I felt was right and followed my instincts – probably for the first time in my life! In fact, I think having a baby suddenly allowed me to be me, and gave me so much confidence. That confidence was really enhanced when I found LLL when my baby was about 4 months old. And I’ve never looked back!

    I totally know where Amy’s coming from too, though. I was so much more confident with the babies than I am with the children. I try to continue to follow my instincts, but it’s so much more complicated as they grow!

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:28 pm
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      Hi Kirsten,
      It’s wonderful to hear that becoming a mother was an empowering experience for you. I feel the same way. So although I had a rough start, as one person here said, it’s made me who I am today. I am grateful for the journey.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 20/04/2013 at 9:12 pm
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    I love reading your writings. I too spent many days feeling lonely that there was something missing. I am so glad I have found it now. My children teach me something new about myself almost every day.

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:30 pm
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      Such a lovely comment Jennifer: yes, our children teach us about ourselves all the time. Here’s a post I wrote about that a while ago, which you may have already seen: http://lisahassanscott.co.uk/?p=414

      I’m glad you found that missing ‘something.’
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 20/04/2013 at 10:25 pm
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    I was also struck by how strong my instincts were after my babies birth. Like Amy I found my instincts for babies needs was strong. It feels harder to follow them through childhood! After birth it was an unthinkinh instinct that lead me to fight for my child right ti have me close by whilst in Scbu. But it only kicked I once I was allowed to be reunited with him. I owe that to a friend who made sure the reunion happened sooner than the nurses and midwives thought necessary!

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:30 pm
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      Oh Charlotte, what a wonderful friend! I’m so glad those instincts kicked in for you!
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 22/04/2013 at 10:21 am
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    I normally follow my intuition because I don’t know fully what I’m supposed to be doing most of the time but the problem with new motherhood is that there are too many voices telling you exactly what you should be doing and noise of all of these voices blocks out your own inner voice.

    I believe the problem surrounding unhappiness with new motherhood is that your life suddenly becomes quite out of balance and can remain this way for up to five years. The anxiety that comes as a result of this then passes onto your children who respond with their own anxious behaviour therefore creating a downward spiral.

    My mother-in-law thought that I had PND when I stayed at home for five years, full time with my twins and their older brother but I believe that I was simply unhappy at not being able to live through all parts of me, although I longed to be the ‘perfect mother’ I was unable to be so due to the anxiety I felt at being a full time carer for three young children without any space in my life for activities that did not include them.

    Money was an issue for us as it is for many young families so I couldn’t get help with babysitting or housework but this is the one thing that I would change if I could, to just have a few hours a week to myself would have made all of the difference. I might have then been able to hear my own inner voice during those quiet moments alone.

    I don’t want to feel bitter about the early years of motherhood because they hold some cherished moments but at the same time I don’t want to deny that it didn’t have a huge impact on me that has taken along time to recover from.

    Now that my children have been at school for two years, I have time and space to myself and I work during school hours. My own inner voice is clear and strong, so much so that I now rarely bother with consulting the parenting books anymore.

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:41 pm
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      Hello Roze,
      Your comments have really made me think. Your point about not being able to express all parts of yourself when you were looking after your young children resonated with me. Our children need us to put their needs first, but for many mothers, some time to look after their own needs helps them to listen to those instincts. A paradox!

      It sounds like you really need space to focus on your inner voice. Without that, how did you manage in those early years?
      Love,
      Lisa

  • 22/04/2013 at 3:58 pm
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    Dear Lisa, I’m saddened that after your first child you sank into ‘depths of unhappiness previously unknown’ but glad that you eventually tapped into your instincts and that things eased… They’re always there, aren’t they (a mother’s instincts)? I believe they never go away; rather it’s us who go away from them (or perhaps illness or other factors that keep us away from them).

    I was fortunate to have an older sister who listened to her instincts, and as a consequence, she mothered her two children in a beautiful, confident way; which was lovely to behold. She influenced me a lot in my mothering. I wrote an article about it here: http://marijasmits.wordpress.com/2012/11/02/my-sister-my-guid/

    So pretty much, I listened to my instincts from early on (though I must admit it was a challenge to always act on them in the early days) since, as others have said, there are so many other people (family and friends) telling you otherwise.

    Anyway, hope you’re well, and I’ll look forward to hearing more from you!

    • 23/04/2013 at 9:46 pm
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      Yes, Marija, I agree: it’s us who go away from them.

      It sounds like you had a wonderful mothering model in your sister. In general we lack these in our culture. Perhaps some of the loneliness of new motherhood, mentioned by other commentators, would be eased if we had such mentors.

      Please don’t feel sad about my experiences– as I wrote below to another commentator, they’ve made me who I am and for that I am grateful. My baby got me through it!
      Love,
      Lisa
      PS thanks for sharing your post!

  • 23/04/2013 at 10:25 pm
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    Hi Lisa – Thanks so much for sharing this. I suffered PND with my first daughter whilst living in France. I expected motherhood to just fall into place but after a difficult time with my birth and bonding I struggled to cope. There seem to be so many factors that come into play when we become Mothers. Some find everything aligns for them and it is the most instinctive and natural journey they have ever taken. For others like myself the journey has been littered with major ups and downs and I struggle with being able to accept them all at times. I lost my mother to cancer when my second was 8 months old and felt in that moment cheated once again out of the babydom I so wanted to experience second time around. I was thrown in to the depths of grief, rebalancing after giving birth and dealing with a 4 year old who had not long started school, was experiencing separation anxiety for the first time and was grieving the loss of her beloved Nanna. Finding your instincts and the peace in those moments can be really tough. I read a lot of blogs like yours that truly inspire me, but I wonder how many of us hide the struggles we go through. I want to parent my girls in the most gentle and conscious way possible but often feel as it I am being stopped in my tracks by life’s drama playing out. As yet I’m not all the Mum I wish to be. I would love to shout less, be more patient and feel less resentful sometimes. But I know I love my girls with all my being and that above all is the most important thing. I so look forward to your posts Lisa and I love your honesty. You are real and I can connect so much with that. Much love to you xx

    • 10/05/2013 at 8:41 pm
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      Hello Charlie. I so appreciate your honesty in sharing your experiences. So many life-changing things at once, PND then grief, separation anxiety, new motherhood. I appreciate your words about my honesty, but your comment has stopped me in my tracks and given me so much to think about. Thank you.
      Love,
      Lisa
      PS Sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. I sometimes forget that my blog exists, which is a good thing I think! 😉

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