Research Paper By Lauren Wills
(Life Coach, AUSTRALIA)
And How Coaching Can Create Shame Resilience and Improve Self-Concept in Mothers
For many women becoming a mother involves tremendous sacrifice; financial, social and psychological. One of the biggest challenges for mothers is to recalibrate their sense of self in this new, and often dominating, social role of mother. In my work as a life coach for mothers I work with many women who are struggling to get a grasp on their new identity now that they are mothers. Some fellow International Coach Academy student coaches and mothers shared their stories with me.
When I fell pregnant again (I have two kids 18 months apart) I knew that I really couldn’t go back to my old career. But then the doubts came in. I love my children and would do anything for them, they are my priority but am I good enough at being a mum to stay at home all the time? Am I happy just being a “mum”? Am I ok introducing myself as that – afterall, when I used to explain what I did people used to be genuinely interested. I used to be able to talk about all sorts of things intelligently now I feel a bit bewildered by forming more than a few basic sentences together? How can I get that back? Am I being selfish by wanting to have some time to myself and to put the children into the care of someone else rather than bring them up myself? – A
The social role of mother has become a narrowly prescribed set of expectations which can be overly restrictive for many mothers and can lead to incongruence between their actual and ideal self. Many mothers are basing major life decisions on what they believe is expected of them and many more are suffering intense shame because of their decisions around mothering.
It’s about priorities and choices. There is no right or wrong, just what is good for you, or what works for you. But there is a kind of image out there that yes women can have it all, of course it’s just my view but it’s very perverse, as it creates false expectations and then frustration. The image works both ways, there is also pressure for women to become mothers at all costs, to stay at home and breast feed to be happy and smile, while maybe they were actually much happier climbing up the corporate ladder. And they prefer to hire a nanny, which turns them into social outcasts. All that to say there is still a lot of projection and social judgment around the issue, which is disappointing after all the liberation women have had to fight for. It’s a very politicized issue when in fact it should be an individual issue. There are as many ways to be a mother as there are mothers. We should be able to choose freely, but I feel most women are still limited by some sense what SHOULD be. – V
Life coaching presents an ideal opportunity to connect with mothers who are experiencing shame around their role as a mother. Most mothers are not likely to seek counseling or any kind of formal mental health service over their struggle to adjust to motherhood on their own terms. Life coaching represents an approachable, positive and practical method for gaining critical awareness of the social-community expectations of motherhood and developing an ideal self based on the client’s core values.
Over the past year I have come to terms with this – mainly through having a coach and talking through all the ideas in my head. I feel enlightened that I have found a potential way that still keeps my family at the top of my list but also gives me something more to keep me stimulated. I listen to “Ted Talks” at the gym or out on a run to broaden my mind away from Disney films… the kids go to nursery and I am focusing on building a business. I am very fortunate to be able to have space to find what is really right for me and the rest of my family. I have a new and exciting identity and I’m delighted to join the other amazing “mumpreneurs” out there! – A.
This paper will examine the theory of self-concept and how it is affected by social-community expectations especially as they relate to motherhood. I will then discuss Dr. Brené Brown’s work on shame in motherhood and finally I will address the ways in which coaching can work with Dr. Brown’s Shame Resilience Theory to promote a stronger self-concept in mothers.
When we refer to a loss of sense of self, what we are actually referring to is a change in our self-concept. Self-concept is the view we have of ourselves. It includes our beliefs, preferences, opinions and attitudes. It is strongly influenced by our relationships with others.
Self-concept is our perception or image of our abilities and our uniqueness. At first one’s self-concept is very general and changeable…As we grow older, these self-perceptions become much more organized, detailed and specific. (Pastorino & Doyle-Portillo, 2013)
The idea of self is historically a new idea. In medieval times the self was stable and well defined according to social order –one’s family membership, social rank, birth order and place of birth. This began to change in the 16th century and since then it has been influenced by secularization, industrialization, enlightenment and psychoanalysis (Baumeister, 1987).
Self Actualization Theory of Self
The pioneering psychologist, Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) believed that humans have one basic motive, the need to self-actualize or to reach their full potential. Central to this theory is the notion of the self-concept “the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself” (Rogers, 1959). Environmental factors also play a part in self-actualization; without the right conditions one cannot reach their highest potential (Rogers, 1959).
Carl Rogers’ theory of self actualization suggests that self-concept included:
- self-image; how we see ourselves
- self esteem; how much we value ourselves, and
- ideal self; how we wish we could be
Our self image is what we see in ourselves, it is not always a reflection of reality. A self-report study by Kuhn (1960) found that self image is divided into personality traits (internal features such as “charming”) and social roles (external features such as “daughter”). Thus a woman might identify with being an extroverted (internal) mother (external). Interestingly, the researchers found that younger participants described themselves more in terms of personality traits and older participants are more defined by their social roles. So it appears that self concept is learned over time, we are not born with one and yet it is also dynamic and will change over time (Sincero, 2012).
Self esteem is how much we value and accept ourselves. It requires a certain element of judgment and we can either approve or disapprove of ourselves. People with high self esteem have confidence, self acceptance, optimism and they tend not to put too much power in what other people think. Conversely, people with low self esteem lack confidence, want to emulate other people, worry about what others think and are pessimistic.
There are four main factors that influence self esteem; the reaction of others, comparison with others, social roles and identification (Argyle, 2008).
Reaction of others
If people admire us, seek us out and listen to us we generally develop a positive self image. If people ignore us, tell us things we do not wish to hear or avoid us then we are more likely to develop a negative self image.
Comparison with others
If we feel that we are more successful, prettier, skinnier, wealthier or happier than other people we tend to have a high self esteem. Contrarily, if we feel that others are more successful, prettier, skinner, wealthier or happier than us then our self esteem will be lower.
Social roles are the parts we play in a social group; our behavior changes to fit both our own and others’ expectations of that role. Some roles carry prestige such as “doctor” and others carry stigma such as “prisoner”.
Our social roles aren’t just labels we have been given. We identify with them and they become a part of our personality. This is evident in the cocktail party conversation that invariably begins with “what do you do?” In this scenario we often find that the passionate man who loves cross country skiing and works as an accountant is reduced to an accountant.
In order to self-actualize, there must be congruence between one’s self-image and their ideal self; the more congruent our self and ideal-images the higher our sense of self-worth or self-esteem. The below graphic illustrates the concept of congruence (McLeod, 2007)
Argyle (2008) identified four major factors which influence the development of our ideal self:
- The way others react to us, this is especially true of significant others
- Our assessment of how we measure up to others
- Our social roles
- How much we identify with other people
It is clear that our self-concept is heavily influenced not only by what we and other people think of ourselves but also by what we think other people think of us. As such, our self concept is particularly vulnerable to environmental pressures from our family, friends, culture, society and the media which are known as social-community expectations.
The modern history of motherhood can be traced back to the 1930’s when “good” mothers stayed at home with their children. However, during World War II women were encouraged to take factory jobs while the men were enlisted in the armed forces. They were still expected to cook, clean and keep the home in addition to working. Following the war, birth rates soared and women were once again relegated to the home as men returning from the war required jobs and resumed their roles as “head of the household”. This is the era which is often referred to as the “ideal” of traditional family values and sex-roles.
The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the rise of the Feminist movement saw the role of the mother deeply questioned for the first time, most notably by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published in 1963. The efforts of the feminist movement produced some results in terms of equality for women but attitudes towards mothers and motherhood has changed little during or after this time.
Since the 1970’s women have been undertaking tertiary education and entering the workforce at a much higher rate. In Australia the percentage of women with children under the age of 18 in the workforce rose from 55% in 1991 to 65% in 2011 (Baxter, 2013). At the same time that women’s participation in education and the workforce has been accepted their right to choose how they mother has not been.
The role of mother is not seen as prestigious but it is seen as admirable. The amount of admiration for mothers depends entirely on their circumstances however and many mothers are stigmatized by their sub-type of motherhood working mother, welfare mother or single mother. The social role of mother is confusing for many women; in some circles we are deified and in others we are vilified.
There is also a curious sliding scale to the argument. “Working career mums” are at the lower end of the spectrum, and stay at home mothers are at the highest echelons, with ascending increments for each child you have. The more hours of drudgery you endure the more of a mother you are and, therefore, the more important your job is. The more you outsource domestic labor and childcare to participate in the workforce, the less of a mother you are. (Deveny, 2013)
In The Mommy Myth, authors Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels discuss the emergence of a new kind of motherhood which they called the New Momism. The New Momism is not just about the impossible ideals that mothers are expected to live up to, it is also about the subjugation of all other roles in favor of motherhood. Even the First Lady of the United States is defined not by her work in public office, her stellar legal career but by her relationship to her children (Douglas & Michael, 2004). The New Momism insists on perfection as a mother before all else, and for working mothers this means proving that you can do it all; by all means make the big sale but make sure you have baked the cupcakes for the bake sale first!
During the last few decades there has been an increased media focus on the role of the mother through scare mongering (child abductions, razor blades in Halloween candy), celebrity mothers (Giselle breastfeeding her infant while having her hair and nails done for a photo shoot) and the ubiquitous Mommy Wars (breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, working vs. stay-at-home mothers). The bombardment of messages and judgments is relentless. Look in any newspaper and you will find headlines like:
- Seventy-eight per cent of dads say mums should stay at home, but more women with children actually WANT full time jobs
- Michelle Obama dishes on coping with a growing Malia and Sasha as she graces cover of Vogue (and why the President thinks she's like Beyoncé)
- Working mothers spend 81 minutes a day looking after their children
- Can a working mother be as good at her job after maternity leave?
With the advent of Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other social media women’s experience of motherhood has become something to share with the world. We are bombarded with photos and comments in our Newsfeeds from friends, acquaintances and colleagues with images of perfect mothering moments from baked goods, crafts and school reports to post baby bikini selfies. This is a highly sanitized depiction of motherhood; mothers will happily post about little Johnny’s fabulous end of year report but are reticent to share the news of his suspension for bullying earlier in the term. Advertisers bombard our Newsfeeds with advice on how to be a better mother or dire warnings about all the things we do that will harm our children. It is relentless and highly damaging.
Motherhood and Self Concept
According to the self-actualizing theory of self our self concept is born of how we see ourselves; how much we value ourselves, and how we wish we could be. How we see ourselves is influenced by our personality and our social roles. Our identification with our social roles gets stronger as we get older and the identification with the “mother” role is a particularly strong one; “surrounded by media morality tales in which we are meant to identify first with one type of woman and then another, women have gotten used to compartmentalizing ourselves into a host of subject positions, and this is especially true for mothers” (Douglas & Michaels, 2004).
Given that mothers strongly identify with their role as mother before any other social role they have (friend, employee or employer) they place a lot of value in their role as mother. As discussed, while the role of mother is considered honorable it does not carry prestige. This is especially troubling for stay-at-home mothers whose value is determined not by prior achievement but by their current occupation; “just” a stay-at-home mother is an oft-heard refrain even from mothers themselves.
Comparing ourselves to others affects both our self esteem and our ideal self. With the proliferation of social and traditional media messages surrounding motherhood, women are comparing themselves not only to their peers but also to celebrities as well. An ideal that is impossible to live up to. Magazine covers with celebrities extolling the virtues of motherhood do not show the team of nannies, chefs, personal trainers and flexible working arrangements that these women are afforded. The modern mother is not only expected to bake the cookies, have a fulfilling career, provide educational stimulation for her children but also remain attractive for her husband and, one may argue, other mothers.
All mothers want to be the best mother they can be, but for most of us we just do not measure up to the impossible ideal, this creates the incongruence Rogers spoke of and produces much shame, unhappiness and guilt in mothers. Thankfully some recent research by Dr. Brené Brown has uncovered the source of some of the shame as well as practical tools to develop resilience to it.
It is not surprising that in her seminal research on shame Dr. Brené Brown found that motherhood was the second most common shame trigger for women, surpassed only by appearance (Brown, 2012). Dr. Brown defines shame as:
…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated (Brown, 2004)
Dr. Brown believes that not only are the expectations of women impossible to meet they are also often conflicting. The expectations on women are imposed, enforced and reinforced by individuals, groups, ourselves and the social/traditional media (Tucker, 2004).