Mothers' days are not always happy

Time of article published May 11, 2008

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Mothers are coming out. After years of perpetuating the idealised portrait of the madonna and child, mothers are finally speaking their minds.

They are openly admitting that the portrait of the smiling, proud and happy mother is often far removed from the reality of a screaming and totally dependent newborn baby.

Mothers are telling the world that the pressures of motherhood often leave them feeling empty and inadequate; that motherhood is as much about drudgery as it is about delight and that there are days when they fall right off the motherhood wagon and don't feel strong enough to climb back on.

Some new mothers find motherhood so difficult that they exit the world through alcohol and drugs. The only way back is to admit that things have fallen apart and that they need help. They need help as a mother and as a human being.

"Because motherhood and Mother's Day is associated with this warm fuzzy feeling of comfort and security, it feels like a huge betrayal for mothers to admit to the real struggles they experience," explains psychologist Dan Wolf, who is the director of First Step and The Gap addiction recovery programmes.

First Step and The Gap are situated in the northern suburbs of Joburg and are full to overflowing with the widest cross-section of recovering addicts, including "fallen" mothers.

Chatting to me in one of the lounges at The Gap are two such mothers, Tanya Joselowsky and Jann Turner, both of whom have been through the recovery programme.

"When you become a mother, you lose your identity as a human being; you are no longer you, you are now a mother," explains Joselowsky, in her 30s and a mother of three.

Describing what happened to her with the characteristic no-holds-barred candour of those in recovery, she talks about scoring pethidine in the streets of Joburg and how she combined motherhood with 10 grams of cocaine a day.

"Learning to live without drugs was like learning to walk again," says Joselowsky, who has been "clean" for 21 months.

"I first got addicted to pethidine after the birth of my first baby. It is a schedule-seven painkiller and I was prescribed it for a condition called ulcerated colitis which I got after my baby was born."

Pethidine is widely known to mothers because it is one of the drugs given to women for labour pain. In addition to the colitis, Joselowsky had post-natal depression.

"I was 24 at the time and I didn't want to be with my baby. The pethidine helped me to escape the feelings of being a useless mother," she explains.

"I used my colitis as an excuse not to be with my child and I was injecting myself regularly. I got away with it because no one, not even my husband, suspected that a nice young woman from a sheltered, highly supportive Jewish family was taking drugs all day. They thought I was sick.

"The fact that my family is highly supportive released me from all responsibility and my mother took charge. She mothered me and she mothered my children. I was totally dependent on her."

"Addiction is about dependency and some relationships keep us stuck in a dependent phase," Wolf explains.

"An important part of the recovery programme is to understand the roots of these dependencies in order to start releasing ourselves from them and from the inadequacy we feel because of them. Once we start doing this we start taking responsibility for ourselves."

For women, the enormous and confronting responsibility of motherhood often brings feelings of inadequacies to the fore. Healing needs to take place at the deepest level before women feel ready for motherhood.

"After I had my second baby, I started taking cocaine," Joselowsky continues. "I was trying to look after two babies but I still felt like a baby. It is only now, with my third baby, that I can say I know what it feels like to be a mother.

Sitting alongside her is Jann Turner, clean for five years (from an assortment of drugs and alcohol) and who, at age 42, became a mother a year ago.

"I always longed to be a mother but I had no idea what it takes to be one. It is the most shocking, life-altering experience. It's an incredible experience but suddenly you're faced with a completely helpless creature, utterly dependent on you 24/7. It's freaky as hell and I have many moments when I just want to check out.

"In the first few months I would not have coped with the responsibility had I not been through the programme. Some days I still don't know how I will cope when he starts screaming or when the demands of being a mother feel too great.

"I feel so out of control at times that I feel like I am still taking drugs."

Wolf explains: "The powerlessness many mothers feel when faced with a newborn baby is very similar to the feeling of what it is like to be an addict."

Out of control, chaotic, manic one moment, depressed the next. Women with newborn babies and addicts often describe the same feelings. Many women also describe the negative feelings they experience in this life-changing time.

"The capacity to survive our most negative feelings gives birth to the opportunity for the opposite," continues Wolf. "Many of us are not emotionally equipped for this. When we don't understand the full range of our emotions and feelings, it is difficult to engage in any relationship, let alone the all-consuming relationship of motherhood."

Women often say that becoming a mother is the hardest thing they have ever done, yet the picture of mothers coping easily and naturally is widely perpetuated.

"I speak to lots of mothers, and there is not one among us who feels as though we're coping easily or naturally," says Turner.

"It's such a relief to talk to other mothers who admit they sometimes hate their children or feel like banging their babies against a wall when they won't stop screaming. You feel so helpless and useless when your baby gets colic. You feel haggard and terrible and no one asks how you are any more, they ask: 'How is the baby?'"

Wolf elaborates on the sacrifice of being a mother: "When a woman has a child, if her own inner child hasn't received enough attention, emotional turmoil gets brought to the fore."

She starts reacting, lashing out and demanding attention for her own inner child.

"You feel like screaming 'No one looks after me! No one has ever looked after me!'" says Turner.

The addiction recovery programme addresses the inner child.

"It teaches people to start taking that first step towards living consciously and responsibly, instead of reactively like a child," says Wolf.

"Many of us still respond like children to whatever stimulus comes our way. For some it is drugs or alcohol and sooner or later it becomes unmanageable."

Joselowsky landed up overdosing on a range of pills and spent three weeks in a clinic, followed by the three-month in-patient programme at The Gap.

"When I first came here I didn't speak about my husband or my children at all. I felt too guilty. I had many times driven my car completely high with my children in it and I had deceived my husband and my family. I had become the useless, irresponsible person that I feared I would become."

It's a giant first step to go into the three-month recovery programme because, once again, society's prejudices about motherhood come to the fore.

"People say: 'Are you crazy? You can't disappear for three months, you have three small children to look after.' What they don't realise is that the only way you'll ever be able to look after your children is if you do disappear for three months.

"Twenty-one long months later I now know how much I want to be with my children. When I was taking drugs I never wanted to be with them or at home," says Joselowsky.

"It obviously takes a long time to restore trust with my family and with my truly wonderful husband, but I am extremely fortunate they all stood by me.

"I have learnt to forgive myself and I have learnt that no one is a perfect mother. I am also so much more understanding about my mother and who she is. We are all just 'good- enough moms'."

"Good-enough mom it sounds like such an easily understood concept, but without the recovery programme I don't think I could ever have understood it," adds Turner.

"There are so many pressures on us to be perfect as people, and especially as mothers. Recovery has helped me to openly talk about terrible, difficult emotions without feeling inadequate. It has liberated me to the point where I am almost okay with being a good-enough mom."

- For more information about addiction recovery, contact psychologist Dan Wolf at First Step: 011 884 4060 (out-patient programme) or The Gap 011 787 9142 (in-patient programme)

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