Sally Schilling/Daily Journal
Helen Marlo, Ph.D., founder of Mentoring Mothers in Burlingame, with her 2-year-old Audrey.
Having a baby can be the most rewarding experience in a person’s life. But that does not mean child rearing is without its challenges.
Many mothers find themselves striving to be the perpetually blissful mom — an image that is often projected by society.
Not many western social or cultural beliefs allow for a range of feelings in motherhood, said Helen Marlo, Ph.D., director of the Clinical Psychology Master’s Program at Notre Dame de Namur University.
“Motherhood is either idealized or devalued,” said Marlo. “The pictures we often have are of people who are severely struggling.”
Marlo has discovered that there is actually a wide range of emotional challenges that mothers may face.
“Part of being a healthy human being is having a range of feelings,” she said.
Many new moms have access to a variety of support networks — family, doctors and mothers groups — but still do not have a resource for their deeper emotional challenges. They often feel alone and guilty about their less-than-perfect feelings.
“From the second he was born, I felt guilty,” said a San Bruno mother, who wished to remain anonymous.
She and her husband worked very hard to have a baby but, when her baby was born, she found she was having a hard time adjusting to full-time motherhood. She was attending a moms club — which for her was beneficial in many ways — but she did not feel comfortable talking about deeper emotional issues in that social setting. She was considering seeing a therapist, when her doctor recommended Marlo’s free Mentoring Mothers group.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” she said, as she played with her smiling 7-month-old on her lap.
“I feel like if you say you have any conflicting feelings about motherhood, people say, ‘oh, you have postpartum [depression],’” she said. “It’s totally normal to have conflicting feelings.”
Having a professional run the Mentoring Mothers group allows for a more in-depth productive discussion, said the mother. And Marlo is a mother herself, she added.
As she pushed her son in a stroller, she described her journey through motherhood as one with great “highs” and “lows.”
“When it’s good, it’s really, really good,” she said. “When he laughs.”
She was at a loss for words.
Marlo, mother of three, began Mentoring Mothers more than a year ago with a faculty grant from NDNU, where she is a faculty scholar with the Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement.
Mentoring Mothers assists moms with a broad range of emotional challenges, from general stress and anxiety to postpartum depression. For some mothers, the group meets all of their needs, and for others, it can serve as a stepping stone for finding more support.
The free weekly group session is held at the Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame. Participants range from being in their third trimester to having toddlers. Some are new moms and some have older children.
Marlo explained that a key stress factor can be a mother’s expectations of herself. Your childhood and your impressions of your own mother can weigh heavily, said Marlo.
“A lot of us want to do better for our kids than we had,” she said.
Or conversely, some people strive to live up to their parents.
Many women are surprised that connecting with their baby is not sudden, but rather a process. Like any personal relationship, fostering a connection takes time, said Marlo.
Through Mentoring Mothers, she facilitates a process in which mothers can discover the roots of their feelings and figure out how to manage them.
Having negative feelings can affect a child, but a parent who acknowledges where these feelings are coming from will end up having a stronger connection, she said.
Wading through advice
Mentoring Mothers also helps moms deal with the flood of advice they are given on things like breastfeeding and sleeping.
“When people put out their advice as gospel, that is what’s stressful,” said Marlo. “I try to come from a balanced place.”
She tells mothers that there are multiple ways to do things and encourages them to think about their own personal values and capabilities.
“There’s a lot of different good moms out there,” she said. “I try to tell them to honor their own experience.”
Filling a void
Marlo lit up as her 2-year-old daughter Audrey entered her office, giggling. Audrey occupied herself with a water dispenser in the hallway, while her mom explained how she started Mentoring Mothers.
Marlo was first drawn to perinatal emotional concerns during her work with trauma patients. A wide range of motherhood issues was repeatedly coming up in her work. However, her peers were mainly focused on postpartum depression, she said, as Audrey proudly presented her with a cup of water, slightly spilling as she jolted toward her mom.
There was only help for these “in-between” mothers who could afford it, she said.
“There really was a void. There’s nothing like this in the Bay Area,” said Marlo, playfully crawling after her daughter as she rushed out of her office again.
She hopes acknowledging that motherhood is challenging and emotionally draining can lead to improved public support for mothers.
“If we make it the woman’s problem, we don’t get much social policy change,” she said.
The United States ranks very low on maternity leave, for example, said Marlo.
“Motherhood can truly be a miraculous time to see the beauty of life, but it’s sad that women can be robbed of that,” she said, as she discovered Audrey’s now large puddle of water in the hallway of her office.
She grabbed a handful of paper towels and began mopping up the spill.
“It doesn’t come easy,” she said.
The Mentoring Mothers group meets Mondays 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m. in the Family Birth Center Conference Room — second floor of the Mills-Peninsula Hospital, 1501 Trousdale Drive, Burlingame. Drop-in. No-charge. Babies and bag lunches welcome. Contact: Helen Marlo, Ph.D., 579-4499, firstname.lastname@example.org