The throngs of well-wishers have headed home. The PR department in Buckingham Palace is getting a little break. And the famous golden easel has been put away. Now the realities of motherhood are setting in for the Duchess of Cambridge. Midnight (and 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. feedings). Dirty diapers. And a body that looks a heck of a lot different than it looked a year ago—no matter how many high-end fashion choices a gal can make.
The Royal Baby, His Highness Prince George of Cambridge, is just over two weeks old today, and he has no idea what his future holds. All he knows is that he’s hungry, or tired, or sick of that royal odor emanating from the general direction of his royal bottom. And Kate’s going to have to deal with it all—in front of the world.
The birth of George came at an interesting time for Rita Snell ’15, a psychology major, and Krissy Durkin ’13, a double major in psychology and English. Just days after William and Kate left St. Mary’s hospital with the future king in tow, the Denison duo had just wrapped up their summer research focusing on the myths and struggles of motherhood in first-time moms. (The experience, says Durkin, was eye-opening—she called her mother in the midst of it all just to say thanks.)
With the help of their advisor, Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Henshaw, the summer scholars surveyed 300 first-time moms at two days, six weeks, and six months post-partum. They then conducted in-person interviews with 42 participants—first-time mothers and their partners. The researchers asked about expectations of parenthood, breastfeeding, relationship dynamics, mood changes, and whether or not couples sought treatment for psychological stresses or issues. “What did parents expect of themselves going into parenthood,” says Henshaw, “and how did their first year jive with those expectations.”
What they found was that mothers, specifically, had very high expectations of themselves—so high, in fact, that they held themselves to perfectionist standards. “A lot of moms talked about being the perfect mom,” says Henshaw, “to breastfeed easily; to keep the house clean; to do all the right things to stimulate the baby; and to be relaxed while doing it all.”
Many of the women’s expectations were based upon other mothers—their own, or their “mom friends,” even celebrities. (If your role model is Princess Diana, for example, you may be in for a wee bit of stress.)
They also found that mothers—and society—tend to think that their babies’ behaviors in those early weeks reflect on a woman’s mothering abilities. If a baby sleeps well, for example, Mom must be doing something right. If the baby cries continuously, well, perhaps she’s not cut out for this whole parenting thing. “Sometimes an easy baby,” says Henshaw, “just means, lucky mom.”
For Durkin, this was the first time that she had gotten any indication that motherhood was actually pretty darn difficult, citing the women in her family who only spoke of how glorious it is to be a mom.
Henshaw puts it this way: “Our culture indicates that it’s all or nothing: That parenthood is a joyous experience all the time; and if it’s not, then you’re not cut out for parenthood, or you don’t love your child, or you don’t have a maternal instinct.”
And that, dear first-time moms, is hogwash.
These Denison researchers can back it up with stories from real moms expressing real frustrations. Here’s their advice for parents (royal or otherwise) who are just setting out on the path to parenthood:
–Prince or no prince, that baby is going to cry.
–Expecting a perfect mom is as unrealistic as saying every baby is going to be perfect too.
–Accept that the first year is going to be hard and that you’re not going to have all the answers.
–Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself the same way you would a friend by being forgiving and not expecting perfection.
–Be flexible with whatever kind of baby you have—an easy one who sleeps through the night or a colicky baby who never stops crying.
And remember the power that moms have, too, whether you’re the Duchess of Cambridge or a working mom in California, Kansas, New York, or Ohio: “Any mom has the ability to shift culture by just being genuine about parenthood and not perpetuating myths by only talking about the very best moments,” says Henshaw.
“I think some really helpful, encouraging moments for moms in our study came when they had a mother or sister or friend say, ‘It wasn’t perfect for me either,’ or ‘Yes, there were moments I didn’t enjoy.’ Every mom has the chance to acknowledge that parenting is very exciting and also really challenging.Acknowledging both ends of the spectrum helps everyone to have a little more flexibility and a little less guilt.”