"I want to be like my mother", "I don't want to be like my mother". It doesn't matter which approach to motherhood you choose, it's important that it's yours. I talk to Joanna Chmura, a psychologist and a coach, about how to find your own path and not get trapped in stereotypes associated with being a mum.
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You should, you can’t, be careful – these words ring in the ears of probably every woman who is a mother. Would you agree that there are many stereotypes about being a mother?

Being a mother is an inherent part of Catholic education in our country. After all, the mother of God is a woman. So we have a fairly clear indication of what a mother should and what she certainly shouldn’t be like. And are there more stereotypes around her than, for example, around a father or a boss? I don’t think so, it’s more about the role of a mother that in this religion is assigned to women, and perhaps that’s why it is simply more often discussed.

In the past, problems and frustrations of mothers did not go beyond the female circle. Now we’re more and more open in admitting that being a mother is not always fun. Women would like to experience motherhood in their own way, but they’re constantly being told what they should and shouldn’t do. How should you deal with it?

I think that it largely depends on whether you live close to your family – your mother, mother-in-law and other women - or whether this contact is less common. I have a hypothesis that the further we are from our family, the easier it is to break ranks and to go against the established rhythm of social life. But when we operate in a vicious circle in which we observe other mums and they observe us – it can be harder. In both situations, what saves us is self-awareness. You should ask yourself: is my behaviour really my choice? Do I think that it is necessary because my mother, grandmother and aunt did it?

When I was 16, my mother allowed me to take a language course abroad. Many of my aunts criticised it, claiming that my mum was being irresponsible. They were convinced that my mum didn’t fulfil her protective obligation but sent me straight into the lion’s den. But my mother had her own opinion and intuition and didn’t care about these comments. This first independent trip taught me a lot, and I think that I wouldn’t be who I am and where I am if it were not for this event.

Now, when I think about my mum, I can see that she was sure of her decisions. She had an internal imperative that told her: no matter what people say, I know how important learning languages and exploring the world is. So in the end I went to the United States to learn English. In this context, she had the courage to break ranks and to go beyond what was expected by others. But there are many such frameworks and even if we manage to free ourselves from some of them, it can be much harder with others. That is why self-awareness is the gateway to building your own identity as a mum.

The word that often appears in conversations about motherhood is “sacrifice”. What is it?

In Polish, the word “sacrifice” contains the word “sanctify” which we can interpret as making something sacred or most important. In this case, sacrifice may relate to the body, time, attention, career, relationship or needs – consciously or not, we choose that the child appearing in our reality is sacred, meaning important, unique and special. Sometimes it is temporary, and sometimes this attitude organises our reality for life. Blessing one thing makes other elements less holy and comes at a cost. And in life, there are many currencies. Not only in motherhood, but at work, in friendship, in relationships, in projects. It’s just like with any other choice, there are always costs to bear. In motherhood, I have to give something of my own so that something else is possible. In the mother-child relationship the child is often more important, and sometimes the child is even the most important and this is the cost.

At the beginning, this state of affairs is imposed by biology – a woman gives birth, cuddles, breast-feeds a child and is in some sense simply necessary for the baby to survive. Everything is subordinated to the child. Then, with time, when a woman could theoretically find some space for herself “only” as the child begins to build independence, society often steps in, taking up the narrative of “sacrifice” and not allowing the mother to step away from the child. She hears the message: “All right, you’re not breastfeeding anymore, but you should feed with warmth, presence, love, mindfulness etc.”

And women either listen to this or follow their own path. The latter option requires courage and breaking free from these obligations. And if we choose the first model, we may get frustrated. Then what?

When frustration appears and a woman asks herself: “Am I doing what I really want or am I just fulfilling the obligations imposed by others?”, it means that it’s time to take a look in the mirror. During the workshop, we focus on the identity of me as a mother. We divide a sheet of paper into two parts. The first one is used to write down how I’d like to be perceived as a mother, and on the other – how I’d never like to be seen. We come up with, for example - calm, warm, resourceful, caring and neat, versus chaotic, fearful, tired and frustrated. And then comes the difficult moment of making space for the truth that lies exactly in the middle between these two lists. Because as a mother I can be tired and happy, calm and anxious etc. I can feel different emotions.

This reflection takes us to a rather bumpy path of breaking out of the pattern. The confrontation with the expectations of your family, husband, partner or friends, when, for example, you say that from May 18 you want to send your child to a nursery or kindergarten, leads to being judged by others. And they often share their opinions with you.

We always bear some kind of costs in our daily lives. This can be called a type of internal agreement. OK, I’ll go my own way, but I have to be prepared for personal comments. And I’ll pay for it with a bit of guilt, discomfort or anger. And somehow I’ll try to deal with that. The conclusion for mums – and for all of us, really – is that we’ll have to pay anyway. The question is: in what currency and how much?

And what could be the reward for choosing your own path?

A sense of integrity – I know it may not sound too sexy (laughs), but it’s really important. For example, when we recognise our own needs, our body doesn’t get sick that much, it is less tense, it “bothers us” less. Psychosomatics shows us in many ways that when we live in spite of ourselves, we catch infections more often, we have migraines and suffer from autoimmune diseases. The reward for choosing a path that is right for us is good physical and mental condition. We feel that we are doing what we should be doing, and this gives peace and strength to deal with the disappointment of others.

What other ways to find your own path can you suggest?

I encourage you to try to distance yourself for a moment from the pattern of your mum or mums from your environment, which is always somehow “imprinted” on us, and look for a mother who inspires you and who is your role model. Such heroines can be found in films, books and stories that we hear. Sometimes this way of defining yourself is easier. So first, I scan my environment and decide what attracts me to the patterns of mothers shown in literature, films, theatre, stories, and what puts me off. And then, for example, I talk to a friend about what we like about this pattern, which features we would like to have and which ones we definitely reject.

And there is also the “Shitty First Draft” which is a tool proposed by psychologist Brené Brown.

Oh yes! The Shitty First Draft helps a lot to separate facts from assumptions, both your own and those of other people. It is a very simple and at the same time a very accurate tool. It involves writing down things that we assume others think of us or things that we feel we should do according to others. And then we confront it with reality.

For example, you hear from your neighbour: “You are always away from home, how do these children get along without you?” Instead of answering her impolitely, you need to inhale and exhale and... reject the thought that you are a hopeless mother. When your mind wants to write a Shitty First Draft with all the “evidence” that you are not fit for being a good mother, you should simply take a piece of paper, divide it in half and write the facts on one side and assumptions about this situation on the other. The fact is that my neighbour said I wasn’t home. She generalised using “always” so I could make the assumption that I’m a bad mother and I harm my children with my “continuous” absence. However, this assumption is not true, because my temporary absence does not hurt anyone. I was on an important and interesting training and the children were looked after by their dad, with whom they spent valuable and safe time, and really nothing bad happened to them.

You need the courage to choose your own path, but you must have even more courage to say: I don’t want children.

Especially now, in the political and social convention we live in, I would say that non-mothers have to face even more curveballs.

It’s not just about making it clear that I don’t want to have children, because that’s my private decision. Now the narrative is different. Creating top-down uniform law means that no one is interested in your opinion. The role of a woman is reduced to a kind of DNA carrier, regardless of the circumstances. Women are deprived of the right to decide how they will use their own bodies and their lives. Breaking this pattern requires strength as it verges upon an act of political courage! It’s a bit like breaking out of the socio-religious regime, and not just the “ordinary” social expectations regarding the Polish mother.

But our decision is final.

If a woman discovers that she is not attracted to motherhood and wants her passion, strength, energy, intellect and body to be invested in something other than motherhood, then, first of all, she has the right to do so. Secondly, she gives herself inner consent that she can feel that way.

Third, she starts talking about it openly and gets used to the reaction of the environment. This step can be quite difficult. Sometimes I have the impression that it could be compared to coming out. Such a decision can be “shocking” for many people from our environment. Therefore, it is best to start by talking to someone close, someone who is on our side.

There will probably be situations when someone in the family or our environment criticises our choice, calling it selfish, be it openly or behind our back. They may even try to persuade us to change our mind by providing a number of arguments. Many people are convinced that the land of being a mother is the only one in which fulfilment is experienced. Listening to the stories of hundreds of people doing what I do, I can vouch that fulfilment can be achieved in many ways, and it is up to a woman to decide in which areas she will look for it and... find it. Because fulfilment is possible regardless of whether I carry a heart under my heart or not. Life fulfilment simply requires heart. Sometimes one is enough.

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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