I’ve been thinking a lot about worthiness and identity development recently. It has been on my mind as a mother raising two teens, and as someone who works with parents and believes strongly in helping children develop positive self-esteem.
Self-esteem is different from self-confidence. Self-confidence has to do with external achievements, the feelings of mastery and belief you can do something. Self-esteem is an internal feeling that regardless of what you do (or don’t) you are enough — you are competent and worthy of love and belonging.
Self-esteem and mothers
Interestingly, researchers at the at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands found “women experienced declines in self-esteem during their pregnancies and then increases in the six months afterwards.”
Self-esteem “declined once again and continued falling” until three years after childbirth.
The study also found a similar decline in intimate relationship satisfaction during early parenting years. While no cause and effect could be determined between a decline in maternal self-esteem and relationship satisfaction, researchers noted a correlation between them. Both tended to be “exacerbated by having kids.”
Feelings of low self-esteem can be especially prevalent for mothers who don’t work outside the home, work only part time or have given up a flourishing career to raise children. As Libby Simon wrote in her article “I’m Just a Mom,” many stay-at-home mothers have used those exact words, emphasizing the word “just,” as if implying the work they are doing in raising their children isn’t enough. Or they explain away their work at home by talking about past careers or part-time jobs.
The perception is often that work mothers do at home is not important because it does not earn a paycheck. While raising children is one of the most important jobs we do, as Simon wrote, “Stay-at-home mothers are unpaid labor, [thus] the work they do is viewed as neither worthy of respect nor recognition.”
If self-esteem is rooted in our internalization of how we act upon the world and how the world reflects us, no wonder we see a decline in self-esteem in mothers — they have “absorbed the same negative attitudes as seen too often in the lack of [society’s] pride and self-worth in their role.”
We often value what have historically been seen as men’s roles — that of the workplace — in which power, respect, appreciation and recognition are garnered. Many women “strive to ‘break the glass ceiling’ as the only way to prove their worth,” Simon wrote.
Don’t get me wrong: Many women love to work outside the home and find immense satisfaction in doing so. Many women also love to stay at home, so why isn’t the same sense of accomplishment given?
My intention in this article is not to compare mothers who work outside the home with those who don’t. Rather my intention is to investigate the complicated topic of self-esteem, specifically as it pertains to mothers. I want to acknowledge that stay-at-home mothers have earned the right to feel pride and accomplishment, and working mothers also work hard raising their children.
Updating societal values
As mothers we wear many hats and often feel pressure to wear them all well — taking care of the home, the children, our relationships and our jobs. It’s a lot.
Partly because our identities can be so tied to the work we do and our role as mothers, if we are not doing well in any of those realms, our self-esteem can suffer. To add to that, mothers who work outside of the home often experience the “motherhood penalty” — penalties mothers face in compensation, the hiring process and perceived workplace competence that fathers don’t experience. If others devalue us in relation to our so-called peers, it can impact how we value ourselves.
Simon’s article goes on to discuss our outdated societal values: We devalue what is associated with women and femininity, and as such, devalue the traditionally woman’s role of caregiving. There is a reason we don’t have universal guaranteed paid maternity leave in the U.S.
Yet, I would argue there are few endeavors more important than raising a healthy (in every sense of the word) human being, and research has shown that parents and primary caregivers are the foundation of children’s well-being and healthy development. If it weren’t for children developing into healthy adults, who would be the educators and health care providers, the ones who fight for justice or those who work for the sustainability of our planet? So I ask, do we mothers, whether we work outside of the home or not, have to prove our worth?
Rather, I wonder if we can find fulfillment in whatever we do regardless of outside judgment. It’s not easy to block out the opinion of others, especially if self-esteem is developed in part through relation to others. At the same time, self-esteem also comes from an evaluation and acceptance of our weaknesses. We simply cannot do it all. And that’s OK. We do our best with where we are and with what we have — and then, accept ourselves with an open heart.
Self-compassion can help us build unconditional self-esteem that reminds us we are, and always will be, enough.