Competence, connection and control: The core challenges of motherhood


Guest blog from Imogen Aujla PhD, dance psychology lecturer,

researcher and life coach, Dance in Mind



In my last blog I wrote about mum guilt, in the context of the range and intensity of emotions that come with being a mum. More joy than you could have imagined, a love so fierce it can feel overwhelming, incredible pride. On the good days you may feel like you can give and give and give until you have nothing left.


But then there are those less wonderful days. When you still love your children more than anything, but perhaps you aren’t feeling so joyous. Perhaps you aren’t feeling so fulfilled. Perhaps you are exhausted by being needed so relentlessly. Perhaps you feel like just as you were getting the hang of this parenting thing, the goal posts have shifted (again).


You may have spent much of your adult life feeling fairly secure in your abilities: you may have developed a satisfying career in the dance industry, be in a stable relationship, have a good group of friends, and a pretty clear sense of who you are and what you can do. Then along comes a baby and poof!

When reflecting on the challenges of motherhood, it struck me that one psychological theory which I have taught and adopted in my own research for many years is particularly relevant to motherhood – especially if you are a new mum (or mum to a new baby, because even if you have had one before, you can almost guarantee that the next one will be totally different). That theory is Self-determination Theory, created by well-known psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Self-determination Theory is quite complex, comprising several mini-theories that make up the whole, so I will just share one aspect of it here, and how it relates to the experience and challenges of motherhood.


Basic psychological needs

You may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of basic physical and psychological needs which states that we need particular key needs to be satisfied before we can ever reach a place of fulfilment or optimal functioning (he terms this self-actualisation). Deci and Ryan hold a similar view but focus solely on psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs have been met in our lives, we are likely to experience positive wellbeing and be in a good position for psychological growth and development. If these needs are undermined, though, our wellbeing and ability to develop can be negatively impacted. These psychological needs are universal in that they are essential to everybody, regardless of their age, cultural heritage, status or location. Let’s have a look at each one in turn and consider why they are so important in relation to being a mum.


Competence

A friend of mine recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child. I asked her how work was going. “Pretty well,” she replied. “It’s nice to be doing something I actually know I’m good at.”


Competence is essentially the belief that you are capable of doing what you have set out to achieve, that your abilities in a given area are sufficient. And wow, can having a baby make you feel incompetent! You may have spent much of your adult life feeling fairly secure in your abilities: you may have developed a satisfying career in the dance industry, be in a stable relationship, have a good group of friends, and a pretty clear sense of who you are and what you can do. Then along comes a baby and poof! All those feelings of competence and ability can disappear in the face of a small wriggling creature with rather unreliable communication methods.


As you know, babies do not come with a manual. There’s also a good chance that your attempts to get them to follow the manual (so to speak) are unsuccessful, at least some of the time. This is totally normal and there will be several times that parents, new and old, feel completely out of their depth. The funny thing is, nobody starts a new job expecting to be an expert on Day 1. So why do we expect that of ourselves as mothers? Why do so many of us believe that it should all just ‘come naturally’? Certainly, some things may feel instinctual but many others won’t. And just once you’ve got the hang of sleep/weaning/tantrums (delete as appropriate), along comes another milestone or developmental shift that leaves you feeling clueless again. This feeling is often exacerbated by the fact that a day spent with a baby or small child can feel like groundhog day, with little to show for all the work you’ve put in.


A friend of mine recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child. I asked her how work was going. “Pretty well,” she replied. “It’s nice to be doing something I actually know I’m good at.”

So how can you develop your feelings of competence when you are feeling anything but? Firstly, treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Remind yourself that you, like your baby, are a work in progress as a mum. You are both learning together and learning to be together. You are aiming to be a “good enough” mum, not a perfect one. By all means, read parenting books and blogs, but try not to put too much pressure on yourself. We are all feeling our way through it.





Secondly, find ways of acknowledging all the things you are doing. Sometimes it will be obvious – how you helped with your baby’s first steps, first words, sleeping through the night, toilet training, the toddler who finally eats their broccoli, and so on. But often the smaller things that are fundamental to developing a secure and loving relationship with our child go unacknowledged. And we rarely high-five ourselves for keeping the house running, looking after a small person, and checking emails. So for a week, write down all of the things you have done every day, even if they seem insignificant. Here are some examples of things that count:

- Had a shower without anyone crying

- Got out of the house and went to baby group/the supermarket/a friend’s house, etc.

- Dealt with a contender for the world’s most disgusting nappy

- Got the baby to nap in the cot. Result!

- Got the baby to nap on you. Delicious!

- Got the baby to nap in the pram. Fresh air, excellent!

- Played a fun game with the baby

- Had cuddles and songs

- Put a wash on

- Got a smile from the baby. Gorgeous!

- Made dinner

There will be many more – in fact, once you’ve written down every single thing you’ve done in a day, you might be amazed by just how much you’ve done! Keep doing this to help you reinforce just how much you are achieving and how much all of this means to your baby’s development. You are brilliant!


If you are feeling up to it and not too tired, go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? You can handle it! And you will feel really good about it afterwards.

Another great way of feeling more competent is trying something new. Maybe there’s a baby group you’d like to try, but you don’t like the route there, or you don’t know anybody else who goes. Maybe you want to go shopping with your toddler but are worried about meltdowns and tantrums (yours and the toddler’s). If you are feeling up to it and not too tired, go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? You can handle it! And you will feel really good about it afterwards. Getting out of our comfort zone can be a really effective way of increasing feelings of competence.


Connection (relatedness)

There’s a reason that psychologists emphasise positive social relationships: they are the number one predictor of happiness and wellbeing. Deci and Ryan call this relatedness, which means having positive connections in the social environment. This includes any social relationship – with your child or children, partner, friends, wider family members, neighbours, and so on.

But being a mum can be lonely. You are never alone of course – but the company isn’t always that stimulating. And if you do arrange to see friends, the meet-up can be hampered by nap schedules, feeds, or demanding toddlers.


Some days you may just feel that you can’t be bothered to get out of the house, because it truly can require mammoth effort levels when you are exhausted. But try and remember that positive relationships with others are crucial to your wellbeing, and think about how you can incorporate social interaction throughout your week. Baby groups and soft play can be great as they are full of people you will have something in common with, and starting up a conversation can be fairly easy.


There’s a reason that psychologists emphasise positive social relationships: they are the number one predictor of happiness and wellbeing.

Of course, continue to meet friends and if you can’t see them in person, schedule in video calls when your baby is sleeping, or call them when your child is in the pram or buggy. I often call some of my closest friends who live far away when we are all on the school run – we only have about 10 minutes to chat, but it’s a great way to check in with each other every week. Perhaps you can video-call family members who will love to coo at your baby as well as chat with you. And although it can be difficult finding quality time with your partner when your days are full with sleep and feed schedules, try and find just 10 minutes each day to check in with each other and have a meaningful chat. Even short interactions with strangers can give you a little wellbeing boost. So have a brief chat with the person at the checkout, another mum in the park, or someone smiling at your baby on the bus.


While your child is very young, it may be better to think ‘little and often’ rather than ‘deep and meaningful’ in terms of social relationships, but it does get easier. Trying to keep in touch with a range of people in your life will serve you well in those early years with children. You can even schedule this in on your diary or calendar to help make sure that you do it!


Control (autonomy)

In Basic Needs Theory, and many other psychological wellbeing theories, autonomy is crucial – the sense that we have a choice and a say in what happens to us. It’s the feeling that we can exert some kind of control over our lives and environment. You may have got to a point in your life where you are very used to being in control, and feeling like you are on top of everything. A baby or small child can undermine this feeling like nothing else. Sticking to a nap schedule? Eating your lovingly prepared meals? Listening to a word you say? If only!





As with competence, try and be kind to yourself. It can be hard to accept that we aren’t in control, and to ‘go with the flow’ if that isn’t in our nature. Remind yourself that you can’t change a baby, but you can change yourself: again, try to lower your expectations and not put too much pressure on yourself. The sooner you accept that you cannot control everything, the easier it will be. Babies develop and behave according to their own unique biology, so try to respect this. It may also be helpful to read up on Stoicism – you cannot control events and other people, just your reaction to those events and other people.


...consider what you can and can’t control.

You might want to also consider what you can and can’t control. For example, you can’t control when your child will sleep through the night but you can ‘nudge’ it (develop a bedtime routine, try gradual retreat, etc.), and engage in some serious self-care to help you be as rested as you can. Similarly, you can’t control what and how much your child will eat, but you can ensure that you are offering them a range of nutritious foods.


Finally, there will come a time when you need to relinquish control to let your child have more control – autonomy is important for their development, too. So let them wear the bizarre outfit they chose, or have 3 oranges in a row (I must admit when my son asked for a fourth, I did stop him at that point). As the saying goes, don’t sweat the small stuff!


Boost your basic needs

Becoming a parent may be the best but hardest thing you do in your life. Sometimes, psychological theory can offer insights into why it is difficult, and what we can change or modify to make it feel less difficult. Basic needs theory is relevant to anyone at any stage in their life, but the fundamentals of competence, connection and control can be really undermined in motherhood.


Reading this article may have helped you to identify which of these needs you are lacking in (it may well be all three), so try to incorporate the ideas I have suggested and have a think of other strategies that are likely to work for you. Acknowledge and be proud of everything you do, try new things, schedule regular social interactions, and try to let go of what you can’t control. Doing so will help you navigate the highs and lows of being a mum, and might just help you in other areas of your life, too.


For more articles from Imogen, online courses, worksheets, and more, visit: www.danceinmind.org


These are all areas that you can develop in our online class programme too.


Our next PRO Pre/Postnatal Class block specially designed for pre/postnatal Mums who work in dance led by #dancemama Lucy Balfour continues on Wednesdays, 23 Feb – 23 March, for the next 5 weeks 10.30 - 11.45am, £45 / £30 Dance Mama Live! Participants


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(Psst! You can join Dance Mama Live! for FREE here for the discount)






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