I never felt much shame until I had my child.
Two years ago at a synagogue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, my chunky infant and I were by far the loudest, most expressive couple at a new mom support group. I went because I needed to make some friends, and it was a short drive from our then-home in Boston.
Sitting in a circle on the floor, the other parents looked uncomfortable when I spoke enthusiastically about the shocks of new parenting. It was clear that I was the odd mom out.
It reminded me of how it felt when I was home, poking around Facebook parent groups and not relating to any of the posts. I was trying to connect and missing the mark.
I moved from Miami to Boston when I was 7 months pregnant, a city where I knew very few people. While Cambridge is known for educating future leaders at Harvard University, people often visit Miami to dance till dawn and tan their thong-clad bottoms.
In fact, wild is a word I used to describe my life up until shortly before I became pregnant at 36 years old. Back then, I wore my lifestyle like a badge of honor. I was a long-time music editor with an adventurous spirit and a penchant for younger dysfunctional men and friends with colorful stories. I often drank too much, danced too hard, and argued too often in public.
I started to worry about how I would describe my pre-baby life to potential friends who seemed much more settled than I ever was.
I felt this weird nagging inside that I soon realized was the ickiness of shame. I had rarely indulged in feelings of shame before I had my son, but there it was, just sitting on my chest, settling in, and looking at me with a smirk.
Researcher and author of “Women and Shame,” Brené Brown, defines the feeling as such: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting, and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless, and isolated.”
Brown actually started studying shame in women because of her experience as a mother. She created the term “mother-shame” to apply to the myriad types of shame we experience around motherhood.
In an interview with Mother’s Movement, Brown noted the rigid expectations within communities alongside personal experiences that can trigger shame in mothers.
“What makes it so dangerous is its ability to make us feel like we are the only one — different — on the outside of the group,” she said.
I certainly felt like the only dirty duck in a pristine pond.
After our son was born, my partner and I were living in a petri dish perfect for breeding shame.
Both with wild pasts, we were sober new parents without a support network. Also, I worked from home — alone. And, like
Before giving birth, I was a confident person who thought that shame was a tool of control exerted by my mom or internet trolls when they didn’t like my short skirt or an opinion I wrote in a concert review.
When someone tried to make me feel ashamed of myself — like the bullies that populated my youth — I took my shame, turned it into rage directed at that person, then let it go.
I felt guilt when I did something wrong, and embarrassed when I made a mistake, but if someone tried to make me feel bad for just being myself, I thought “f@!# them” not “f@!# me.” Those were their issues — not mine.
Even after giving birth, I wasn’t interested in trying to fit into the mold of an “ideal” mother. I’d like to hang out with the mom in yoga pants enthusiastically cheering on her kids at the Sunday soccer game. But I was never going to be her.
I also considered the Madonna-whore concept a load of crap and never thought I’d fall into that mental trap. So, when I started to feel ashamed of the whore and more like the Madonna, I was deeply confused.
The antidote to shame, Brown suggests, is vulnerability, empathy, and connection.
She says watching her friends experience mother shame and her research prepared her for the emotions and expectations that came with becoming a parent. Because I wasn’t as familiar with the emotion, I wasn’t ready to work through it.
I was, however, determined to fight my way out of that sinkhole of shame.
My authentic self locked horns with my new, prudish parent-self. As a mother, I saw myself as an object that was solely a steward for another life. I was a milk-maker whose every outing ended up with a messy changing table pit stop and every afternoon involved making baby food into ice cubes.
It’s hard to have compassion and empathy toward a thing, so I had to remind myself of my worth and humanity.
After almost two years of struggling with this transition, I began reconnecting with people who accepted me.
I called my old friends and enjoyed listening to their gossip and shenanigans without judgment. I took that nonjudgmental attitude and applied it to the memories of my own past.
My son, partner, and I luckily moved to a city where people who knew me pre-baby and my family live. Hanging out with them reminded me that it’s not a big deal to stumble in social situations. I could laugh at my missteps, which makes me more relatable, human, and likable.
I also realized that the other parents in the Cambridge parents’ group were probably feeling a lot like I was: isolated and confused.
Those of us who gave birth were undergoing huge bodily transitions that affected not only what we looked like, but how our brains worked. We were newly adjusting to biological changes geared at protecting our newborns — not bonding with each other.
Only then was I able to stop focusing on the bad nights of yesteryear and to start remembering the rest. There were also long adventurous days that led to new connections, exciting explorations, and sure, maybe those days started out with mimosas for breakfast.
Remembering the good and bad of my pre-baby life, connecting with friends, and remembering to accept myself as I am let me integrate my checkered past into my new role as mommy.
There is no shame in my current game (well almost none). And if it arises again, I now have the tools to face it head on and let it go.
Liz Tracy is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She has written for publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and Miami New Times. She spends her time playing one mean monster with her young son and obsessively watching British mysteries. You can read more of her work at theliztracy.com.