“Compulsive Mothering”

“Compulsive Mothering”

Danielle linked to a story about Angelina Jolie and so-called “compulsive mothering”. Danielle writes:

If I weren’t drowning in schoolwork, magazine stuff, and ear infections, I’d have something coherent to share about this. For now, though, I’ll be satisfied with saying just this much: Seriously? This particular movie star’s marital status aside, why can’t we just let someone be a mother? Why does pursuing and enjoying motherhood need to be defined as self-medicating neurosis?

Well, I’ve got a bit of time now to muse about mothering and need something to distract me while I’m waiting for this baby to arrive (yes, I’m blogging from the delivery room), so I thought I’d take a shot. I’m really not interested in the celebrity gossip angle; but I think this article screams volumes about our society’s attitude toward parenthood.

First off, this kind of armchair psychology drives me nuts. You can’t diagnose someone based on media clips and gossip. Any reputable psychologist would agree with that. And anyone in a position to actually proffer a diagnosis would be bound by patient-doctor confidentiality. So can we just stop it with the speculation already?

“Following a bout with depression, the compulsion to have kids can be a way of self-medicating,” California psychologist Lara Honos-Webb told “In essence, a distraction and diversion from the inner feeling of emptiness.”

Or, perhaps, as Viktor Frankl suggests, that feeling of emptiness is best filled not by self-centered navel gazing but by doing something meaningful. Is it possible that seeking motherhood isn’t a means of escapism but of entering more deeply into reality, accepting God’s call and embracing a vocation? I am a woman, written into my body is the ability to be a mother and not only the ability; but the calling. God calls all women to motherhood, whether it be by physically carrying children within our wombs for nine months, by adopting children, or by being spiritual mothers (or any combination of the above).

What should women do in such situations, when they find themselves unhappy and unfulfilled? Why is a pill a better answer to this feeling of emptiness than a baby? (Yes, I do understand that sometimes depression is a matter of a chemical imbalance in the brain and medication is the answer for some people.) But the root assumption of both the writer and the specialists she quotes (indeed, the root assumption of our me-first society) seems to be a default against motherhood, against children. 

Studies from NYU’s Center for Advanced Social Science suggest that children from large families don’t fare as well because “parental resources are a fixed pie, and children do better when they get more attention [and money].”

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a child psychologist from Columbia University’s Teacher College, disagrees. “There is no real research, it’s mostly anecdotal,”; she said. “But basically the kids are fine.”

Not all large families spell trouble, according to Gunn. She cites one of her close friends who had 11 children. The family was the centerpiece of a chapter in a book by Bill Damon, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the moral development of children.

Parental resources are a fixed pie? Sorry, that’s not how love works. And really what children need most is love, not money. (Yes, there are some parents of large families who are bad parents and whose decisions seem to offer copious counter examples; but there are bad parents of families of all sizes.) Let’s not even talk about the whole myth of “quality time”; The truth of the matter is siblings are one of the best things you can give to your children. Kids who grow up in a large family might, perhaps, have less time individually one-on-one with each parent (though look at how much time some parents of one or two spend at work or out socializing and that argument seems pretty hollow); but that’s more than made up for by the time they spend with each other. Kids in big families have friends, playmates and mentors, younger siblings have more hands to care for them, more arms to hug them, more faces to smile and laps to sit on. Older siblings read to them and amuse them and teach them all sorts of things that mom and dad might miss. And in turn the older siblings get the benefit of learning to give of themselves.

Also, notice that the first, anti-large family, expert cites “studies” (though she actually provides no evidence) while the second, more honest, expert admits she has only anecdotal evidence. Talk about skewing perceptions, this author makes her bias pretty clear.

This might be my favorite passage from the article, though:

Psychologists say depression is not uncommon among Mother Earth types like Farrow and Jolie. Mother Teresa, the giver of all givers, suffered from clinical depression most of her life, according to a recent story in Time magazine.

“Just as reports revealed a severe 25-year long case of depression for Mother Teresa, any person who rescues others so much so that they neglect or abandon their own spirit, might be headed for a similar state of overwhelm and depression,” said Honos-Webb, who wrote about the topic in her book “Listening to Depression” and has written several books about depression, parenting and the psychology of pregnancy and birthing.

Do Jolie and Farrow fit the classic profiles of those who hide unrecognized depression behind pregnancy and adoption? While Honos-Webb has never treated either celebrity, she does point out that having babies can sometimes keep personal problems at bay.

Again with the armchair diagnosing of celebrities. Calling Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul clinical depression is a shallow materialistic interpretation of a complex spiritual reality. I hardly think one could say that a woman who spent as much time in prayer and adoration as Mother Teresa did was neglecting her own spiritual life. In fact, if you look at the rule of life Mother gave to the Missionaries of Charity the center of their life is prayer and meditation. Their mission of serving the poorest of the poor arises not out of a spiritual emptiness but out of the plenitude of their spiritual lives, the depths and richness of their relationship with God.

The parallel with the Missionaries of Charity is apt, even if the author completely misunderstands Mother Teresa’s spiritual dryness, for Mother Teresa was a true spiritual mother. Motherhood, when rooted in a relationship with God, does involve emptying oneself in service to others. But one can only give out of what one has; a true mother takes care to allow God to nourish her and feeds her children out of her abundance. Yes, it is possible to try to give and give from a hollow well and deplete oneself while doing it. But the author seems to assume that is the default, that is what mothers do, that motherhood is merely a way of depleting rather than a means of filling a life.

In fact, “rescuing others” can be a means by which we encounter God, seeing Jesus in the faces of those we serve and thus drawing closer to him. Traditionally we call this performing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Rather than running away from our emptiness, it is in fact a means of confronting the true emptiness within: the emptiness that money and fame cannot fill, the emptiness that cries out for Love.

Those who seek the way of death-to-self learn a deeper truth, that too much dwelling on my own problems can magnify them out of all proportion. There is nothing like motherhood and the complete dependence of a helpless infant to teach a sense of perspective about those “personal problems”. We learn not to run away from our problems but to face them and recognize their triviality. Children fill our emptiness not by distraction but with their pure, unconditional love. They model for us what it means to love as God loves and in turn we become for our children the face of God.

The psychologists and the stars can offer us few insights into the spiritual richness of motherhood:

Meanwhile, psychologists say Jolie may, indeed, have a real spirituality to her that motivates her to help others.

“That happens being a mother and it’s not pathology,” said Honos-Webb. “It’s a good thing, but it has to be balanced with everyday concerns and attending to your own health.”

“In some ways,” she said,”saving the world is easier than facing our own inner world of emptiness.”

Better to turn to the saints who show us how to fill the void that wealth and celebrity and feel-good, me-centered psychotherapy cannot fill. It isn’t an easy pill to swallow; but the Eucharist promises us true fulfillment. If we pick up our cross and follow Christ, we will surely never be empty.



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  • Congratulations!  She’s beautiful, and I’m so glad all is well.  Those anxiety attacks during c-sections aren’t so uncommon … with Ramona, I had to stop the dr. just before he cut to tell him I could feel how cold the antiseptic swab was.  Not so good. grin  But, all is well, all is well. Enjoy that new little sweetheart.

  • Congratulations!! She’s beautiful and I absolutely love the name! My second c/s was much easier. Funny, I had an anxiety attack on the table this time, too. Enjoy your babymoon!

  • Happy birthday, Sophia!

    Congrats, Melanie.  She’s beautiful!  Prayers and best wishes for a quick, easy recovery.  Sorry to hear that you had to have the c-section, but I’m SO glad to read that everyone is doing well!

  • Congratulations Melanie! So glad to see her safely here. A beautiful baby with a beautiful name. I hope you have as good a recovery from your c-section as I did from mine. Can’t wait to see pics of Bella with Sophia smile

  • “I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”    Charles Dickens                                         Congratulations

  • Congratulations!! Welcome to the world little Sophia Therese (absolutely beautiful name!) – I’m so glad all is well… she’s beautiful…


  • Welcome, sweet Sophia grin C-sections are no fun indeed… and I too got really scared with my first one, after a long labor like yours: I started shaking like a leaf grin Be sure to get a lot of rest and enjoy your beautiful newborn… Bella must be very excited!

  • sooooo pretty.  What a lovely family you have!

    Had 4 c-sections myself. X-P I hope you recover quickly.

    Best wishes for health and happiness, always.

  • Melanie – she is beautiful!  I linked to your page from Danielle Bean’s site and am so glad I did.  I am (impatiently) awaiting the birth of my 4th child any day now.  Your blogs throughout your pregnancy that I was just reading through has helped bring me some peace today as I woke up feeling very apprehensive about EVERYTHING!  It has been 7 years since our 3rd beautiful daughter was born and we are starting new.  I keep imagining Mary having so much patience as she waited for God’s plan to unfold and I am praying to the Blessed Mother that she can give me that kind of peace.  My kids are all in a Catholic school (2nd, 4th and 7th grades), and even though I work for a company (at home), I have a lot of time throughout the day just to wonder what all of this is going to be like this time.  We also do not know what we are having…which makes the waiting even harder.  Doctor’s appointment is today.  Can’t wait to hear that heartbeat.  You will be in my prayers as you mother your new little Sophia and learn how to help Bella with her new existence as big sister!! 

  • Melanie,
    Regarding your panic attack….
    did you by chance have a medication for nausea administered to you?  It’s the one used sometimes for seasickness, can’t remember what it’s called but it caused me a major panic attack when I had my last c-section – I made the mistake of indicating to the anesthesiologist that yes, I was feeling a bit queasy from the anesthesia and the next thing you know I was flipping out and they had to sedate me!

  • Melanie and Dom:

    Congrats on Sophie!  She’s beautiful.

    I kind of had an anxiety attack of some sort during the surgery.

    I, too, had a C-section and it was rough.  Prayers are with you for a speedy recovery.