Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Sexuality of Women with Young Children: A Feminist Model of Mental Health Counseling

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Sexuality of Women with Young Children: A Feminist Model of Mental Health Counseling

Article excerpt

Although postpartum recovery and women's sexual behavior have received significant attention, little is known about the experiences of mothers with young children. Socially constructed images of mothers often depict them both as rebounding with sexual enthusiasm and sensuality and as devoted primary caregivers, while also holding a job. This fantasy breadwinner/homemaker model denies the challenges many mothers of young children face in struggling to reclaim their sexual selves. Such constructions are incongruent with the realities of motherhood and the psychological challenges women face to reassemble sexual identity, self-image, and sexual scripts. This article presents a feminist model of mental health counseling that offers women affirmation, encouragement, and support as they explore their identities as sexual women and as mothers.

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I think it's really conflicting ... the messages ... because you're supposed to do all these things.... The role of being a perfect mom--that to me is impossible, and so the sexuality part of that is impossible as well--and being a perfect mom on top of that! I don't feel like there's a lot of support from other women.... They'll try to put on the persona that they're doing it, when in fact they're not.... So, I think it's really sad ... for women.

Theresa, age 35, married mother of two children (Trice-Black, 2010a)

Social, historical, and personal contexts shape both expectations and representations of motherhood. Dominant media images suggest a relatively seamless transition to having it all together--perfect bodies, great sex with spouses, loving and cheerful relationships with children, active social lives, and professional success. Attempting to live up to such unrealistic expectations can be frustrating, confusing, and often isolating. These images essentially reinforce the conception of motherhood as a test of a woman's psychological adequacy. Motherhood might be more realistically drawn as "an identity that limits women and is a difficult job that is generally done is isolation with little practical help, but one for which the standards are constantly shifting" (Leidner, 1994, p. 783). Fatigue, overwork, and lack of sexual interest are typical problems that mothers of young children bring to physicians (Candib, 2001).

Theresa, the married mother of two, articulated her fears that not fulfilling the role of the ideal mother may thwart women from honestly communicating their personal needs and struggles as both sexual selves and mothers. Women's sexual desire and satisfaction may depend not only on the physical, intrapersonal aspects of sexual interactions but also on the affective, interpersonal aspects. Thus changing roles related to parenting, specifically motherhood, influence the constructions and quality of sexual identity and sexual relationships (Byers, 2002).

This article explores the impact of the cultural construction of sexuality on mothers, particularly mothers of young children. Images are contradictory, simultaneously depicting mothers as rebounding with sexual enthusiasm and sensuality while maintaining professional roles and as devoted primary caregivers in a breadwinner/homemaker model that denies that mothers who struggle to reclaim their sexual selves are overburdened. Contemporary sociocultural constructions of motherhood, coupled with unrealistic media images, are incongruent with the realities of motherhood and the challenges of reassembling sexual identity, self-image, and sexual scripts. Feminist-informed counseling may offer an engaging and affirming crucible within which mothers, especially those with young children, can construct a fresh, personally identified sexual self, exploring the connections between sexual desires, practices, attitudes, ideals, and duties that shift throughout their lifespan (Long, Bumett & Thomas, 2006).

THE IDEAL MOTHER---SOCIETAL MESSAGES

The dominant culture shapes how motherhood affects self-identity, expectations, and meanings of motherhood, relationships with self and others, and the behaviors and actions of mothers, appropriate and inappropriate (Johnston & Swanson, 2003). …

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