By Emma Young
“After decades of debate, a consensus is emerging about the way self-esteem develops across the lifespan.” So wrote a pair of psychologists – one from Kings College London, the other from the University of California Davis – in a paper published back in 2005. That “consensus” is that self-esteem is relatively high in childhood, drops during adolescence, rises gradually through adulthood before dropping sharply in old age. But a new paper suggests that there’s a major blip in this pattern for one huge part of the population. Becoming a mother triggers a decline in self-esteem and relationship satisfaction over at least the next three years, according to research on nearly 85,000 mothers in Norway, forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Wiebke Bleidorn of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and UC Davis led a team that assessed the mothers’ self-esteem and relationship satisfaction by asking them to complete questionnaires before, during and several times after giving birth, with the last completed when their child was 36 months old.
“Self-esteem decreased during pregnancy, increased until the child was six months old and then gradually decreased over following years,” they reported. The consistency of the data suggests that this is a “normative change pattern” – something that’s standard in a population.
The pattern they found is consistent with the idea that physical changes during pregnancy and in the immediate period afterwards may negatively impact mothers’ self esteem. The six-month upturn in self-esteem, meanwhile, maybe related to motherhood offering an opportunity to experience a sense of mastery and meaning. Beyond six months, the various biological, psychological and social shifts involved in coping with the task of caring for a baby might all begin to have an adverse impact on how a woman sees herself and others – especially her partner.
This last point might explain the findings on relationship satisfaction, which for first-time mothers was high during pregnancy, but sharply decreased around childbirth and then gradually decreased in the following years. There was a similar, though less drastic, pattern of change for women becoming a mother for a second, third or fourth time.
Relationship satisfaction and self-esteem also tended to correlate over time, which indicates that these two factors are linked – at least in the three years after a child is born, the team argued. They added that this makes intuitive sense: having a baby triggers a major change to responsibilities within the household (as well as a level of exhaustion that surely challenges any relationship …), and self-esteem theories emphasise the links between self-esteem and social acceptance and belonging.
The researchers also looked to see if other factors – such as whether the mother was cohabiting with the father, her employment status and her level of education – altered the trajectory of self-esteem and relationship satisfaction after childbirth. While there were some associations between these “covariate” factors and both self-esteem and relationship satisfaction, “most covariates did not strongly predict short-term or longer-term changes in maternal self-esteem and relationship satisfaction,” they noted.
The great strength of this study is the sheer number of mothers included, allowing for a fine-grained investigation of effects. But as the researchers themselves note, there are important limitations, including a lack of data before the 18th week of pregnancy, and beyond three years of giving birth, meaning it’s not clear how much longer the dent to self-esteem would have lasted.
That said, the new findings offer a clue that the apparent adverse effect of motherhood on self-esteem is relatively short-lived: some mothers participated in the study more than once, and when they returned during their second pregnancy, their average self-esteem was no lower than their baseline when they first participated, which suggests their self-esteem had recovered since having their first child (their relationship satisfaction, however, remained lower than it had been prior to their first child indicative of more lasting effects).
Even if a mother’s self-esteem does “only” drop over the three years after giving birth (the span of this study), this could have major consequences for the mother and perhaps the child, for example it may be a risk factor for post-natal depression. “Future research is needed to better understand individual differences in the direction and degree of change in self-esteem and relationship satisfaction,” the researchers concluded.
Image: USA circa 1950s, mother feeding baby (by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)