By Emma Young
What happens to a narcissistic woman when she becomes a mother? Can someone with an unmet desire for attention, love and recognition — which characterises all narcissists — adapt well to having a baby to care for? The answer, according to a new study in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment, is that it really depends what type of narcissist the mother is. And even, then, the conclusions were based on self-reports, which should probably be received with caution.
Narcissism is generally thought to come in two types. Grandiose narcissists crave admiration, lack empathy, feel more envy than is typical, and have an inflated sense of their own self-worth and entitlement. Vulnerable narcissists share some of these traits, but, in contrast, they are fundamentally insecure, often expressing a sense of inadequacy, and more negative emotions, including shame and hostility to others.
Anat Talmon at Stanford University and colleagues studied 385 Israeli woman, recruited via general online forums dedicated to pregnancy and the transition to motherhood. The participants completed a battery of tests while they were pregnant, and also two months after giving birth. These tests assessed both types of narcissism, along with participants’ general psychological wellbeing, how they felt about their bodies, their own evaluations of their adequacy as a mother (and their predictions of this, before the birth), perceived attachment and bonding with their babies, and also their levels of positive and negative emotion.
The team found that the women who ranked relatively high on the grandiose narcissism scale also reported high levels of wellbeing in the transition to motherhood. Vulnerable narcissism, however, was associated with higher levels of distress.
It’s possible that grandiose women are more inclined to view their baby as an extension of themselves, the researchers write — so feel more positively about it. This idea is perhaps supported by their finding that this group reported stronger attachment to their babies, and that it was this sense of attachment that seemed to lead to greater wellbeing among these women. The team also found that grandiose women tended to have a relatively poorer body experience during pregnancy, however (perhaps because of fatigue or weight gain, for example) but more positive attitudes to their body after giving birth. This particular effect “may be attributed to the grandiose experience of bringing a child into the world,” the researchers observe.
The results showed that women with vulnerable narcissism clearly fared less well, however. They reported relatively more negative feelings about their own bodies, more distress, lower anticipated and actual efficacy as a mother, and greater difficulty bonding with their newborn.
“To the best of our knowledge, our findings provide the first evidence of how the two components of narcissism respond differently to the adjustment to motherhood,” the team writes.
There are, though, some limitations to their study. Most notably, all of the data came from the women’s own self-reports. This raises various questions, such as: did the grandiose mothers really form stronger attachments to their babies — or did they just like to think that they did? Indeed, other studies have found that narcissistic parents show lower levels of care for their children (who are then at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression) and are more likely to physically abuse their children. As the authors themselves write, “The idea that a grandiose individual might tend to be somewhat disconnected from her actual mental state could shed light on the report of increased levels of wellbeing during this challenging transitional period.”
Still, the work certainly does contribute to research on how a woman’s personality contributes to her feelings about herself, and her baby, during and just after pregnancy. The “unique contribution made by each type of narcissism highlights the nuanced way in which we should observe individuals,” the team notes.