Shannon Kavanaugh | Mommy’s Hierarchy of Needs
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Mommy’s Hierarchy of Needs

Mommy’s Hierarchy of Needs

This post has been sitting my draft folder since November. I started it back when I was in the throes of debilitating sleep deprivation. I never finished it because I couldn’t seem to come to a coherent point which I’m sure had a lot to do with the debilitating sleep deprivation. Now, with considerably more sleep and four months of hindsight, I think I can finish it.

Back when I started the original version, my son was three months old. He was waking up every night around midnight and crying for a minimum of two hours. My husband was sleeping in the guest bedroom and I was waking up at 7am every morning to take care of our two children. At 2am the next morning, I would finally get to put my head on a pillow again until someone started crying. I was out-of-my-mind tired every. single. day. I started writing this post in an attempt to understand why I felt so crazy all the time. The name Maslow kept creeping into my consciousness.

Original Post:

I first heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory in health class my sophomore year of high school. My teacher was a stout, burly man with one of those hard stomach’s like the base of a kettle drum. He was also the wrestling coach and walked with a crooked, bow-legged, wrestler’s limps up and down the aisles peering over your shoulder during tests.  His style of instruction was intimidating and declarative as in, “You can still get pregnant even if the girl is currently menstruating don’t you know, kids?!” Then he sneered at you with a knowing look while you fidgeted in your plastic chair. Informative, but also slightly traumatizing. The next time I would come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory would be in one of my psychology courses in college. It has always stuck with me, but since those years I haven’t had a need for it… that is, until now.

Right now in my life it seems everyone needs something from me every second of my day. I find myself constantly evaluating which needs are priorities and which can wait. For example, at this very moment it is 12:17am. I am sitting on my bed in the dark listening to my three-month-old son make those grunting, infant sounds in his half-sleep state. I’m debating. Should I go in there and rock his crib in futility? (Because it never gets him back to sleep, it just speeds up the waking process.) Or should I continue to write this post? Should I attempt (again in futility) to get some sleep myself? Or is my need to write more important than his (or mine for that matter) need to sleep? Sometimes it feels like it is, but Maslow would disagree.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory in psychology pertaining to Human Growth and Development. Maslow came up with this theory by studying what he called, “exemplary people” like Albert Einstein and Eleanore Roosevelt. His goal was to uncover the principles behind basic human motivations and to better understand why people will seek out certain experiences in their respective environments.

The bottom of the pyramid represents our everyday basic needs; air, food, water, sleep, pooping… you know, the necessities. You will notice that it also lists “sex” in that category. At this point there is no need to remind you that Maslow was a man.

Our first and foremost motivations have to do with survival and security; when those needs are sufficiently met, we are then motivated to seek out different needs like love and self-esteem. When all of those needs are met, we get to the top of the pyramid, the pinnacle of human development and what we’re all ultimately seeking which is self-actualization. Self-actualization is defined as having as sense of right and wrong, acceptance of facts, lack of judgement and expressing creativity. I would extrapolate on that definition and suggest that it also means finding a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life.

I have to admit, it isn’t the prioritizing of other people’s needs that inspired me to contemplate Maslow’s theory. Believe me, the little people in this house are doing just fiiiiine. It is ME who is lacking many of my basic needs right now and this has me asking what is really important and what can wait.

Having a baby strips your life down to its most basic elements in an instant. All those layers of hard-won self-esteem, accomplishments and the loving relationship you built with your spouse; they all exit the building along with your placenta. Days after birthing that precious baby you are literally and figuratively back to the lowest rungs of the human growth ladder. You are a shadow of your former self, begging and pleading for basic necessities like sleep, food, water and elimination. (Because pooping after a vaginal birth is something no one ever tells you about, but should NOT go without its fair share of warnings! Why didn’t you teach us that Mr. Health Teacher?)

It’s also an extreme rollercoaster ride. In the seconds it takes that doctor to place that baby on your chest, like a lightening bolt you understand with a fierce profundity the meaning of your life. If there was ever a moment at the pinnacle of human growth, it is the moment you look into your child’s eyes for the very first time. In the days (sometimes hours) that follow that moment, you begin to free fall like rain through a gutter back down the ladder of human growth until you are a milky puddle on the floor begging for someone to bring you a sandwich and give you five minutes of sleep. (And I can say for certain Mr. Maslow, that sex is NOT a basic need. For goodness sakes man what were you thinking? Really?! Sex = to breathing?!)

That steep slide down the slope of human motivations will make you nauseous at the very least, and crazy for SURE.

In those long early days (and nights) you spend most of your time on that lowest rung, usually literally lying on the floor in need of everything while simultaneously giving everything. Weeks go by like that. Then, there might be a few days when you are fed, watered and yet still exhausted, but all you want to do is cry on the phone to one of my friends because you desperately need someone to love you and it sure ain’t coming from this baby.  At some point, maybe months down the road, you look in the mirror again. It’s the first time you’ve seen the natural shape of your eyebrows since college not to mention the natural color of your hair. You think maybe you should do something about those things because your self-esteem took a serious punch around the third trimester.

Somewhere around six months postpartum you start to recognize yourself again, not just physically, but mentally. You start to see signs of the woman who thought about more than the color and consistency of her baby’s poop. You start to want to be that woman again; to use your brain for more than just calculating the time it will take you to make a grocery run as opposed to the next scheduled nap. Maslow says it’s the highest rung of the human needs and motivational pyramid, the self-actualizing part that yearns to be creative, to think and give meaning to your life.

Updated Part:

And this is why I couldn’t finish this post. As I was sitting in bed after midnight, clearly lacking one of my most basic needs for sleep, I was still writing–still attempting to be creative–still creating meaning in my life in the face of pure exhaustion. Now, months and many more hours of consolidated sleep later, I can write the conclusion to this post because I can see the flaw in Maslow’s Theory (and not just the sex part).

Maslow might have studied Einstein, but he didn’t studied Mommies, and we all know that mommies are capable of building pyramids in the time it takes to nurse a newborn. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not nonhuman, but in the face of our children, we are capable of superhuman things.

One of life’s greatest privileges and pleasures is having a child and there needn’t be a better reason to do so than to give meaning to your life. There is a reason that after WWII there was a boom in child births; people wanted to bring meaning back to a world that had suffered so much loss. Children, and all the unfettered hope they represent, do that best. The irony of this situation is that in the midst of all the physical and emotional energy required to have babies and raise them, meaning is sometimes hardest thing to hold on to. Meaning lives up on the top of that pyramid while you’re stuck down on the floor eating your toddler’s left over mac-n-cheese because it’s in arm’s reach and it doesn’t require you to get up. Crazy, indeed.

As I sit here now, 7 months postpartum, I realize that the reason I felt crazy all that time was because meaning is what I was looking for in the first place and yet was the one thing I couldn’t find due to my lack of significant shut-eye.

So I propose a new Hierarchy of Needs Theory. One just for us Mommies. I think it would look something like this…

Mommy’s Hierarchy of Needs

I included sex because, well, maybe someday. Until then, “You can still get pregnant even if a girl is menstruating breastfeeding don’t you know kids!?” See, informative and traumatizing.

  • Christie
    Posted at 04:21h, 30 March Reply

    Love reading your posts Shannon!! Thanks for sharing:)

  • Sarah
    Posted at 14:59h, 30 March Reply

    Great post – even if it took 4 months to write! You should flag this for updating every few years because once they get a bit more self-sufficient, and things like sleep and regular personal hygience reappear in a mommy’s life, there are new challenges to face: those creative minds and verbal skills I have nurtured for the past six or seven years are now coming back at me with a vengance as my kids look for loopholes in everything and are practicing new and better ways to lie and snitch treats every day. And don’t even get me started on navigating friend relationships, homework and extracurricular activities!

  • rachelhorsley
    Posted at 08:38h, 31 March Reply

    Hilarious and spot on. I love your Mommy’s Heirarchy of Needs. So true. I’ve had 4 and you just described every single birth and subsequent post-partum period. So glad you managed to reach your conclusion and share it with us.

  • Mini Link Feast – Mothers, Daughters, Introverts & Utopias | Reetta Raitanen's Blog
    Posted at 22:51h, 02 July Reply

    […] Mommy’s Hierarchy Of Needs by Shannon Lell […]

  • LettuceDance
    Posted at 21:31h, 06 July Reply

    I laughed out loud when I read your Hierarchy of Needs for Mommies. It rang so true! It really helps to be able to look back and try to understand the cataclysm that my first child produced. I’ve been clawing my way back ever since, with pretty good success on several fronts and none on others. I just came across your blog and I have really been enjoying it – it’s a great combination of intelligence and heart. Thank you!

    • Shannon Lell
      Posted at 05:06h, 07 July Reply

      Thank you, that was truly a wonderful thing to say. I was hoping it came across like that.

  • Jan Matys
    Posted at 03:34h, 12 September Reply

    Well, well: Since eons (most of the) people have been asking about meaning of life. We know that religious people have – ready made – answer. G*dess bless them. But what about those (growing numbers?) who are not so sure about religious interpretation and guidance?

    After all, we, Americans, are in the Western civilization and among the richest countries the most religious, with the highest percentage claiming belief in G*d. Yet, for example, our divorce rates are also the highest despite the fact that Christianity is strictly against that (the fact also is, that 8 out of 10 divorces are being filed by women, who “can’t take him anymore”).

    So, seeking meaning of life outside of or in supplement to a standard religious response is – one would say – much needed. Yet when it comes to it, what people usually say, when they dare ask the question themselves or in open? “It is individual, it depends on individuality,” we usually hear.

    I happen to believe that the foundation to “meaning” of life is rather common, in essence universal. My humble answer to: What’s the meaning of life? is Contginuity of life.

    Yes, its so simple.

    We know that when we write a check for National ZOO or Siera Club hoping that it will help panda bear to have the right bamboo to eat so that she can have a live and health offspring which will survive. Or that such and such animal will make it even when it is now on endangered species list.

    While people say that we are part of the Nature and they understand say endangered species risks (and many do something about it), too many – sadly mostly those whose own children might be of help to raise to challenges of tomorrow as their would be mothers – and fathers – are healthy, educated, traveled, fit, good citizens and would be good parents – decide not to have kids, chopping of their branch of family tree.

    Once we are blessed – thank to our parents or other good luck – ideally earlier in life, that – all things being equal – the #1 priority, the most meaningful (and satisfying, also natural) thing to do (in the wold which seems to offer so many options) thing to do is to pass on the gift of life, to be in harmony with endless beat of life. The continuity of life.

    Yeah, yeah, I have heard all those “buts” many times over, most of them sincere, all of them misguided nonetheless.

    I will list some of them but will not (due to time and other limitations) answer them:
    – There is no “right” partnet to have/rise children with.
    – Times are insecure
    – Might not be provide for a child as I would wish
    – There are already too many people of this Earth
    – etc. etc.

    I say that “Life is (by far) the best show (video game?) in town”

    Meaning of life is continuity of life.

    If all of us would – doing all those good things, working, creating art, caring fort each other, etc. etc. but “forgot” to have children … all those wonderful achievements will be here, alone, with no people enjoying them.

    I hope – and try with my children – to convey a message that making sure the continuity of life is not lost (and is still up there, at the top) in all those marvelous opportunities so many people (as never in history of humankind) have and will have chance to enjoy, this critical one (matter of life and death at least as family tree is concerned) is joyfully attended to to lasting happiness.

    Just imagine: If our parents, grandparents etc., many of them really struggling, would “opt” not to have kids. We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be able to see and experience this wonderful world.

    So, to humble me, the message is clear enough.

    Yes, since they are our blessings, we will care and love them as much as we are able to, including bedtime stories, piano lessons, year abroad in Florence, and the rest as they see us happy and blessed.

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