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Becoming A Mother
Mothering Yourself

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Excerpt from An Easier Childbirth

Available for purchase online at Amazon.com

Finding your own way as a mother means that you must take your needs as well as your baby's into account. Lyn DelliQuadri, M.S.W., and Kati Breckenridge, Ph.D., in their book The New Mother Care recommend that women develop an attitude of self-care in the early stages of mothering. It is difficult, if not impossible, to attend to the needs of your child if you do not take care of your own. Good mothering is not perfect mothering. Achieving a balance of the needs of all family members is the key to good-enough mothering, a concept developed by D.W. Winnicott- a British psychoanalyst and pediatrician who studied the influence of mothering on child development. DelliQuadri and Breckenridge sum up Winnicott's philosophy:

The concept of good-enough mothering is a practical replacement for the idealized standards of the mother myths and the contradictory theories of the experimental psychologists, because it tells us that the activities of mothering can be performed in many different ways and still provide basic, "good enough" care.

Both the nurturing and the wounds you received as a child have prepared you for the challenges of raising your child in your own way. During pregnancy and after, you will be discovering and defining your own approach to mothering. There is no magic formula. The most you can achieve is a balance between your needs and the needs of your child and other family members. Rest assured that your child does not expect you to be perfect. Your child shares in your growth and fulfillment. As you consider what is best for your child, keep yourself in mind. Your child will benefit from your happiness in life.

Mothers Have Needs, Too

Many pregnant women fear they will lose themselves in motherhood. Although it is true that the demands on you will be great, you can look forward to developing your own interests, and you can pursue goals you have set for yourself. Motherhood can strengthen your ability to cope and provide you with a new appreciation of life. Your needs as a person are important to the health and development of the family. You must take your needs seriously. Integrating your needs with your baby's and finding a balance that works is fundamental to family happiness. The following exercise will help you set priorities as you enter motherhood.

Write down five activities, pursuits, or interests that are important for you to maintain in the year following childbirth. Promise yourself that you will look at this list again in the month after your baby is born. This way your can remind yourself of the personal interests you want to integrate with motherhood.

Becoming a mother does not need to rob you of your selfhood. Stay away from martyrdom. Martyrs never make good mothers; what is gained in giving is taken away in guilt.

The Changing Family

The birth of a baby cannot be viewed as an isolated event; it is a family event. Whether a baby is greeted with love, joy, fear, or trepidation depends both on circumstances immediately surrounding the birth and on much that has come before.

Social scientists say the American family is in a state of crisis. Changing cultural roles for women and the challenges of blended and single-parent families add to the adjustments already needed when new life is brought forth. Financial and caretaking responsibilities are now shared more equally between the sexes. This change has given women new freedom, but it has also produced conflicts for those pulled between the demands of family and career.

None of these situations may affect you personally, but changes in society at large influence the way you experience motherhood. When the very definition of family is fluid, it is natural that women feel insecure. Today many women delay motherhood until their careers and relationships are firmly in place. The postponement creates another set of challenges: Established lifestyles must shift as women sort through their need to work and their desire to stay home with their infants. Is it any wonder that women giving birth today need special support?

First-time Mothers Over Thirty-five

Since 1982 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women having first babies at age thirty-five and later. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 are entering their later childbearing years, and many of them have delayed motherhood. According to John Hansen, M.D., who reviewed the literature on maternal age and pregnancy outcome, these two factors were expected to increase the over-thirty-five age group's proportion of total births by 72 percent between 1982 and the turn of the century.

Statistics on pregnancy and labor outcome for first-time mothers older than thirty-five are varied and inconclusive. These women have a higher rate of complication during labor, including a greater number of Cesarean sections, but the research does not differentiate those who were healthy during pregnancy from those with medical problems, such as diabetes and toxemia. Most authorities agree that if you are generally healthy, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet, your chances of having a normal labor should not be any different at thirty-five than at twenty-five. Statistics, however, do not address the special emotional concerns and stresses that affect the older woman.

These women bring a different perspective to parenthood. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, work and career have usually been paramount in their lives. Even when career goals are not a major concern, middle age is a very different time in the life cycle to give birth. Older women may feel greater loss of their unfettered lifestyle than do younger women. Financial arrangements in the marriage may shift dramatically if a woman who previously held a high-paying position is now staying home with her new baby. These changes may affect a woman's self-esteem and make for a more difficult adjustment to motherhood.

Finally, women having first babies later in life often waited because they had fearful expectations of motherhood. This was true for Cynthia, the woman who had cared for her seven younger siblings. Because of her own lost childhood, she was not ready to become a mother until she was thirty-six. Her reasons for waiting included unexpressed fears that she needed to understand before she became a mother. This is a different perspective from a twenty-four-year-old who enjoyed the freedom of childhood and is now ready to take on the adult responsibilities of parenthood. Not all women who wait until later in life to give birth are fearful, however it is possible that those who delay are in general more ambivalent. The threats of Down's syndrome and other genetic defects that increase with maternal age also contribute to their anxiety. Medical researchers have long overlooked the influence of life change factors on the outcome of labor. In the quest to understand the higher complication rates for women over thirty-five, researchers have ignored the emotional lives of the women they study.

If you have concerns about finances, loss of your previous lifestyle, or the blending of family and career, you are among a fast-growing group of women. Your concerns are real and need to be addressed. Joining a support group and making daily entries in your journal will help you work through your fears. Sharing your anxieties with your partner and other women who are experiencing similar mid-life changes can make the difference between postpartum depression and a healthy adjustment in your community. Plan now to join a support group for mothers after your baby is born.

Freedom and Commitment in Motherhood

Ambivalence is a natural part of commitment. Working through your mixed feelings about becoming a mother is an important part of your journey. A friend once said to me that freedom and commitment are differentiated only by a verb; freedom is choice and commitment is to make a choice. You have made the choice to mother. Making choices is an inevitable part of growing up. Freedom becomes meaningless without commitment, and the choice to mother can be a profoundly rewarding commitment. Honor your feelings and remember that your ability to make such an important life decision means you can create meaning in your life. Write down your personal reasons for choosing motherhood. Take time to consider your feelings and thoughts about this decision.

Some of these reasons will be easy for you to write down, while other thoughts and feelings may be difficult to express in words. You may wish to come back to this list after you have experienced motherhood. Your decision to have a child will become increasingly meaningful to you in the years ahead, as you learn and grow with your baby, your child, and eventually your adolescent.

It is true that you often hear parents bemoan the trials of parenthood; however, it is almost impossible to express the pleasure and gratification that having a child can bring. To me, the following experience presents one of those nearly indescribable feelings. I was swinging gently in a hammock in my backyard, my seven-month-old son snuggled sleepily to my chest as we swayed rhythmically side to side, listening to the birds, smelling the moist earth after a morning rain, when suddenly our rocking movement flipped us into the air. I arched my body instantly, maneuvering myself to land below my son rather than on top of him as gravity would have had it. He landed safely upon me. It was complete and instinctual love that enabled me to protect him with my body. In the mother/child relationship I discovered a capacity to love and defend that I had not known before. It is satisfying to care this deeply, but it is a difficult feeling to verbalized and share with others. Perhaps this is why it is more common to hear complaints about parenthood than expressions of the satisfaction that it can bring. In the days and weeks ahead, ask other parents what in their relationship with their children brings them pleasure and satisfaction.

If you are in your mid-thirties or older when you have your first baby, you bring the benefit of maturity to motherhood. Knowledge of yourself and others increases with age. Greater life experience allows you to appreciate the choice you have made to mother. You may have much more to give because you have waited. Love and bonding will deepen your commitment. Experience will be your teacher. Thinking about your reasons for becoming a mother may help you feel deeper, or renewed, certainty about your decision.

Copyright 1993 by Shadow and Light Publications. Reprinted with permission from the author and publisher. This excerpt may not be reproduced in any manner, including electronic, without prior written consent from the publisher.

An Easier Childbirth: Book Information

Excerpt: Making the Most of the Prenatal Journey

Excerpt: Postpartum Blues and Support

Excerpt: Your Partner's Role During Labor

Excerpt: Siblings at Birth

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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