Becoming a mother is a life transition
which our culture greatly underestimates. Few other life changes
are as complete and irreversible, and few life events provoke
as much ambivalence. I know of no other experience that simultaneously
stimulates two powerfully divergent fantasies: the promise of
ultimate fulfillment and the threat of selfless sacrifice. Somewhere
in between lies the reality of motherhood.
Pregnancy is a journey. At the end,
a woman gives birth not only to a baby, but also to her own identity
as a mother. Pregnancy is therefore an emotional and psychological
as well as a physiological transformation.
Your adjustment to pregnancy and
labor is enhanced when you express your anxieties about motherhood.
If your concerns remain buried or denied, or if fears about childbirth
are ignored or minimized, the inevitable natural stress of labor
and delivery may intensify these anxieties.
Gershon Levenson and Sol Shnider
at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine
found that anxiety during labor decreased oxytocin, a hormone
that stimulates contractions, resulting in dysfunctional labor
patterns. Fear in labor may also contribute to a reduction in
the supply of oxygen to the baby. Many scientific studies have
documented the impact of emotional variables on the labor process,
yet medicine has almost never offered women a means for coping
with these natural anxieties, perhaps assuming that fear was abnormal,
and therefore beyond normal prenatal care. In fact, anxiety during
this transitional period is common, but women are seldom given
the opportunity to discuss the meaning of this transition.
Prenatal care providers rarely recognize that the physical process
of childbirth is intertwined with a woman's concern not only about
labor, but about the changes that having a baby will bring to
her life beyond the delivery room.
When you explore your feelings related
to motherhood, you can overcome anxieties about childbirth. Expressing
your feelings through writing and exercises shared with your partner
can help you release tension caused by unspoken fears.
Loss and Vulnerability: Normal
Remember that pregnancy is a period
of psychological, physical and emotional upheaval. This means
that you may have feelings of excitement and trepidation about
motherhood, expectations for fulfillment and fear of future deprivation.
All these feelings are natural. It is necessary for some women
to mourn the loss of a lifestyle in which they felt free and spontaneous,
without responsibilities for a child. But feelings are not actions.
Because you feel this way at times does not mean you want to change
your mind or send your baby back! This sense of loss is not a
feeling you need to do anything about. Simply recognizing
ambivalence as a normal part of decision making can banish any
guilt you might otherwise create for yourself. Sadness about the
past will be replaced by the excitement of the future if you allow
yourself to say "good bye" to your old life. By giving
yourself permission to acknowledge fear, loss, or disappointment,
you make way for joy, love and hope for the future.
Assuming responsibility for another
human life also brings up feelings of vulnerability. During pregnancy
it is natural to feel more dependent, particularly on your partner.
The desire to be taken care of arises as you adapt to your body's
many changes. Feeling dependent on your mate or other people may
then bring up fears of abandonment. Working through this fear,
perhaps talking with your partner about these feelings will pave
the way for adjustment to the family unit you are creating. If
you communicate your fears, you minimize the likelihood of drifting
apart. In the years ahead you will need to depend on one another
in your new roles as parents.
Besides physical changes causing
feelings of dependency, the journey toward parenthood stirs up
deep desires to be mothered yourself. Your relationship with your
own mother comes up for review as you develop your own identity
as a mother. The kind of relationship you had with her may have
influenced the confidence you have in your own abilities to mother.
This new being will depend on you for its very life; now you will
be the powerful influence. Your child's life and much of his or
her future is in your hands. Some women feel confident and ready
for this responsibility and others do not. It is natural for you
to feel excited by the challenge of parenting, to anticipate the
joys and rewards. It is also normal to feel anxiety about the
job that awaits you.
Will I Be A Good Mother?
Fears of inadequacy often result
from an overburdened childhood. If you were in a caretaking role
with your own parents, you may have taken on more responsibility
than you were capable of as a child. One client, Cynthia,
was the eldest of eight children. She feared she would be inadequate
as a parent. When we helped her explore her background it became
clear to her that she had been given overwhelming responsibilities
for her seven siblings. In her teens she had begged her mother
not to have any more children because as the eldest she couldn't
handle the workload. I helped Cynthia see that her age at the
time was inappropriate for mothering. Now, however, she really
was an adult, and her responsibilities would be proportionate
to her level of maturity. I compared being a twelve-year-old carrying
around a 125 pound baby (her mother) to being a thirty-six-year-old
carrying a normal 7 pound child. The comparison helped her understand
that she could separate her previous negative mothering experience
from what was possible for her now. She was also able to grieve
the loss of her childhood freedom. Expressing her sadness enabled
her to understand her postponement of childbearing until later
in life. She had wanted those years of freedom to take care of
her own needs. After considering all this, she began to feel confident
about her own capacity to mother.
Fears of inadequacy in mothering
may also stem from a negatively charged relationship with your
own mother for a variety of reasons. Working through your feelings
about your relationship with your mother will reward you with
an understanding of what you want to carry into your own mothering
and what you do not. Like everyone else, you were influenced by
your upbringing, but the awareness of these feelings frees you
to create your own parent/child relationships differently. Although
you will, no doubt, have many positive and nurturing feelings
that you do wish to carry forward from the past, you will develop
your own style based on your own needs and personality. No two
mothers are identical , no parent/child relationship is entirely
You depend on your childhood relationship
with your mother as a guide for developing your own style of mothering.
This doesn't mean that you necessarily copy your mother's
style or that you want to replicate your relationship with her.
The psychological task of becoming a mother is to sort through
your past , keeping what you want and letting go of what you do
not wish to pass on to the next generation.
You may feel particularly vulnerable
if you never received the nurturing you needed as a child. Feelings
of love as well as anger may emerge as you do the following exercise,
which will help you acknowledge your relationship with your parents.
It will also stimulate discussion between you and your partner
about the parents you want to be. Don't forget that your relationship
with your father was also important. You will draw from your relationships
with both parents when you envision the kind of mother they want
to be. You may be aware of other role models in your past. Aunts,
uncles, baby-sitters, grandmothers and grandfathers may have contributed
to your resources for mothering.
Exercise: Becoming A Parent
Ask your partner or a friend to
read the questions listed here, inserting your name in the blanks
and interviewing you as if you were your mother. Answer the questions
spontaneously. Trust that whatever you say holds some emotional
meaning for you ,even if it is not necessarily the "truth"
about your relationship. Later, you may want to ask your mother
these questions and compare your own answers to those she gives.
The value of this exercise lies in your own interpretations of
your childhood. Whatever comes up will be what you feel now, as
you become a mother. Your answers will speak the truth about your
own feelings of being mothered. Ask your partner to listen to
your answers supportively and attentively, to comfort you if you
if necessary, and to laugh with you as well.
- What was your experience of giving birth
- What kind of a baby was your daughter,____________?
- What was it like to raise ________________?
- What was most difficult for you in raising
- What was easy about raising ______________?
- If you could do it over again, is there anything
you would do differently in raising ____________?
- How do you feel about __________ having a
- Do you think ________ will be a good parent?
Our interpretation of our parents'
experience in raising us forms the blueprints for our own expectation
and beliefs about parenting. You may feel very loved by your mother
and confident about your own ability to parent. Or you may feel
that your mother was lacking in some way---- something you want
to provide for your own child. Awareness of the source of your
strong feelings will allow you greater freedom to form healthy
relationships with your children. An overwhelming desire to make
up for your own early pain may nonetheless cause you to wound
your child. For example, if your mother's style of discipline
was overly strict, and you have unresolved feelings of hurt and
anger, you may feel deeply committed to permissiveness. Since
your own child cannot feel the pain you endured during childhood,
however, he or she may experience your leniency as lack of discipline
or even neglect. Once you are aware of your own wounds, you can
heal them without projecting your unmet needs onto your child.
Whatever attitudes towards parenting
your mother expressed will be a part of your heritage. What decisions
will you make about the kind of mother you want to be? Are there
things you would do the same? Differently?
Repeat the above exercise, starting
with the second question, standing in for your father. Then take
time to share your feelings about him. What did you like about
your relationship with him? What do you dislike? Is there anything
about his fathering you would like to change for your own child?
Or do the same? Repeat the full exercise with your partner, asking
him questions about himself as if he were his father. Then repeat
the questions, having him role-play his mother. Listen sensitively
and supportively to his answers. Comfort him if necessary and
be ready to laugh with him as well.
Adapt this exercise to your particular
circumstances. You can repeat this exercise with a supportive
friend and compare your family experiences. Find out what you
can learn from your friends. If you are a single parent, identify
someone you can depend on for emotional support in parenting.
Many single mothers can benefit from friends who want involvement
with a child without taking full responsibility for one of their
Discuss the blueprints for parenting
that you and your partner received. You can use the following
questions as a guide for discussion.
- What were the messages you received about
yourself from each of your parents? Were they accurate or
not? How did you feel about these messages?
- What strengths do you bring to parenting
from your childhood experiences? What weaknesses do you bring
from your childhood experiences?
- How will you and your partner help each other
- How do you see yourselves working as a parenting
team to nurture each other and your child?
- How do you feel about each other as parents?
- What are your feelings about raising a boy?
about raising a girl?
- What kind of mother or father do you think
your partner will be?
- What feelings did this exercise bring up
Each of you will have strengths you
bring to parenting and each of you will bring weaknesses. Find
out what these are and plan to help each other with your respective
blind spots. For example, if you feel you may be overly critical,
or you see that your partner compensates for his father's strictness
by never saying "no," discuss these concerns now. Your
communication can strengthen your relationship and bring you a
sense of security and confidence that will benefit you in labor.
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.