Becoming A Mother
Making the Most of the Prenatal Journey Preparation for Labor
Includes Expectations of Parenthood

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Excerpt from An Easier Childbirth

Available for purchase online at


"I secretly feared the trials and tribulations of parenthood when I was pregnant with my first child....yet now that I have become a mother it is almost impossible to describe the pleasure and depth it can bring to living..."
Renee, mother of four

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 Feelings

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.

Mother-Daughter Relationship

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 predictable.

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.

  1. What was your experience of giving birth to __________?
  2. What kind of a baby was your daughter,____________?
  3. What was it like to raise ________________?
  4. What was most difficult for you in raising _____________?
  5. What was easy about raising ______________?
  6. If you could do it over again, is there anything you would do differently in raising ____________?
  7. How do you feel about __________ having a baby now?
  8. 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 own.

Discuss the blueprints for parenting that you and your partner received. You can use the following questions as a guide for discussion.

  1. 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?
  2. What strengths do you bring to parenting from your childhood experiences? What weaknesses do you bring from your childhood experiences?
  3. How will you and your partner help each other with parenting?
  4. How do you see yourselves working as a parenting team to nurture each other and your child?
  5. How do you feel about each other as parents?
  6. What are your feelings about raising a boy? about raising a girl?
  7. What kind of mother or father do you think your partner will be?
  8. What feelings did this exercise bring up for you?

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.

An Easier Childbirth: Book Information

Excerpt: From the Introduction: Becoming a Mother

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, and the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on, 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 Orinda, 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 Berkeley, California and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother.

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