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Balancing Mothering and
Developing my own Interests

QUESTION: I have an eight-month-old son whom I love with a passion -- he has brought me to another level of loving. However, I got pregnant just when I had figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Then we moved to Los Angeles, because of my husband's job, and now can't afford to buy a car or pay for daycare, so I'm unable to return to work. I find it difficult to be at home when there are so many things I'd like to do with my life, outside of mothering. I am torn between my desire to create a loving environment for my son and fulfilling my own creative needs. How can I balance motherhood and my own interests?

What a wonderful observation you have made about the value of motherhood to your own development! Your maturation is the key to inner strength that can be tapped for other challenges in your life, including your creative development. However to do so you do need to take yourself into account.

Mothers are family members, too. Their health, well-being and happiness matters. Healthy, happy mothers contribute to the overall health of the family and family health decreases when mothers are depressed or chronically unhappy with the direction of their own lives. Giving to yourself is a must, not a luxury. Katie Breckenridge and Lynn DelleQuadri, authors of "The New Mother Care" made the point many years ago that mothers are people who have needs that must be filled in order to have the energy to mother. Perhaps postpartum depression in the first year following the birth of a baby is caused in part by the myth that "good" mothers do not have needs of their own outside of motherhood. Or if they do they certainly should repress them instead of address them!

So, let's take a look at how priorities are set in your family. Some daycare may be a necessity in order to return you to yourself. Particularly when you have moved away from your old support system and your husband is away much of the time. If baby-sitting trades are not possible or too draining you may need to sit down with your husband and re-evaluate your budget so that it includes some time away for you. Even two hours twice a week would be a beginning. Weekend time could be scheduled with Dad caring for his son, while you take one day a week or one day a month. Half-days or less time is okay too if you and your child are not ready for more separation. But you need to start with some personal time to answer the questions and needs coming up inside. I often remind parents of the instructions they hear about the use of oxygen masks in the event of a drop in cabin pressure in an airplane: Secure your own masks first, before putting a mask on your child. It seems obvious that we cannot care properly for our children if our own well runs dry.

Finding answers is a process. Naturally, you will weigh the fact that babies are only this small and completely dependent for a short period. Taking out a loan to allow you some increased time for yourself in the next year will bring you to the toddler stage. You will make your decisions with your husband as to how resources are spent and what priorities you agree to revolving around your son's care and development as he grows. But remember always to include yourself in the formula!

And do you know that your child is stimulated by your growth as well? In a recent study conducted by General Mills self-esteem was found to be higher in teenagers whose mothers worked outside the home when compared to counterparts who did not have mothers with this outside focus. If a mother's self-esteem was heightened by her work, it was found to have a positive effect on children. So taking care of yourself by acting on your needs to develop your creativity is healthy for your child. Starting some level of activity towards your creative development sets a good example for your child, and the first year is a place to begin, no matter how slowly.

Making yourself a priority and taking your needs seriously are reflected by including yourself. In the uniquely automotive culture of Los Angeles not having access to a car can exacerbate your loneliness at a time when connecting to others is primary to your mental health. Your sense of isolation will be lessened if you and your husband take your needs into account, requiring some accommodation that will enable you to have increased freedom and autonomy. Carpooling for your husband, occasionally taking him to work, or getting a used car loan might be possibilities that need to be researched if you are not to feel hostage in this situation of enormous transition.

It is useful to keep in mind that children learn from example. If you develop a habit of ignoring your needs, your children may pick up this message and feel sad and/or guilty. Or they may internalize the message that mothers do not have lives of their own and carry this unrealistic vision forward into their own adult relationships. A son may grow up to expect his wife to sacrifice more than himself. A daughter may grow up failing to address her own needs as legitimate when she becomes a mother. Either of these things can seriously damage the marital bond which is based on equality and reciprocity.

Becoming a mother is a major life transition which can leave even the most well-connected new mothers feeling lonely and isolated. Your situation calls out for more attunement to your needs and developing a plan to meet them. Without carving out a plan to meet your own needs and goals you may find yourself depressed and losing your sense of identity. If you are feeling undernourished in your life, you will not have the same enthusiasm for your child. We can't very well expect ourselves to be a "guide" to our children if we lose ourselves in the process.

When you do make some time for yourself, you may be surprised to find that the resources you are developing in motherhood are transferable to other areas of your life. Motherhood is an incredible opportunity for growth under pressure. The newfound depth in your ability to love in these last eight months will strengthen other endeavors in a manner which may amaze or delight you. Your pain is a sign that a new labor is beginning. Integrating your needs into your picture of family health is a birth waiting to happen. You have already become a mother. Now it is time to begin the life-long journey of weaving this part of you into the whole of who you are and who you will become. Happy birthing!

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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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