This week we are thrilled to feature Diana Lynn Barnes, Psy. D, with an excerpt from her book The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality and What Really Matters where she discusses the importance of recognizing the psychological experience mothers go through during pregnancy and birth.
Most women would not dream of going through nine months of pregnancy without the requisite prenatal care – regular doctors’ appointments, special vitamins, a well-balanced diet, and diagnostic tests to check on the health of the baby. Yet they do not devote nearly the same amount of time or attention, if any, to the psychological aspects of impending motherhood. They fail to recognize how this profound role they are about to assume will alter their lives forever.
Typically, when a woman plans for life after pregnancy, she considers only her work and childcare arrangements. By the last trimester, she has probably already lined up a nanny or selected a day-care center, or at least thought about it. She also may have arranged for a more flexible work schedule in order to meet the demands of her new family life, which is just around the corner. But women generally do not take the time to reflect on the journey to motherhood, although they seem to have plenty of time to attend prenatal Pilates classes and register for the latest baby paraphernalia. They do not stop to ask themselves, “Am I ready to become a mother? What are my biggest fears regarding motherhood? What might it be like to stay at home alone with a newborn all day during those first few months? How can I begin to integrate and prioritize my different roles? And what does my relationship with my own mother have to do with any of this?
Today much has been made of the “supermom” phenomenon, the pressure for a woman to achieve perfection in each of her roles – mother, wife and professional. As a result, many women approach motherhood n overdrive, believing they must “accomplish” something at every point along the path to parenthood. The ideal pregnancy is one in which a woman exercises such control over her body that she does not need to wear maternity clothes until her eighth month. The gold standard for labor and delivery is a quick, easy, epidural-free birth. And the model for new motherhood is a woman who immediately bonds with her newborn, has no difficulties breastfeeding and knows exactly how to interpret every one of her baby’s coos and cries. During the first few months postpartum, the perfect new mom nurtures her child in such a way that he is the first kid on the block to roll over, walk, talk and hum along with Bach’s Prelude in D Minor. This accomplishment-focused mother is so busy trying to achieve what she considers to be the essential goals of motherhood, that it is no wonder she is left with no time to contemplate what being a mother means in the context of her own personal universe. And that self-analysis can be crucial as a woman attempts to navigate the postpartum period and life with an infant.
Throughout the transition to motherhood, a woman may ponder the question, “Who am I?” as she tries to incorporate the unfamiliar role of mother into her identity. An expectant mother’s changing view of herself is just one of the many things that can affect her adjustment during this transition. Others include the degree to which she desires to become a mom, her earliest childhood experiences with her own mother, her general reflections of family life, and her relationship with her husband or partner. The extent to which she buys into societal expectations regarding motherhood also influences how she will experience the shift to her colossal new role.
Mothers and daughters
Pregnancy and birth can trigger a flood of memories for an expectant mother about her own upbringing and, in the process, reveal a wealth of information about her relationship with her own mother. All of a sudden, a woman may recall how supportive her own mother was, what her mother sacrificed for her, or how her mother attended every one of her sporting events. A new or expectant mother may also face painful or sad memories, instances when her on mom somehow failed her, constantly criticized her or disappointed her. A woman uses these experiences, both positive and negative, to start to define what type of mother she would like to be. She determines how she wants to be like her own mother and how she would like to be different. This evaluation becomes part of the foundation for her ideas about motherhood.
Excerpted from The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality and What Really Matters (2007). Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing pgs. 27-29
Author, Diana Lynn Barnes, Psy.D
Diana Lynn Barnes, is an internationally recognized expert on the assessment and treatment of women’s mental health, particularly around concerns pertaining to the reproductive years. She is the past president of Postpartum Support International and currently sits on the President’s Advisory Council for that organization. She is also a member of the Los Angeles County Mental Health Task Force.