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The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mindby Ann Pleshett Murphy
Pregnancy, Birth, and the Fourth Trimester
I was thirty-one when I became pregnant with our first child. From the moment my obstetrician gave us the good news, I began to fantasize about our baby, to picture myself as a mother. The hazy sonogram image I carried in my wallet, the fetal heartbeat, those first fluttery kicks changed my sense of who I was and who I was becoming. Long before my husband, Steven, and I settled on our baby's name, Molly, I had turned a dramatic corner. Just how sharp that corner really was I would discover in an agonizing way.
Molly died two days after her birth, tearing a hole in our lives. Even though I knew that I could have done nothing to prevent her death, which was due to a highly rare form of intrauterine growth retardation, I suffered profound feelings of worthlessness and guilt. During the succeeding weeks, Steve and I held on to each other, sharing our sadness and loss. Then Steve returned to work and I recuperated at home. As the news spread, a love tide of condolence notes poured in from family and friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people we saw often and others we hardly knew. I found myself reading and rereading every word--whether a multipage letter or a treacly Hallmark card. I hoarded the notes, counted them, organized and sorted them. Opening the mail became a kind of obsession, the one pastime I craved during an otherwise desolate period.
Only when I was pregnant with Maddie the following year did I understand why the letters had meant so much. Having planned for months to be a mother, redefining myself in terms of our baby and our new life as a family, I suddenly felt as though I had no purpose, no handle on where to go from there. I had lost not only a chance to hold and love our baby, I was deprived of my new identity. For the better part of a year, I had carried a vision of myself and of Molly that informed every minute of my day and affected my dreams at night. Losing her meant losing me--or at least an experience of myself I wanted desperately to embrace.
I hoarded the letters not because of what they said but because they reminded me that I was also a friend, cousin, employee, colleague, daughter, sister, aunt. The more letters I received, the more I was connected to these other roles and the easier it became to retrace my steps. I slowly reclaimed my old self, began to feel on solid ground again, but I never really stepped back completely from the place I had entered eight months before. Even if I had never conceived another child, I would have forever defined myself as a mother.
Most of us become mothers in our minds the minute that second pink line blooms in the plastic window or the call to the doctor's office confirms the news. We breathe a little differently, see a different reflection in the mirror long before our contours actually change. I doubt the Dalai Lama could clear his mind of thoughts of the future were he lucky enough to experience pregnancy, because being pregnant is all about the future. We may go about the mundane business of our lives--having supper with our spouse, catching a movie with friends, going to work, taking a walk in the park--but we're already acutely aware that nothing will ever be the same, that our own personal history, and that of our baby-to-be, is about to change in ways that are thrilling and terrifying. The psychologist Daphne de Marneffe aptly describes this sense of "history in the making" as all the more awe-inspiring in the context of our day-to-day lives: "We are both part of the cycle of life and the march of history. This is an incarnation, and even as we stroll to the drugstore to pick up some toothbrushes, or maybe even partly because of the strange contrast between them, it can inspire awe. That sense of awe is often one adoptive parents express as well, in evoking the experience of joining destinies with their child."
In many ways, your fantasies about the future are as important as the little cluster of cells floating inside you. Pregnancy is a three-in-one deal: There's the physical baby you're carrying, the imagined one in your dreams, and your picture of yourself as a mother. They're all important, all part of what makes pregnancy the seminal journey of any woman's life. From the minute you find out you're pregnant, you feel as though you've wandered into a totally new neighborhood. You daydream about running behind your towheaded toddler on the beach or reading Charlotte's Web to your rapt first-grader or shopping with your preteen, and you begin to reshape a sense of who you are.
Most of us don't take the time to indulge in these fantasies or to give voice to them, especially if they tip precariously toward the dark side. Heavyhearted visions of loneliness, fatigue, and unwanted fat get pushed aside whenever someone asks, "Are you excited?" or "How are you feeling?" It's far easier to assume that we can accommodate a small earthquake than to contemplate the sidewalk splitting open or giant boulders tumbling from the sky.
The New Macho Mom
When I found out I was pregnant the second time, my anxiety was understandably high, but once everything seemed normal, I hurtled ahead, adjusting my frenetic routine as little as possible. One morning I was running late to the office, and in my frantic sprint into the subway car I slipped, slamming my head against the edge of the door. By the time the train arrived at the next stop, I looked as though my unborn baby was about to spring Athena-like from my swelling forehead and several of my fellow straphangers were advising me to "get the hell off and put some ice on that thing."
I wound up at my parents' apartment a few blocks away, where my father, an obstetrician-gynecologist, ministered to my sore head and bruised ego. "You have to slow down, darling," he admonished, placing an ice pack on my throbbing brow. "You're pregnant." I realized later that he had stated the obvious because I was ignoring the obvious, racing through my days with a ferocious determination to prove I could still do it all, that nothing had changed. I'm sure I was running as fast as I could out of fear--fear that if I indulged in fantasies about this baby, in images of myself as a mom, of Steve as a dad--I might suffer the same loss and disappointment we had our first time. But even after an amniocentesis reassured us that everything was fine, I kept a tight rein on my fantasies and a tight schedule at work.
Although I'm sure there are women who adopt an eighteenth-century approach to their pregnancies, fainting onto chaises or taking to their beds, most of the moms I spoke to copped a decidedly macho attitude toward their nine months. Morning sickness was slightly embarrassing but not paralyzing; fatigue was just something they'd work around; hemorrhoids, heartburn, varicose veins--not so bad. Even today's maternity wardrobes seem designed with a "what's the big deal with big" attitude. Evidently, there's a lot of pressure on today's moms to treat pregnancy as a minor inconvenience and to barrel ahead with the confidence of Seabiscuit.
In many ways this shift in perspective is positive; we've come a long way from the days when anything having to do with a woman's reproductive tract was considered X-rated and childbirth itself akin to a medical problem. In the 1700s, pregnant women were "confined" and expected to wear clothing that made burnooses look revealing. Before World War II pregnancy was rarely described as such. Women were "with child" or "in the family way" or "had a bun in the oven." And no nineteenth-century man in his right mind ever announced, "We're pregnant!"
Not only has the language of pregnancy changed in the past few decades, but the acceptance of expectant mothers in the workplace, in the media, in bikinis has made it possible to strut your stuff and maintain the status quo for as long as you want. And it's wonderful if your pregnancy goes so smoothly that you can continue to work and play with Energizer Bunny stamina. When Nick's beloved third-grade teacher became pregnant for the first time, her ebullience made Kathie Lee Gifford look lethargic. In addition to teaching full-time, she kept up a rigorous workout routine, practically jogging into the delivery room. And her happy-mom motor was clearly revved up the day I ran into her on the street. (She was running; I was not.) "I feel really, really good," she said, panting as she jogged in place. "Only three weeks to go!" I wished her luck and told her I would call her after the baby arrived. But as she trotted away I worried that she might be setting herself up for disappointment--not in terms of the experience of being a mom but in entertaining the fantasy that even after the baby arrived she would just jog through life at the same self-determined pace.
There are plenty of evolutionary explanations as to why we carry our babies for nine long months, but I'm convinced that those last few weeks, when our bodily changes (and quite a few functions) seem totally out of control, are an apt metaphor for motherhood. "If you think you look and feel completely different now," Mother Nature laughs, "then just wait." Long before you can't see your feet, you should be putting them up--literally and psychologically. As you'll learn, the shock of the new (baby, that is) can knock you sideways, especially if you've harbored the fantasy that becoming a mom represents a little bump in the road. Accepting that you're looking at a Mount Fuji-sized change and giving yourself the time and space to plan for your new life and, more important, for your new sense of yourself makes a lot more sense than investing in a chic maternity wardrobe you hope will double as back-to-work wear.
"I realize now that I just wasn't facing the fact that our lives would be totally different," Emily admitted a few months after her daughter was born. "It happened so quickly--we weren't really trying to conceive--I guess I didn't really admit to being pregnant. Like we didn't assemble the crib until about a week before Isabella was born. I kept putting it off; on one level, I just couldn't believe it was happening."
Few can believe it. How is it possible to fully imagine what and how you'll feel when the fluttering inside you is a miraculous fact of your life, when there's an actual baby in that room you're wallpapering with cute little ducks. Shelly, a twenty-six-year-old saleswoman who was expecting her first baby when I interviewed her, never really stopped to think about why she wanted to be a mom. In fact, as she admitted during the course of our conversation, the pregnancy had not been planned: "I'm still having a hard time believing that I'm going to be a mom. Even my coworkers were really surprised when I told them I was pregnant, because I have a low tolerance for typical kid behavior. I work in retail, and when a baby has a tantrum in the store, basically I have to leave. I'm so frustrated by what I see parents doing or not doing in those situations. So I guess I'm worried that I might be just like them."
Actually, most of us assume we won't be "just like them," that we'll manage to soothe an inconsolable infant or prevent a preschooler's supermarket meltdown or negotiate a successful peace treaty with an angry adolescent. The novelist Fay Weldon once commented that "the greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing that you are a nice person: once you have children, you realize how wars start."
Weldon's cynicism notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe you won't be a nice person once you're a mom; you just won't be the same person. Ever. And for many of us, that sense of change, of evolution, is exactly why pregnancy is so fiercely exciting. As the psychologist Harriet Lerner aptly says, "Any woman who doesn't fear for her own future when she becomes a mother is sleepwalking or perhaps in a coma."
Good-bye to All That
Most moms-to-be experience moments of panic, when the irreversibility of pregnancy feels very scary. Even if you desperately want to be a mom, there's always ambivalence about saying good-bye to your old self. Among the women I spoke to who had postponed motherhood, a significant proportion had experienced the paradoxical conflict between embracing their excitement about becoming moms and sacrificing the image of themselves they had worked long and hard to craft. For Leslie, an accomplished, beautiful business executive, the anticipated changes of motherhood induced what felt, at times, like mourning. "As excited as I was to be pregnant, the first trimester was really rough emotionally. I think I felt two things: this huge lack of control, and loss. I just kept thinking about how I was giving up my career and losing my body and making lots of sacrifices. I had no morning sickness or cravings; I didn't put on a lot of weight. But I definitely found the emotional adjustment to losing a chapter in my life very hard to take." In what she described as a slightly defiant act, Leslie continued to indulge in a glass of wine when she wanted one and to play down the myriad health warnings that bombarded her. She seemed to be saying, "Hey, I know this baby is going to change my life, but I don't want to give up who I am."
In "Soliloquy," from the musical Carousel, expectant dad Billy Bigelow goes from swaggering tough guy to insecure "bum with no money" as he imagines fathering a boy, then a girl. His poignant transformation makes the song one of the most lyrical explorations of how impending parenthood forces us to see ourselves in a whole new light. There's no question that ruminating over the kind of person you want to be for your baby can keep you up all night. "I'm already thinking about how she will see me, what kind of a person I am now and what I want to change about myself," Elise told me when she was about five months pregnant. As she fantasized about hanging out with her baby, going places and interacting, she found herself consciously deciding to change the way she presented herself. "Getting pregnant has forced me to clean up my act. To be more poised, more grown-up, I suppose. Even though I realize the baby can't hear me, I find that I'm not swearing as much as I used to. Maybe that's silly, but it's part of imagining how I want our child to see me."
1. Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 2004), p. 98.
2. Fay Weldon, from personal interview in Rozsika Parker, Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence (London: Virago Books, 1995), p. 5.
3. Harriet Lerner, The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 57.
From the Hardcover edition.
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