Pregnancy and motherhood open up a wellspring of memories and emotions for many women. Our own experiences with our mothers, fantasies and fears about motherhood, and recalling our childhoods in new and unforeseen ways are all part of the maternal landscape. And while pregnancy may follow a scientific forty-week gestational period, the birth of a mother does not always traverse the same continuum.
Our fantasies represent our dreams, and motherhood is often thought of as a dreamy and dynamic time. During this time, we fantasize as a way to have hope for and understand the future. Our maternal fantasies can also help us cope with new life events and circumstances. They are often a way of attempting to “see” into our future selves and those of our children.
In my clinical work as a psychologist, I often talk with women about the ways in which their pregnancies, births, and motherhood fantasies did not match reality once their babies were born. Sometimes, this contrasting experience can set women up for feelings of self-judgment, disappointment, and sadness. Yet, the opposite can also ring true. I have met with plenty of women whose fears surrounding motherhood dissipated once their babies arrived, and they embraced mothering with a sense of confidence and calm that surprised them.
The birth of a mother
Our journeys into motherhood begin with pregnancy, but not just our own pregnancies. Our mothers and the chain of mothers who came before them inform our maternal journeys. Dr. Diana Barnes, a maternal mental health psychologist, tells women that pregnancy coincides with what she refers to as the “psychological gestation of motherhood.” Dr. Barnes tells women that while we physically birth our babies, we are psychologically and emotionally born as mothers.
This maternal trajectory does not always follow a well-defined and concrete path. Our own motherhood fantasies may be filled with hopes, dreams, and even fears. But one thing is certain: we all envision mothering as well as, if not better than, we were mothered. This desire may not be consciously palpable during pregnancy, but these fantasies appear in the ideas that shape and form during this transformative time.
For example, growing up, Amy saw how much her mom sacrificed to be a stay-at-home mother. Her mom baked cookies after school, cooked dinner every night, and was actively involved with her and her sister’s extracurricular activities. It wasn’t until Amy was older that her mom admitted how much she missed not moving forward with her career when Amy was younger.
Fast forward thirty-something years. When Amy was pregnant with her first baby, she was determined she would work full time after her baby’s arrival. She imagined being like Diane Keaton in the movie Baby Boom—a vibrant, working mom who made homemade baby food and wore heels and a suit. She was surprised when her fantasy did not match her reality.
As her maternity leave came to an end, Amy could not imagine working full time and leaving her newborn baby in someone else's care. In the end, she extended her leave and gave herself permission to acknowledge how she was feeling in the moment without holding herself to what she envisioned in the past.
She realized her fantasy was affected by her own mother’s disclosure. While Amy longed to pass along the nurturing and the love she received from her mom, she also hoped to avoid the regret her mother had shared with her about not pursuing her own career when Amy was younger.
Amy’s story is one that many mothers can relate to. We all have fantasies about how we hope and dream motherhood will change us (or won’t change us), and we can be caught off guard when our plans are thrown out the window.
I encourage all expectant mamas and their partners to do some emotional exploration before their baby arrives. Two simple yet important questions we can ask ourselves are: “What is one thing we wanted from our parents that we did not receive?” and “How do we envision this may affect our mothering?”
These questions can elicit and help us clarify our own maternal fantasies and where these fantasies come from. By having some insight and knowledge into the experiences that inform our motherhood dreams, we can treat ourselves with the same compassion that we give our children. And, like Amy, we can remind ourselves to be flexible if our fantasies and realities conflict in any way.
When mother of two and psychotherapist Elizabeth Sullivan was pregnant for the first time, she imagined she would embrace “attachment” parenting. She imagined wearing her baby everywhere, nursing with ease, and co-sleeping with her newborn.
Yet on her first night home from the hospital, having her baby in bed with her caused her to feel hyper-vigilant, which made it difficult to rest. Like many new moms, it was hard for Elizabeth to embrace how her pre-baby fantasies did not match her feelings in the new days of mothering. With support, she let go of her dreams of co-sleeping. She was able to recognize how women push themselves to mother in a certain way, because it was the “plan” they had made for themselves before the baby arrived.
Looking back, Elizabeth shares, “Fantasies about motherhood can be very dangerous material.” She tells women that it can be tough to remain open and vulnerable in those first few months, but she encourages women to trust their inner voices and embrace the many unknowns that come with mothering.
What do mothers want?
Motherhood is a general label suggesting that women who identify as mothers share the same personalities, characters, and preferences. Yet when we think about what mothers really want, it is important to remember that each mother is an individual. She is also a thread of her own familial and cultural lineage. If we were to make one generalization about mothers though, we might all agree that mothers wish to be seen. Instead of being questioned, projected upon, or interrogated, I think all mothers desire being noticed for the individual ways that they raise and nurture their children.
“There is a beauty and mystery that surrounds pregnancy,” says Dr. Carolina Bacchi, a psychologist in Berkeley and member of the Child Development Program at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. “Baby-dreams reveal unique qualities of experience, and it is not uncommon for mothers to realize that being pregnant is as joyful as it is vulnerable. And yet, the precariousness of this experience is what allows mothers to prepare their minds and hearts to receive their newborn and invite them to stay.”
Babies represent an opportunity to be noticed in new and healing ways. Across generations, with parents and with grandparents, they symbolize a new beginning and a chance to right our wrongs.
This article also appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine, July 2014