Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust VIII: Parenthood? Not Sure?
This Time the Ambivalence Is My Own
Posted October 25, 2017
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
Though I had happily taken care of my younger brother during our early years as if he were my own child and had lots of babysitting jobs and several delicious nieces and nephews, I was not prepared to be a mother. Perhaps because of my mother’s obviously ambivalent feelings about her children—adoring us on the one hand and resentful and competitive with us on the other, I was never drawn to motherhood. I didn't think I'd love a child. I certainly didn't want to give up my life and everything I'd so worked for to care for a child or children. My experience was that men left all childcare to women, and they were the ones who got to be ambitious and the trailblazers professionally. Women in my generation (raised in the 1950s and 60s) set aside their own ambitions and wrapped their lives around that of their husbands and children. I wanted too much from life to be satisfied with such a secondary position in my own life.
I dreamed of driving a car, working and traveling. I didn’t want my mother’s life. Mom gave us her food, her dessert; we had beautiful clothes; hers were plain and frumpy; she seemed to want nothing for herself but to be the center of our family. She claimed to need nothing except the pleasure of taking care of us. The exact opposite, no part of me wanted to be a stay at home Mom and could be satisfied with only a child for company. Because I didn’t feel the maternal pull that other girls and women spoke of, I concluded that I wasn't meant to be a mother and wouldn't make a good one. During my first marriage, my husband didn’t want children (he subsequently had four!) and I let that be my decision as well. Once divorced, I was sure my chance of motherhood was finished, and I was fine with that.
Then I met Alan. It was clear early on that he wanted a child.
“I’ve never been able to decide.” I confessed. “I’m afraid I won’t love a child.”
You’re a loving person, how could you not love a child? Especially ours.
“I’ve never even felt the pull to motherhood. Every woman I know with children was dying to have them. Most can’t wait.”
Not feeling drawn to it doesn’t preclude the ability to mother.
“Most of the men I know leave the mothering to the woman. I’d hate that.
Think of who you’re talking to. I’m already pretty domestic—cooking and doing the food shopping. It’s unlikely that I’ll suddenly turn into the macho man who has nothing to do with home, hearth and babies.
I let his trust in me and in himself decide for me. It was true that he was far from the traditional uninvolved man I was accustomed to—he cared as much about how we furnished our home and what we had for dinner as I did. There was no reason why he’d suddenly change when it came to a child. I was as convinced about him as I could be with no actual test, but I remained very frightened about my own instincts. I started to work with an analyst he'd studied with (I’d decided that I wanted to work with a woman) who seemed to be the perfect person to accompany me on this journey to yet another potentially dark place inside myself. And so she was; we worked hard those long months and for years after. I longed to feel the excitement that I saw in other women over their pregnancy and impending parenthood. While I was thrilled when I first found out that I was going to have a baby—it had worked!—that excitement was short lived and very soon was shouldered out by all my self-doubts and terrors. All my life I suffered from serious doubts about my ability to be the stand-up caring person that my loves, family and friends, deserved. But this was the most profound test I’d ever faced.
I was cowed by the finality of it too. Once I decided to have the child, there’d be no no turning back. I’d be a parent for the rest of my life—responsible for the health, physical, emotional, and psychological of this new person in the world. It was daunting. Though I took very good care of myself physically and had a very healthy pregnancy—I stopped smoking, drinking wine and coffee, took vitamins and walked as often and wherever I could, I was in constant terror emotionally. Fortunately, Alan was right there beside me throughout, reassuring me that he had total trust in my ability to love and mother a child.
Then in the latter weeks of my ninth month, I slipped on the damp pavement coming into our apartment house and broke my ankle. It was raining out and I was wearing flip-flops! Always quick to indict myself and feeling profoundly guilty for whatever unconscious need I might have had to sabotage this pregnancy, I had to ask myself what conflict that fall would resolve (was I trying to hurt the baby?! I couldn’t bear that thought). Always kinder and more accepting when it came to assigning blame, Alan posed another, far more benign unconscious scenario, I guess you wanted to be my baby for awhile. We laughed, and I, relieved and grateful, became his baby. I lounged around the house in pretty nightgowns with him bringing me ice cream and sexy novels. I had longer polished fingernails than I’d ever had before or since.
David, our beloved David (and beloved is in fact what his name means), was born at 9:49 P.M. on July 24, 1980. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I loved him without reservation. He's a loving son who lights up every room he enters, and he certainly added a dimension to my life that I never knew was possible. (I’ve often thought of how kind Mother Nature is in not allowing us to have any sense of what we’re missing without children. The loss would be unfathomable if we knew in advance what we know and feel once a child has entered our lives).
Happily, being a mother did and does come naturally to me. Truly loving does bring with it the wish and impulse to care for. At 37, David is married and an amazing father and one of the finest human beings I know—smart, witty and very kind and a wonderful friend to Alan and I as well as to his many fine friends. We see each other as often as we can and share as much as possible in one another’s lives, yet we are separate, three distinct personalities that blend beautifully to make a family.
Not surprisingly, this success didn't come out of nowhere. First and perhaps foremost is the fact that we "lucked out" with David. He'd always been an easy loving child—peaceful even in utero. Add to that the fact that Alan and I were totally committed as parents. Because we were older when we had David, we were content to spend a great deal of time nesting at home and being a family. Though we each had our own lives as did our marriage, we were ready to slow down. We’d each traveled and lived a great deal before we met so that David didn't interrupt or short-circuit any of our dreams. Despite the fact that I'd been so anxious and ambivalent during my pregnancy, the intense work I did in therapy confronting these feelings left me emotionally prepared and free to love him without pause or ambivalence once he was born. It was his time and time for us as a family. We were ready for him and each loved being parents.
It's always struck me as amazing that such extreme doubt could be followed by such assurance and pure joy. I’ve long wondered if this and the fact that I didn't experience any postpartum depression was at least partially the result of my having so confronted the negative feelings I had about mothering that they were truly dissipated (or at least significantly reduced). I’ve always wanted to do a research study of the possible connection between postpartum depression and the confrontation of the ambivalence that comes with motherhood—specifically, is postpartum more prevalent in women who have not confronted the negative side of the ambivalence that is part and parcel of pregnancy? If so, it would follow that because I'd only confronted the negative, mostly positive feelings remained.
Another factor in our family’s success is that Alan and I have been meticulous in our efforts not to repeat the sins of our parents. Not that we’ve been fully successful but we’ve both kept these and David’s vulnerabilities in front of us along the way and have used these to teach us how to parent him. David was (and remains) very sensitive and meticulous in his wish to please (so like Alan and I in this); therefore, it’s been extremely important for us to underscore for him his own uniqueness and his right to his own life—his choices and paths. Our goal has always been to help guide him while staying out of his way as he begins to create himself and listen to the voices in his own head. He is clear that his life is his own and that we will support him in every way as he lives it. Given my wish for support from my father when my mother abused us or distorted the truth, I’m particularly proud of the fact that Alan and I demand the best parenting from ourselves and each other. If we don’t concur on a point, David usually knows. We’re not afraid to openly disagree with each other about the route we’re taking with him. If one of us is excessively demanding (that would probably be me) or critical (more likely Alan), David can count on the other of us to stand up for him. And we talk. A lot. To each other. As duos and as trio. In our family, no one person is more (or less) important than any other. Our son is included in all decisions that effect him/our family. His vote counts. It always has. He knows it and he exercises it.
Though it may seem like I’m peacocking excessively here or that I’m presenting a perfect picture of the making of a family, forgive me. The picture and the road have not been/are not perfect and smooth sailing throughout—we’ve had the same harangues and troubles that any family does—but we’ve never stopped working on it. And talking to each other! Perhaps that is what the peacocking is about—my pride in our efforts, our conversations, and our commitment to each other. Though we slip and slide as humans do, we are ever conscious to try not to take each other or our family for granted. It is the great gift of our marriage and family and our work in progress. We are blessed.
Just as there is no universally correct way to live a life –i.e. in a committed relationship or single, so also is this true for the decision to have or not have children. The choice is individual and varies with the needs and wants of each person. One of the most critical decisions one makes in a lifetime, it changes the trajectory of one’s own life and has lasting effects on the child that might result. It follows that a certain level of ambivalence is natural with such a major life choice and needs to be examined thoroughly.
Not only is the commitment of the individual great but the changes that result in the relationship between the parents are also significant and need careful consideration- specifically, open conversation about how each feels about the prospect of parenthood and the concerns of each. Therapy at this time can be instrumental in assisting the couple identify the source and intensity of the ambivalence for each and, in turn, the best course of action. (It’s important to note that the decision to have a child with a reluctant partner puts strains on the relationship as well as on the two people (and the child!); it brings with it additional burdens on the willing parent and resentment on both sides for the lack of attention of his/her partner).
Regrettably, too often people choose by not choosing and glide blindly into parenthood as if it’s the inevitable purpose and direction of every life and relationship--not surprising given the external pressure one receives to decide in favor of parenthood--it’s the norm, what society expects, family wants, and what we believe we should do. The undecided person struggles emotionally--feeling guilty for not wanting a child or children, for not embracing the prospect with excitement, seeing oneself as selfish. One way that people avoid the dilemma of making what feels like an impossible decision is to have sex without protection. The resulting pregnancy is viewed (incorrectly!) as accidental—but that’s not the case; the fact that two people have sex without protection suggests strongly that there’s a wish for pregnancy, conscious or unconscious. (And if it is done without the knowledge of the partner, it reflects a serious trust issue that often has lasting effects on the relationship --and, once again, the innocent child. Children have a right to be wanted and loved—an individual going against his/her natural inclination can threaten that). Clearly, It's a critical decision that deserves in depth consideration--one I've met over and over professionally and in my own life as well.