Read an Excerpt
The First Key Challenge
In a sense, a mother has to be born psychologically much as her baby is born physically.
—Daniel N. Stern, M.D., and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, M.D., The Birth of a Mother
Cecilia, age thirty-eight, and her husband, Michael, performed six separate home pregnancy tests, each showing the two little pink lines, and still they doubted that she was pregnant. The signs were there: nausea, sensitivity to odors, fatigue, hunger. But they’d been told by Michael’s cancer doctor a dozen years ago that after the experimental chemotherapy he underwent, he was infertile. They had never used birth control, and fourteen years of unprotected sex without a pregnancy seemed to settle the matter.
When they married, they assumed their life would be childless, and they compensated as best they could. They became the aunt and uncle the nieces and nephews love best, the ones with the “fun house.” They filled their life with travel and play. “We’d show up at the family birthday parties dressed to the nines. We’d stop in, but we were always on our way somewhere else for dinner or dancing.” They traveled at the drop of a hat. “Michael would say, ‘Hey, honey, do you want to go to Vegas next weekend?’ and we’d be off.”
In one of those examples that proves Life Isn’t Fair, Cecilia herself got breast cancer six years ago. They caught it so early that she didn’t need chemotherapy, but the surgery removed her milk ducts. When her cancer doctor told her that she’d never be able to breast-feed, she replied, “That’s for sure, Michael can’t have children.” Her cancer, following his, left her with a permanent sense that bad things can and do happen, that you can’t tell yourself “that would never happen to me.”
In some sense, the fact that both were cancer survivors helped them adjust to being infertile—there are worse things than not having a baby. She never spoke of her longing for children to Michael, not wanting him to feel bad or guilty. He didn’t bring it up with her, thinking that she would only feel worse if they dwelled on it.
When the doctor confirmed her pregnancy, they were ecstatic. Their world flipped upside down, and now they love it. The baby is named Jessica, because it translates to “God’s grace,” and that’s how they feel: blessed. They also understand John Lennon’s statement that “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” They bought their first house a month before they learned she was expecting, and hadn’t even moved yet. The room they’d planned to make into a party room with a deck overlooking a swimming pool was suddenly to become the baby’s room. Cecilia immediately wished she’d considered the school system when picking a home, and began saving for Jessica’s college fund.
Cecilia is a planner, quick on her feet when it comes to shifting directions. She responded to the sea change in her life by becoming an expert. “My sisters laughed at me at my baby shower. My wish list only included things the American Academy of Pediatrics approved. I know what the safest car seat is, what dishes a baby can’t throw off the high chair, and how to try to avoid SIDS.” In general, she likes to be prepared, and she joined countless new-mom chat rooms, read articles, and talked to mothers she respects about what to expect. In this, she’s like her mother, who advises, “You always need a Plan B.” Her husband says she frets too much, suggesting that since Jessica is only four months old, there is no need to stew about where she’s going to high school.
Cecilia attributes her tendencies to be a planner, as well as a worrier, to her childhood. She’s the oldest daughter of three, and her mom and dad suddenly divorced when she was six, because her father had been unfaithful. Her mother, of Mexican descent, moved the family back from a distant suburb into a tight-knit urban Italian community where her former mother-in-law lived, so she could go back to work with the help of her ex-husband’s family (her own mother was deceased). Cecilia grew up feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was often anxious about whether they’d have the rent money when the landlord knocked on the door, and worried that her mother sometimes looked sad. Overwhelmed, her mom lashed out in anger on occasion. As the oldest of three, as soon as Cecilia was ten, she supervised her younger sisters after school until her mom came home from work.
She doesn’t fault her mother, whom she describes as “wonderful.” She experienced her as “devoted,” always making the girls her priority. She recalls that her mother fed them first, eating what remained. If she had some leftover money, she spent it on the girls. She taught them pride: “It doesn’t matter if your clothes are new; it matters if they’re clean and pressed.” She also taught her to be proactive, saying repeatedly, “If there is something in your life you don’t like, you are the only one who can change it.” When her two sisters had children, she appreciated her mother’s devotion with adult eyes, noticing how she gives her all to her grandkids.
When Cecilia became pregnant, she felt confident that she could repeat the best pieces of her mothering without idealizing her mother’s human flaws. She, too, intends to put her daughter’s needs first, and feels certain that she’ll be able to convey to her daughter that she’ll always be taken care of. She is certain that she’ll repeat the maternal dedication she herself experienced growing up.
Her mother wasn’t perfect, and Cecilia wants to do a few things a little differently. She says, “I want Jessica to be a child of her age. I don’t want her to be aware of the pressures that the adults in her life have.” She also rejects the importance her mother placed on appearances. Perhaps culturally driven, in response to stereotypes about Mexican-Americans in those days, her mother was preoccupied with making her girls look pretty all the time. Cecilia says, “Don’t get me wrong. On Easter, Jessica was gorgeous in her little dress and patent leather shoes, but when I buy clothes, I think, ‘Is it comfortable? Is it warm? Will it last?’ ” One of her sisters is just like their mother that way, but Cecilia says, “I don’t obsess about how Jessica looks.”
Cecilia views her mother’s shortcomings through the lens of maturity. She doesn’t fault her mother for being overwhelmed at times. “I’ve got new props* for single moms now. I can’t imagine how I would have been when I was teary and couldn’t sleep and had indigestion if I’d been on my own with no husband, no mother, no money.” She gives her mother credit for wanting to do the best she could by her children, even if she sometimes stumbled. Her heart was always in the right place, and, in her way of thinking, that offsets any mistakes her mom made.
At almost forty, Cecilia entered motherhood with a strong sense of identity as a nonmother. Her work in accounting and bookkeeping is important to her, and she says, “I always try to be the best: the best employee, the best sister, the best wife.” She differentiated herself from her mother long ago: her marriage is thriving, she is financially self-supporting, and knows that she’d never be as broke or helpless as her mom was when her world turned upside down because of her father’s unfaithfulness. When Cecilia became a mother, she was at peace with the ways she’s like her mother
*Slang for proper respect.
(“my kitchen table suffers from mom syndrome—it catches every paper that comes in the house”), and the ways in which she isn’t destined to be like her.
As a childless couple, Cecilia and Michael had their lifestyle well mapped out. They were very free and spontaneous, and yet they don’t miss that existence. “Maybe it’s because we got enough of it. We weren’t in our early twenties, stuck home with a baby while everyone went out and partied. We’d had that, and we feel that Jessica is, literally, a miracle baby.”
Anticipating parenthood, Michael and Cecilia modified parts of who they were pre-baby. In addition to happily giving up the party room, they’ve switched careers. Michael, formerly a freelance construction worker, took a lower paying union job with benefits so that if Cecilia needed to leave her job, they would have his insurance and job security. Just this week, after eight years at one company, she quit to stay home when the friend who was watching Jessica decided to go back to work herself. After visiting numerous infant care centers, Cecilia decided, “I can’t drive up and drop her off with strangers like she’s a package.” She’ll work part-time in the evening when her husband gets home, and downplay other people’s worries about how her career might be adversely impacted when she’s ready to go back full-time. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Right now, I have to watch the cars in the road that are here.” Her identity as a professional conflicted with her identity as a mother. Motherhood easily triumphed, because, as a mom, the most important thing to her is to do what her mom did: be devoted, put the baby first. “We’ll just have to manage on less money.”
Cecilia entered motherhood with a track record of being capable in her former roles. She doesn’t like the feeling of incompetence that comes with new motherhood, and thus she prepared herself with all her energy. “I think I might be the only first-time mom who actually knew when her mucous plug came out because I had read every little thing about pregnancy.” Her one nightmare was when, a few weeks postpartum, she accidentally fell asleep on the couch and dropped Jessica eight inches, onto the carpet. She immediately called the pediatrician for reassurance, and he ran her through the danger signs, none of which were there. She still says, “I could have killed my own kid,” although her husband gave her the perfect soothing words: “Honey, you’re exhausted, and you’re doing the best you can. The baby’s fine.” That day, they set up blankets and cushions on the floor so that it could never happen again.
I notice that Cecilia holds herself to a higher standard than she does her own mom, whose parenting mistakes she now overlooks. And she holds herself responsible for an injury to Jessica that didn’t even happen. I suspect she’ll get past this. Newborns are exceptionally vulnerable, and one way new moms cope with the awesome responsibility is to try to be superhuman. I think she’ll grow into knowing that, like her mother, she can only do her best, because she’s at peace with good enough mothering. Empathy toward your own mother’s flaws is a good place to start learning to accept being only human yourself.
Truth Be Told, I Didn’t Want This Pregnancy
Gretchen, the single mother of a fourteen-month-old girl named Diantha, was as shocked as Cecilia to find herself pregnant. Much of her background mirrors Cecilia’s. She’s also half western European ethnicity, with a mom born in Mexico. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she and her mother remained geographically and emotionally close with her paternal grandmother, growing up in a tightly knit ethnic community in urban Chicago. (She still lives on the block she grew up on, where she says people are not only mostly from Mexico, they’re from a particular town.)
The similarity ends there. Gretchen was crushed when she learned, three days before her twenty-first birthday, that she was pregnant; she was completely unprepared mentally. She was single, living at home with her “hard-core Catholic” mom, and enrolled in college, which she paid for entirely by herself through scholarships, grants, and loans. She was on the dean’s list, and worked part-time and summers. To spare her anguish, she lied when her mom asked her if she was sexually active, since her mom couldn’t accept premarital sex.
Third in her class in high school, Gretchen is no dimwit. She always used birth control, but this one time, she “knew” she was safe. She’d just had her period, so “there was no egg there, nothing to be met.” Her next-door neighbor, Marisol, was a full month late getting her period, and she was worried for her. One day, Gretchen noticed a billboard that said in big letters “Are you pregnant?,” and she had her first fleeting thought that she might be. She dismissed it, saying, “Oh, you’re just paranoid because of Marisol.” She had the slightest nagging feeling because she had slept twenty hours one day, and her appetite had skyrocketed. But she hadn’t even missed her own period yet. To support her neighbor, and get it off her own mind, she offered to do pregnancy tests together.
Marisol pretty much knew she was pregnant, and asked Gretchen to go first. She did, and was stunned by the positive result. She recalls saying, “ ‘Oh my God’ at least a hundred times.” She simply couldn’t believe she was pregnant. She told Marisol, “This is yours. This isn’t mine.” She immediately called her boyfriend Ryan, “hysterical.” She kept saying to him, “This shouldn’t be me.” Her self-concept didn’t include motherhood. She was a young woman with a great future, an honor student at a competitive university, and a good daughter who planned to buy her mom a house once she established her career. She didn’t do unprotected sex, so how could this be her? Her response was “complete and utter disbelief.”
Her family had planned a big birthday celebration, so they put off letting everyone know for a few more days. When she and Ryan told her mother, it went as badly as she feared. She was furious and ashamed, especially because they weren’t married. She blamed Gretchen’s boyfriend for taking advantage of her, was angry at Gretchen for lying, and then blamed herself for something “she did or didn’t do that must have made this her fault.” She nursed her grudge for months. At church, she told people the news as if someone had died, even when Gretchen was standing right there. Her mom cried a lot, and asked her repeatedly, “Why did you get pregnant?” She demanded that she and Ryan get married immediately.
Gretchen told her, “Look, Mom, you were married when you had me and that didn’t even last a year, so maybe it’s not so great your way.” This didn’t sink in, so Gretchen sometimes had to leave the room when her mother wouldn’t let up on the criticism and doomsday predictions. She went to the shower to cry in private. Everywhere she turned, she encountered negativity. Her father assumed that she wouldn’t finish college. Her university was a Catholic institution, where “you just don’t see a lot of pregnant girls running around.” Few of her classmates were supportive, and took it for granted that she wouldn’t be graduating with them a year later.
She pushed back at people’s expectations for her. She declined the dean’s suggestion that she take a semester off during her pregnancy, and proved her dad wrong that she would drop out. She was back in school (part-time) one week after the baby was born, while breast-feeding, and at the time of our interview had just received her bachelor’s degree in psychology. Gretchen also refused her mother’s demand that she and Ryan marry. They live together in the apartment that is downstairs from her mom. She says, “I was thrown into motherhood, or you might say, self-propelled,” but marriage was something she could remain in control of. She won’t get married until she feels more stable, and won’t get married for her mother’s sake. “We’ll see.”
Pregnancy was a bad shock, a moment of recklessness that changed her life plan forever. Abortion was not an option she considered; she was becoming a mother and that was that. Gretchen coped well with this sudden change in her identity by differentiating the parts of her self she was forced to give up or change from those she wasn’t. She didn’t have to quit school, didn’t have to be ashamed of her pregnancy at a Catholic university, didn’t have to get married, and didn’t have to please her mom. She even continued to work out at her gym until the day before labor, although since Diantha’s birth she can no longer find the time. She did need to prepare to provide a loving home for her baby, and she’s stepped up to the responsibility. She hung on to all that she could of her old self while making room for the new.
Women who are pregnant, planned or not, commonly note that their emotional attachment to the fetus grows as the baby becomes more real. Gretchen noticed this when she first felt the thrill of the bubblelike sensations of the baby’s movement. Her loving feelings increased when she saw the ultrasound, and she and Ryan learned that they were having a girl. She brought the photo home, and the ultrasound technician had typed in “Hi Mom, Hi Dad” on the scan. This turned her mother around. They went shopping for pink baby clothes that day, and her mom began to shift from outrage into understanding that her daughter was really going to be a mom and it was time to put her disapproval behind her.
Gretchen is a very loving mother, and her interactions with her toddler give no hint that this isn’t how she always meant it to be. During our interview, she’s watching a friend’s son along with her own daughter. When she tells them to wait a moment for a snack or a drink of water, they do, which is a sign that they expect her to be good for her word and see to their needs. The room overflows with baby paraphernalia. The living room doubles as the baby’s room, and in it I see a crib, a dresser, a stroller, a baby swing, a red wagon, a child-sized bench, a humidifier, a bin of diapers, children’s books including The Giving Tree, a pile of stuffed animals, and toys that sing, make animal sounds, and pop up when touched or wound. It screams “well-loved child lives here.” She chose the name Diantha because it means “God’s flower,” and she now feels blessed by her daughter.
Gretchen and her boyfriend aren’t the only ones who have come full turn. Her mother denies how angry she was, and now calls her granddaughter “my baby.” She hugs and kisses her all the time, and they can run upstairs to wake her up in the middle of the night if they need help with teething pains or aren’t sure what’s bothering the baby. Gretchen isn’t finished giving her mother grief about her first reaction, not entirely ready to forgive her hysterics. But she saw something in the labor room that helped her put her mother’s negative reaction in perspective: her mom is a full-fledged drama queen. She was so overwrought during the delivery, accusing the doctor and nurses of failing to watch in case the baby slipped out of the womb, that they had to repeatedly insist “Grandma” calm down. Her overly theatrical response to unmarried pregnancy was completely replaced with overly theatrical protectiveness. She hasn’t uttered a word of criticism since the baby’s birth.
During her pregnancy and in the first few months after the baby was born, Gretchen did what all mothers should do: she immersed herself in a supportive network of friends. There are nine mothers with babies around Diantha’s age in her neighborhood, and the moms help one another out. They swap babysitting, clothes, and, in an emergency, formula. Mostly, she says, “we call each other for help. All of us get to a point where we don’t know what to do, and one of us has been through it.” As an example, she mentions commiserating about a child needing stitches. The mother of the four-year-old boy that Gretchen is watching is the “head mother,” since she went first. “You can go to her and she’ll figure it out with you.” She is proud of their honesty about motherhood. “You can’t sugar-coat anything when it comes to the kids. If you did, that mother wouldn’t be prepared when they find out how hard it is.” Gretchen hated sympathy, hated the response “you poor thing.” What she got from her pregnant and mothering friends was realistic encouragement: Yes it’s tough, but it’s great, too, and we’re here to help.
Motherhood Is an Idea Before It’s a Reality
Gretchen’s honesty about the fact that her beloved baby was, at first, unwelcome news is refreshing but rare. She’s not like her mother, who can’t admit her early lack of enthusiasm. She shows psychological maturity by acknowledging that good, loving moms didn’t always greet the positive pregnancy test with joy. The way she feels now about the person who Diantha is has nothing to do with the way she felt when the baby wasn’t yet real, was just an obstacle to be overcome.
Transforming parenthood from an idea into a part of one’s actual identity is a major piece of the first key challenge that women face as they become mothers. This process may begin before conception and surges during pregnancy and in the first few postpartum months. “Who am I now? Who will I become?” are questions each prospective and new mom must address. Since most girls grow up with ideas and fantasies about becoming a parent, women step into the role with expectations, fears, myths, and hopes for what this new identity will mean. And it’s uniformly transformative: any mother will tell you that she is no longer the same person she used to be.
Cecilia quit imagining herself as a mother the day she married Michael. That was just how it was going to be. She didn’t not want to be a mom, but it just didn’t seem to be in the cards. Unlike many women with infertility, she didn’t go through a long period of trying to get pregnant, didn’t suffer the agony of will-I-or-won’t-I? As a result, the idea of motherhood was long buried, and so she had only seven months in which to undergo a huge shift in her identity. She succeeds in part because she feels that she’s won a cosmic lottery, and it’s just easier to adapt to sudden changes in identity when they’re welcome. She also is flourishing because she’s had twenty adult years of competency, and she applies what she knows about how to be successful in other roles to how to be successful in this role. Do the best you can, she says, and “if I don’t know something, I’ll find it out.” That and, she says frankly, “don’t give a shit about what people think” if they criticize how you’re doing things.
Since half of all pregnancies are planned, many women have more time than Cecilia and Gretchen did to anticipate motherhood. But like a bride walking down the aisle, or a college graduate buying an outfit for her first “real” job, people in transition wonder “Can I do it?” They naturally look to others to help allay their fears. As prospective mothers, women contemplate what parenting will be like for them, and use their maternal role model as a point of reference.
As hysterical as her mother was, Gretchen could see ways in which she’d be happy to be like her. She admires all the fortitude it took for her mother to come to Chicago with only a third-grade education, and establish herself as a legal immigrant with a steady job and a caring community. She can now read English, which Gretchen notes is not the case for many people with her mom’s background. Gretchen could be describing herself, in managing to finish college, when she says of her mother, “She doesn’t realize all that she’s done in her life.” Her mom is very affectionate, noting “we’re an ‘I love you’ type of family.” When Gretchen sees Diantha play with her baby doll, rubbing her tenderly, she knows that she’s repeated the type of warm mothering she had benefited from.
The Unmothered Mother: Rejecting the Role Model
For some women, however, the prospect of being like your mother is very troublesome. Sharon, a high school English teacher, worried about becoming a mother since the first time she really thought about it, at least twenty years ago. No one who knows her mom would want to be like her. Sharon knows only too well that her fascination with Hollywood-Mom exposés, from Joan Crawford à la Mommy Dearest to whether Britney Spears always uses an infant car seat, is directly related to her own upbringing. Like the daughter of a beloved starlet with a secret, Sharon lived inside the upside-down world of a revered society matron who never showed her alcohol-fueled rages anywhere but at home.
Sharon’s list of things she doesn’t want to do or be is long. She doesn’t want to be a mom who has two personalities, one public and another private. She wants a family with no deep, dark secrets. She doesn’t want to raise her voice, let alone slap her child. She won’t permit alcohol in her house, and she doesn’t even take aspirin for a headache in case it might be a slippery slope to substance abuse.
She is so afraid of becoming like her mother that she tried to marry a man whom she could count on to step in if she does something wrong, a form of insurance against her past. She believes that her husband is someone who would never pretend everything is fine when it isn’t, lose himself in his work, or abdicate fatherly responsibility. Still, she can’t help being afraid that fatherhood could change him.
Most of all, Sharon wants a role model for motherhood. She constantly compares her imagined self to other women. At parent-teacher conferences, she finds that she analyzes her students’ parents, wondering how she would handle the sullen teenager who isn’t meeting her potential, the child with attention deficit disorder, or the artsy superstar with a gift for writing and a taste for gender-bending apparel. She categorizes her imaginary reactions to what she sees other mothers do: “bad,” “disastrous,” “perfect.” She watches women at the grocery store, trying to discern the secret of calming a toddler at the checkout line, wondering how tired mothers find the patience to soothe tired children, knowing that she herself was never soothed in this way.
Sharon can’t turn to her older sister Janet for help because Janet has decided that having children is too risky. Janet wouldn’t get married until her fiancé agreed to remain a childless couple, and, eight years later, she shows no sign of changing her mind. Unlike Janet and Sharon, Sharon’s younger sister Suzanne got pregnant, and then married, at an early age. Sharon feels that Suzanne, in an attempt to avoid duplicating their mother’s extreme behavior, has gone too far the other way. Sure, she doesn’t yell or hit her six-year-old son, but she never sets a limit, either, and Sharon can barely stand to be with her spoiled nephew. The idea of ending up like her sister is only a bit less distasteful than the idea of ending up like their mother.
Women like Gretchen and Cecilia, who look at their own mothers with admiration, feel more or less equipped for the job. Their experience of being parented, while not perfect, was good enough to allow them the freedom not to sweat the small stuff. Gretchen, for example, fundamentally believes that she can do about as well as anyone else when it comes to parenting. In fact, her description of herself is a testament to maternal self-esteem. When Diantha was born, she says, “I was an inexperienced good mom.” Motherhood is challenging, but she feels up to the task. She saw her own single mom manage; so will she. She’s become a contemplative mother, because it’s in her personality to engage in self-examination, but she isn’t destined to drive herself crazy with worry.
Mothers like Sharon regularly fear failure. No mistake will be acceptable, no failure easily dismissed. Self-doubting mothers often share a common worry: becoming their mothers. Who rejects the model provided by her own parent? These are the women who in this book will be called “unmothered mothers.” While the umbrella labeled “good enough” is a mile wide, there are outliers, women so ineffective that their daughters left childhood without any sense of what competent mothering looks like. These inadequately mothered daughters, when they become moms, lack even the flimsiest guide that most women take out of childhood.
How does a woman know if she is an unmothered mother? Surely, daughters of good-enough mothers sometimes reject parts of their upbringing but it’s the distinction between wanting to do differently and wanting to be different. Many well-mothered women say “I shouldn’t do that,” or “I will handle that issue differently,” just as Cecilia and Gretchen do. The unmothered mother says “I must not be like her.” Her repudiation of her mother is deep; it reaches into her core self. For her, the heart and soul of her identity as a mom must be fundamentally different. These women typically know who they are because a primary parenting goal is to avoid reproducing what they themselves experienced.
They may be the daughters of women who were abusive or neglectful, where the need to do things differently is obvious. Others are daughters of could-have-been-worse mothers who manipulate through guilt, shame, blame, and self-pity while providing for the basic physical needs of childhood. They may have been mothers who criticized but could not praise, who required an emotional payback for every gift, or who lavished attention on a favored sibling. Perhaps they made their children feel burdensome, or taught their daughters to loathe their bodies as they did. They may have been so emotionally or physically fragile that they “parentified” their daughters by forcing them to act as if they were the adult caretaker, the “little mama,” too early.
Women who emerge from wounded childhoods enter their own journey through motherhood with an extra burden in today’s culture of perfectionism. Without lived experience to guide the way, the tunnel is pitch black. And they have firsthand knowledge of the damage inadequate mothers can inflict. It takes guts to mother when you know that you wish to reshape motherhood. For once you get the job, you can’t cancel the contract. Much is at stake—the health, happiness, and well-being of those loved most passionately—without any chance to truly anticipate the journey until you’re already at sea. If you discover, as countless novice and experienced mothers do every day, that you have only a vague idea of how to navigate the territory, culture insists that you keep silent, lest you be marked with the scarlet letter that signifies Bad Mother.
Any mother who rejects the model she grew up with enters motherhood intending to create a new blueprint. If she wasn’t well-mothered, she aspires for more, believing that nurturing can be learned, that she can grow and develop as a mother, literally on the job. Daunted, perhaps anxious, but also brave and determined, she resists the idea that nurturing is only inhaled at a critical developmental time, or that once missed, the deficiency cannot be undone. By the very act of giving birth, she renounces the notion that mothering is innate, fixed in the past.
From the Hardcover edition.