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Becoming a ParentThe Emotional Journey Through Pregnancy and Childbirth
By Jackie Ganley
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-470-86090-1
Chapter OneDeciding on parenthood
What are we letting ourselves in for?
The mess, the chaos, the disruption, the expense, the loss of personal space! So why do we do it! Having children is for many people the single most important experience/event of their lives. For many prospective parents it is an irreplaceable part of how they want their lives to be. It may bring great joy and personal fulfilment or it may bring challenges, conflict and sadness at times. For some, the prospect of children is daunting and certainly not an inevitable choice: to have children will be a decision they consciously make after much exploration of their feelings and motives. For others, pregnancy is a situation they collide with - an unexpected event possibly in a less than ideal situation. For increasing numbers of people today children will arrive with a new relationship itself where the partner is a single parent.
More and more people to day are seeing child-rearing as a choice and not a biological inevitability. For those living in the wealthy nations of the world, parenting has become a lifestyle choice. Having children has enormous financial, emotional and social implications. Whatever the position of prospective parents, whether married for years, a single person, teenagers, or a couple with fertility problems, all willfind themselves financially worse off, emotionally challenged and having to give up (if only temporarily) many of the social pleasures that make life manageable. Clearly, deciding to have children is not a particularly rational decision and if we really sat down and calculated the financial burden, the heartache and the sleepless nights, then most people would probably decide against reproduction. So why does it continue to be a choice that the majority will make?
Calling this chapter 'Deciding on parenthood' might be misleading: it is here because it is a subject that many people spend hours thinking about. This chapter's aim is not to give the impression that there is a right way to decide or a list of questions that you can go through and come up with the right answer: 'yes, it's for me' or 'no, I'm better suited to my career'. At its most basic, deciding whether or not to have children is about weighing up the balance between our adult needs and our perception of the needs and demands of any potential children. However, it is almost impossible to predict the 'costs' of children for any particular individual. One might begin to reckon up the specific financial burden but it is very difficult to predict the emotional costs, especially as these are specific to each individual. Even after the initial decision to become pregnant, the decision-making continues. Having had a first child, it is still a big decision for many parents about whether and when to have number two ... or three ... or four.
One might argue that it is perhaps a reflection of a more 'responsible' society that people are sitting down and thinking about whether they would make good parents. There are few people left who still believe that 'God decides' whether a baby is born but there is an alternative view that we have become incredibly omnipotent and unrealistic about how much control we actually have over life and making new life. This chapter will take a look at some of the factors that are involved in making this decision.
What does it mean to be a family?
Most of us probably don't stop to think about what a family is. The family that we grew up in probably influences our picture of a typical family. Large numbers of us grew up in a situation where there was a mother and a father who were married, with two or three children and our mother stayed at home in the early years of our life. The family has obviously changed over recent years. Separation and divorce are far more common and now having a baby, as a single parent, is no longer seen as a shameful mistake. The single parent household is now said to be the largest growing new household type. The politicians of the Right like to argue that the 'traditional family' has broken down and that its values have been lost too. It is interesting to wonder what the traditional family actually is, or was, and whether there has ever been a static family structure that was such a defining force in our society.
A look at our social history will show that the family has always been evolving and changing, especially in the past hundred years. In the mid-twentieth century sociologists talked about the rise of the nuclear family and the demise of the traditional extended family. Now we are told that the nuclear family is breaking down as we have the rise of the single parent household. How long the extended family existed is unclear, since life was such that extended families could not have been common 500 years ago.
It seems likely that family structures have changed as societies have evolved and our needs for survival have changed. Taking just the history of British society and the number of wars that were fought in the last millennium, it is likely that single parent families were very much the norm. One has only to look at the history of the past century with two world wars to see that for extended periods of time fathers were absent from the home, many never to return and that women had to leave their children in the care of others while they worked in factories or on the land. Working mothers were not created in the 1990s.
So what does the family look like today? If diversity is a good thing, then the family is probably doing very well! In this country most babies today are still born to couples but the long-term prospects for those couples is poor in terms of divorce and separation. The break-up of the couple before the child becomes an adult (even where the separation is sensitively handled and the couple continue reasonable relations) does have consequences for the child. These children are more likely to have emotional or behavioural difficulties but this is not inevitable and there are many influences on a child's development. These issues have to be balanced against the costs to the parent of remaining in the relationship, especially where one partner may be experiencing stress or violence.
Just when we might think the nuclear family unit is doomed, however, there are new types of nuclear families coming to take its place. Many more gay and lesbian couples are now openly becoming nuclear family units through assisted conception or adoption and fostering. Many couples who previously would not have had children are doing so through fertility treatment. The largest new group is said to be the single parent household. However, statistics can be misleading and it is probably only a small number of these families that remain static throughout the life of the child. The 'reconstituted family', where one family is formed from other family units, is becoming much more common.
From a broader social perspective many Western societies are predicting that their populations are shrinking dramatically as not enough children are being born to replace the population. This is a complex issue since populations do not necessarily expand in expected ways. Often the more prosperous a society becomes, the fewer children people will have. Other societies struggle to contain a growing population. So the family today comes in many shapes and sizes probably just as it has always done.
What does it mean to be a mother? Changes for women
Social roles such as 'mother' or 'shopkeeper' or 'friend' are governed by certain rules or expectations. The role of 'mother' has changed drastically in the past hundred years and has probably always been changing in terms of the needs of the wider society at a particular time. For example, during the wars of the past century women were expected to maintain the supply of food and products, especially munitions, that would keep society functioning in time of war. Often they also had to accept long separations from their children who were evacuated for safety. Much has been written about how in the 1950s post-war propaganda (including psychological research) was used to draw women back into the home as full-time parents so that the men returning from war would have jobs. Ideas persisted that children could be 'damaged' by the absence of their mother. However, society has currently swung again towards accepting women in the workplace and there is censure for those who stay at home and claim benefits to bring up their children. It may be that in our current society supporting children financially is seen as more important than supporting them emotionally.
The role of 'mother' is therefore ever changing and this uncertainty for society about what exactly a mother is can make it more difficult for the individual woman to assume the role. This may add to or generate a sense of insecurity in late pregnancy. What exactly does it mean to become a mother? Is a mother someone who works outside of the home? Do mothers go clubbing? Do they instinctively know how to care for a newborn baby? In effect, women construct for themselves the role of 'mother', being influenced both by the wider society and their own needs, preferences and responses to their baby. Your early interactions with the baby will shape your perception of yourself as a mother: if your baby is born of very low birth weight your experience will be very different to a mother who gives birth to a 9 lb baby. Your view of yourself as a mother is not static: it will change as you have good times and bad times and as your child displays different needs and demands.
How did having children become a choice?
It is unlikely that our grandparents ever stopped to consider whether they wanted to have children. For our grandmothers, making sure that children occurred within wedlock, i.e. some sort of contract to support them and their offspring, was their main concern. So what has turned child-rearing into a choice? The development of the contraceptive pill in the mid-twentieth century has perhaps done more than any other factor to create the idea of parenting as a choice. With the arrival of the pill came the arrival of the belief that we could decide when we wanted children, how many we wanted and whether we wanted them at all. So society no longer believed that it was God's decision or that it was a biological inevitability. However, there are other changing social factors that have contributed to people seeing having children as a choice. In recent years the role of women in the workplace has been changing rapidly. Women have always worked, despite what some would have us believe, but increasingly women are seeing their career as lifelong, something that children must be assimilated into, rather than just 'something to do until you get married'. As the dimensions of the workforce continue to change, in many areas women now find themselves the only reliable earner. As service and part-time jobs increase for women in areas of high unemployment, many men, skilled in a particular trade, find themselves unemployable. The possibility of children is financially challenging, as there will be no 'reliable' wage.
At the other end of the financial spectrum many couples today are deciding that their lives are complete without children: the high social and personal costs outweigh the 'biological' desire to reproduce. Couples, and women in particular, can feel that their lives are full enough and that having a child is all about what they will have to give up rather than feeling there is a great void to fill. Prosperity paradoxically makes us more aware of the costs of children.
But despite contraception and education and various life options, how many of us really choose to have a baby? How many of us really decide? Are not a large number of children conceived by 'accident' whereby there has been a significant enough psychological shift for the couple, such that the scales have shifted more in the direction of 'yes' to children than 'no'? However, some pregnancies do arrive very much by accident and then the decision-making begins.
The tasks of parenting
What do children need?
So if we are deciding to have children as a positive choice, then what is it we are deciding to take on? What will our new responsibilities be and how will these impinge on our adult life? Just as much as adult life is continually evolving so is childhood. It is clear that the nature of parenting has changed radically in the past hundred years and probably greatly in the past generation. Parenting is no longer primarily about finding food and shelter. The emphasis of bringing up children today is much more child-centred. The time that we spend with our children is no longer just incidental or about supervision, it is expected now to be about 'playing' and 'teaching' and 'talking to'. It is potentially much more 'difficult' to be a parent as the tasks have increased and become more psychologically complex. Although many of our grandparents struggled against great poverty and adversity just to keep their children alive, it is hard to compare parenting today and say that it is easier. It is clearly different. Our children are growing up in a very complex social world and helping them to negotiate their way in it is difficult, particularly when we may still be struggling to find our own direction. There are lots of expectations of children in our society and consequently they need a great deal of support and specific guidance.
Children today start formal education and are subject to testing much earlier than in the past. A generation ago nursery 'education' was about playing for a couple of hours separate from mum. Now there are early learning goals to be 'achieved'. School children also have greater access to ideas and information via television and the Internet. They are also subject to advertising specifically targeted at them.
So parents today are expected to play, to educate, to support and to guide in a way that they probably did not experience with their own parents. They must also set boundaries or rules for their children without smacking (by the time this book is published the government may be debating legislation on making corporal punishment illegal). It is not surprising really when we look at the pressures on families that children are increasingly suffering from 'mental health problems' and being diagnosed as having an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder 'ADHD'.
Should I go back to work and how will it affect my child?
Most women today are working when they contemplate having a baby or find themselves pregnant unexpectedly. The issues about whether to return to work or how your working life might be different when you have a child are uppermost in the minds of most women when contemplating having a family.
Excerpted from Becoming a Parent by Jackie Ganley Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsAbout the author.
1. Deciding on parenthood.
What are we letting ourselves in for?
What does it mean to be a family?
What does it mean to be a mother? Changes for women.
The tasks of parenting.
The needs of parents.
Isn’t the decision different for everyone?
What if I don’t become pregnant?
Who can help?
Conception: the other side of family planning.
Discovering you are pregnant.
When pregnancy doesn’t happen.
Taking a different path.
The emotional impact of fertility problems and treatments.
Who can help?
3. The stages of pregnancy.
The first few weeks: fears and acceptance.
How to cope with morning sickness.
‘I still can’t believe I’m pregnant’: the increasing role of technology in our experience of pregnancy.
Getting rid of bad habits: drinking and smoking issues.
A time for change.
The mid-pregnancy: making plans.
‘I haven’t had a chance to think about my pregnancy’: building a relationship with the baby.
The pregnancy coming to an end.
‘I still don’t think I’m ready to be a parent’: changing roles for all.
Who can help?
4. Specific psychological difficulties in pregnancy.
But don’t we all feel fed-up at some point?
Depression in pregnancy.
Anxiety and panic attacks during pregnancy.
Eating disorders and body image.
Substance use, aggression and acting out.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Looking beyond pregnancy.
Who can help?
So what exactly is a domino? The choices and decisions surrounding birth.
What can I do about the pain?
Feeling involved in your labour.
Complications and loss.
Who can help?
6. The first few days.
Your baby arrives at last!
Forming a relationship with your new baby.
Caring for your baby: feeding, sleeping and being held.
Babies requiring special care.
The experience of new parents.
‘Baby blues’, post-natal depression and post-partum psychosis: complicated reactions to having a baby.
Those first few days!
Who can help?
7. The first six weeks.
Feeding your baby.
Interacting, exploring and learning.
The recovery of the mother.
What is post-natal depression?
Getting help with post-natal problems.
Who can help?
8. Managing anxiety and depression.
Understanding and coping with stress and anxiety.
How does anxiety affect people’s lives?
What causes anxiety problems?
‘How can I cope with anxiety/manage my life differently?’
Understanding and coping with depression.
Step1: ‘Why am I depressed at the moment?’ Identifying problems.
Step 2: Learning new skills.
Who can help?
9. The journey that never ends.
The new ‘me’.
Addresses of useful organizations.
Designing diaries: Anxiety, depression, drinking.