The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life

The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life

by Harriet Lerner

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The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life by Harriet Lerner

May 1998

Just as psychologist Harriet Lerner's book The Dance of Anger changed the way millions of women navigate relationships, her new book, The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life, will transform how women regard and experience motherhood.

What is it about motherhood that changes a woman? Why is it that her life suddenly becomes so different from his? Writing from the dual perspective of psychologist and mother, Lerner explores exactly what it is about motherhood that profoundly alters a woman and ultimately turns all of her relationships inside out. Lerner combines touching personal stories with vivid case studies to explore the complexity, truth, and turbulence surrounding motherhood.

The Mother Dance will help moms distinguish which aspects of their lives -- and kids -- they may be able to change and which are ultimately beyond their control. Lerner's honesty should inspire all mothers and mothers-to-be. As she writes, "Being a mother comes about as naturally to me as being an astronaut!" She reminds us that when it comes to mothering, logic does not always prevail. From birth to the empty nest, the author's experience has taught her the basic lessons of motherhood: that we are not in control of what happens to our children; that most of what we worry about doesn't happen (though bad things happen that we fail to anticipate); and that our children will love us regardless of our imperfections if we can do the same for them.

This heartwarming book shows the myriad benefits of motherhood, including that children inevitably help us discover things about ourselves and our partners that we would otherwise miss, and that children can be the best teachers of life's most important spiritual lessons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060187682
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/21/1998
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is one of our nation’s most loved and respected relationship experts. Renowned for her work on the psychology of women and family relationships, she served as a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for more than two decades. A distinguished lecturer, workshop leader, and psychotherapist, she is the author of The Dance of Anger and other bestselling books. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children's book writer. She and her husband are therapists in Lawrence, Kansas, and have two sons.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Conception and Birth:A Crash Course in Vulnerability

I became pregnant in the old-fashioned way. I never believed that I would really become pregnant because the thought of having an entire person grow inside your body is such a bizarre idea that only lunatics or religious fanatics would take for granted the fact that it might actually happen. And then there is the matter of getting the baby out, which is something no normal person wants to think about.

I was thirty when I became pregnant for the first time. Beforethis pregnancy, I had not experienced one maternal twinge. Whenmy friends would bring their infants in little carrying baskets todinner parties, I felt sorry for them (the parents) because the wholething seemed like so much trouble. "Oh, yes' " I would chirp withfalse enthusiasm when asked if I would like to hold one of thesetiny babies. But I was just being polite or trying to do the normal-appearing thing. I always sat down before allowing anyone to handme a baby because I'm something of a klutz and I knew that ifanyone was going to drop a baby it would be me.

To say that I was not maternal is an understatement of vast proportion. I enjoyed adult company, and my idea of a good time did not include hanging out with babies who were unable to dress themselves, use the toilet, or make interesting conversation. By contrast, my husband, Steve, truly loved babies and never worried about dropping them. We always planned to have children, but not, on my part, out of any heartfelt desire. I just thought that having children was an important life experience I shouldn't miss out on, any more than I wanted tomiss out on live concerts or traveling through Europe. Although I thought having children seemed like the thing to do, I put it off as long as I reasonably could.

As soon as I got the news that I was pregnant, however, I was bursting with self-importance and pride. I wanted to grab strangers in the supermarket and say, "Hey, I may look like a regular person, but I'm pregnant, you know!" The fact that other women had done this before me didn't make it feel any less like a miraculous personal achievement.

My confidence inflated even more when I sailed through my first trimester without a flicker of nausea or discomfort. I took credit for the fact that things were moving along so swimmingly and I concluded that this was a "good sign," that maybe I was suited to motherhood after all.

But at the beginning of my second trimester I began spotting, then bleeding. My doctor asked if I wanted to consider having an abortion because the baby's risk of brain damage was significant. Sometimes I wouldn't bleed at all and Id be filled with hope, and sometimes I'd really bleed and think that I -- or the baby --was dying. I felt panic-stricken, filled with a mixture of terror for our dual survival and of utter humiliation at the prospect of ruining someone's expensive couch.

I consulted with an expert at the University of Kansas MedicalCenter, then transferred to the best obstetrician in Topeka, onewith outstanding diagnostic skills who did not think my baby would be brain damaged. Basically the whole thing was a gamble.We didn't know whether enough of the placenta would stayattached, because it had become implanted too low and was shearing off as the pregnancy progressed. There is probably a more medically accurate way to describe what was happening, but this is how I understood my situation at the time. I had a healthy fetus in utero, and I thought that the medical profession, as advanced as it was, should know how to make a placenta stay put. It seemed like a minor technicality that needn't have life-or-death consequences.

Containing my anxiety was not easy. When I was five months' pregnant, Steve and I were watching a late-night adventure story about a group of people trapped in the elevator of a high-rise building. The bad guy, lurking above them in the elevator shaft, was severing the steel cables that held the cabin. Panic spread among the occupants as they swung about, their lives now hanging by a thread. What a stupid, boring plot, I thought. Seconds later, I felt as if I couldn't breathe. I told Steve I was about to faint or I was having a heart attack or I was simply going to die. "Call the doctor at home!" I commanded my frightened husband. "Wake him up!"

"It sounds like you're hyperventilating, doesn't it?" the doctor said when I had composed myself enough to describe my symptoms. I should have put my head in a paper bag. Now that it was determined that I would live, I was embarrassed that we had awakened him at midnight -- two psychologists failing to recognize the ordinary symptoms of anxiety. The television show must have triggered my terror about what was happening within my own body. The image of people trapped in an elevator with the weakened cords threatening to plunge them to their death stayed with me for a long time.

Having a baby was now almost all I cared about. I wanted this baby with a fierceness I had not known was possible, and I would burst into tears if I found myself in line at the supermarket with a mother and her infant. I'm not sentimental about fetuses, so there was no way I could have anticipated the searing intensity of this bond and the devastation I felt at the prospect of my loss. I desperately, desperately, desperately wanted this baby, but what I got was a crash course in feeling totally vulnerable and helpless. Indeed, having children, even in so-called ordinary circumstances, is a lifelong lesson in feeling out of control. So if you're one of those total control freaks, I advise you at all costs to avoid making or adopting a baby.

What People are Saying About This

Mary Pipher, Ph.D.

Lerner writes with charm, precision and at times almot unbearably honesty about what motherhood is. She's a mother, a therapist and a wise woman. This book shows us the way.
— Author of Reviving Ophelia

Mary Pipher

"Harriet Lerner writes with charm, precision and at times unbearable honesty about what motherhood is. This book shows us the way." -- Author of Reviving Ophelia

Naomi Judd

Here are the stories that your own mother might never have had the courage to tell you. Once you start reading you won't allow yourself to be interrupted from the unflinchingly honest revelations about the awesome power of being a mother.

Gloria Steinem

“Harriet Lerner pioneers on behalf of women’s whole humanity. Each chapter in The Mother Dance is worth the price of admission.”

Dr. Benjamin Spock

In The Mother Dance, there are no mistakes in parenting - only learning experiences told with a great sense of humor.

Clare McHugh

The Mother Dance is the most reassuring, gutsy, and entertaining book about being a mother that I have ever read. A real tour de force!

Thomas Moore, Ph.D.

The Mother Dance is one of the wisest and most honest books on parenting I have read. As a parent myself, I ate up story after story, insight after insight. This excellent book offers a reader pleasurable learning, an oxymoron in the world of education and professionalism, and it is deceptively simple. With its fluid and engaging language lies solid psychological insight and analysis.
— Author of Care of the Soul and The Soul of Sex

Betty Carter

I couldn't put this book down. It comes the closest I've ever seen to fully articulating the dilemmas, insecurities, and the many great joys of motherhood.

Anne Lamott

“What a gift. . . . True, touching, practical, spiritual, sanity-saving, and I laughed out loud with recognition, surprise and gratitude.”

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary:
Despite wall-to-wall books on parenting, there is a conspicuous silence about the mother's experience of mothering and how her life and relationships are transformed when children come along. This is a book about being a mother-what it does and what it feels like from the inside.

A mother and psychologist, Lerner combines personal tales with vivid examples to explore the complexity, truth, and turbulence surrounding motherhood. She reveals how children are the greatest teachers of life's most profound spiritual lessons, and she offers her best advice to help mothers make sense of an overwhelming experience.

With stories that run the gamut from the hilarious to the sobering, Lerner spells out what happens to a woman-and her relationships-from the time when the first baby comes along all the way to the empty nest.

" Lerner writes with charm, precision and at times almost unbearable honesty about what motherhood is. This book shows us the way."
-Mary Pipher, Ph.D.,
author of Reviving Ophelia

" The Mother Dance is one of the wisest and most honest books on parenting I have read. As a parent myself, I ate up story after story, insight after insight."
-Thomas Moore, Ph.D.,
author of Care of the Soul and The Soul of Sex

" I love The Mother Dance; it's wonderful-true, touching, practical, spiritual, sanity-saving, and I laughed out loud a number of times, with recognition, surprise and gratitude."
-Anne Lamott,
author of Operating Instructions

" Harriet Lerner pioneers on behalf of women's whole humanity. Each chapter in The Mother Dance is worththe price of admission."
-Gloria Steinem

" In The Mother Dance, there are no mistakes in parenting-only learning experiences told with a great sense of humor."
-Benjamin Spock, M.D.

Being a mother comes as naturally to me as being an astronaut. Nor do I occupy any moral high ground when I help other mothers to achieve clarity, objectivity, and calm.

When I started this book, I had one son in high school and another in college. I completed the project two years later from the vantage point of a newly empty nest. I've valued the opportunity to look back at my own complex experience of mothering, and I've not hesitated to share the best and worst of it. Your kids will make you love them in a way you never thought possible. They will also confront you will all the painful and unsavory emotions that we try so hard to avoid. Children will teach you about yourself, and about what it's like not to be up to the demands of the most important responsibility you'll ever have. When you become a mother, you learn that you are capable of deep compassion, and also that you're definitely not the nice, highly evolved person you fancied yourself to be before you became a mother. The novelist Fay Weldon puts it best. "The greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing you are a good person. Once you have children, you realize how wars start."
Welcome to the mother dance!

Discussion Topics
1. Are there "right" and "wrong" reasons for having kids? What are they?

2. How does his new life differ from her new life after the first baby comes along?

3. What changes (from within and without) need to occur to make shared parenting a realistic goal?

4. How is a marriage changed and challenged by the arrival of the first child?

5. What do you know about your own mother's experience of mothering throughout the lifecycle? What stage was the most difficult for her?

6. On raising daughters, Lerner says, "Your daughter is watching you." What did you learn from watching your own mother about what it means to be a wife, a mother, a single parent, a daughter, a friend, a sister, a worker, and, ultimately, a human being? What lessons do you want to pass on?

7. What is a "good mother"?

8. What is the biggest challenge of raising daughters? Of raising sons?

9. Discuss Lerner's comment, "If you're raising a mama's boy, go for it!"

10. Discuss the difference between productive and nonproductive guilt. Discuss fear and worry in a mother's experience.

11. What do you think are the most helpful messages a mother can impart to her adolescent daughter about sex? About food? Is your answer different for sons?

12. How are kids affected by the "emotional climate" between their parents, married or divorced?

13. Discuss your label, role, or "job description" in your family of origin ("the weak one," "the good one," "mother's best friend"). What roles and labels do your kids have? At what cost?

14. How can you best foster communication with kids about emotionally difficult issues (illness, suicide, divorce, job loss)?

15. Why is the role of stepmother so difficult? How can you try to avoid the usual pitfalls?

16. What are the biggest challenges a mother faces when her first or last kid leaves home? How is it different if she is single or married?


On Thursday, May 7th, welcomed Harriet Lerner to discuss THE MOTHER DANCE.

Moderator: Welcome to the Live Events Auditorium, Harriet Lerner. We appreciate you chatting with us regarding THE MOTHER DANCE. Do you have any plans as Mother's Day approaches?

Harriet Lerner: This is my first Mother's Day with an empty nest. I have no boys at home to bring me breakfast in bed, so my husband will have to do it on my kids' behalf. Actually, we should have a mother's day month just like we have a women's history month. One day is not enough to celebrate mothers.

Monica Lester from West Point, NY: When you go into a bookstore, there are so many books on parenting. It is overwhelming. How is your book different from the others? What inspired you to write THE MOTHER DANCE?

Harriet Lerner: I actually started out writing a book on parenting. Then I went to the parenting section of my local bookstore and noticed that there were 3,000 books on the subject. In any case, there were more books that any mother could ever read and still have time to be with her child. I also noticed that there was a conspicuous silence about the mother's authentic experience, and how her life was changed when children came along. In a flash I realized that this was the book I wanted to write.

Pauline Sands from Austin, TX: What is the most typical response for mothers when all their children leave home? What can a mom do to prepare emotionally for the empty nest?

Harriet Lerner: There is no preparation for the empty nest because the experience is so profound. Just like there is no preparation when the first baby comes along. As the cosmic forces would have it, my younger son left home for college just as I was writing the chapter on the empty nest. I couldn't believe that for 22 years I had boys in my house, and suddenly it was just me and Steve. Couples have a wide range of responses to being "alone again." Some women look forward to all that delicious freedom, but five minutes after the last kid leaves home, all the old marital conflicts may resurface and hit them right in the face -- or without a child to focus on, we may be confronted with formulating new plans and deciding how to live our own lives as well as possible. For me, it is a funny paradox. I miss my boys so much that sometimes I put on their smelly T-shirts when I am writing just to have them closer to me. At the same time I won't really want either of them to come home. On one happy note -- when my first son came home, we actually became closer. He opened up more, and we began to talk together about things that really matter. When he was living at home he was totally private. So don't feel like you are "losing your child" when you have the empty nest. You might eventually move to a richer connection. I could hardly get through the first week. I wanted to grab people by the collar and say, "I may look like a regular person, but I have no more boys at home." My whole life was transformed, but no one could see the change to offer me sympathy or congratulations.

Ann from Columbia, MD: What do you mean when you say we are not in control of our children?

Harriet Lerner: I always want to remind mothers just how important we are and yet how little control we actually have. Mothers are seen as all-powerful and held responsible for all family problems. While we can change and control our own behavior, we can't control a child's unique response to our behavior. Nor do we control the child's larger environment. Also, kids come into the world with their own unique DNA, and some kids are much easier than others. Indeed, some kids are a piece of work. Mothers do not have unidirectional control over the whole. A mother can not make her child schizophrenic, suicidal, or antisocial. She can not make her child get a migraine, punch someone in the nose, or get straight A's for that matter. The message is this: Do as good a job as you can, and seek help when you need it. But give up the magical fantasy that you can control who your child is -- and how your child thinks, feels, and reacts. Its is fair to judge a mother by her own behavior. It is not fair to judge her by her children's. Our children are not little mirrors that reflect back the good or bad job we have done. Mothers are a crucial influence, but we are not the only influence.

Elise from San Francisco, CA: What are some of the most common mistakes mothers make in each phase of a child's life?

Harriet Lerner: We always make mistakes in the direction of either extreme. Either we are too strict, rigid, or authoritarian or, alternatively, we operate like a blob of protoplasm without having clear rules or structure. Either we are too intense or too distant. Either the lines of communication are shut down, or we tell a children too much, failing to protect them from adults' anxieties. Either we are too focused on them or too distant. It is really hard to find a middle ground! The hardest challenge is to be a clear thinker, so that we are not overreacting or underreacting to the many problems that will inevitably occur. With that advice I have probably fixed everything!

Susan from Florida: What are some of the things that mothers can do for a daughter that fathers cannot do? And in turn that fathers can do for their daughters that mothers cannot do?

Harriet Lerner: One of the great gifts a mother can give to her daughter is to live her own life as well as possible. It helps to put your primary "worry energy" into how you are conducting your own relationships with your child's father, your friends, and community. A daughter is her mother's apprentice. She looks to her mother to see what it means to be an adult woman and to see what her own future might look like, but this does not mean you have to be a perfect role model! Our daughters watch us and learn a great deal from our mistakes. But when our words say one thing, "Be an assertive young woman!" and our actions say another, "Mother herself has no voice with her husband" -- actions speak louder. Of course, fathers are important, too. A child is lucky to stay connected to two loving parents who also happen to respect each other. The emotional climate between the parents, whether they are married or divorced, is a really important influence on a kid.

Cynthia Wood from Portland, ME: I am expecting a child soon and am prepared for the fact that my husband and I will have less time for one another once the baby arrives. Do you think having a child really strengthens the bond between a husband and wife -- or adds more tension? How does a marriage change when the baby comes?

Harriet Lerner: This is a great question! I discuss it at length in my book. In a nutshell, your marriage will be both deeper and strained. And don't expect marital bliss during that difficult first year of your baby's life. In that one magical moment when daughter become mother, son becomes father, and parents become grandparents -- every person and relationship is called upon to make massive changes. Add to the picture disrupted sleep, unruly postpartum hormones, and the incredible demands of having a new baby -- it is quite remarkable that most marriages don't fly apart by the baby's first birthday.

Paula B. from Franklin, VA: What is the most important lesson you learned from being a mother?

Harriet Lerner: The most important lesson I learned is humility. Before I had children, I was amazed at the improper behavior of other moms. I knew when I became a mother I would never do these improper things. I won't yell at my kid, I won't fight with my husband with earshot, and I won't feed them at McDonald's. Certainly I wasn't going to be a worrier like my mom. Of course I did all of these things and more! We don't have a clue what our children will evoke in us until after we have them. The novelist Faye Weldon says it best: "The greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on thinking that you are a nice person. Once you have children you understand how wars start." My kids taught me that I was capable of deep compassion and love. They also taught me that I was not the calm, mature, highly evolved, saintlike person that I fancied myself to be before I became a mother.

Ray from Newport, RI: How do you feel divorce effects a child? What are some things a couple who are divorcing can do to soften the impact on their kids?

Harriet Lerner: Divorce is an incredibly painful transition for all family members, but it does not cause irreparable harm to kids. The problem is not divorce, the problem is the way people divorce. What hurts children are 3 things: 1) Poverty -- it is common that moms and kids become poor after divorce, and it is not just something that happens to other people; 2) Kids get caught in the intensity between their parents. They feel they have to choose sides or that loving one parent is a disloyalty to the other; 3) After divorce, kids often lose their connection to the father. If you can avoid the above pitfalls, and both parents stay connected to the children, the kids have every chance of flourishing after the initial crisis is over. The bottom line is this: When kids are involved, we need to work as hard on having a "good divorce" as we work on having a "good marriage." It really helps to see a family therapist who is an expert on navigating the divorce process.

Samantha from Miami, FL: I am a mother of three children, and I am always feeling anxious or guilty over how I handled a situation or what I said to a child. Why do mothers always feel so guilty? What can we do?

Harriet Lerner: Mothers tend to feel guilty and responsible for everything. We live in a very guilt-inducing and mother-blaming society, so you come by your guilt naturally. Try to let go of self-blame. The good news is that guilt is not terminal, and you are unlikely to die from it. Here is another piece of advice for all mothers: Avoid any expert or any book that makes you feel guilty. Mothers are guilty enough and should not pay money to be made to feel even more guilty.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us online, Harriet Lerner. We wish you a happy Mother's Day. Do you have any final comments for the online audience?

Harriet Lerner: Yes! I want to come back! These are wonderful questions, and there are so many more.

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