Birth of a Mother

I have been reading a book by Daniel Stern called “The Birth of a Mother.” Daniel Stern was a psychiatrist who worked with parents and infants, who wrote extensively about this work, and who has been a major professional inspiration to me.

In “The Birth of a Mother”, Dr. Stern writes about the phases women go through as they enter into motherhood. During pregnancy, he writes, women spend a great deal of time fantasizing about their baby–the kind of child it will be, the role it will play, and the relationship it will have to her. (Of course, this is all fantasy, and eventually the real baby will replace the fantasy baby in the mother’s mind, if all goes well.)

According to Dr. Stern, these are some common baby roles/identities expectant moms imagine:

-The baby will be a giver of unconditional love

-The baby could be a replacement for a deceased love one

-The baby might be expected to be an antidepressant

-The mother may wish to fulfill her own dreams vicariously through the baby

-The baby could be expected to be the glue that holds the parents’ marriage together

-The mother may worry that the father will experience the baby as his competitor for his wife’s attention/affection

-The baby will enable the parents to become the perfect family

-The mother may worry that her baby will perpetuate particular flaws that run in the family

-The baby can be seen as a gift from the husband, from medical science, or from God

-The baby may be expected to contribute to the upward social mobility of the family, especially when the parents are emigrants

-Mothers may also imagine that their baby will be the family conciliator who will bridge interpersonal divides and repair damaged relationships among family members

-Babies are also sometimes expected to carry on the family traditions in terms of work, education, status, etc

Reading Dr. Stern’s categories made me aware that in my first pregnancy, I had hoped my baby would be a “dream fulfiller” as well as the “family conciliator.” First, I had wanted him to be a girl, since girls are scarce in my husband’s family–so I thought having a daughter would endear me to my in-laws. I also wanted a daughter so that I could experience the loving mother-daughter relationship I never had with my own mother but had yearned for. Learning that I was having a son simultaneously shattered both of those fantasies (and even more so when I found out my second baby was another son, since we were stopping at two).

After I had embraced the gender of my baby, though, I began to imagine that he would be the magnet that would finally draw my family together. And, more than that, he would help me to build closer relationships with my husband’s family. But–once he was born–it was clear that no baby could work these kind of interpersonal miracles. And it was too much to ask of him. Over time, I had to let go of my wishes and accept the reality my baby and of motherhood, with all of its beauty, wonder, pain, and fatigue.

And now, as I reflect on this, I am completely amazed by the mental work that women do as they become mothers. Really–becoming a mother is probably the most maturing experience a woman can have.

I wonder–do any of these fantasy-baby categories sound familiar to you? Do you remember how you reconciled your fantasy baby with your real-life baby? If so, did it require a lot of mental effort, or was it instantaneous and natural?

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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