Becoming A Mother A Path To Womanhood

Conception marks the beginning of a transformation: that of a woman to a mother. The progression through pregnancy into motherhood leads to a second transformation: that of a woman with a newfound female identity (Pines, 1972), one developed out of the context of motherhood. Psychologically, pregnancy involves a series of transformations and becomes a period of introspection (Trad, 1990). The pregnancy changes women physically, altering the form and appearance of their bodies, as well as activating and changing certain functions of their bodies. These outward changes represent the inner work that needs to occur.

Women prepare to become the mothers of their children, while at the same time are still children of their mothers (Pines, 1972). These are among the first tasks of this developmental shift. Lester and Notman (1988) argued that pregnant women may experience a reactivation of feelings of dependency on their mothers as well as a wish for fusion with them. They need to understand who their mothers are, what they represent to them, what part of their mothers they want to incorporate into themselves, and how to incorporate the "ideal" mother images they have been developing and carrying within their own minds (Solchany, 2001). They come to understand their mothers from the perspective of another mother, creating a new level of relating. As this reworking of the relationship with their mothers continues, pregnant women also need to begin to develop and establish a relationship with their babies. This requires a psychological reckoning with both the long-imagined babies of their minds (Pines, 1972) and the perfect babies they had wished they would have been (Deutsch, 1945). Pines (1972, p. 336) summarized these processes by stating, "Motherhood is a three-generation experience."

Benedek (1959) clearly described the transformation to motherhood as a developmental stage at which motherhood acts as the catalyst for transformation of the identity of self (Demick, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook). As the mother begins to "mother" her child, she finds that she satisfies the infant's needs much of the time. She also finds that, at times, she fails to satisfy her baby's needs. Meeting baby's needs generates feelings of accomplishment, success, and competency within the mother. Failing to meet the perceived needs of the baby generates feelings of failure, inadequacy, and emotional pain within the mother. Benedek (1959, p. 392) called this "emotional symbiosis" and defined it as "the reciprocal interaction between mother and child which... creates structural change in each of the participants." In other words, the baby's experience with the mother affects the baby's psychological processes, just as the mother's experience with the baby affects the mother's psychological processes. Each time the mother feeds her hungry baby, the baby experiences the mother as a good mother who takes away the pain of hunger and replaces it with satiation, warmth, soothing, security, and safety—all is good in the world. When the baby does not get fed, the world becomes a bad, painful experience. For the mother, when she is able to feed and satisfy her hungry child, she feels satisfied herself; however, when she is unable to satisfy her infant, she feels less satisfied and frustrated in her own abilities. Benedek (1959) described this process for the baby as translating to good mother = good self; and a reciprocal process for the mother as good-thriving-infant = good-mother-self. Whatever the experience, one of satisfaction or one of frustration, it becomes integrated into the personalities of both the baby and the mother. With good mothering, the egos of each member of the dyad are fed and nurtured, building confidence. With disturbed mothering, the relationship within the dyad turns into a vicious circle, fed by aggression and a lack of mutual satisfaction (Benedek, 1959).

The transformation to motherhood requires women to accept and work through feelings of loss and grief. Barclay, Everitt, Rogan, Schmied, and Wyllie (1997) found women experienced a loss of a sense of self, of how they used their time, of freedom and independence, and of their life as it used to be. Women grieve over the changes in their bodies, their relationships, their professional lives, their activities, and the context in which they viewed and experienced life (Solchany, 2001). They need to reconcile with the facts that they will never again be women without children—even if the pregnancy they experience tragically ends through miscarriage or fetal death—and that their bodies and their lives are forever altered. Trad (1990, p. 359) described, "motherhood [as] a dynamic process in which change is virtually unceasing, [and] flexibility and the ability to deal with these transformations and concomitant losses are necessary traits of the adaptive mother." The processes of grief and loss often breed feelings of conflict, ambivalence, hostility, regression, aggression, and negativity.

Hartrick (1997, p. 271) described a period in which "the taken for granted infrastructure" the women had or had assumed they had in their lives "is questioned and begins to crumble." This idea is echoed by Barclay et al. (1997, p. 721), who found that women go through a period of realization of "the overwhelming process of becoming a mother and the consequences this has on one's life."

Hartrick (1997) described resolution of these issues through a reclaiming for women of certain parts of who they were and in the recognition that they had choices. Recognition of choice allowed them to lessen the ideas that motherhood had taken certain things from them. Loss took on a different meaning when it was understood within the context of personal choice.

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