The Birth of a Mother

Hi Everyone!

I hope everyone is enjoying some spring weather.  For me, it has been so wonderful to watch my kids get outside and rebuild their "secret" fort and ride their bikes again.

I published this article for the first time a couple of years ago. This initial publication stemmed from the research I did while building my research hypothesis.  I had a tremendous response, and people asked, "What happens to the mother after the birth of the child?"  Now that my research is complete I will be writing a series of followup pieces.   These articles will discuss more about how some mother's develop their identity, how culture can influence this process, and about Maternal Self Compassion, so stay tuned in for the next exciting installments of The Birth of the Mother!

The Birth of the Mother

Research shows that we start to form our motherhood identity the moment we know we are pregnant and for some well before these first moments.  There are several different perspectives on how this develops, from attachment, to rites of passage, to On Becoming Mother theory, as examples.  Since I am currently reading the attachment literature, I find this one to be in the forefront of my mind.  

Daniel Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern in their book The Birth of a Mother talk about these beginning seeds of motherhood identity starting to form when we start to imagine our baby. These preoccupations provide the raw material for mothers to start imagining who they are going to become.  The projections are guided by hopes, fears, past history, and they reveal much about priorities and values.  Seeds of the mothering identity even shows themselves when we chose a name for our baby, choosing where the baby is going to sleep, and how we are going to tend to the baby.  The story of the imaged baby and a woman’s entrance into the realm of motherhood are inextricably entwined.  

This imaginal process starts in ernest after a mom knows the viability of the baby, around 4 months.  Around 8 months, the imaginal process starts to subside.  This is believed to happen because at birth the imaginal baby and the real baby meet for the first time, and the mom cannot afford to have too great of difference between the two.  The process of detaching from the created image of the baby is a form of protection for the real baby.

When you boil down attachment theory to its most fundamental level it is the study of the relationship between the baby/toddler and their primary care givers.  As psychologists start making in-roads into pre- and perinatal experience, we can clearly see attachment starting to form the moment a mom finds out she is pregnant.  

Stern and Stern go on to describe in depth the attachment style of the pregnant mom and name three styles: dismissing attachment patterns, enmeshed attachment patterns, and autonomous attachment patterns.  

Dismissing Attachment patterns - This pattern describes the woman who remains at an arm’s length from parenting.  She focuses on the biggest picture possible and rarely engages into the small details of life.  She is the new mother who waits 6 months to tell anyone that she is pregnant, and continues on with her life like nothing has changed until her belly gets in the way.

  • Enmeshed Attachment pattern - These moms become so engaged in parenting that they don’t take any steps back to get any perspective.  They are often very close to their own mothers, and they tend to be the ones who tell everyone the second their EPT test comes back positive.
  • Autonomous Attachment Pattern -  This is the middle of the road pattern.  She knows that her past relationship to her mother has a bering on who she is, so she holds her relationship with her mother at arms reach.  She is also willing to become absorbed into her infant. 
  • Every mom is a blend of these patterns, but normally mom’s have  “go to” style.  All styles are normal.  Each type of woman starts to imagine what their child will be like and these patterns affect how moms imagine their child.

When the baby comes, parent’s attachment styles evolve and become more operational.  When a woman becomes a mother, their own attachment style starts to become more evident.  Peter Fonagy, Howard Steele, Mary Main, and Jay Belsky have summarized and researched four distinct adult attachment styles:

  • Avoidance and a Dismissing Stance - These adults present themselves as very independent and self reliant.  They tend to avoid intimate relationships and invulnerable to feelings
  • Anxious Preoccupied - Adults who seeks high levels of intimacy and seek a lot of approval and responsiveness from their partner.  They enjoy being intimate and are concerned about how they are being perceived.
  • Fearful Avoidance - These adults have mixed feeling about being in intimate relationships.  On the one hand, they desire being close to another, but they are scared of intimacy out of fear of loosing the other person.
  • Secure Attachment - These adults are comfortable in their relationships.  They tend to show a lot of flexibility and are O.K. with being dependent and being depended on.  They seek balance between relationship and independence.  

As parents, I think it is important to understand how our attachment to our parents affects the decisions we make and how we respond to our own children’s needs - everything from how you are going to feed the baby, to where the baby is going to sleep, to how to discipline the child.  In addition, understanding our own attachment can illuminate how we, as parents, practice the ever-evolving balance between self-care and giving everything to the child.  

As a parent educator and sleep consultant, I find it always interesting to look at this as I encourage parents to find their authentic voice in parenting.  Our abilities as parents to meaningfully respond to our children’s every changing needs depends upon us coming come from our capacities instead of the reactive enactments of past conditionings.  This is where parenthood can pull us into our greatest selves.