How Mother Love Transforms
By Dr. Brenda Hunter
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 1, January-February 1999, pp. 4-8
We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time
Wynonna Judd, country music singer, believes that children change a woman forever "I don't know if I ever would have gotten off the road for a man," says Wynonna. "Everything I ever said or did or felt was about music. It's almost like this little spirit named Elijah had to come into my life to get my attention."
What has toddler Elijah taught his mother about life? "I think Elijah gave me that incredible perspective of what life is really about: learning to love," observes Wynonna. "No matter if he's a nightmare and acting up, I have to learn to love him in spite of that."
Elijah, along with his baby sister, Pauline, has also anchored his mother to life in a radically new way. The way you live your life isn't about being talented or how much money you make," says Wynonna. "To me, success can be equally as devastating as failure. It takes you away from yourself. Now, after having two kids, I've learned that life is about balance and accepting the fact that I'm not perfect and accepting the fact that I don't have all the answers."
Self-acceptance. Balance. Humility. What powerful gifts mother love has bestowed on country music's reigning queen.
Is Wynonna's experience unique to her, or is it universal? It's both. While her children have worked their alchemy on their mother's life and heart out of their unique personalities, countless other women around the globe fall in love with their own children. Like Wynonna, those mothers have discovered that their priorities, their values, and their sense of self have been changed by that love.
I have found that children will transform a woman's life if she permits it. Babies are so fresh and green, so dependent and vulnerable, that most women feel fiercely protective of their young, even before other maternal feelings kick in. Once a baby becomes responsive-somewhere between eight weeks and three months-few can resist his smile. Said one beleaguered new mom of her ten-week-old son. "I'd do anything for my baby's smiles."
Sophocles said it first, "Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life. Through his vulnerability, his small, soft body, and his adoring gaze, a baby lures his mother into loving him. In so doing, he anchors her to life in a way that work or talent or even marriage cannot.
The Making of a Mother
Becoming a mother is all about loving and caring for a child, whether that child is born to a woman naturally or is adopted. Becoming a sensitive, nurturing, "good enough" mother is a complicated process that occurs over time. For most mothers, it begins during early childhood, gathers momentum during a pregnancy, and peaks during labor and delivery. It continues as children enter adolescence and beyond. A mother never stops growing and becoming; her kids see to that. But for most of us it's only during our pregnancies that we begin to think of what it means to be a mother. Shortly after a pregnancy is confirmed, we begin to see ourselves as mothers. This transformation is subtle yet very real to every woman who experiences it.
First Comes Joy
A pregnancy generates nine months of significant psychological and physiological upheaval. While it's wonderful, it's nothing short of cataclysmic. Most women are awash with euphoria when they first learn from their doctor or pregnancy kit that they're carrying a child. "I jumped up and down when I got the call from my obstetrician's office confirming that I was pregnant," said Ginger, twenty-nine. "Then I speed-dialed my husband, and that night we called our parents, friends, and just about everybody in the free world."
If a woman feels safe in her marriage, the news that she is pregnant can be immensely reassuring. She may have wondered if she could even conceive a baby, especially if some of her thirtysomething friends are struggling with infertility. Finding out that she has conceived allays a woman's fears and makes her feel whole like nothing else can. While a man may strut and preen before his friends when he learns that he has impregnated his wife, a woman is more likely to bask quietly in the glory of fulfilling a lifelong dream that began as she played dolls as a little girl and culminated in fruitful sex with her husband.
Laurie Combs, thirty-six, of Sterling, Virginia, is a woman who's grateful to be a mother. When she was thirty, she wasn't even sure she'd ever meet and marry the right man, much less have a baby. Fortunately, she met and married Roger when she was thirty-four and conceived shortly thereafter. The day she learned that she and Roger, forty-four, were about to become parents, she called him to share her news. This woman, who had fasted and prayed for a family years earlier, told me with laughter, "I was only seventeen days pregnant, but Roger told everyone in the office."
Then Comes Terror
Sometimes, however, a woman's short-lived joy gives way to longer-lived terror as it hits home that she is indeed pregnant. In a humorous piece entitled "Mortal Terrors and Motherhood," writer Amy Herrick chronicled the rise of her obsessive maternal anxiety. When she first discovered she was pregnant, Herrick felt both "absurd pride" and "a cold shadow of fear" that was "silent and shark-like." Although her husband tried to console her, Herrick's worry escalated.
Then, one afternoon, I went into the kitchen to have some tea and I happened to pick up one of my "Everything You Need to Know about Being Pregnant" handbooks and my eye just happened to fall on the section about toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis is a disease you can get from handling cat poop and it's very sinister because the mother often has no symptoms or she thinks she's just got a cold, but meanwhile it slips across the placenta and causes the baby to go blind and deaf. When you're pregnant, the book said, it is wise to wear gloves when gardening in case you inadvertently brush up against any leavings of any stray cats.
Just an hour before, I had been gardening and I had not been wearing gloves.
Two days later Herrick confessed "when my husband finally threatened to put his head in the oven if I didn't tell him what was wrong." Not surprisingly, her husband urged her to get a blood test, which turned out negative. The test results brought them both some peace, which was temporary, of course. She then worried about oven cleaners, hot dogs, followed by amniocentesis, and even "whether my worrying hadn't already blighted the spirit of my baby." Finally, her baby's delivery brought Herrick a momentary calm. "All was right with the world. I was home free. He was slimy and squish-faced, but he was perfect." No more anxiety. At least for a while.
The Wonder of Birth
Both joy and "mortal terror" are normal emotional responses to firsttime motherhood. Thank heavens our bodies propel us forward until at last, the long-awaited moment of birth arrives. As a woman pushes her child out into the world, her body courses with oxytocin, the same hormone that produces orgasms during lovemaking. In addition, her body is flooded by morphine-like hormones called endorphins that help her relax and feel close to her baby after birth. This is the beginning of the emotional bond a mother forges with her baby. This process is also aided by high levels of adrenaline that flood both a mother's and her baby's bodies at the time of delivery. These wonderful adrenal hormones not only help a mother to push and strain, they also cause her baby to be wide awake and alert at birth.
Why is this critical? According to French obstetrician Michel Odent, "Mothers are fascinated by the gaze of their newborn babies. It seems this eye-to-eye contact is an important feature of the beginning of the mother-baby relationship, which probably helps the release of the love hormone, oxytocin."
I get excited whenever I am around newborns; not only are they gorgeous, but they also give testimony to the very existence of God. Who can ever doubt the presence of a Loving Father when holding a new baby, stroking his silky-soft skin, and seeing his tiny but perfect fingers and toes? The Mastermind of the universe has orchestrated all of this. Birth is a beautiful experience.
Adjusting to a New Identity
Soon, however, every mother finds herself home alone with her baby. Then a whole new life begins. In Discovering Motherhood, Heidi Brennan, mother of five and director of public policy for Mothers at Home, says she had no idea how she would feel once she brought her first child home from the hospital.
I wasn't able to adequately anticipate how I would feet about my new baby, as well as about myself and our new life as a family. As I left the hospital, I was overwhelmed by unfamiliar feelings of protectiveness and even fear. I did not know how I would possibly take care of him.
Although her mother came to stay with her for several weeks, and her husband worked shorter hours to provide her with physical and emotional support, eventually they went back to their professional lives, and this new mother was left home alone in a too quiet house with her son, forcing her to answer the question "Who was I now that I was a mother?"
While I knew I was the same person. I also felt myself to be different. My bonds with my son had grown stronger. I had begun to change my expectations about motherhood. Having a child had transformed me, and now I wasn't sure what my new life meant and how I was going to live it. I had become an adult in a culture that said, "Don't base your identity on motherhood." Yet how was I to explain my intense desire to give my time to our new baby? I felt that society was asking me to ignore my feelings and to believe that it was wrong to make child rearing the central focus of my life. I was not prepared for this internal conflict, and I felt alone as I struggled with it.
Heidi captures the dilemma many new mothers face in this culture. While they have a professional identity, they haven't yet forged an identity as a mother. So when they come home from the hospital with engorged breasts that incessantly drip milk and they can only fit into maternity clothes and rise every hour or two to answer the call of the wild, life can be depressing. And isolating.
Heidi told me, "That's why I call those early months of mothering the boot camp of motherhood. A woman loses her identity as a worker and is home alone, asking, "What is a mother? What's my mission? Do people still value me? How do I feel when my baby cries? What can I do when I feel helpless?'"
It doesn't help in those early days of struggle when coworkers and friends call from the office and ask, "When are you coming back?" The struggle to care for their babies and deal with loneliness may be more than some women can handle. Some women cut their maternity leave short because the house is just too quiet, the neighborhood too empty, life too lonely, the baby too demanding. Heidi admits that she felt a decided sense of loss after her baby was born.
Home alone, my adjustment to motherhood was a time of stress and confusion. It was not that I couldn't ever "get out." But trips to the market and walks in my neighborhood did not replace what I needed most-the frequent and spontaneous contact with people who knew me, cared about me, respected me, and included me in their daily activities. I had enjoyed this type of support at my former workplace, and now I missed it.
Heidi was comforted by the realization that the transition to at-home motherhood was somewhat similar to making a job change. In taking on the new career of motherhood, she knew she would need to learn new skills, handle new responsibilities, and find supportive new relationships. She allowed herself to feel sad at the loss of her work identity. "As I started to accept the loss, I was able to get to know the 'mother within me."' For Heidi Brennan, that meant drawing on the positive relationship she had always had with her own mother and forging a mothering identity that was uniquely her own.
A Time of Internal Chaos
"I feel tired and overwhelmed!" This is what new mothers invariably tell me. And rightly so, for the first several months after the birth of a first child are a time of internal, and sometimes external, chaos. Although the media portrays this time as idyllic, most new moms feel disorganized, tired, helpless, lonely. Moreover, they are sleep-deprived. Said one weary mother of her seven-week-old daughter, "My baby's pretty unresponsive right now. All she does is sleep, suck, poop, and pee. And I have yet to get more than a few hours of sleep at a stretch during any given night."
When I interviewed 28-year-old Kara Boyce, she had been a mother for just thirteen days. As she spoke to me by telephone from her apartment overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor, I could hear her baby crying. Kara, who had been excited during her pregnancy, was unprepared for the sheer exhaustion that was part of new motherhood. "I feel overwhelmed just now," she said. "When Jim and I brought Rebecca home from the hospital, she started to cry. And I cried, too. Poor Jim. He just stood there, not knowing what to do."
What Every New Mom Requires
A husband's love, presence, and support make all the difference as a woman experiences her transition to motherhood. During those difficult, early postdelivery months, a supportive husband is every wife's ace in the hole. Studies show he's her number-one support player during pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood. For a woman to wholeheartedly embrace motherhood, she needs to know that her husband is as committed to their baby as she is.
During her pregnancy, Antoinette Clyde of Amityville, New York, says she sometimes wondered if her husband was really "with" her in the momentous transformation to parenthood. Would he be emotionally available during the hard work of birth? She writes:
As it turned out, my husband was a wonderful coach throughout the twenty-four hours of hard labor. Immediately after giving birth, I watched as my husband cradled our beautiful son in his arms, welcoming him into the world as only a father can. I witnessed the love shared by these two most important men in my life and thought to myself, "He really did understand what I was trying to say after all."
So a wife watches carefully as her husband welcomes their new baby into his heart and life. As he steps up to the challenge of fatherhood, diapering and bathing their baby, a husband underscores the importance of his wife's role as mother. It's critical, during those early months after the baby's birth, that a husband is tender, nurturing and faithful. A woman needs to feel that she can count on her man as she makes possibly the most demanding psychological transition of her life.
A Mothering Community
In addition to her husband's love and support, every new mother needs to be mothered. She needs a nurturing mothering community that consists of her own mother, as well as peers and mentors who will help her negotiate the rapids of early motherhood. Usually it's only as a woman finds her mothering community that she is finally able to transition into her new role as mother.
"By the time my son was four months old," said Heidi Brennan, "I was in four mothers' groups: Gymboree, a church support group, a baby-sitting co-op, and a neighborhood support group." In addition, she hung out with three neighbors who had older children. "I didn't care what they talked about. I just needed to be with them. They were so at ease with themselves. I thought that if I was just around them, some of that laid-back attitude would rub off on me.
Toni Townes, mother of five-and-a-half-year-old Preston and sixteen-month-old Salina, found her first mothering community in a unique place-Cabon, Africa-where she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in her early twenties. A vibrant thirty-year-old African-American, Toni says she learned a lot from these village mamas. "As I watched the mamas in my village carrying their children on their backs, I learned that a mother's proximity to her child is key to emotional security," says Toni, who would later carry her own children on her back. "Those children were so tied to their mothers' bodies that it almost looked like they were one. It was only when a mother took her baby off her back that you saw separation anxiety."
Back in my own suburban village, I watch my daughter Kristen prepare to enter this larger community of mothers. As she begins her third trimester, she has joined a group at her church and cherishes these meetings with older, experienced moms. (She's the only young woman in the group!) When we chat, I encourage my daughter to have two to three anchors in her weekly get togethers with other mothers of all ages. This is exactly what I urged my clients to do when they came to me struggling with new motherhood. I encourage you to do the same.
As I've worked with new mothers over the years, I've been struck by the longing they have for nurturing relationships with other women. If they were honest, most would say, "Mother me." Sadly, some cannot count on their own mothers to nurture them. Either their mothers live far away or they're on a career track. Sometimes they and their mothers are estranged. When this is the case, a new mother may feel bereft indeed once she has her baby. Who will mother her so she can nurture her child? Where are the wise women in her village who will teach her the art of mothering?
Years ago I heard the late British psychiatrist John Bowlby, father of attachment theory, speak at an American Psychiatric Convention. That day he told the audience that all mothers of young children need to be mothered themselves, especially those who are wounded. He called this "mothering mom," indicating that the more support a mother has the better mother she will be.
While the transition to mother love is seldom easy, it becomes wonderful over time. All of the women I interviewed said that while the early months of motherhood were challenging and involved a kind of "psychic earthquake," once they fell in love with their babies and found their mothering community, life got better. Richer. Happier. They felt more competent in caring for their children, and they changed in their self-perceptions.
And what's more, these mothers said they continued to be transformed across the years. For once they had fallen captive to their children, they never wanted to be released from their spell.
Excerpted from the book The Power of Mother Love, published by Waterbrook Press, © 1999.
Dr. Brenda Hunter is a psychologist and an internationally published author. She has worked as a therapist with the Minirth, Meier, and Byrd Counseling Center in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. The mother of two grown daughters, Dr. Hunter lives with her husband, Don, in Vienna, Virginia. Her greatest excitement at the moment is her first grandchild, Austin, who is the newest beneficiary of her years of work in child development. Dr. Hunter will be a featured speaker at the LLLI Conference in July 1999.
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John Bowlby, talk given to physicians at the American Psychiatric Association convention, Washington, DC, May 1986.