The Making of a Mother

In less than a month my youngest daughter is about to become a mother for the first time. Like most new mothers-to-be, she has a lot of concerns and questions. Many of them are about her baby: What are babies like? How do you care for them? What will her baby look like? What if she’s a difficult baby? Even more, at this point, are about labor and delivery. My daughter has done a lot of reading, but of course nothing really prepares you for the real thing.

But there’s one question that’s not addressed very often and that is: how will I know how to be a mother?

I try to reassure her that she’ll do fine, that she just needs to trust her instincts and get her cues from the baby, but the truth is, it takes a lifetime to learn how to be a mother. I’m 59 years old and I still don’t get it right. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the process of becoming a mother it’s that it only just begins when the baby is born.

The new mother is only on the brink; she doesn’t really have a clue what she’s in for. And I’m not talking about all the sleepless nights and demanding days. I’m talking about the changes that she will go through as she learns how to adapt to her new identity.

Because that’s what it really happening: you don’t just produce a new person when you have a baby, you become a new person. It’s like you give birth to two people: your baby, and yourself.

There are tons of books out there about child development, but not so many about the mother’s development. Everyone takes it for granted that a woman’s maternal feelings will bloom as soon as she sees her new baby. And while it’s true that a woman will feel different, she may not know exactly what it is that she is feeling. It’s not a given that she’ll be overcome with joy. She might also be hit with a huge sense of responsibility which scares the hell out of her. Or/and she may not feel anything at all except relief that her ordeal is finally over.

I can’t predict how my daughter will feel when she meets her baby for the first time. She’s a very wanted baby, so I don’t think she’ll feel dismay. But my daughter is also a worrier, and she might be overwhelmed by this tectonic shift in her life. And as the days unfold, she’s sure to wonder if she’s cut out to be a mother. She might even feel panicky about the fact that there’s no going back to the person she was before.

It’ll take some time before she’ll begin to feel comfortable as a mother. But she needs to know that it’s a continuing process.  There are tests along the way, but no final test to prove that you finally “get” it. In fact, there’s no guarantee that you will feel successful as a mother. Women tend to judge their worth as mothers on what kind of persons their children turn out to be. But there’s no magic formula for turning out perfect children.

When I had my first child, I was bound and determined to do everything right by her. I certainly wasn’t going to make the mistakes my own mother had made. And maybe I did avoid my mother’s mistakes (for the most part). I just made my own mistakes.

Probably the most important lesson a woman needs to learn about being a mother is that she is not, and never will be, perfect. And her children won’t be perfect either. We’re all flawed human beings trying to help each other to grow into the best persons we can be.

What I mean by that is: mothers are not the only ones doing the teaching. The process also works in reverse: our children teach us what we need to know to become better human beings. We just need to be willing students.

Don’t expect to learn to be a mother overnight. And definitely don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Just be patient and willing to roll with the punches. Life will teach you what you need to know.








A Public Service Reminder (PSA) That’s Hard to Forget

If this is what it takes to get you to remember your breast exams, so be it. I have a feeling I’ll be watching this video over and over. Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the scenery.

Thanks to my husband for sending this to me! He must really love me.

Being a Woman is a Leap of Faith

I’ve heard it said that if it weren’t for faith, none of us would dare to venture out our front doors. Every time we get in a car, eat in a restaurant, have a medical procedure, or any number of “ordinary” things, we’re exercising faith that disaster will not strike us. Just staying alive is a leap of faith; suicides have lost their faith.

Now I’m going to make a contentious remark: I think it takes more faith to be a woman than it does to be a man. The most dramatic example of this is when a woman gets pregnant, but it starts long before that. When little girls ask questions about sex characteristics or reproduction, they’re told that their “stuff” is inside, where you can’t see it. Boys know their “stuff” intimately: it’s out there and it does things that can be felt and observed.

Little girls have to accept that their equipment is fine even when they can’t see it, and in fact, no one really knows if a woman’s reproductive system is in working order until something goes wrong. Late onset of menses, irregular or lack of periods, and infertility are all symptoms of underlying problems that can’t been seen. That’s partially true for men, but not to the extent that it is for women.

A little girl is always told that someday she can be a mommy. There’s no other explanation for menstruation. If a girl isn’t told what menstruation means, she may think something is seriously wrong with her; even that she’s dying. Yet the explanation isn’t all that comforting. She is told that she will bleed monthly for the next forty years, but that it’s “normal.” She has to accept that by a leap of faith.

She also has to take on faith that a baby can actually grow inside her, and even more so, that it can get out. She has to have faith that she won’t die, that the baby will be normal, that the pregnancy and delivery will take their natural course. Modern science has made it possible for parents-to-be to find out a lot of details that used to be shrouded in mystery—the sex of the baby, the likelihood of (some) birth defects, problems with the placenta or amniotic sac, and so on—but ultimately the pregnant woman just has to trust that things will be okay, even though sometimes they’re not.

Even with the strides made by women in the last five decades, women still have to have faith that they won’t be raped, that they’ll be treated fairly in the workplace and that they will be protected or supported when they’re at their most vulnerable (during pregnancy, after delivery, and while they’re raising children). And even knowing that some women do get raped, or treated unfairly or left without resources when they had a right to expect them, women still go ahead and attempt to do the same things that men do.

It can be scary to be a woman, which makes it all the more courageous when a woman steps out in faith and gets out of a bad marriage, or files a complaint of sexual harassment, or demands the same wage that her male counterparts get. Men have to do scary things, too, but at least their track record for success is more encouraging. Men have to go to war and support their wives and families, and yet, in recent decades, women have exposed themselves to those risks as well. Women are expanding their horizons while men are merely staying the same.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith to become a father or a husband, but more often than not it is the woman who will be left holding the bag if something goes wrong with the family or the marriage. Woman have more to lose when they become mothers and wives. Even though they are often granted custody and child support, their standard of living almost invariably goes down in comparison to their exes’ whenever there is a divorce.

Even (or especially) when marriage is avoided and the man and woman merely cohabit, this takes a tremendous leap of faith for the woman. She has no rights whatsoever if the couple breaks up. At least women used to be protected by the concept of common-law marriage, but that legal status is becoming a thing of the past. The man is not obligated to support the woman in any way, even if she becomes pregnant.

The greatest leap of faith I’ve ever seen is when a woman decides to go it alone when she has children. She may have only a dim idea of how difficult her life is going to be without a partner, but she takes the chance that her life, and the lives of her children, will be better without him as a live-in dad. She may lose her gamble, but at least she had the courage to try.

I made the comment the other day in a group of women that “we women are strong!” There were a few beats of silence before one of the women said, “Yes, but we need men.” I didn’t say that we didn’t; I said that women are strong. What does the one have to do with the other?

Maybe she thought I meant that women are stronger than men. And, you know, maybe that is what I meant.