imagining motherhood

What will your baby be like? Who will you become? Questions like these pave the way for your new life.

During my first pregnancy, I constructed elaborate visions of the baby (who looked like my little brother), with me, naturally, co-starring as mother. I culled my memory for glimpses of my mom, reaching for this touchstone of motherhood to guide me on my path. As the baby grew in my womb, my head swam with questions: What would it be like to be a working mother? Would I be patient, knowing what to do? Would I even like this motherhood gig? Going from single career woman to married working woman was enough of a shock. How would a baby rock the carefully constructed world my husband and I had cobbled together?

Indeed, the unmistakable, overt signs of pregnancy belie intangible, deeper changes in the psyche of every mother-to-be. "A lot of psychological work goes on as a woman experiences pregnancy consciousness," says Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., a Berkeley, Calif.-based psychotherapist who writes an online column on parenting and marriage issues ( "There is this preoccupation with motherhood and a piecing together of her own experience of motherhood [as a child]," she says. "There is a good experience or motivation to do it differently.

"As pregnancy progresses toward term, a woman will project images about the baby and what the baby will feel," Peterson adds. "It is really like the baby is going to be a little you." This dreamy preoccupation can make a pregnant woman feel she's in a world of her own that only other pregnant women really understand.

Reality bites

As the birth draws near, however, the imagined baby makes way for the real baby and mother. "As a woman moves toward her ninth month, she becomes preoccupied with giving birth, wondering if she is going to get through it," says Peterson.

The birth pushes the psychological shift further. "The biological experience of birth and emotional commitment of motherhood is a form of surrender," writes Libby Colman, Ph.D., a psychologist and the co-author of Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers (Henry Holt & Co., 1997). Indeed, giving birth is so primitive and deeply meaningful that many women find it almost impossible to articulate its effect on them.

"Having a baby is so profoundly transforming on every possible level, from the practical — how do I spend the next hour — to the most psychological and spiritual — who am I, and what is my relationship to humanity?" Colman adds. "Your link to immortality is changed, and there is an awareness on some level that you have truly transcended yourself."

The enormity of the experience, combined with powerful feelings of love for the baby, forever changes you and may make important decisions that seemed feasible in pregnancy difficult to carry out (such as deciding to return to work). Some women are also surprised to discover that giving birth does not automatically imbue them with an unerring instinct for all of the little details of infant care. "Mothering is not magical," says Peterson. "It is about trial and error. It really requires that the woman make a spiritual development in which she puts another's needs before hers."

Life in the slow lane

A baby's need for a tactile, slow-paced, sensual, empathic and emotionally rich environment is vastly different from the task-oriented, achievement-driven world of grown-ups. For many otherwise capable and accomplished new mothers, adjusting to the low stimulus of babyland is rough.

"I remember thinking, here I am, a grown woman in her 30s, married, with a career and a house, yet with this baby I don't really know what to do," recalls Linda Shaich, mother of 13-month-old Sophie. "The transition from working career woman to mother is about loss of control. At the office, you can always plan the next 10 minutes, but time is completely out of control when you have a baby. You have to be less goal-oriented and more flexible. It is really a conflict when this baby is crying and needs you, but you feel like saying, 'Please, can you just give me 10 minutes?'"

The overwhelming concern for the baby's health and emotional well-being supersedes cultural interests and worldly pursuits. Personal needs are often reduced to sleeping, eating and showering. Parental sex lives can often become compromised. And a career drive may take a back seat to what psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott calls "the maternal preoccupation," the intense focus on the well-being of one's child almost to the exclusion of all else.

Colman's most important advice to new parents is to be open to "dreams and images" so there is plenty of psychological room to renegotiate one's own identity and the transformation to mother can be fully integrated with the rest of the self. "Explore every possibility," Colman says, "so you will be in a flexible position to respond to the realities that you discover after the baby is born.