the power of pregnancy

Motherhood brings with it an opportunity for positive change.


Francine was in an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who wouldn’t stick with college or a job and who dated other women on the side. Her house was falling apart, and she somehow had become the caretaker of five large, aggressive dogs, only one of which was hers. Just a semester away from a bachelor’s degree, Francine quit school because “someone had to take care of the dogs.” She pawned her car to pay bills, then couldn’t pay the bills because of the pawn fees. Meals consisted of whatever she bought at the local convenience store. Nonetheless, Francine recalls, “It didn’t seem really important to do anything. I had what I needed to survive.”

Then she got pregnant.

Friends encouraged Francine to put the baby up for adoption—after all, he deserved a good home. Instead, Francine decided to make a good home. She examined her life, sought help and made long-overdue changes—including breaking up with her boyfriend. More than two years later, she still struggles to find steady employment but is pursuing freelance photography and living in a safe, clean apartment with no dogs. She enjoys a stable but platonic friendship with her child’s father and has broken the pawn-shop cycle. She eats healthfully and is a loving, attentive mother.

Francine’s story may be extreme, but many women find that becoming pregnant provides the motivation to transform their lives in positive ways. “Pregnancy is a major life change that can stimulate someone to think about and make even more changes,” says clinical psychologist Rebecca V. Fossel, Ph.D. This does not mean that a woman should become pregnant in order to solve personal problems, however. “[Pregnancy] is not the answer—how you think about it is,” Fossel explains. “If you look at pregnancy as an opportunity to care for somebody else and have your life take a different course, that will lead to productive changes.” Here are some steps to help make that happen.

Examine your old life in light of your new one> Pregnancy can be a wake-up call to take long-overdue responsibility in various areas, such as finances. While credit counselors can help with existing debt, establishing new priorities is crucial for the future. Michelle Wilbers, CEO of Women’s Financial Services in Bellevue, Iowa, says the most important shift requires concentrating on needs rather than wants, particularly when it comes to the baby. Children benefit from the security of financial stability, she points out, not from expensive purchases.

Just as some women become financially responsible for the first time when they’re pregnant, it’s then that others truly see the harmful impact of a substance-abuse problem. Most commonly, women find the will to give up alcohol and/or tobacco. More difficult is overcoming a drug addiction, which may require monitored detoxification.

Do it for the baby> A newfound selflessness can inspire a pregnant woman to take needed action on behalf of a baby—something she wouldn’t normally do for herself. Women, Fossel says, are programmed to put others ahead of themselves. This can be especially true for those with low self-esteem. Such a woman may find the strength to get out of an abusive relationship only when a baby enters the picture.

A pregnant woman or new mother also may seek assistance she previously shunned—getting help for longstanding psychological problems such as depression or eating disorders, for example. “Such women know they need to [get help] for the sake of their children,” says Carol McRann, an admissions coordinator at Remuda Ranch, a Wickenburg, Ariz., treatment center for women who have eating disorders.

Make healthy choices for the future> Pregnancy can be a rite of passage for many women. “They move from girlhood, fun-loving and present-thinking, to womanhood, matriarchal and future-thinking,” says George B. Elvove, M.D., a family-care physician in the Chicago area who has been delivering babies since 1977.

It was this new role that inspired Sue Bertoldo of Pueblo West, Colo., to adopt healthier habits. “In college I lived on Diet Coke Big Gulps,” says the mother of seven. “But I wanted to have a big family and had to stay healthy in order to give that goal the best chance.” Now she eats well and works out; good muscle tone, she believes, is essential to recovering from pregnancy and caring for her children.

Take advantage of the hormonal changes> It may be impossible to prove scientifically, but pregnancy can lead to greater introspection, says Bethany Hays, M.D., an OB-GYN at True North, a health center in Falmouth, Maine. Hormonal changes can trigger mothering instincts, which have a powerful influence on a woman if she chooses to act on them. What’s more, elevated estrogen levels boost serotonin, which can enhance mood, Hays says. McRann points out that anorexia and bulimia sometimes go into remission during pregnancy, though they typically resurface afterward.

Rise to the challenge> The process of being pregnant and giving birth can build strength by pushing women to meet greater challenges than they ever thought possible. “In getting through pregnancy and labor, many women see themselves as competent, healthy and strong for the first time,” Hays says. The opportunity is there; if a woman chooses to seize it, pregnancy can be a uniquely powerful chance to change her life and fulfill her potential.