It is assumed that a woman becomes a mother once she gives birth and that up until that time she is just pregnant. But the process of becoming a mother begins at conception and continues after the birth. A woman doesn’t “become” a mother, she “transitions into” a mother. There are specific stages involved in this major life transition that are easily identifiable.
The transition to motherhood occurs in three stages: pregnancy, birth, and thefirst three months postpartum. When a woman is pregnant she is in the firststage, what I call the “engagement” stage. Everyone knows that she is going tobe a mother and she is excited and looks forward to the big event. Then she gives birth and enters the second stage, or the “honeymoon” stage.
The baby has arrived and everyone shares in the joyous occasion. Friends and family come to see the new addition to the family and the new mother basks in the celebrationof her new baby. It is not until the excitement has died down and she finds herself alone with her newborn that reality suddenly dawns on her—I am amother!
The third stage occurs after the birth and lasts for approximately three months (adjusted for babies born prematurely). I call this the “training” stage, or Mama Boot Camp. It is an initiation period during which a transformation takes place in a woman’s psyche as she develops the skills and confidence she needs tobecome a mother. This is also the most difficult stage when she must push herself beyond her usual limits of endurance, strength, and emotional capacity in order to meet the new demands of motherhood.
There are two phases to this final stage. Phase I occurs after the initial post-birth period when a woman is still adjusting to the idea of being a mother. Phase II occurs when the hard work of becoming a mother begins and her transformation from an independentwoman to a mother crystallizes.
Table 1 shows the stages involved in a woman’s transition to motherhood:
TABLE1: The Stages of Transition to Motherhood
2. Birth Experience
3. First 3 Months Postpartum
PHASE I(1-2 Weeks Postpartum)
• Is becoming used to the idea of being a mother
• May experience “culture shock” as she feels her life shift to make room for her new baby
• Sense of identity begins shifting to include her new role and maternal identity
• She is introduced to the multiple and complex needs of her newborn
• She begins the mother-infant bonding process
• May experience the possible disappointment at unmet expectations during herbirth and postpartum experience
• May experience a new sense of isolation as she finds herself more confined toher home to take care of her newborn
• May experience sadness or grief over the loss of her “old” lifestyle
• May experience overwhelming feelings of excitement, joy, and bliss at being anew mother
PHASEII (3-12 Weeks Postpartum∗)
• Begins the difficult work of providing round-the-clock care for her newborn
• May be shocked at how difficult becoming a mother can be
• Continues to experience bliss, love, exhilaration, sense of completeness, joy,etc.
• May feel overwhelmed, confused and stressed out, especially if not receiving maternal support and guidance
• Experiences feelings of loneliness and abandonment if not receiving enough visits from friends and family members while confined to her home
• May experience changes in other peoples’ attitudes toward her now that she has become a mother
• May experience personal issues related to being a mother, performing maternaltasks, or her less-than-blissful experience with her newborn
• Will make many mistakes as she learns how to be a mother
• Will experience her first pang of mother-guilt
• Will experience emotional ups and downs as she adjusts postpartum
• May experience PPD or other mental disorder
• May experience self-doubt about her ability to be a good mother
During Phase I, a woman may not feel like a mother yet. She is in a mental and emotional adjustment period during which the magnitude of this life-changing event is beginning to settle in. If she was holding onto a fairy tale fantasy about what things were going to be like when she became a mother, she may feel disappointed if the reality does not match her fantasy.
For example, perhaps she needed a c-section when she had wanted to have a vaginal delivery. Or maybe her baby is having trouble latching onto her breast. Or maybe she does not have the support she expected. There are many situations that can cause a new mother to experience an emotional letdown during her postpartum period.
After the initial excitement of the birth, when all of the visitors have ceased coming by and she finds herself alone with her new son or daughter for the first time, she may feel like she has been catapulted into a “strange” new world and experience culture shock as she attempts to get her bearings on her new responsibility.
The length of Phase I differs for each woman, but it typically lasts from one to two weeks. During this time she will begin to learn about her newborn andstrengthen her maternal bond with him. She may also experience a new sense of isolation as she finds herself more confined to her home. She will come to the realization that her life has been changed forever and that she will never bethe same woman again.
With this realization may come feelings of confusion and sadness over losing her sense of identity and personal life rhythm as she realizes that her life is no longer about her. But along with some sadness and confusion she may experience an almost inexplicable joy and excitement at the realization that she is a mother. She may look at her adorable baby and wonder what she did to deserve such sweetness in her life and to be entrusted withsuch a precious bundle of joy.
During Phase II, as she is getting used to the idea of being a mother, she begins to perform the difficult work of caring for her newborn on a day-in and day-outbasis. She may be shocked at how difficult becoming a mother can be at times,yet thrilled at how joyful, exhilarating, blissful, and fulfilling it can be at other times. It is a newborn’s constant needs that can make the training stage so stressful and exhausting. But it is by caring for her newborn that she makes the final transition to becoming a mother. If she does not receive adequate help during this stage, this experience will feel more overwhelming and stressful than it has to be.
A first-time mother will make many mistakes and feel overwhelmed at times with her new responsibilities. It is during this time that she will need the understanding and assistance of her loved ones, yet may be unable or unwilling to ask for it. Not all women will experience the same thing during this phase, because each woman is different. But one thing they all have in common is their need for maternal guidance and support.
Finally, a new mother’s emotions may take her on a bumpy ride as she deals with anynegative feelings she has in addition to her positive ones. She may not haveexpected to have “negative” feelings, especially if she bought into the fairytale version of becoming a mother, and may struggle to push those feelings awayin favor of feeling like the blissful new mother she and everyone expects herto be (and that she wants to be).
Hopefully, she will realize that mothers arehuman beings, accept her emotions, and find her own unique way of being a motherto her baby. But, most likely she will follow the lead of many mothers in theWestern culture and try to adhere to the impossible ideal of the “perfectmother.”
She will feel guilty if she is not doing this “mothering thing”perfectly right from the beginning, or if she does not feel blissfully happy every second of every day with her new baby, or if she feels any negative feelings towards her role as a mother, the things she misses about her oldlife, or her relationship with her baby. These first three months of”motherhood training” can be a very confusing and overwhelming period and she will experience many different emotions as she takes on this role of alifetime.
CherylM. Wenzel-Nelson is a SAHM of 3-year-old boy/girl twins and lives in San Jose, CA with her husband. She received her graduate degree in Transpersonal Psychology and her B.A. in Psychology with emphasis on Women’s Studies. She is a freelance writer and is currently writing a book about the first three months following the birth of a woman’s first baby. For more information about creating a Preemptive Postpartum Plan, or for any other questions, you cancontact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her blog at New Mom Central.
Copyright 2008, Cheryl M. Wenzel-Nelson
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