07.26.12 Parenting

Parenting Begins Long Before Baby Arrives

BY Jessica Zucker, Ph. D.

In our wildest fantasies, we rarely imagine feeling anything other than pure unadulterated joy upon meeting our babies for the first time. Unfiltered expectations and blissful daydreams often accompany pregnancy and the process of preparing for motherhood. On the precipice of one of life’s most profound journeys, women are hopeful about embedding security and grace in the hearts of the next generation.

Oftentimes, expectant mothers are lulled into honing the aesthetic elements of baby preparation— creating a thoughtfully arranged nest, for example, where baby will thrive. However, little cultural attention is paid to the mother’s internal landscape and what I like to call the process of internally nesting. With so much emphasis placed on external preparedness, it’s no wonder women and their families feel lambasted by the most common complication of childbirth – perinatal mood disorders. And even when a woman doesn’t experience a postpartum mood disorder per se, she might have days peppered with nagging insecurities and dreadful doubts, fearful that she isn’t a “good (enough) mother”. No matter how beautifully appointed the nursery or how well stocked and organized the diaper drawer, we all get exposed to our internal complexities as we traverse this life-changing transition.

It almost seems fundamental that becoming a parent alters your worldview. Disoriented due to extreme sleep deprivation, feeling (maybe for the first time) the pains and pleasures of the tugging and stretching of your heartstrings and a rush of potentially confusing identity issues flood the mind/body at the outset of fitting into your new parental skin. By entering the community of parenthood, we dare to get messy in the continuum of complicated feelings – ranging from moments of expectable maternal anxiety to temporarily debilitating postpartum mood disorders. No matter where we find ourselves on this colorful spectrum from one day to the next, the mosaic of feelings are worthy of soulful investigation.

Countless women ask me why pregnancy is such an optimal time to internally nest. Here are some essential reasons why buttressing self-understanding is vital during the mothering metamorphosis.

How you feel about yourself and your newfound role as a mother is felt by your baby. The richer your self-awareness, the safer your baby will feel in your care. Old school thinkers may tempt you into believing that newborns don’t understand anything or that infants won’t remember the initial moments of life. Though babies might not be sitting in therapy offices 18 years later reflecting on their earliest memories of being born, research shows that initial experiences (and lack of experiences) of trust, security and attunement last a lifetime.

Cultivating a sense of reciprocal intimacy in this burgeoning relationship relies, in part, on how you navigate the many feelings that arise each day. It is not a danger to the budding relationship with your child to experience the feelings. It is what you do with these poignant moments, how you understand the feelings, and the way you react to them that matters most. There is no more powerful a way to invoke the memory of your childhood than to become a parent yourself. And the opposite of this is true as well. Getting a taste of what you didn’t get from your parents while parenting your newborn can stir up enigmatic feelings that viscerally catch us off guard, leaving us potentially panic-stricken.

Our own childhood histories don’t simply fade into the background upon becoming a parent. In fact, entering the maze of motherhood often stimulates memories long forgotten. Though they might not be consciously remembered, early experiences get stored deep in the crevices of our psyches and in the muscle memory of our bodies. A potentially daunting task, swimming in the complicated pools of our past may ensure a smoother childhood for our offspring. Research states that “experiences that are not fully processed may create unresolved and leftover issues that influence how we react to our children” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Attempting to make connections between the ways in which the past impacts the present awards us a freedom and flexibility of being with ourselves and with our infants. Heightened self-reflection might allow us to mindfully disentangle during a highly charged maternal moment, signaling a turning point in how we understand our mindset and communicate these insights. Developing a clearer sense of how we’ve been shaped by the parenting we received fosters a more conscientious parenting path.

“Having an intolerance for helplessness can lead to parental behaviors that target that helplessness in children and attack them for it. Even with love and the best of intentions, we may be filled with old defenses that make our children’s experiences intolerable to us. This may be the origin of parental ambivalence. Parental ambivalence comes in many forms, often derived from unresolved issues. Parents can find themselves filled with conflicted feelings that compromise their ability to be open and loving to their child. With defenses rigidly constructed in our childhood and beyond, we can become frozen in our ability to adapt to the new role of caring for our children in a consistent and clear manner” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Consistency builds healthy attachment. Predictability yields trust. Bonding strengthens connection. Engendering these experiences in your child might require you to dig deep—to excavate your own childhood experiences with the aim of being the best parent you can be. This process can begin long before baby arrives.

Featured image by Riiis on Flickr

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health with a focus on perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, transitions in motherhood, and early parent-child attachment.  Earning a Master’s degree at New York University in Public Health with a focus on international reproductive issues led to working for the Harvard School of Public Health.  After several years of international public health work focused on maternal issues, Dr. Zucker pursued a Master’s degree in Psychology and Human Development at Harvard University with the aim of shifting her work from a global perspective to a more interpersonal focus.  In her clinical practice, she merges her expertise in reproductive health and postpartum psychology.  Dr. Zucker’s research on female identity development came to fruition in her award-winning dissertation while completing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.  Jessica is a published writer and a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS’ This Emotional Life.  Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge).  Jessica consults on numerous projects pertaining to maternal health and the motherhood continuum. Web: www.drjessicazucker.com Twitter: www.twitter.com/drzucker


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