In The 7 Stages of Motherhood, Ann Pleshette Murphy, a mother of two, explains what parents should expect, and how they can deal with it, as their journey through parenthood begins.
Read excerpts from Murphy's new book and go to www.annpleshettemurphy.com for more information on parenting.
Stage 1 Altered States: Pregnancy, Birth, and the Fourth Trimester
And for more on The 7 Stages of Motherhood, go to www.annpleshettemurphy.com
Summary of Stage 1
Most of us become mothers in our minds the minute that second pink line blooms in the plastic window or the call to the doctor's office confirms the news. We breathe a little differently, see a different reflection in the mirror long before our contours actually change. We may go about the mundane business of our lives, but we're already acutely aware that nothing will ever be the same, that our own personal history – and that of our baby-to-be -- is about to change in ways that are thrilling and terrifying. In many ways, your fantasies about the future are as important as the little cluster of cells floating inside you. Pregnancy is a three-in-one deal: There's the physical baby you're carrying, the imagined one in your dreams, and your picture of yourself as a mother. They're all important, all part of what makes pregnancy the seminal journey of any woman's life.
Few of us take the time to indulge in these fantasies or to give voice to them, especially if they tip precariously toward the dark side. But carving out the emotional and psychological space to plan for your new life and, more important, for your new sense of yourself, is critical. There are plenty of evolutionary explanations as to why we carry our babies for nine long months, but I'm convinced that those last few weeks, when our bodily changes (and quite a few functions) seem totally out of control, are an apt metaphor for motherhood. "If you think you look and feel completely different now," Mother Nature laughs, "then just wait ... " Read more
Stage 1 Summary, continued
As we hurtle toward childbirth, thoughts and feelings about losing our sense of ourselves, of facing an unknowable future, are easily overwhelmed by fears and excitement about labor and delivery. Whether you need anesthesia to get your teeth cleaned or you laugh off root canal, the prospect of pushing a fully formed, melon-sized head out of your vagina makes skydiving sound like a spa treatment. Bear in mind that childbirth is not a competitive sport. Stoicism does not make the mom. Whatever helps you wrest some control over the pain, fatigue, and fear, is what works.
Giving birth is transformative and transitional, a culmination and a beginning; it brings a sense of oneness and of separateness, cataclysmic upheaval and intense focus. Whether you're positioned in such a way as to witness your baby's final slide into life or prone on an operating table with a curtain separating you from your cesarean incision, the sight of your fully formed newborn unfolding like a flower before your eyes will be one you never, ever forget. If you're adopting, the moment when you're handed your baby and can cradle her between hand and heart for the very first time is likely to stir up rich and complicated feelings. You may fall in love immediately or you may feel oddly detached, disappointed, or simply relieved. Whether or not you "bond" with your baby in the delivery room says absolutely nothing about your relative "goodness" as a mother. But your reaction to childbirth and to the intense emotions you experience provides important clues to your hot buttons and hidden talents. Recognizing that you tend to shut down emotionally when you're anxious or that losing control makes you see red or that exhaustion goes hand in hand with panic gives you a chance to work on those weak spots as your child grows.
The first few days after you bring your baby home tend to be slightly surreal. There's a sense of blurred boundaries, of feeling as though you've been turned inside out. I definitely recall the odd feeling of being separate yet powerfully connected to Maddie. Every day, usually when no one could hear me, I would whisper, "I can't believe you're here" or "Are those really your toes?" because the miraculous sense of her otherness blew me away.
For many moms, euphoria, relief, a feeling of being on an energy high make the initial postpartum period far better than they had anticipated. Kathleen, who gave birth to her son on a beautiful California Christmas day, ascribed her "intense euphoria" to feeling cleansed of the hormones that had made her nauseated for nine months.
"I never felt better in my life than I did that day and in the weeks that followed." Unfortunately, bone-numbing exhaustion, painful episiotomy sutures, sore nipples, hemorrhoids, unexplained weepiness, ravenous hunger can easily overwhelm even the most blissed-out new mom. In fact, a couple of weeks after giving birth, you're likely to feel betrayed – by your body, your doctor, the articles and books you read, and by every mother who somehow neglected to mention how tough the first few weeks can be. I recall a kind of psychological fragility, if not sheer terror, at the prospect of caring for my tiny, helpless baby. When Maddie screamed and flailed her arms, every muscle in my body tensed as I tried to calm her, which I then worried would exacerbate her fretfulness.
Letting go of the expectation that life will soon get back to normal is absolutely critical during this postpartum period. There's nothing "normal" about days that merge into night, a body that balloons and sags in bizarre and sometimes painful ways, and a heart that pumps equal amounts of passion and panic. Take the pressure off yourself and plan nothing, other than ample time to sleep, eat, feed your baby, and lie in bed with your partner beside you and your little miracle between you. If you manage to take a shower or to change out of your spit-up encrusted nightgown, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Then get back into bed.
Reducing your expectations about how your first few weeks postpartum should go can help minimize the stress and reduce the learning curve associated with breastfeeding. Unfortunately, most of us assume that the natural flow of milk goes hand in hand with an instinctive understanding of how to get that milk into the baby's mouth, so when breastfeeding doesn't go smoothly at first – and it often does not -- a cascade of feelings follows: frustration, disappointment, guilt. Yes, nursing is one of the great milestones of motherhood, and a convenient, cost-free, and deeply satisfying experience. But whether you wind up breastfeeding with a vengeance for years, or switch to a bottle after a few weeks, your baby will thrive. And you'll do no one any favors by treating this first challenge as a test of your mettle as a mom.
What's most important during the postpartum period is that you have support – lots of it – from people who can be truly helpful. Unfortunately, most of us associate asking for help with weakness or incompetence or both. This is especially true when it comes to motherhood. Admitting you can't go it alone, that you're overwhelmed or unsure of yourself or unhappy in your new role just doesn't fly. It may be the norm, but it's not normal.
For many new moms, the logical person to turn to for help is one's spouse, but there's the rub. He's not only more of a rookie than you are, but he's exponentially and perhaps genetically less likely to admit he doesn't know what he's doing. (Why does it take 10,000 sperm to fertilize 1 egg? Because none of them will stop to ask for directions!) Discovering that your spouse isn't necessarily the diaper champ you had envisioned or that he somehow manages to sleep through midnight howls that would wake the dead or that he's fleeing to the office at the crack of dawn or that he's so in love with the baby he never puts her down or that he just isn't the person you had imagined can make the loneliness of the first few weeks home even more desolate. Whatever you do, keep in mind that it takes a very long time to negotiate the shift from partners to parents. The fact is you're never going to walk totally parallel paths; during the first few weeks postpartum, your husband will struggle with a new self-image and with a desire to help you that is undermined by a relative lack of experience and a concomitant feeling of inadequacy.
Steve and I definitely fell into what I call the Expert and the Dumb Apprentice Trap. I remember one weekend morning when I decided to take a bath – a treat I had been denied for several weeks. I was about to step into the steaming tub, when Steve shouted from the other room, "She seems to have a rash on her butt. Do we have any of that diaper cream?" I knew he would never find it, so I put my robe back on, joined him in an evaluation of the rash, a search for the cream, and a lengthy debate about exactly how much to apply. By the time the diaper was in place, my bath was cold.
This same dance played out countless times: He would defer to me or I would take over or he wouldn't jump to rescue fast enough, so I would just do it myself. Notice how much of this traditional dynamic was a function of my impatience, presumed superiority, or tendency to second-guess. I may have resented the fact that I was doing more of the caretaking, but I was also enabling us to slip into our Dad-the-breadwinner, Mom-the-caregiver roles.
The key for most couples is to face up to your fantasies and disappointments, to discuss your expectations, fears, and anger. If you're feeling disappointed, hurt, resentful, angry at your spouse, don't expect him to read your mind. Tell him what you're feeling and what you need.
As the infamous six (sex?)-week check-up approaches, your husband is likely to be eagerly awaiting the verdict from your obstetrician that it's perfectly safe to "resume normal intercourse." When my doctor shared this cheerful news, I burst out laughing. Only some long-repressed S & M fantasy could have rekindled my sex drive at that particular juncture. Most moms share the feeling that six weeks is way too soon to resume anything involving a penis. A recent study in the Journal of Sex Research found that by 12 weeks postpartum, 84 percent of couples had rekindled their sex lives. Still, the researchers point out, fatigue, adjustment to your new role, physical changes, and breastfeeding can depress your sexual desire for several months. Or your need to reconnect with their pre-baby self may accelerate your desire for sex. When you're wrapped up in your baby's needs all day long, you may ache to be wrapped up in your husband's arms, to feel cared for and desirable.
Sometimes what you need more than anything is to be held, pampered, told you're amazing, seduced -- not with champagne and roses --but with genuine empathy and support. The husband who prepares dinner, cleans up the living room, plays with the baby while mom enjoys a long soak in the tub, and then offers to rub her back is much more likely to get laid than the guy who uses guilt, guile, or whining to initiate sex.
I'm not certain if it was exactly at that point – but somewhere around Maddie's second month on the planet, I reached a stage where I was definitely more in synch with her. Perhaps my postpartum hormonal balance (or imbalance) had normalized. I could not only respond more confidently to her needs, I could anticipate them. Maddie's cries no longer threw me into a frenzy; I could actually distinguish between hunger and boredom and frustration and do my best to help.
Still, our days together were hardly "predictable." Occasionally, I would manage to shower, dress, and get Maddie out the door for a walk, but more often, our days were loose and formless, coming together gradually as a series of unplanned activities. What I did from dawn to dusk could no longer be measured by the usual metrics: clock, Filofax, lists of "to-dos." I had entered a different dimension, a zone where waves of emotion, not discrete blocks of time, traced the progress of my days.
Without clear goals, with little structure to our days, we can easily find the first few months with an infant suffocating and disorienting. But, of course, there are countless "goals" that are reached, even exceeded, when we care for our newborns; we just don't perceive them that way. When you respond to your baby's cries and manage to soothe him, you've accomplished a major "task"; when you tune into your infant – by lying next to her or molding your body to hers – you're "achieving," even if those achievements are difficult to articulate or to quantify. And, of course, when you do manage to dress your baby and yourself, to go out for a walk or a drive, to call on a relative or go to a doctor's appointment, you've pulled off a three-ring circus of amazing feats. Just don't try explaining that to your colleague at the office or to childless friends. Even your spouse, if he's back at work, is likely to be so grounded in his reliable and predictable routine, that, compared to the gravity-free soup you're floating in, he can seem to occupy a different planet.
There's no question that one of the most important supports during the first few months of your baby's life is other new mothers. You don't need a network, just a couple of women who can provide advice, comfort, and a little perspective on your new life. Your colleagues at work, even those who have children, are guaranteed to hold up the wrong mirror – the one you used before your baby was born. Only another mom or someone who remembers keenly how abnormal the initial months feel, has the sense and the sensitivity to say, "Hey, you're never going to get back to normal. You'll just find your footing and begin to find yourself again."
What you may discover is that the new you belongs at home, not at the job you thought you loved. Or you may realize that being home fulltime with a baby isn't what you're cut out to do 24/7. Whether you transition back to work or stay home fulltime, your decision will require much soul-searching and engender everything from ambivalence to high anxiety. Even if you think it's about your baby and what's best for him or her, believe me, it's not that simple. As your fourth trimester comes to an end, and you emerge from the cocoon of fatigue and confusion that often characterize this early "altered state," you'll experience a dramatic shift not only in your relationship to your baby, but in all your relationships, most importantly, your relationship to yourself.
Stage 2 Finding Your Footing, Finding Yourself: Months Four Through Twelve
Summary of Stage 2
Unlike the first three months, which one mom described as a time of "total caregiving with no return," the four-to-twelve-month period is often the "falling head over heels in love" phase. Looking at photos of Maddie when she was five, six, or eight months old (of which there are several trunkfuls), I'm reminded how her body had a kind of delicious ripeness, like a spanking new pillow, creamy and cool and soft. After her bath, I would put my terry-wrapped beauty on the bed and lie next to her for hours, admiring the formation of her ears or the perfection of her tiny wrinkled toes or the soft sound of her burbling voice.
We had made the transition from a stage when Maddie's relentless neediness elicited a kind of primal pull to soothe, feed, and hold her to a phase choreographed around a much more reciprocal dance. Coming into her room in the morning, I experienced the helpless bliss of watching a frown of frustration melt into a gummy smile. At the sound of my voice, joy animated every fiber of her body; no matter how rough the previous night had been, no matter how wasted I felt when I dragged myself out of bed, her beaming face washed away the fatigue. As my three-month maternity leave galloped to an end, I experienced moments of sheer panic. I had missed the daily challenges, mental stimulation, and rewards of my job, but the image of handing Maddie over to Ana, the Filipino woman we had hired to care for her, sucked the energy out of me.
Feeling torn between your baby and your job is one of the universals of this—and practically every other—phase of motherhood. In a recent poll of working mothers, Parents found that 99 percent of them said they felt "stressed some or most of the time." Most of us assume this stress could be alleviated by improved child care or more flextime or a more involved spouse—and all those things would help. But we also need to accept the fact that ambivalence is a fact of life postbaby. And that sometimes the tension we feel between our working selves and our mothering selves can be energizing and creative. Read more.
Stage 2 Summary, continued
No, I'm not being a Pollyanna. For several moms I interviewed, the gift of the first six months was their awareness of their own creativity, passion, patience, strength, and resourcefulness. Applied to their jobs, these qualities enabled them to switch careers entirely or to bring their work into laserlike focus.
For Jackie, who put herself through school, set up and ran a physical fitness center with her husband, and cared for her chronically ill mother, working a sixty-hour week had always been part of the fabric of her life. So when she became pregnant with twins, she assumed she would take a few months off and then jump back in with both feet. When we met, her boys were five months old and already wearing twelve-month sizes. Jackie, on the other hand, was back to a buff size 6, and her no-nonsense New York delivery belied a softness I had not seen before. "I know it sounds corny to say this, but I really feel that my life didn't begin until I had them," she said. "Not that I didn't do things before, not that I hadn't accomplished a lot, but having these babies has given me a reason to look at myself in a whole new way." She went on to explain that she was not going back to the gym to work with her husband. "Having them made me realize that I want to be a better person. I just sit and think, 'Am I doing everything I want to do? Am I worthy of these looks that they give me—these looks that say, "You are just the best thing ever!"' I wonder whether I'm good enough to live up to that. It's made me rethink who I want to be."
Living in the moment—as we do when our babies are new—and then very much moment to moment as the months tick by, we are forced to sit back and ask ourselves how this phase in our own development will affect the stages to come. But it's not easy to weigh the short-term gains against the possible long-term outcomes when the number of variables seem infinite and intricate. You can't know when you're staring into your four-month-old's eyes whether he'll be the independent sort, happy to toddle off with his pals in child care, or whether his need for your presence will intensify and make it harder and harder to separate. You can't be certain that the loving nanny you're handing your baby off to will be as vigilant as you, just as you can't expect your child to be a perfect angel as a reward for your deciding to quit your job and stay home full-time. Help Wanted Despite the fact that the vast majority of research tells us that child care does not hurt kids—assuming that that care is consistent and nurturing—there isn't a mother alive who doesn't feel guilty and conflicted as she heads out the door. The truth is, you'll never know for sure whether the decisions you make today are the ones that matter the most down the road. All you can do is accept what research and common sense confirm: Being true to yourself is paramount. A child at home with a depressed or frustrated mom is going to suffer more than a child whose mother nurtures herself—through work or other activities—and is, therefore, replenished and ready to give when she's home. Babies need and love their moms, but they certainly don't need to be with them every minute of every day. They also thrive when they have a chance to interact with other loving adults.
Ahhh, but there's the rub. How does one find "other loving adults"—even one other loving adult? Quality, affordable child care ranks with the Holy Grail in terms of accessibility. Understandably, we often make the mistake of looking for child care that is all about our baby's needs. We want a surrogate mom, or a group of surrogate moms in a wonderful child-care center. But one of the keys to making this transition from home to work is having someone or a group of someones who are there for you. This means a woman who supports working mothers, really believes that you've made the right choice. If your baby is in center-based care, then you want a place that regularly provides information about what your baby has been doing, not because it will necessarily help the baby but because they know you want to be in on her day. They should also welcome your occasional surprise visits. A child-care provider who seems judgmental, arrogant, or so obsequious that she would obviously never tell you the truth is not the person to hire. A center that holds a dim view of parents who question, call regularly, or stop by is not the one for your baby. In order to forge the kind of partnership that makes everyone happy, it's also critical that you do your part. Don't micromanage. If you're constantly second-guessing what your child-care provider is providing, you're going to drive her nuts—and perhaps out the door. On the other hand, a good child-care provider, one who has had experience not only with newborns but with new moms, knows we're all a little nuts in the beginning and doesn't get defensive. One of the mistakes I made with Ana, who worked for us for five years, was that I rarely scheduled times during the week to sit with her and talk about Maddie's and Nick's development, any problems that had bubbled up, or to simply see how Ana was doing. Too often, we had these conversations on the fly, as I was rushing in at the end of the day and she was rushing out. Your goal is not to become your child-care provider's new best friend; after all, you are her boss. But every employer-employee relationship depends on good communication. If you're not clear about her job responsibilities or if she's reluctant to voice a complaint, then you're going to have a hard time working as a team.
In a perfect world, affordable, high-quality child care would be accessible to all mothers, not just those who choose or need to work. But even if such a subsidized system did exist, it would never eliminate the ambivalence we feel about handing our babies over to another person. No matter how wonderful or well trained that surrogate might be, millions of moms would still choose to stay home full-time. Knowing that you want to be home full-time and embracing that choice without apology can be empowering and joyful. Mothers who believe in what they're doing fare much better psychologically and emotionally than those whose ambivalence and resentment spill over into their interactions with their children. "I have never felt more like myself than when I was home with my babies," Nicole told me, adding with visible anger how hard it was to convince everyone from her husband to her friends that she actually wanted to give up an excellent job with fabulous benefits to be home full-time. "No one could believe that what actually made me happy was just hanging out with my children, playing with them or just watching them together." If you do decide to rule your at-home world, you may be shocked to discover that your husband still believes he's king. In fact, his share of the child care and the housework is guaranteed to be a fraction of yours. I realize this sounds somewhat sexist and that there are many fathers who do as much of the diaper changing and cooking as their wives, but if Mom is home all day, Dad often assumes she can and should shoulder more of the day-to-day chores. Frankly, even if Mom is working full-time outside the home, she's likely to find more on her to-do list than on his. Ask any couples counselor to name the top threats to marital bliss, and she is sure to include the division of labor at home. We can joke about it, make fun of our husbands' pathetic efforts, complain, nag, or threaten, but at the root of the debate is an understandable desire to feel connected to the person you love most in the world. When our husbands don't do their share or when fatherhood leads to more time on the job or when we feel we're speaking different languages, anger, exasperation, and loneliness pile up in dark corners. The challenge is to bring these feelings out in the open and to explore together, if possible, why they run so deep. For many of us, the chore wars are, in fact, a battle with ourselves, an internal struggle over how much control we want, how much authority we need in order to feel like good-enough mothers. We're usually much more willing to relinquish the housework than the child care, eager to have a partner in the kitchen washing up after dinner but more competitive when it comes to bonding with the baby. What's really "fair" has to be evaluated not only in the context of your marriage but in terms of what you really want for yourself. If your dream is to be home full-time with your baby but your family depends on your income, you may find yourself putting in a second shift in order to feel as connected as possible with your role as a mom. If mothering 24/7 leaves you drained and unfulfilled, then your resentment of your husband's freedom to "go about his life just like before" (as one mother told me bitterly) is guaranteed to rankle. Of course, it's incredibly hard to sort out the complex and conflicting feelings of this stage. We're apt to give mixed messages to our husbands because we rarely have the opportunity to sit back and evaluate exactly what we want and what has to change. When Maddie was a baby and Steve and I were both working full-time, it was hard enough to finish a sentence, let alone find the time to contemplate whether or not I liked my life. It was far easier just to plow ahead, joking about or quietly grumbling over who did the laundry more often. Several moms shared the sense I had during the first year of Maddie's life, that fatherhood, though profound and thrilling, didn't shake their husbands' basic priorities or expectations. For Steve and me, the challenge to embrace a new definition of we mirrored our individual struggles to accept a radically altered sense of ourselves. Maddie's first birthday was a celebration of the longest year ever to whiz by; so much had happened in so little time, yet I could readily recall nights early in her life that I thought would never end and long, exhausting days. As a mother I had come so far, discovered vast reservoirs of energy and hidden strengths. There were even occasions when I experienced what Tibetan Buddhists refer to as my lungtha—a feeling of being on the top of my game, a Wind Horse Mama, no longer straining to maintain my seat. Of course, the year had also forced me to face my share of demons, to accept that I had a long way to go before I would feel totally in balance—at home, at work, in my marriage, and in relation to extended family, friends, colleagues. I had learned that, as Daphne de Marneffe writes in Maternal Desire, "motherhood puts women in a different relationship to themselves...not as some sort of pale 'shifting of priorities,' but as a new relationship to experience." To survive this first, dramatic year, I had had to let go of the expectation that my days would ever be completely my own; to accept that life with a baby rarely goes as planned, that the tension between the love and the anger we feel toward our babies could bend steel, and that unless we nurture ourselves, we cannot possibly summon the reserves we need to care for them.
Stage 3 Letting Go: The Toddler Years, One and Two
Stage 3 Summary
Although we're engaged in the push-pull dance of independence-dependence throughout our children's lives, the many milestones of years one and two (first words, first steps, first friends) provide dramatic proof that our children can't be controlled or constantly protected. During our children's toddler years we move from holding their hands to holding our breath to occasionally holding our head in our hands.
There will be countless occasions during this stage of motherhood when your own separation anxiety wrestles with your toddler's natural desire to become more independent. Sometimes the result is a full-fledged tantrum—his or yours. Sometimes it's a far more subtle and insidious series of mixed signals. Just eavesdrop in the hallway of a day-care center, or listen, as I did, to a mom as she bids good-bye to her toddler on the morning of her first music class: "Okay, sweetheart, Mommy's going now." Suzy picks up a tambourine and starts to shake it. "Bye-bye, honey," Mom says a little plaintively. "Bye-bye," Suzy replies, still shaking the tambourine. "I'll see you very, very soon," Mom says, a question mark nibbling at the edges of her statement. Suzy doesn't seem to hear. "I'm going now, okay?" "Okay." "I'll see you later. You have a good time, okay?" Suzy seems to detect a note of uncertainty, and a tiny cloud crosses her brow. "Don't be sad. We'll be together very, very soon," Mom says, then asks for one last hug. Suzy runs to her mom and bursts into tears. "Mama no go! Mama no go!" Mom sighs and looks desperately over at the teacher, who helps pry Suzy from Mom's coat. She dashes out, alternately waving, shouting encouragement, and wiping tears away. This particular scenario brought back vivid memories of my children's toddler years and my tendency to unwittingly undermine their strides toward independence. I can't count the number of times I lingered too long, practically inviting my kids to do their baby-starfish routine, plastering themselves against my legs, as I miserably tried to exit. Read more.
Stage 3 Summary, continued
When Maddie was a toddler, I tried to help her gain more of a sense of control by choreographing a very predictable exit routine. We would pick a favorite book or video—one that I knew by heart (rarely a problem, given her insatiable appetite for repetition)—and decide together when I would leave; for example, "at the picture of the smiley truck" or "when Big Bird sneezes." A couple of times I made the mistake of hanging around beyond the sneeze, only to have Maddie say impatiently, "Okay, Mama. Go now." This approach played out even more dramatically one night when Nick was about two. It was way past his bedtime and we were both exhausted, but he was putting me through the wringer. I would sing a song, pat his terry rump, say good night, and try to exit, only to watch him hurl himself against the crib rail and launch a cry guaranteed to wake the dead. I reentered the fray, but this time I sat down in the rocking chair in the corner of his room and said, "Okay, Nick. You tell me when I can go." You could practically hear the brakes in his brain screeching to a halt. His eyes widened slightly as he slid down onto his belly, and in a voice husky with power, he barked, "GO OUT!" I tried not to skip across the threshold of his room. Of course there were many more times when I simply lowered my horns and pawed the ground, chanting "I will not submit" under my hot breath. Those scenes were not pretty. I recall the morning I forcibly stripped off Nick's sopping diaper (he had wanted to open the tabs himself) and then attempted to reason with my outraged, shrieking son for forty-five minutes, only to hear Maddie cry in frustration, "For gosh sakes, Mom, just put the wet diaper back on!" I fished the five-pound (now cold) trophy out of the trash, slapped it on Nick, and watched as, narrow shoulders still heaving, he gingerly removed the tabs, stepped over the soggy diaper, and lay down on the floor so I could put on the clean one. The story seems sitcom-worthy now, but at the time I was not laughing. I felt stupid and diminished—a loser in more ways than one. My friend Nancy Samalin, author of several excellent books on discipline, thinks parents do lose if they give in only because they're desperate to avoid "the happiness trap," so named because we get trapped into never letting our children experience disappointment. Letting a toddler whine you into submission every time he wants another cookie or caving at the first pissed-off peep is not what your little tyrant wants. She longs for limits, because the world is big and highly unpredictable. According to T. Berry Brazelton, one of the reasons to let your little guy experience frustration, fury, and the calm after the storm is that it provides a sense of mastery over anxiety and an inner sense of success. I wish I had known that when Maddie threw her first tantrum—an experience so shocking that I wanted to run screaming from the supermarket. There are dozens of theories about how to handle tantrums—from walking away to spanking. Needless to say, I don't subscribe to the latter; fighting out-of-control behavior with out-of-control behavior doesn't make a lot of sense. All spanking teaches a child is that a big person can use his strength to hurt a little person. And I think the former only works if you let your screaming Mimi know you're nearby, willing to help if you can. But when you're in public, your concern for your child's safety goes head-to-head with feelings of humiliation. You imagine that dozens of your fellow shoppers are rolling their eyes, tsk-tsking their way around you, and labeling your child a spoiled brat, product of a bad mother. And you're probably right. Strangers just love to tell themselves that they would never let their child get away with that kind of behavior—especially those who have never had kids. The best way to deal with judgmental know-nothings is to chant softly to yourself, "I don't know these people. I'll never see them again. I don't give a damn what they think of me." If "these people" happen to be your own relatives, the scene can devolve quickly. Judy recalled a visit with her parents one summer that included a full-fledged meltdown by her two-year-old son, Nate. "His tantrums were never easy to handle. And this one was a doozy. He was screaming and kicking the floor and making a hell of a racket, but I was handling it. Or thought I was handling it, until my mother put her head in the room and said that Nate would just have to stop because he was disturbing the neighbors and it just wouldn't do to have all this noise. That was when I lost it," Judy admitted. "I screamed for her to get out and leave us alone, with the same intensity as Nate." When she reflected on the scene later, Judy realized how deeply rooted her rage had been. "I guess I was reacting to my mother's screwed-up priorities, which have hurt me in countless ways over the years. The fact that she was more concerned about the neighbors than about my needs brought back a lot of feelings I didn't know were still there." Obviously, our mothers' lives and how we experienced their love shape our interactions with our toddlers. Whether your mother was a positive or negative role model, a happy or an angry force, authoritarian or liberal, you will consciously or unconsciously make choices every day that reflect her influence. If you were spared the rod, rarely reprimanded, never ridiculed, you may be burdened with far more guilt regarding your own anger when it does bubble up. Women whose mothers' dreams of a career were frustrated by family responsibilities may overcompensate on the job front; young mothers whose working moms were rarely around may swear they'll do it differently. When Twos Are Terrible It takes enormous energy, self-control, compassion, creativity, and wisdom to get through a day with a toddler, yet we all hold on to unrealistic expectations of seamless transitions, hours of independent play, moments of crystal-clear communication. But that's just not possible. The "Terrible Twos" were so named not because these years are unrelentingly awful but because the intensely joyful highs are offset by the inevitable and often painful lows. If you're in a good mood, if you're rested, well fed, energized, and calm, then almost anything your toddler chucks your way will bounce right off. Better yet, you'll be able to ride through the storm and show your little guy the rainbow on the other side. But if you've had a bad day, a sleepless night, no chance for a decent meal or a phone call to a friend, no opportunity to talk to an adult or glance at the newspaper or make your own bed, then your toddler's psychotic reaction to being denied access to your jewelry box may make you want to do something really ugly. Research shows that rates of depression are twice as high among women with toddlers as they are for other mothers. In her book The Sacrificial Mother, Carin Rubinstein hypothesizes that depression is the cost of self-sacrifice, of constantly giving, giving, giving—time, attention, empathy, understanding—with very little "payback." Certainly, the emotional drain of sacrificing so much can take its toll, but so can the frustration and anger. When your toddler hurls his bowl of sauced macaroni off the table—the macaroni you cooked just the way he likes it—murderous thoughts may flash though your mind. But you don't act on those thoughts. You may not even give them voice; instead, you turn your rage inward, where it sits like a lead weight on your chest. Dragging around a lead apron is exhausting. It's also a fairly apt description of what it feels like to be depressed. Giving yourself permission to walk out of the room, close the door, scream, punch a pillow, or simply exhale not only enables you to gain some control, but it models exactly the kind of behavior your child is trying to master. When you say, "I'm very angry right now. I need to be alone so I can calm down," your toddler may not understand a single word you've said, but he'll absorb fully the benefits a self-imposed time-out can provide. Give Yourself (and Your Toddler) a Break Modeling the importance of boundaries, carving out a little Mom time in the middle of the day can be particularly tough during the toddler years. I remember how important it was to have a six-minute reentry routine at the end of my workday. I would greet Maddie briefly and then announce I was going to change into my play clothes. She rarely protested because I never equivocated. I needed to stand in my closet, slowly peel off my suit and panty hose, and then, just as gradually, trade my work uniform for something soft and forgiving. Often I turned out the light and spent the last minute breathing deeply in the dark. By the time I joined her in the living room, I was much better prepared to plunge into our evening routine. And you need all the adrenaline you can pump through your veins when you're mothering a toddler. I had forgotten how exhilarating and exhausting it can be to follow a two-year-old as she gallops, leaps, dances, and dives through her day when my friend Jackie happened to drop by with her twin boys. Once sprung from their double stroller, they ricocheted off the furniture like human pinballs. Michael charged up and down a small series of steps with the focus of a kamikaze trainee, while Peter, still a little wobbly on his feet, made a beeline for a bowl of nuts I had forgotten to move. "How do you do this every day?" I asked Jackie, who used to be a personal trainer. She shrugged and laughed, just as Michael dove into her arms from a chair. "Thank God I'm in good physical shape," she replied, lifting thirty pounds of boy into the air. I complimented Jackie on her expertise as a "spotter," ready to help if absolutely necessary but willing to let her boys tumble and fumble their way through our living room. I failed spotting. I tended to hover, helicopter-like, on the perimeters of Maddie or Nick's play, poised to swoop in and help out. As much as I may have saved them from frustration, I often deprived them of the supreme satisfaction of mastering a task or practicing a skill. Your little guy desperately yearns to do and try and test and do again. Experiencing frustration just makes the victory that much sweeter. Recognizing your toddler's competence and resilience can be incredibly liberating. It enables you to rethink many of the separations that can feel punitive and cruel. Take sleeping. If the message to your toddler is "I know you can put yourself to sleep" rather than "I hate to do this, but it's for your own good," the emphasis shifts from your willpower to your child's competence. Bedtime becomes a chance to help him overcome his fears, to learn to soothe himself, to relax. Obviously, this doesn't happen in one night, but a change in your attitude is the critical first step. Some arenas may prove more challenging than others. It's very hard to back off and let your toddler lead the way when it comes to food, which is why most mothers of toddlers report that feeding is second only to bedtime in terms of frustration and stress. We all come with buttons installed many moons ago by our well-meaning but inexperienced parents, so if food and eating were highly-charged issues in your family, then you may also have a host of relatives turning up the volume of the "he eats like a bird" refrain. Rather than obsess over a day when your toddler has eaten nothing but goldfish crackers and apple juice, keep track of an entire week's worth of grazing. You will undoubtedly discover—as countless studies have corroborated—that children will eat when they're hungry. Your job is to offer plenty of healthy options, not to force your toddler to clean his plate. "Take the long view"' should become your mantra during the toddler years. Challenges that throw you off balance or keep you up at night may, within a couple of months, seem like minor blips on the radar screen. Problems that seem overwhelming and scary often resolve themselves.
Feeling Pulled in Two Directions
One of the pleasures of this stage is an older toddler's increased ability to engage in pretend play. When Maddie was close to three she would regularly act out vignettes inspired by her favorite Disney heroines. I recall hours of playing the prince to her eyelash-batting Sleeping Beauty or pretending not to notice the tsunami of tub water washed on the bathroom floor by my shy Little Mermaid. Her dress-up games also included scenarios of heart-stopping realism. One Sunday morning she chose as her prop an old briefcase, into which she stuffed pieces of construction paper and assorted envelopes before announcing, "I going to work now, sweetie." Shoving her pudgy hands into my gloves, she added in a voice dripping with pity and remorse, "And I out to dinner. And I not coming back until later tomorrow late." As she stepped into a pair of my shoes and clattered down the hallway, I felt the pinch of hers. "I call you later!" she sang out. The pinch, the sting, the heartache, as she disappeared into the coat closet.
Along with her independence came the anxiety born of her awareness that I was a separate person. Like all toddlers, she went through a phase when her play consisted of little, darting trips away from me, followed quickly by a return to the safety of my presence. She wanted my full attention so badly that she would put her hands on my cheeks and direct my head her way. Or she would imperiously bark an order at me, only to reject my help. Her confusion about her place in the world paralleled my own at times. I wanted to be there for her, but I also valued my space at my job, with Steve, and with my friends. Anticipating her entrance into preschool and her reliance on other adults and on her peers for emotional support, I experienced an intense need to connect with her babyness and, at the same time, to find a way to let her fly. It was probably no coincidence that one of our favorite games during Maddie's toddler years was "birdie in the nest," which involved creating a comfortable nest of couch pillows and then sending my little bird around the living room in search of food. The best part, of course, was when she would come flying back into my arms.
Stage 4 Trying to Do It All: The Preschool Years, Three to Six
Stage 4 Summary:
During this phase of motherhood, one adds to the jobs of caregiver, playmate, and disciplinarian the talents of professor, coach, social secretary, short-order cook, wardrobe consultant, negotiator, and shrink. It helps if you can bake, sew, sing, act, draw, and wrestle a screaming thirty-pound dervish into a booster seat. But you can't possibly do all of these things perfectly. You can't even do them half as well as your neighbor, who boasts an immaculate house, well-tended garden, and exciting social life. "How does she manage a job, kids, church choir, and dress the way she does" you ask yourself whenever you're on the ledge. If your answer is "She's just better organized than I am" or "If I only got up a little earlier, I could do more" or "She's a much better cook," then you're stepping into a trap baited with BS and guaranteed to bite you in the ego. I was hardly immune. Maddie phoned me at the office to announce that she couldn't bring the three dozen oatmeal cookies I had miraculously remembered to bake for snack day because the theme for that particular Wednesday was Sweden. "We have to be making something from there," she said firmly. "Like what?" I asked, stopping short of barking, "Herring? A delightful smorgasbord for twenty-three?" "I don't know, Mama," she said softly, anxiety building in her reedy voice. "But we have to." "Okay, sweetheart," I relented. "I'll figure something out." It was, of course, pouring rain when I left the office, and past closing time at the gourmet food store in our neighborhood. I was forced to dash from one late-night deli to another in search of Ry-Krisps and flavored cream cheese. I spent at least two hours spreading the latter without shattering the former and another half hour convincing Maddie that this was a genuine Swedish treat. Why, you may ask, did I not tell Maddie that oatmeal cookies were a national Swedish dish? Or, better yet, just say that Swedish Day was next month and that tomorrow was, in fact, High Fiber Day at her Montessori school? For one thing, Maddie had reached a point in her development when following the rules and worshipping one's teacher (in her case a lovely SWEDISH woman named Kirsten) were paramount. I had reached a point in my development when proving to myself and to my preschool daughter that Mama could do anything were paramount, that Mama would never let her down, that even though Mama had had to work late two nights that week, she would make it up to her by racing around to find Ry-Krisps for Swedish Day. Read more.
Stage 4 Summary, continued
One of the mistakes I made with Maddie was to confuse a calendar choked with classes, concerts, and culture with "quality time." Standing on line during my lunch hour to buy tickets to a children's concert may have allayed my guilt about working late that day, but by the time the event rolled around, we probably would have had just as much fun hanging around in our PJ's and going out for breakfast at McDonald's.By the time Nick hit the preschool years, I was better able to reconcile my need to fill his day with activities and his need to hang out with no agenda. Having learned the value of routines and the uselessness of trying to hurry along a dawdler when Maddie was a preschooler, I was wise enough to build plenty of markers into Nick's days. If we had to get out the door by 8 a.m., I actually set a timer and put him in charge of telling me when it went off. And when something unexpected squeezed our time together even more, I tried to abbreviate certain rituals rather than eliminate them altogether. One of the realities of this stage of motherhood is that we can't fulfill our children's every need. Nor should we want to. As difficult and painful as it is to make our preschoolers unhappy, it's far worse to indulge their every request. A child who is told no may rant and rave, but when she calms down, she's been given an invaluable gift—the experience of knowing she can handle frustration, weather an emotional storm, and wander back into her mother's loving arms.
For any mom with a child just starting in school there's the hope that he will be a successful ambassador, a bright tribute to our success as parents. When a teacher calls to say our child has bitten a playmate or kicked a teacher or failed to participate in circle time, the pulse quickens, the stomach drops, and the mind lurches toward an explanation that usually starts with "I." When Maddie came home one day with a note from her teacher that read, "Please make sure Madeleine wears underpants under her skirt tomorrow," and I realized that she had gone bare-assed to preschool, I was inordinately embarrassed. (Maddie didn't care at all.) By the time Nick was going to the same wonderful school, I had learned to let go of the need to see my kids as billboards—at least when it came to what they wore. But, of course, appearance is easy. Bad behavior, back talk, even a particularly impish imaginary friend can turn the preschool years into a time when we're forced to question not only our own parenting skills but also those of our spouses. The difficult patches during Maddie's preschool years had rarely, if ever, made Steve and me feel like a team. More often, her obstinacy or whining or begging or all of the above drove Steve out of the room and me up the wall. I felt he was copping out; he thought I was trying too hard. Then there were times when Steve would cave ("What's the big deal?"), casting me as the proverbial "bad cop," or I would criticize how loud and "retro" he sounded when he disciplined Maddie. Among the many wise advisors I turned for help in this regard was Ron Taffel, psychologist, teacher, and author of many excellent books on child rearing. Unfortunately, Ron had not yet written the book I needed then – Why Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It, but I recall a conversation during which he asked me how often I left Maddie and Steve alone together. The pause that followed said it all. I stammered some embarrassingly low number as I realized how much control I managed to exert over their limited one-on-one time. I think a big part of my unwillingness to let go of Maddie's care related directly to the guilt I experienced when I worried that she was getting too little too late during a hectic week. If Steve was unable to pick up the emotional slack, to be home more, or to intuit my anxiety, I turned up the volume on my expert dial, overcompensating for my absence. Feeling frustrated or conflicted went hand in hand with feeling unsupported; I sent Steve decidedly mixed messages because I was so mixed up myself. Yes, I wanted him to help more with Maddie, but no, I want to be Übermom, jumping into her life with both feet and pushing Steve to the sidelines. I wish I could say that I saw this clearly and initiated a heartfelt conversation about our parenting roles, our fears and hopes regarding Maddie's care, but the truth is, we kind of muddled through her first three years, falling easily into the paradigm of Mom-as-primary-caregiver, Dad-as-primary-helper—until Nick came along. Then we were forced to adopt the one-on-one defense that got us through family time.
Having Another Baby
Many of the mothers of preschoolers I spoke to about their decision to have another baby expressed a longing for the baby years. "I miss the baby smell," one mom said. Several others said they craved a baby "to snuggle." For Hope, who had experienced the first few months of her daughter's life as "totally traumatic," longing for a baby was not front and center. "A lot of friends talked about sadness when their kids went to a big-girl bed," she said. "Or when they started to walk. I never felt that way. I didn't long for a baby to cuddle. If anything, I enjoy Juliette much more now. She's so companionable, so much fun. I'm really happy to hang out with her." I wondered if the thought of sacrificing some of that time made her feel guilty. Without any defensiveness, Hope replied, "I don't feel guilty, because I've been able to spend a lot of time with Juliette; I've given her a lot. I'm really not concerned about having enough time or love for her. Maybe I will once the baby comes; maybe it will be different. But right now, I'm more excited. And so is she. She's 'given birth' to a number of dolls this summer!" I admired Hope's attitude, recalling the guilt that gnawed at me (maybe that's why I had heartburn the second time around!) throughout my pregnancy with Nick. Countless nights I lay awake, playing the same unconstructive tape in my head: "I hardly have enough time with Maddie now. How will I be able to divide my hours between them? How can we expect her to just move over and welcome some little stranger into the family? We're about to change her life forever—and she didn't even have a chance to vote on the decision..." To make matters worse, when I was about eight months pregnant with Nick I took Maddie to visit my best friend, who had given birth to my beautiful goddaughter, Isabel. The plan was to let Maddie spend some time with a one-month-old, to hold her and learn a little about what newborns are like. Our visit could not have gone better. Madeleine held Izzie tenderly, cooing and singing to her like a little angel. I had tears in my eyes when I crooned, "Oh, honey, you're going to be such a wonderful big sister!" Flashing a beatific smile, Maddie promptly replied, "You are, too, Mama." Then I made the mistake of saying, "Oh, but, Maddie, sweetheart, I'm going to be the baby's mama." An excruciating pause followed, during which I could sense the tiny wheels of her mind spinning around before she said softly, "But you're my mama." Ice pick to the heart! My desperate attempt to explain that I would be mom to Maddie and to her baby brother just rewound the guilt tape; in fact, by that point in my pregnancy, I had added a few choice tracks: "We aren't ready." "Our already hectic lives will spiral out of control." "Maddie's going to metamorphose from the sweet, loving center of our universe to a cold and distant planet." "Our devoted baby-sitter will experience overload and quit." And, worst of all, "Nick is doomed to get short shrift, the leftovers of our attention and love." The truth was that Nicholas's slice of the quality-time pie was often served fast-food style, and with a few Maddie-sized bites taken out of it. This was less of a problem when he was a baby, because I was able to focus as much, if not more, on Maddie's demands for attention and one-on-one time as I was on Nick's basic baby needs. I did learn—as you will when that second bundle of joy arrives—that whatever you give the first won't be enough. Your eldest is hard-wired to complain that you spend too much time with the baby or that you "never did that with me!" I used to get into ridiculous arguments with Maddie about how much I rocked her to sleep when she was a newborn compared with the time I spent rocking Nick in the same chair, until my wise friend and colleague Nancy Samalin (I highly recommend her book about siblings entitled Loving Each One Best) suggested I try a different tack. "Why don't you just say, 'I bet you wish I still rocked you in this chair,' and see how she responds." As Nancy had predicted, Maddie sadly and shyly concurred that she wanted to be rocked, too. So of course I obliged, and as she curled onto my lap, I encouraged her to indulge in another rivalry buster. This one I call "Throw the baby off the train and other demonic fantasies." "I bet you wish we could lock Nick in a closet and throw away the key," I said. Maddie hesitated, not certain how to respond. Then a glimmer of a smile gathered around the edges of her face. "Yeah. Or we could put him in the washing machine," she suggested. "Or throw him way, way up into the sky?" "Or all the way to the moon! Or flush him down the toilet!" she shrieked, dissolving into giggles that definitely flushed much of the tension from her small shoulders. I felt a little guilty devising increasingly ghoulish ends for my sweetly sleeping newborn son, but I knew our words would never hurt him as much as his sister's envy and potential rage. I also knew that assuring Maddie she would grow to love Nick was about as likely to change her present feelings as trying to persuade Rush Limbaugh to vote Democratic. Child development experts will tell you that it's normal and healthy for your preschooler to direct his rage toward Mom, but it's not much fun to have your characteristically compliant firstborn scream "I hate you!" and refuse to do as he's told. As guilt-ridden as you may feel, it's critical to understand how important respecting routines and enforcing limits can be at this time of upheaval and transition. What your preschooler needs more than ever is to know that you still have the energy and love necessary to keep his world as predictable and safe as it was before his little brother or sister came along.
Weathering Emotional Storms
Even if you're raising just one—or if you have not yet expanded your family—the preschool years are sure to promise passionate shifts in your family's emotional climate. Some moms told me that their toddler's meltdowns barely registered on the Richter scale of annoyance, while the whining or "whying" of their four-year-old shattered their patience within minutes. During the kids' preschool years, I understood more than ever why parents often resort to the "because I told you so" school of discipline or to spanking. There were days when a short time-out worked so well, I was ready to nominate myself to the T. Berry Brazelton Hall of Fame. If the planets were aligned just right, natural consequences made sense even to the child with arms crossed angrily across his chest. But much more often, nothing kept the kids from fighting or got them to clean up their toys. I felt like I was constantly forced to rewrite the Murphy Family Rule Book (don't think for a second that such a document actually existed), knowing full well that they key chapter, "When 'No' Means 'No,'" was missing. What I learned is that setting up a framework in the context of your family and, most important, with your child's unique personality in mind is key. If your preschooler reacts to being alone like Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense, then banishing him to his room for a time-out isn't going to work. Gathering him onto your lap and holding him close until he calms down may be a lot more effective. I found that taking away Maddie's Barbies or some coveted toy until she had calmed down worked better than time-outs. It takes time, extraordinary patience, physical strength, and emotional fortitude to discipline effectively. No one has all those skills at her disposal at one time; and a few of us can call upon the skills we do have while waiting on line at the supermarket or under the righteous eyes of judgmental relatives. Mothers spank their kids for countless reasons, including cultural differences. If you grew up in a family where a swat on the rear end was the way your mother got you to behave and it didn't seem to do you any harm, then it's natural and certainly easy to justify doing the same with your children. (Of course, you should ask yourself if you "turned out okay" because of the spanking or despite it.) Study after study confirms that corporal punishment is one of the least effective modes of controlling a young child's behavior. At the same time, when your child has reached an age when questioning Mom's authority is a big part of his moving away, it's tempting to use one's physical "bigness" to assert that authority. Cathy, whose five-year-old had recently started kindergarten when I spoke to her from her home in Alabama, marveled at how often Ford would come home and question what she or her husband told him. "All day long he'll say, 'How do you know?' Or ask us why, why, why. It's not only annoying at times, but it's clear that I'm not the all-knowing person I once was in his eyes. Now he's learning things from other people. He's learning that there are other authorities—his teacher, Miss Lucy, for example. And it just irritates me when he says, 'How do you know?'" Oedipal Wreck Most child-development experts agree that while Freud may have been wrong about many aspects of our psychosexual development, he was definitely onto something when he first described the Oedipal complex. The preschool years are unquestionably colored by the deeply purple passions children express toward one or the other parent but rarely to both in equal measure. Although there are exceptions, most boys fall in love with their moms; girls with their dads. I, somewhat guiltily, loved Nick's Oedipal stage. What wasn't to love? He laughed at all my knock-knock jokes, claimed my tuneless rendition of "Over the Rainbow" surpassed Judy Garland's, paused in the middle of a game to place his pudgy palms on my cheeks, lock his dark brown eyes with mine, and coo, "Ooooh, you're my lovey, dovey, honey Mama." One night, after I had invented a bedtime story about a royal chef who created for his beloved princess a necklace of edible jewels, Nick's eyes widened with excitement. "You know what, Mama?" he whispered. "When I'm growed up, I'm gonna make you a special, special cake. And it's gonna be tall and really, really big, and it's gonna have raspberries on it. And you know what?" "What, honey?" "When you cut it open, it's gonna glow in the dark." But the gift that took the cake, so to speak, was unwrapped the Christmas of his fifth year. It consisted of a cardboard toilet-paper roll stuck in a blob of clay and topped by a rounded canopy of more clay that hung down just enough to make its phallic shape unmistakable. Below the cardboard shaft, stuck in the clay, were two large gold buttons, while from the top (or tip) of the canopy shot several colorful feathers. "Wow! Nick! This is beautiful," I gasped, trying not to make eye contact with Steve. "What is it?" "It's a tree, Mama." "A very happy tree," Steve added as he unwrapped his gift. "And what's this, big guy?" Steve held in his hands what looked like a clay turd skewered by four Popsicle sticks. "Oh, that's a horse, Dad," Nick explained. Then, pointing to a tiny Lego man glued to one side, "And that's you falling off the horse."
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Excerpted from The 7 Stages of Motherhood by Ann Pleshette Murphy. Copyright© 2004 by Ann Pleshette Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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