Birth of a Parent

Through the entwined mysteries of love and biology, an ordinary man and woman procreate a child.  What is less obvious but no less profound is how a singular child gives birth to two parents.  For at the moment of birth a woman becomes a mother, a man becomes a father, and two new fundamental identities begin to emerge.  In the typical situation, nine months of hopes and dreams and fears reach a crescendo of love that brings with it a powerful drive and near boundless energy to protect and nurture the real newborn infant.  The woman is changed forever as she becomes a primary caretaker as is the man who has traveled by her side and will continue with new charges.

My Story

How my own journey as a parent began lives on through vivid images.  I’ll never forget the magical night  my son Tariq was born.  It had been a long labor- over twenty-four hours.  He seemed to look all around the delivery room, even before his body had completely emerged.  Without thinking, I jumped from my position behind the delivery table and wound up right there beside the doctor–my knees wobbling, my heart pounding with excitement.  The doctor, an older man who had delivered many babies, commented on how alert my first child looked.

Right away I could tell that his head was the same shape as mine.  The skin on my face tightened as I beamed with pride.  I counted his fingers and toes and breathed easier knowing that everything was okay.  The nurse cleaned him up while I watched eagerly, and she wrapped him in a flannel blanket.  He looked so cute–a perfect newborn.  I had dreamed of having a boy, and I love retelling this story and reliving those moments of ecstasy.  It’s one of my warmest memories.
Holding your baby for the first time is a feeling like no other.  When the nurse put Tariq in my arms, I felt the electricity of that instant.  He felt so soft and delicate to my fingertips.  I cradled him next to my heart.  The possibilities seemed infinite; the responsibilities were immense.  His brown eyes looked so big and round.  Was he looking inside me?  Was I looking inside him?  It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.  From then on I have looked at the world differently.  From then on, I have held a special respect for a woman’s ability to give birth–for every woman’s special partnership in the miracle of life.  I thought of my own mother, who gave birth to eight healthy children, and of my father waiting outside the delivery room.  It was a new chapter in my evolving consciousness of the wonders of life.

A New View on Motherhood

With The Birth Of A Mother,  psychiatrist Daniel N. Stern, pediatrician and child psychiatrist Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, and journalist Alison Freeland have made an important contribution to the literature about parenthood.How rare and wonderful that a book about mothering (and fathering) embraces the challenges of bonding with and raising a child with special needs.  The heart of the book is the enchanting description of the psychological birth of the mother in the months that precede and follow the birth of her baby.

Through hundreds of interviews with new mothers and decades of experience, the authors demonstrate conclusively how a woman’s mental life changes fundamentally with the arrival of a baby.  The striking change in perspective includes the shift from being a daughter to being a mother, becoming a part of the broad community of mothers, seeing one’s husband become a father, forming a mother-father-child triangle, and an altered set of sensibilities that are brought to bear on every sight, sound, and smell of the new mother.  In today’s society, the new mother balances baby and career as she also finds a new role in her family of origin.  A new era begins in the mother’s life as she counts time with a private calendar that is marked with her baby’s age and developmental milestones.

A three-part process is hypothesized by the authors and provides the basic conceptual framework for the book which begins with “Preparing to be a Mother.”  First, while the mother’s body forms the fetus, her mind paves the way for her new identity.  Hopes, dreams, fears, and fantasies abound about who her baby will be, what motherhood will be like, and how her husband will respond as a father.   The physical birth of the infant next spawns the psychological birth of motherhood, and the real baby comes into focus.  The mother continues to look at the real baby through the lens of her hopes, dreams, and fears.  Understandably, a mother may want to repair or redo her own past through her child, but ballet classes or science fairs, for example,  are not necessarily the child’s wish.  So putting aside these self-fulfilling prophecies and seeing the baby as a unique individual is central in this first stage of motherhood.

Part 2, “A Mother is Born,” reveals how the basics of feeding, nurturing, and caring for the new baby ensure her survival and cement the new identity of motherhood as a mind set.  The development of an intimate loving relationship with the baby, unlike other relationships, is unusual because it is non-verbal in the beginning.  The fundamental questions about loving and being loved are enacted as the mother and infant learn to respond to each other and grow the relationship.  Mistakes are inevitably made, and need to be righted.  The mother’s unfinished business with her own mother may be elicited in the process and must then be addressed in some fashion.  Ultimately each new mother decides how much of her own relationship with her mother she wants to repeat or reject with her baby–no small dilemma.

The third phase, “A Mother Adapts,” deals with career issues, premature babies and those with special needs, as well as the new dimensions of partnership with the husband and father.  In one succinct chapter (nine), the authors embrace the staggering obstacles of a new mother who learns that her baby is not completely healthy.  With such a dramatic loss, the mother also loses her freedom to anticipate the future of her baby, herself, and her family for there is no clear picture of her baby as a preschooler, adolescent, adult, or parent themselves in the future.  As the Sterns state (p.183), “The birth of a severely developmentally delayed or handicapped baby is a trauma that virtually stops time in its tracks…suddenly your future is unpredictable, and emotionally unimaginable.  At the same moment, your past, full of hopes and fantasies of pregnancy, is obliterated and becomes too painful to remember.  Parents are held prisoner in an enduring present.”

The Agonizing Process

The predictable path through this emotional trauma to an uncertain future is  charted by the authors.  This process involves learning about the baby’s problem in intimate detail and learning to see past the disability and bond with the actual baby.  If the announcement of the problem occurs before bonding has begun, this is clearly much more difficult and rejection of the infant may occur.  While the birth of a healthy baby empowers the woman as a mother, the birth of a less than perfect baby wounds her in her core.

It can be an agonizing process as many readers of can ably attest.  Many times the full nature of the problem isn’t clear, and no one, including the medical experts, knows how the child will turn out.  In a broad sense the family becomes disabled not being able to predict the future and feeling isolated and bewildered.  Many articles and letters in this electronic magazine certainly illustrate the details of this dilemma for family after family who writes in.  The authors of “The Birth of the Mother” recommend that parents explore these painful experiences, share them with others, and seek psychological counseling when necessary in order to move away from the pain and to “finally rejoin the current of time.”  The authors’ vision is clearly that parents can learn to grow and love their baby in wonderful ways that are in the beginning unimaginable.

You don’t want to give up hope, and yet you try to accept the reality of your child’s condition.  What a fine line–a razor’s edge.   Little did I know that the perfect infant I held in my arms on November 29, 1979 would approach his twentieth birthday as a young man with autism.  I could have never imagined the unacceptable reality that he would not speak or read or write.  And yet I have learned to accept him and love him for who he is.  He has taught me that, and many experiences with Tariq and with other children with special needs and their families have taught me to help others on a similar journey.  Sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others, and so connecting with other parents of children with special needs can help us to thrive and feel a semblance of “normalcy.”

We parents of children with special needs do indeed live within the vast developmental spectrum of the parenting experience.  In a broad sense, no child is perfect, and it is the bond that attaches the parent and the child that will sustain families over the long haul.  How these passions develop has uniqueness and similarities for parents with children developing typically as well as those with special needs.  In all cases, the infant cradled in the parent’s arms is different to some degree, small or large, from the child fantasized in the mind.  The reconciliation of these images is central in the daily work of the all parents–in that sense we are far from an isolated minority.