The best, most beautiful thing I’ve ever done

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I found out I was pregnant two months after entering a clinical psychology Ph.D. program. I looked around at the seven other members of my cohort – all slightly older than me, unmarried, without children, and, at that point, basically strangers. I looked around at the program as a whole – I knew of four other parents. Everyone knew of those four other parents because, as the numbers suggest, having kids in grad school is a bit of a unicorn scenario.

I had no idea how lonely my pregnancy was until months after my son was born. It was my first baby – I assumed this was how everyone felt. I remember driving home with my husband one day, reading on my phone a research article about mothers’ experiences of breastfeeding. I read about the guilt and shame women feel when they cannot produce enough milk to feed their babies. I burst into tears (not something I often do). I remember looking at my husband, who was confused and alarmed, and saying “I didn’t know other people felt like this.” I had been living in the dark and those words turned on the light, illuminating an entire room of other women – women who had done this before me, women who had struggled like I was, women who would understand. And, as I read more of those other women’s stories, I learned that I wasn’t alone. I also learned that graduate school and academia presented many unique challenges to an already challenging experience.

From roughly that moment on, I began to reflect on my experience frequently and thoughtfully. I remembered hard times. Like rushing to pump between therapy clients and being so stressed and hurried that I could only produce an ounce (Mamas, you know much this sucks). Or the time someone told me that, towards the end of pregnancy, women become basically useless with respect to their work. Or all the times people said, “I don’t know how you do it,” which I didn’t have the strength and support to take as a compliment, only ever as a criticism. I remembered good times. Like my cohort throwing us a baby shower. Or the time one of my professors asked me to stay after class so she could congratulate me on the pregnancy and offer to help me find a flexible, family-friendly assistantship for the coming year. Or the time my husband and ten-month-old son sat in the audience while I gave a conference talk about my experience of being pregnant.

Now, as I sit secretly pregnant with my second child, I realize that many of those experiences were colored by my own insecurities. But, I don’t think they were all of my imagining. I still contend that, in competitive fields like ours, there is sometimes the idea that a person cannot be both a responsible professional and a parent. The climate isn’t always that cold, but when it has been, it has stayed with me, leaving doubts and fears in its wake.

I sense those fears rearing their ugly heads now; for example, I am just starting a clinical rotation and have decided not to tell my clinical supervisor that I’m pregnant because I want more time to prove myself to her. And so, like many student-mothers, I work overtime, turn things in before the deadline, and generally go above and beyond to keep up appearances and send the message that despite being a mother (and despite being pregnant), I promise I’m not a liability. I already know I’m not a liability and I hate that I feel such pressure to prove it.

I have a vague feeling of incompleteness as I conclude this essay. I know the ideas within it are immature and half-baked. I’m sure that someday when I’m a licensed professional or a mom of teens, I’ll look back on these words and smile at my own naivety, at how little I knew. Or, maybe I’ll cry. That would make sense too. The therapist in me is working hard to appreciate my student-mother status as one of life’s great dialectics, or tensions. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done—full of unexpected loneliness and loss—and simultaneously the best, most beautiful thing I’ve ever done—full of joy and purpose.

Alek

Families in Psychology Project

familiesinpsych@gmail.com 

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According to Henriques (2011), psychology is the science of mental behavior and the human mind, and the professional application of such knowledge toward the greater good. As a budding “applied” clinician, Alek helps people better understandtheir past experiences and current state of being in a way that fosters understanding and hope. That’s her job – assisting others in making sense of their selves and circumstances as to promote individual, familial, and communal wellbeing. As a woman surrounded by other psychologists looking to cultivate the same kind of positive energy, it is nonsensical as to why Alek has “doubts and fears” that have the potential to become a part of her baby’s prenatal experience. A psychologically driven workplace should strive to create an environment in women (and their partners) are supported in providing their babies with a safe, healthy, and loving entry into being.

Prenatal parenting (characteristics of which include being attached, committed, caring, and nurturing towards a child) is seen as a developmental process that begins during pregnancy and evolves over time (Deave, Johnson, & Ingram, 2008). Though the biological mechanisms underlying fetal programming – the concept that the environment in the womb, during different sensitive periods for specific outcomes, can alter the development of the baby, with a long lasting effect on the child – are only just starting to be understood, the significance of a baby’s in utero experience has been documented for decades (Glover & Capron, 2017). The emotional state of a pregnant woman can affect her child by fetal programming, by prenatal bonding, and via links with her postnatal mood and parenting (Glover & Capron, 2017). The emotional wellbeing of any individual depends on many variables: physical health, field of relationships, economic situation, vocational/occupation pursuits, meaning making, and so on. When a woman becomes pregnant, her own welfare is poignantly connected with the welfare of the baby developing inside her womb. In order for a woman like Alek to take care of herself and fully engage in prenatal parenting (along with her partner), such aforementioned domains must be considered by Alek, her familial support system, her work environment, surrounding community, and greater sociopolitical bodies. Sound overwhelming? Yikes! Why not start with some of the below recommendations:

• Both Pavlova et al. (2015) and de Jong-Pleij et al. (2013) have shown that viewing ultrasound scans had a positive impact on prenatal maternal-baby bonding.

• Read through this blog and engage in an experiential activity to better understand what areas of your overall wellbeing need to be addressed: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201704/the-well-being-wheel-experiential-activity

• A soothing way to bond with your baby is to gently massage your belly. This is safe to do after the first three months of pregnancy (“10 Ways to Bond,” 2017).

• You may start to feel your baby's movements from about 18 weeks to 20 weeks. Responding to your baby's kicks is about as close as you will get to two-way communication before she's born. And you can do it at any time, wherever you are. Rub your bump when your baby moves and you may find that she kicks back at you (“10 Ways to Bond,” 2017).

• You may want to keep a journal to document your pregnancy. Think about including letters to your child, telling them about your hopes and unconditional love. You can share these notes with your child at some point so they know how loved they were from the very beginning (Sorgen, 2003).

• Babies can recognize music they've heard in the womb after they're born so listen to your favorite music and sing to you belly, or create a song especially for them (Sorgen, 2003).

• Swimming is a safe way to exercise but since your baby's floating in fluid too, it gives you a chance to relate to them, a lived “parallel process” (“10 Ways to Bond,” 2017).

They say it takes a village to raise a child, so consider yourself a part of the proverbial tribe and advocate for mother-and-baby prenatal care.

Ali

Families in Psychology Project

familiesinpsych@gmail.com 

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References

Deave T, Johnson D, Ingram J. (2008) Transition to parenthood: The needs of parents in pregnancy and early parenthood. BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, 8(30), 1–11.

de Jong-Plejj, E.A.P., Ribbert, L.S.M., Pistorius, L.R., Tromp, E., Mulder, E.J.H., & Bilardo, C.M. (2013). Three-dimensional ultrasound and maternal bonding, a third trimester study and review. Prenatal Diagnosis Journal.33, 81-88.

Glover, V. & Capron, L. (2017). Prenatal parenting. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15, 66-70.

Henriques, G. (2011). Psychology defined: What, exactly, is psychology? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201112/psychology-defined

Pavlova, E., Markov, D., & Ivanov (2015). The impact of 3D ultrasound on maternal-fetal bonding during the fetal anomaly scan in the first and second trimester. Akusherstvoiginekologiia, 54, 18-28.

Sorgen, C. (2003). Bonding with baby before birth. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/bonding-with-baby-before-birth#1

10 ways to bond with your baby bump. (June, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1049630/10-ways-to-bond-with-your-baby-bump

What I’ve learned in becoming a single mother by choice

What I’ve learned in becoming a single mother by choice

You are doing the best you can. It is okay to have some compassion for yourself.