The Power of Mother Love

First comes joy

A pregnancy generates nine months of significant psychological and physiological upheaval. While it’s wonderful, it’s nothing short of cataclysmic. Most women are awash with euphoria when they first learn from their doctor or pregnancy kit that they’re carrying a child. “I jumped up and down when I got the call from my obstetrician’s office confirming that I was pregnant,” said Ginger, 29. “Then I speed-dialed my husband, and that night we called our parents, friends and just about everybody in the free world.”

If a woman feels safe in her marriage, the news that she is pregnant can be immensely reassuring. She may have wondered if she could even conceive a baby, especially since some of her 30-something friends are struggling with infertility. Finding out that she has conceived allays a woman’s fears and makes her feel whole like nothing else can. While a man may strut and preen before his friends when he learns that he has impregnated his wife (“I’m a stud,” one man I know said jokingly), a woman is more likely to bask quietly in the glory of fulfilling a lifelong dream that began as she played dolls as a little girl and culminated in fruitful sex with her husband.

Laurie Combs, 36, of Sterling, Va., is a woman who’s grateful to be a mother. When she was 30, she wasn’t even sure she’d ever meet and marry the right man, much less have a baby. Fortunately, she met and married Roger when she was 34 and conceived shortly thereafter. The day she learned that she and Roger, 44, were about to become parents, she called him to share her news. This woman, who had fasted and prayed for a family years earlier, told me with laughter, “I was only 17 days pregnant, but Roger told everyone in the office.”

Then comes terror

Sometimes, however, a woman’s short-lived joy gives way to longer-lived terror as it hits home that she is indeed pregnant. In a humorous piece entitled “Mortal Terrors and Motherhood,” writer Amy Herrick chronicled the rise of her obsessive maternal anxiety. When she first discovered she was pregnant, Herrick felt both “absurd pride” and “a cold shadow of fear” that was “silent and sharklike.” Although her husband tried to console her, Herrick’s worry escalated.

Then, one afternoon, I went into the kitchen to have some tea and I happened to pick up one of my Everything You Need to Know About Being Pregnant handbooks and my eye just happened to fall on the section about toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease you can get from handling cat poop and it’s very sinister because the mother often has no symptoms or she thinks she’s just got a cold, but meanwhile it slips across the placenta and causes the baby to go blind and deaf. When you’re pregnant, the book said, it is wise to wear gloves when gardening in case you inadvertently brush up against any leavings of any stray cats. Just an hour before, I had been gardening and I had not been wearing gloves.

Two days later Herrick confessed “when my husband finally threatened to put his head in the oven if I didn’t tell him what was wrong.” Not surprisingly, her husband urged her to get a blood test, which turned out negative. The test results bought them both a few moments of peace. Until the dinner party, that is, when Herrick learned that her good friend Kate, who had just fed her dinner, cleaned her oven that very afternoon.

I stared at her in horror. Oven cleaners were one of the toxic substances pregnant people were supposed to avoid. How could she have done this to me? How could she have been so stupid?

I spent the rest of the evening in preoccupied silence, imagining in detail all the possible cellular mistakes that even now could be repeating themselves over and over in my little one’s tiny defenseless body because of the food I had just eaten that had come out of Kate’s just-cleaned oven.

When it was time to get in the car and head for home, with a great sense of courage and self-sacrifice, I decided not to say anything to my spouse because I didn’t want to have him spend the next few months worrying and tossing sleeplessly, as I was going to do. However, we were not halfway home before he pulled the car over to the curb and turned and looked at me resignedly.

“Okay. Out with it,” he said.

“Out with what?” I said nervously.

“Out with whatever it is that’s making you look like you’ve been taken hostage in a bank holdup.”

Hubby points out that dinner was pasta, cooked on the top of the stove. This granted Herrick “an ecstasy of reprieve,” which was temporary, of course. She then worried about hot dogs, followed by amniocentesis, and even “whether my worrying hadn’t already blighted the spirit of my baby.” Finally, her baby’s delivery brought Herrick a momentary calm: “All was right with the world. I was home free. He was slimy and squish-faced, but he was perfect.” No more anxiety. At least for a while.

Adjusting to the physical changes

Both joy and “mortal terror” are normal emotional responses to the reality of impending, first-time motherhood. After all, you have never carried a baby in your womb before.

Thank heavens our bodies propel us into motherhood, or some of us would get stuck in the early months of pregnancy, anxious and obsessive about everything. But once our breasts enlarge and our bellies swell, we can no longer deny that something amazing is happening to us. While some women bemoan the loss of their figure and their changing body image, others revel in the freedom to eat for two and gain 20 to 30 extra pounds.

Supermodel Niki Taylor, mother of 2-year-old twins, Hunter and Jake, gained 70 pounds when she was pregnant. Was she concerned about her ballooning body? Hardly. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was like ‘I don’t have to worry anymore.’ I craved meat. I ate meat and potatoes every night. If someone had leftovers on their plate, it was like, ‘Give it to Nick.’ ” Although Taylor later lost the weight by jogging, she is unfazed by stretch marks and able to glory in her woman’s body. “I have hips now,” said Taylor, “but it makes me more sexy.”

While it’s obviously unwise for any mother-to-be to gain too much weight during her pregnancy, I’m always concerned when a rail-thin woman tries to fight her pregnant state by refusing to gain any or sufficient weight. One woman told me with pride that she was five months pregnant and no one could tell. Preoccupied with the maintenance of her twiglike figure, this mother of one was unable to relax and enjoy her changing body or the prospect that she was growing a baby in her womb.

Sometimes a woman will be concerned about weight gain because of early-internalized messages to stay thin, or she may be ambivalent about her pregnancy, seeking to deny its existence. Or, because of early woundedness or abuse, she may be unable to embrace this evidence of her sexuality. In any event, I always feel sad when a woman can’t enjoy her transformed, fertile body.

I remember reveling in my pregnant body. In my third trimester, my belly was so huge I could hardly tie my sneakers or even see my feet. But I marveled at this transformation. Granted, I could no longer sleep on my stomach, and I moved through life slowly, but my body was housing and growing a baby. I thought it was wonderful. It didn’t matter that I looked Rubenesque; I was a fertile woman and I wanted the whole world to know it.

Excerpted from The Power of Mother Love by Brenda Hunter, published by WaterBrook Press. Copyright © 1997 Brenda Hunter. Used by permission.