The Modern Parent and Individual Identity
**This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the Modern Parent. See The Modern Parent for part one of this series.**
Motherhood and The Effects on Identity
Pregnancy is a time in a woman’s life that leads to major physical and psychological changes. As stated by Dr. Irena Milentijevic, “A woman gives birth not only to her baby, but also to her new identity as a mother.” According to a study in Nature Neuroscience, a woman’s brain is flooded by reproductive hormones, which acts to facilitate restructuring of a woman’s brain, affecting significant amounts of gray matter areas of the brain associated with social cognition and theory of mind. The idea is that such changes occur to help a woman become more sensitive to her child and better handle the difficulties that come along with motherhood. Once a motherhood state of mind develops, her personhood will never quite be the same. However, the psychological changes that create a maternal identity are not limited to biological mothers. These changes can occur in women even if the child did not come from their womb. First-time mothers may find themselves becoming more interested in forming a support network with other women. They may see their husbands less sexual and identify them primarily as the father of their baby. Women may sense an incredible and overwhelming responsibility as they began to process that they are the ultimate key to their baby’s survival.
Despite all of the pamphlets and literature, many doctors and pregnancy educators fail to mention the impact of this maternal transition, especially when it comes to the social implications. Whether we like it or not, society will relegate specific expectations and assign new social norms to mothers. This can feel uncomfortable and even confining for many women, creating an internal struggle. French writer and psychotherapist Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni wrote in The Dividing of Women or Women's Lot, "Pregnancy is a narcissistic crisis . . . because the ego-ideal, the specular image, is massively altered, putting to the test the she-narcissus who wants to remain the same, unchanging and outside of time." Therefore, it becomes extremely important for women to check in with their feelings, reach out for support, and feel supported by their partner as they navigate such choppy waters.
Fatherhood and the Effects on Identity
Traditional parenthood has been viewed as women’s biological destiny, leaving little space for men’s experiences of becoming a father and developing their paternal state of mind. It has been perceived that fathering is something men “do,” whereas for women, mothering is something they “are”. Thankfully, these traditional arenas of thought are slowly starting to wane. In present day, a father’s involvement in a woman’s pregnancy, labor, and delivery has greatly increased. As men take on a more prominent role in the home, scientists have responded by researching the neural and hormonal mechanisms that take place in men as they enter into fatherhood. Evidence has shown that fatherhood changes a man’s brain, similar to the change that occurs in mothers, and in turn, provides men with personality characteristics that increase their ability to rear children, according to a recent review of studies by psychologist Elizabeth Gould and colleagues from Princeton University. Contact with the mother and the child seems to induce the hormonal changes in new fathers. They experience a surge in hormones like estrogen and oxytocin, as well as a decrease in levels of testosterone. These physiological changes in men help to make them better equipped to prepare for parenthood.
This transformation of a man’s role in the pregnancy process and in getting ready for parenting is pushing men slowly away from characteristics that once defined the very meaning of masculinity. Traditionally, males have been taught to be less emotional, self-confident, competent, and most importantly in control. Many a man’s identity has been comprised of encouraging and developing these “masculine” traits. However, pregnancy and new fatherhood is a highly emotional experience, and one in which a male partner may feel less confident, competent, and largely out of his comfort zone. This can sometimes lead to a rise in stress levels and increased anxiety about the impending step into fatherhood. Men may respond by making certain lifestyle changes in order to better prepare themselves for the transition into becoming a parent. Men who were involved in their partner’s pregnancy and child rearing have reported cutting back on drinking, taking fewer risks, and exercising more. While new evidence shows a shift in men’s identify and lifestyle once they enter fatherhood, this does not completely eliminate previous personality traits. In fact, men may experience higher levels of stress on maintaining the ideal of being a successful provider for their family. Regardless, evidence is accumulating that parenthood transforms men by affecting their values and relationships with others.
In our final post in this series we will explore how the couple identity is challenged in going from two to three or more. Tips and tools for couples' successfully navigating from "us" to "we".
--To be continued--
This is part two in a three part series on Parenthood and Pregnancy for the month of October, 2019
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- Jamie Mayo-Buttry, M.A., LPC-Intern, LCDC-Intern, Licensed Mediator