The Six Stages of Motherhood*

May 5, 2022
Reading time: 5 minutes
Appreciation, Parenting

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*Allow me to begin with a disclaimer: No two mothering experiences have ever been the same. In fact, they are as unique to each parent and child as are fingerprints or snowflakes. What IS true, though, is this: Nurturing another life is a profound and transformative agent of change, both for those being nurtured and for ourselves.

In fact, I’d argue that being a mother has been the single MOST powerful growth experience of my life! And, while the highly abridged stages below are based upon my own observations as a mother to four children, aspects of this journey apply to anyone who has played the role of caretaker or nurturer.

That said, if I were to title the process of raising an 18-year-old more accurately, I’d have to call it “The 6,570 Stages of Motherhood” because every day reveals something new! But for our purposes, let’s keep it easy and settle for the six main stages most mothers go through:

1) The “Dreams of Motherhood” Stage

I dreamed a dream… of being a mom. When we’re happily expecting, we dream dreams with a new sense of purpose in the world. We imagine our children as we wish them to be: happy, healthy, and well-adjusted, bringing delight into our hearts and homes, offering us unconditional love. They will change the world–starting with ours–in the most positive ways. This is our time for excitement, for nesting, and for envisioning who WE will become as a mother.

We are certain that we will be patient and kind and encouraging and brilliant. We will do it so much better than our parents did. We’ll be Mom of the Year, at least in our own family… right? And naturally, we’ll keep a perfect life balance and look our magazine-cover best at all times–even while feeding at 2 a.m. after days of sleep deprivation. (But we’re not thinking about all that silly stuff, are we?) The optimism is astounding.

For how can we possibly anticipate the up-and-down tidal wave of change charging our way? And soon enough, the mystical experience of birth sets it all in motion.

2) The “Reality” Stage (What? I’m a Mom? With a BABY?)

Never could we have imagined someone being so dependent on us. It’s pure bliss. AND PURE TERROR. When you realize that you are a MOTHER, and that this tiny being relies on YOU for her every need, your entire self-concept is shattered–then rebuilt–in the same instant. Your baby is fragile and perfect, despite the spit-up currently being spewed all over your favorite just-washed t-shirt.

And if you have a child who has special needs (as happened with our Josh), you go through yet another level of shifting (and fear). Through it all, you grow both your knowledge and your capacity not only to love, but to accept and handle whatever comes your way. You swerve. You bend. You lose sleep and fall out of touch with the world for a while. The depth and breadth of your role hit you–this is for life. Always, and forever.

3) The “Patience-Pushing” Stage (Because eek! Those little ones… )

The toddler years are both universally challenging and universally rewarding for our personal growth. This stage offers us the opportunity for new levels of patience, thankfully balanced with awe and delight. When our little one gains a new skill such as standing, walking, riding a tricycle, or going down a slide, it seems a marvel right up there with quantum physics. I mean, how did that tiny, helpless bundle become this little person? And why is she screaming for more ice cream?

But in growing this little person, we feel ourselves stretch. We recognize where boundaries are needed (one of those ongoing parenting lessons) and where our level of social discomfort lies. Case in point: you know that toddler throwing a fit in a restaurant? Um, yeah, so do I. In fact, I’ve known four of them quite personally. (Okay, maybe three. Josh was much more easygoing, barring a few PT fiascos.)

We soon realize that beyond that all-consuming social decorum lies the Real. World. Of. Parenting. And sure, wiping snotty noses and serving apple juice may not qualify as the most glamorous of duties, but these acts teach us more about our humanness than any high-paying job can hope to.

4) The “Captain Mom” Stage (My, how quickly they grow!)

When our children are in elementary and even middle school, we’re like the captain of some strange expedition of quick-morphing small folk. Still the safe harbor for our young explorers’ increasing radius of activity, we feed them, drive them, host their parties, go to their sporting events, and sign them up for summer camp. We’re planners, cheerleaders, teachers, and role models. And they are watching, even when they’re not watching. Meanwhile, as they’re learning all about life and their sense of place in the world, we’re discovering our own behavioral patterns, growing our parenting toolkits, and, in managing little lives, we’re upgrading the mismanaged parts of our own. (Wait–was that school play on the calendar? I need a better calendar!)

We lean into our kids’ worlds (I mean, me? A dance mom? Who would’ve thought!) We facilitate that first bike ride or ski hill. We cultivate a sense of family. That little tornado of a toddler finds what psychologist Erik Erikson calls a “sense of industry.” She bakes cakes, walks to school, discovers her moral compass, and acts for a cause. We, too, become more industrious. We become involved in the PTA… help with that geometry homework… volunteer for field trips. Through our child’s growing autonomy, we reconnect with ourselves a little more. We begin to remember who we are, who we were, outside of being a mom. The fog in the mirror clears a little, even as change remains our only constant.

5) The “Pseudo Separation” Stage (Ah, teenagers…)

They’re driving, or someone they know is about to take the wheel. They’re heading out with friends, wading (or jumping) into the dating world, maybe even spending a semester overseas. They’re practicing for that push-from-the-nest to come, but they’re not quite there. They’re still watching us (hawk-like, and often with rolling eyes) while fluttering their wings. In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst mused that “A normal adolescent isn’t a normal adolescent if he acts normal.” Hello, truth! They may walk and talk like adults, but the minute we decree a very sensible curfew, kiss adulthood goodbye…

Our teens challenge our thinking. They push the rules and our hot buttons. And as they find their independence, we, too, rediscover ours. We coach, we inspire, we nudge them towards the edge of the nest. At times we’re good and ready to push them over; at other times, we want to hold them here forever. We grow brave. We cry, we laugh. We let go.

6) The “Onward” Stage (Parenting our adult children)

The best we can hope for is that our children will meet the world with principles and aspirations of their own. They may be in lockstep with us–or not even close. Yet when they come back for our approval or advice or blessings, we know we’ve done our job. We can strive to provide these without smothering (it’s no accident that “mother” appears in that word!). Most of all, we can respect and love them for simply being who they are. Likewise, we can rediscover who we are and forge a new path for who we might yet become.

Being a mother (by any definition) requires us to stretch and change over and over (and over) again.

I know that I am not the same person who dreamed those dreams for my unborn children, or who feared motherhood, survived toddler tantrums, and played taxi to a gaggle of kindergartners. My children have grown (though not all have flown), and so have I. If we’re lucky, we’ll all continue to evolve, both individually and together. We will keep engaging each other. Amusing each other. Challenging each other.

As they say, Once a mother, always a mother.

That’s the one–and perhaps the only–thing that will never change. That’s the forever part, the part that transforms us from the inside out. The part that connects us with all the mothers who ever came before, and with all those yet to be.


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