Skip to main content
bodychildrenguest postself-image

Guest Post: Maternal Self-Esteem by Dr. Jessica Zucker

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Republished here with permission.

Body change is shrouded in fear. Iconic female bodies are tiny, toned, tight, and most definitely without the permanence of stretch marks. Pregnancy creates a cultural conundrum. On the one hand, culture secretly (though not so quietly sometimes) mandates that women work their hardest to look as though their bodies are as slight as a whisper, taking up little to no space, while simultaneously exuding sexiness and a little bit of sass. The ever-changing prenatal body is creating, carrying, and nurturing new life and with that comes a robustness that potentially stirs unresolved issues, handed down from culture, family, and shaky self-esteem.

When self-esteem is predicated on the number that pops up on the scale each morning or hinges on whether or not you can fit into freshly dried jeans today that you wore comfortably yesterday, pregnancy may present a warranted wake-up call.

All too often I hear rumblings of regret, from day one of the positive pregnancy test up to at least one-year postpartum, about the maternal body’s metamorphosis.

“Instead of relishing my ever-increasing curves, I find myself comparing my body to my pregnant co-worker, as if being smaller will render me the winner of an unspoken competition.” “Someone asked me if I’m having twins, and I’m only 25 weeks pregnant with a singleton, what am I going to look like by 40 weeks? There is nothing beautiful about being this huge.” “I’m the size of a whale, a house, a continent!” and “I’m ready to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight. I want my body to be normal again. I’m sick of this bulging belly, drooping breasts, and not feeling like my old self.”

Rarely are women enjoying the idyllic “glow” rumored to accompany pregnancy. Instead, pregnant women often find it an arduous task to establish a sense of comfort in their newfound maternal skin. More often than not women report being mildly or severely tormented by the myriad body changes occurring throughout pregnancy and beyond. In fact, pre-pregnancy body image challenges that get reinvigorated during this transformative time may be a regrettable source of anxiety and/or depression. Studies have found that “anxiety disorders are more frequent than depression during pregnancy, and at least as common as depression during the postpartum period, if not more so. Depression and anxiety are kind of like thunder and lightning — they just go together” (Wiegartz & Gyoerkoe, 2009). Even seemingly sturdy pre-pregnancy self-esteem can be undermined by a tidal wave of disorienting anxiety.

Self-esteem is an aspect of personality that can be cultivated across the lifespan. Dedicated introspection and mindfully growing self-understanding allows for increased ease and fruitful connections. Pregnancy may awaken previously untouched, powerful feelings about self-worth, body image, and familial relationships. Some say that pregnancy is miraculous. Yet, undigested internal struggles will not miraculously disappear during pregnancy. Instead, a resurgence of unknown or pushed away fears may bubble to the surface during this nascent experience. Bolstering your sense of self-worth during pregnancy by thoughtfully examining unresolved issues may harness a greater sense of postpartum confidence and peace of mind as parenthood emerges.

Parents are created, not born. The process of becoming a parent is marked by pregnancy and is a lifelong journey filled with opportunities for growth and development. Who we are at any given time invariably gets imbued into how we negotiate parenting. Pregnancy provides a ripe opportunity to deeply understand the parenting we received, the parenting we hope to provide, and perhaps, most importantly, delving into places of internal unrest with the aim of resolving historical pain. When we parent from the inside out, we benefit enormously by establishing self-esteem that is tenacious and authentic.

Intergenerational transmission of self-esteem may be a worthwhile concept to ponder during this gestational period. Hardy parental self-esteem models enhance flexibility of mind and a comfort in the world while self-worth riddled with insecurity and ambivalence may yield enduring anxiety across generations. “The development of the child’s whole personality is influenced by many things, including genetics, temperament, physical health, and experience. Parent-child relationships offer one very important part of the early experience that directly shapes a child’s emerging personality. Emotional intelligence, self-esteem, cognitive abilities, and social skills are built on this early attachment relationship. How parents have reflected on their lives directly shapes the nature of that relationship” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Arming ourselves with prenatal parenting skills and reflective emotional insight can help garner a graceful pregnancy and postpartum adjustment period. Self-esteem, along with hormonal shifts and social support, play a central role in post-pregnancy transitions. Postpartum blues, depression, and anxiety are too common to be ignored. Even the most ironclad sense of self-esteem can be readily dismantled by the impact of postpartum mood disorders. “The juxtaposition of one of life’s greatest gifts and one of life’s most unkind illnesses is what makes postpartum depression different from depression that is unrelated to childbirth” (Kleiman, 2009). Feeling unbearably hopeless, frighteningly disconnected or overtaken by crippling anxiety can leave someone who previously felt like Super Woman unrecognizably lifeless. This is all the more reason to take time out to do the reflective work necessary to feel grounded in who you are as a woman and a mother-to-be.

Parenthood is a perennial adventure. Babies do not arrive with universal instruction manuals spelling out the various ways we can help them thrive in the world. Creating secure, healthy self-esteem in our children comes from a much deeper place within, not necessarily from anything we read in a how-to book. Asking for help when we need it, identifying our strengths as a parent, and attempting to be consciously aware of stumbling blocks promise to engender a mindful childhood for your offspring. Research has shown that “parents who themselves did not have “good enough parents” or who even had traumatic childhoods can make sense of their lives and have healthy relationships. More important for our children than merely what happened to us in the past is the way we have come to process and understand it. The opportunity to change and grow continues to be available throughout our lives” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Building self-esteem within our children begins before they are born. It begins within our selves.

– Dr. Jessica Zucker

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles specializing in women’s health with a focus on transitions in motherhood, perinatal and postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child attachment. Jessica is a published writer and is a contributor to The Huffington Post and PBS This Emotional Life. Dr. Zucker is currently writing her first book about mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body (Routledge).

Generous support for The Illusionists provided by:

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt provides a comprehensive continuum of specialized care for children, adolescents and adults with eating disorders. Our holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to recovery helps individuals and families move beyond surviving to thriving.