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Will You Be a Good Mother?

What are your expectations?

She's stitched together from years of observations and pop culture -- the mother you unconsciously aspire to be. My own idyllic vision was a selfless souffle whipped up out of equal parts June Cleaver, Marge Simpson, highly selective memories of my own mom, and thin air. The trouble was, this Ultramama didn't resemble me at all. (For starters, I'm too selfish, too human, and wouldn't be caught dead in an apron and pearls.) As a result, I had a hard time relating to the very idea of becoming a mother, let alone becoming a good one.

It's a common dilemma, says British anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, author of Rediscovering Birth. For many women, motherhood is abstract. It's easy to watch pregnant coworkers return after weeks of maternity leave and envy their "vacation," oblivious to the fact that they aren't sleeping through the night and their breasts leak when meetings run long. Then there are the media images. Mothers are portrayed in TV commercials and magazines as cheery, all-knowing, sexless, craft-making doormats, or as romantic figures: white negligee, rocking chair, baby at the breast. "Most women who view these extremes and fail to see themselves can't help but conclude that they must not have any maternal instincts themselves," says Kitzinger.

"All women wonder whether they'll be a good mother, but this is a culturally induced fear," says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance. "Society polarizes mothers as either 'good' or 'bad,' but if you observe most of them over time, you see that they're both good and bad."

The mother of two, Lerner used to keep an inventory of the Perfect Mother she planned to be. "I would never be one of those moms I saw yelling at her kids. I would never fight with my husband in front of them. I would not be a worrier," she recalls. "Of course, I've done all these things, and more. I was also totally unprepared for the range of feelings that having children evoked. I didn't know I could experience such exhaustion, protectiveness, and love or how quick I'd be to imagine disaster."

One thing that made motherhood seem doable to me: noting other unlikely candidates who'd managed child rearing alongside the rest of their lives. (Margaret Mead! Jodie Foster! Christie Brinkley! My cousin!) I felt the same glimmers of possibility when a younger, hipper friend -- the first of my peers to procreate -- showed off her newborn daughter while still seemingher same quirky, wisecracking self. If she could do it, then I could too!