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Will You Be a Good Mother?

I was seven months pregnant, taking my evening stroll, when I spied the tiny, squirming ball of fur, its eyes still fused shut. How a baby mole got to the middle of my street I'll never know. I picked it up, wrapped it in a tissue, and carried it home.

Deep inside, a strange, reassuring glow began to emerge. I felt...nurturing. Maybe this meant I'd be a good mother after all. (Never mind that I returned the helpless creature to a hole in the yard that my husband pointed out belonged to a snake, who had surely devoured my "baby" for breakfast.) I'd been consumed by worries about how well I'd manage maternity. Here I was, soon to give birth, and I'd never so much as held an infant. I was a workaholic with a dry-clean-only wardrobe, the sort of person whom friends would vote Least Likely to Wear a Snugli.

Will I make a good mom? The question crosses many a woman's mind at some point in her life. Goodness knows, there are enough reasons for trepidation. Loss of control. Fear of sacrificing your own ambitions for your child. Fear of turning into your mother. Worries about how your relationship will change. Fear of realizing, too late, that you just aren't the type to be called "Mama."

It's easy for your imagination to run amok. You can't peek into a crystal ball to see whether you're cut out for the job. Your life, however, is rife with clues. Here, how to read them --whether you've just given birth or are waiting for your first baby.

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!

What do you think of the job your mom did raising you?

"The person who played the biggest part in defining 'mother' for each of us is our own mother," says psychotherapist Phyllis Ziman Tobin, Ph.D., author of Motherhood Optional: A Psychological Journey. So it's worth asking yourself: Do I want to be like her? Do I feel I ought to be like her? Did she like being a mother? Or was she ambivalent about it?

On one level, I aspired to be just like my mom. She raised five kids to happy, reasonable adulthoods. Yet much of her everyday life seemed like a drag -- all that cooking and cleaning and self-sacrificing. Her main escapes were hunching over her sewing machine or knitting, hobbies I hate. She was often cranky.

Once I started having babies, though, I discovered that sharing my mom's core values and love of family didn't doom me to living her life. I don't have to quit work or make all my kids' clothes to be a good mother just because she did.

It's logical to expect your mom's style of mothering to be a predictor of yours, but it's not practical. Whether she was loving or abusive, giving or withholding, what's important is that you understand what made her that way, says Tobin, and know that you can choose to be the same or different -- or a little of both.

Such objectivity doesn't always come easily. "But only by being as realistic about your mother as possible -- being honest about her good points and bad points, trying to understand her motives as well as her actions -- can you distinguish the ways you're like her and the ways you're not," says Tobin.

Women who admire their mothers and hope to emulate them have a handy playbook to follow. "My mom was my entire world," says Jess, a pregnant medical transcriptionist whose parents divorced when she was 2. "She was big on respect and morals but also let me be my own person. I plan to do a lot of things the same way."

On the other hand, Sandy, a pregnant teacher, intends to be more supportive and less authoritarian than her distant, critical parents. "I think it's dangerous to always be your child's buddy, but I'm going to enjoy my kid more than my mother did."

What are you like now?

Becoming a mom is a transforming experience. But the changes don't happen overnight. Anyone who tells you she's unchanged by it is "in deep denial or a coma," Lerner says. Motherhood is less like morphing into an all-new person than like getting a makeover. You look different, butit's the same you underneath.

I know. Much of my prebaby trepidation stemmed from the fact that I'd never really liked kids. Now I'm heart-stoppingly, mind-bendingly besotted with my own, but you won't find me joining in a game of Freeze Tag with their friends orvolunteering as a substitute teacher at preschool.

Most moms find that the core of their personality remains intact -- maybe worn a little softer or more patient in a few places, but certainly not unrecognizable. If you set high standards for yourself professionally, you'll probably expect a lot of your kids. If you like solitude, you'll look for ways to preserve it (though you'll have to make do with less). If you nag your spouse about wet towels on the floor, you can be pretty sure you'll nag your kids down the road.

There's no single way to mother. What matters most is that you feel secure with who you are and what you have to offer a child. That said, some traits are especially useful: tolerance, flexibility, patience, and good humor, to name a few. If your general style already flows in that direction, you're ahead ofthe game.

Are your priorities flexible?

Soon after your baby's born, he nestles into your psyche permanently. Psychiatrist Daniel Stern, M.D., in his book The Birth of a Mother, calls this mental shift "the motherhood mindset." This psychological rebirth marked by new fears, hopes, and priorities is virtually impossible to imagine beforehand. But being willing to make room for it can spare you later frustration over the inevitable (and never-ending) push-pull of your child versus the rest of your life. Frances, for example, worked 12-hour days as an account manager for a managed health care organization, a job she loved. "It was as if my customers were my children," she says. Now the mother of a toddler, Frances still works hard nurturing clients,but on a four-day-a-week, 9-to-5 schedule. She's learned to delegate more and work more efficiently. "I figure I have another thirty years of work life ahead of me, but my son won't be little forever. Taking the long view helps me keep mypriorities straight."

If the need to roll with the punches catches many women by surprise, so does the discovery that, somehow, you'll manage. "When Sara was born, she was colicky and I was up all night for two weeks," says Kim, a nurse who has two children. "But somehow you work through things. I've learned a lot about myself. For one thing, I never knew I had a temper! But I also never dreamed I'd be able to focus so much on anyone besides myself or my husband."

Are you a risk taker?

Ultimately, becoming a mother is a leapof faith. Once upon a time, I held a narrow and naive vision of what being a "good mother" meant; could make lists of things I'd both liked and disliked about the way I was raised; and was famous for my impatience and rigidity: My priorities in life had nothing to do with molding moral character or making sureanyone's teeth but my own got brushed at night. I had a baby anyway.

Now here I am, nine years and four children after The Mole Incident, a blissed-out mama who's written three books about parenting. How could I have known that the one thing that seemed so alien to my life would become its central pleasure? What's more, I'm happy to report that the mother I've turned out to be is neither the dreamboat of my hopes nor the nightmare of my fears. I haven't become a glue gun-toting, bread-baking know-it-all, because I was never that to begin with. And my darker personality traits are still with me -- watch me struggle to yield control as my 3-year-old heads for preschool in neonleggings, a floral shirt, and a tiara. But these don't keep me from loving my kids or from doing a good job as a mom.

That's the part I never expected: that you pretty much make up motherhood as you go along. Fortunately, kids start out very small and forgiving. So far, knock wood, not one of mine has been devoured by a snake.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline.