Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development model identifies eight stages of development, each with a specific crisis that must be resolved before the individual may move forward (Erikson, 1982). These crises present an opportunity for personal growth, personality development and maturation. He identifies the stage of ‘adolescence’ as the period for developing identity or resolving role confusion. According to Erikson, developing identity involves an integration of childhood experiences and influences into a meaningful whole, providing the individual with a strong sense of self, and established ideas about political ideologies, religious perspectives and occupational interests. Following ‘adolescence’ is ‘young adulthood’ which is a period dealing with intimacy versus isolation. According to these stages one may not form intimate relationships without first forming a concrete identity of the self; only upon knowing the self can one be able to experience intimacy and romantic love. Erikson (1982) noted that women may experience identity development later than men, and more recent studies support this notion, finding that identity development may take place well throughout the 20s, particularly for women (Zucker, Stewart, & Ostrove, 2002). This information suggests that women in child-bearing years may still be developing an identity of the self.
In the early 1950s, Rubin, a pioneer in maternal behaviour and maternal identity research, was the first to develop and present research on maternal role attainment from women’s subjective experiences (Mercer, 1995). Her work has resulted in significant theoretical concepts that have informed and made considerable contributions to research across disciplines (Mercer, 1995). Rubin (1984) describes the maternal identity as a growing extension or new part of the self, an identity that is distinct from a social role. Incorporating this new dimension of the self is motivated by the ideals a woman wishes to achieve in her new role as mother. Through consistent and intimate engagement with imagery, and thoughts of the bodily experiences involved in childbearing and the woman’s self-image, she may begin to incorporate this new facet of her personality into her identity (Rubin, 1984).
When exploring the notion of identity and the roles one may choose to identify with, motherhood may be a role that some women are drawn to, and may commit to before they have experimented with other roles, or resolved their integrated sense of self (Dalla & Gamble, 2000). It is possible that taking on the maternal role in a time of identity configuration is tied to the unconscious motivations for pregnancy, and the desire to resolve a complete and fulfilled identity.
For some women, becoming pregnant can be part of a developing identity or represent desired ideals about the self (Brien & Fairbairn, 1996). Pregnancy can highlight feelings of fertility and sexuality, self-worth and fulfillment (Baley, 1999), it can also give reassurance to one’s femininity or feelings of attractiveness (Brien & Fairbairn, 1996).
In the context of a feminine identity, Zoja (1997) suggests an unconscious desire for an affirmation of one’s fertility initiated through pregnancy. Another unconscious desire she identifies is the experience of motherhood and the changes women expect it to bring to our identities. Motherhood embodies an initiation or rite of passage into an ideal of womanhood. Some women may find identity in the pregnancy itself, fulfilling a need to care, mother and create. Pregnancy is also associated with themes of power and importance, and the unconscious motivation for pregnancy may stem from a desire for power, as a pregnant woman will have her needs met without question, privately and publicly (Zoja, 1997).
Other motivations identified in wanted pregnancies but unwanted babies, are when a baby is viewed as a means to resolving feelings of being unloved or uncared for (Brien & Fairbairn, 1996). In the cases of adolescents and younger women, the baby may be seen as a part of herself; by caring for and nourishing the unborn child she may be confusing her loving and nourishing expressions with her own needs, or rather the needs of her inner child (Brien & Fairbairn, 1996). Understanding the biology and psychology of pregnancy, identity and maternity is vital for clinicians offering support and care to women grieving a reproductive loss.