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The 7 Stages of Motherhood Reader’s Guide

By Ann Pleshette Murphy

The 7 Stages of Motherhood by Ann Pleshette Murphy


“Ann Pleshette Murphy is my hero.” —T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of The 7 Stages of Motherhood. Written by Ann Pleshette Murphy, the former editor-in-chief of Parents magazine, current parenting contributor to Good Morning America, and the mother of two teenagers, this book is a clearheaded, bracingly honest, and heartening look at the changes and transformations every mother experiences.


Being a mother is exhilarating and exhausting, a balancing act in which expectations clash with reality and well-laid plans give way to spur-of-the-moment improvisations. From the moment the small “bundle of joy” arrives home to the day a young adult takes off for college, every aspect of a mother’s life—physical, emotional, and intellectual—is entwined with her child’s growth and progress. The 7 Stages of Motherhood chronicles the shared journey from a mother’s perspective—complete with sidesplitting snapshots of embarrassing, near-lunatic, and decidedly age-inappropriate maternal moments. As she describes the challenges that arise at each stage of a child’s development, Murphy offers both practical advice and the comforting reassurance that despite mistakes, missteps, and major bouts of guilt and self-doubt, women inevitably discover that “motherhood is as much about autonomy, independence, and self-actualization as it is about connectedness, dependence, and self-sacrifice” [p. 244].

Murphy combines candid, often hilarious recollections of her own sometimes wobbly passage through the stages of motherhood with comments from dozens of other mothers, quotations from psychologists and child-care experts, and views expressed in the media and contemporary books, both fiction and nonfiction. Through them, she explores such issues as balancing work and family; the impact of children on a marriage; setting limits and teaching values; dealing with the feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness children provoke; and, most of all, turning the child-raising years into a time to nurture not only the best in the next generation, but in oneself.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How does Murphy’s approach differ from other investigations into the day-to-day, year-to-year reality of motherhood? Does the subtitle—“Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind”—accurately reflect the contents and voice of the book?

2. “Evidently, there’s a lot of pressure on today’s moms to treat pregnancy as a minor inconvenience and to barrel ahead with the confidence of Seabiscuit,” Murphy writes [p. 6]. Where do you think such pressures originate? In what ways do they echo other demands (or perceived demands) made on women today?

3. Did previous generations of women have a clearer, more realistic perspective on motherhood? What effects have the increasing options and opportunities available to women had on their views and their feelings about becoming mothers? Has the progress women have made brought losses as well? What traditional aspects of motherhood, for example, are no longer practiced or valued? Is the “perfect-mom fantasy” [p. 114] a recent phenomenon, or has it always been a factor in women’s lives?

4. Many of the women Murphy interviews postponed motherhood in order to pursue their careers. What particular challenges does this path present? Does it offer advantages that might be lacking in the lives of women who start their families at a younger age?

5. In addition to reminding readers that “childbirth is not a competitive sport” [p. 26] and that you may not “fall head over heels in love with your baby in the delivery room” [p. 32], what other myths about motherhood does The 7 Stages of Motherhood dispel?

6. In discussing the toddler years, Murphy writes, “All of the books on toddlers will tell you that the trick is to anticipate when the overload button is about to start flashing and to use time-out before your child has a fit—not as punishment. But the reality is, you probably won’t be prescient enough to steer clear of emotional land mines” [p. 97]. Do most books on child-rearing establish unrealistic goals for mothers? To what extent are the thousands of articles and books about parenting published every year responsible for increasing, rather than decreasing, the anxieties and apprehensions mothers feel?

7. When her daughter was in preschool, Murphy got a note from her teacher that read “Please make sure Madeleine wears underpants under her skirt tomorrow” [p. 124]. Sending her child to school “bare-assed” is just one of several embarrassing moments Murphy shares in her book. What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever done as a parent? What thoughts ran through your head? Did it teach you something about being a mother that helped you through other mortifying incidents?

8. Murphy writes, “The overwhelming majority of moms I spoke to found that the birth of their baby transformed even the most egalitarian marriage into a kind of Leave It to Beaver time warp” [p. 53]. Was this your experience? If so, what do you think causes this reaction? To what extent can it be attributed to the social or cultural assumptions that influence men who ordinarily think of themselves as feminists? Do most new mothers inadvertently contribute to this by setting themselves up as “experts,” as Murphy admits to doing? What other factors contribute to the way new parents see themselves and their spouses when they start a family? Consider, for example, the influence of media images (from Donna Reed to Desperate Housewives), memories (good and bad) of your own parents, and the patterns you have developed as a married couple on the way you and your spouse envision yourselves as parents. Are the expectations placed on fathers today as complicated and confusing as those mothers face?

9. One of the difficulties of the school years for many mothers is the tendency to live vicariously through their kids [p. 151]. In what ways do communities, schools, and other parents foster this tendency? Why do some mothers find it more difficult than others to draw the line between supportive interest and over-involvement in their children’s lives? What are some of the solutions Murphy and the others offer to avoid this trap?

10. Many social commentators have written about the insidious effects of our materialistic culture on children. What are the dangers of overindulging our children, both in the short term and the long term? Is there ever a downside to setting limits and saying no to kids?

11. Because parenting styles are shaped by each parent’s own childhood and family culture, Murphy suggests that couples make a list of the three most important rules for their own families [p. 178]. What are your top priorities? What do you think your spouse would consider most important? Do your rules embody or defy the patterns set in your childhood families?

12. Drawing on the stories in the book and on your own experiences, discuss how the gender of a child can influence the way mothers treat them and react to their behavior. What have recent writings about adolescent development, including scientific research into the adolescent brain, contributed to our understanding of kids’ behavior during the preteen and teenage years? How do the insights and examples in The 7 Stages of Motherhood enhance the portrait of adolescence emerging today?

13. Murphy talks often about the push-pull dance of independence/dependence we engage in throughout our children’s lives. Was there a time in your experience of motherhood when letting go was particularly hard? If so, why?

14. If you’re the mother of teens (Stage 7), discuss how your own experiences confirm Murphy’s assertion that “during this phase of motherhood we relive all the other stages, experience everything from the panic of our children’s infancy to the frustrations of toddlerhood to the loneliness of the preteen years” [p. 215]. How do both the emotional and practical aspects of parenting a teen make it necessary to reshape “not only your relationship with your child but your identity as a mother” [p. 217]? Do you agree with the chapter title: “It Gets Easier…and Then They Leave”?

15. Murphy calls motherhood “the defining event in a woman’s life” [p. ix]. Do you agree? How does the decision to become a mother differ from other choices women make in their personal and professional lives? Did The 7 Stages of Motherhood lead you to rethink and reevaluate the choices you and people you know have made?

About this Author

Ann Pleshette Murphy joined Good Morning America as parenting expert in 1998 and has presented more than two hundred “American Family” segments. In 2002, two of her pieces received a media award from the National Council on Family Relations, and a feature on teen drivers received an award from MADD in 2003. She was the editor-in-chief of Parents magazine for ten years, and her bimonthly column, “Mom Know-How,” currently appears in Family Circle. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Suggested Reading

Andrea Buchanan, Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It; Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire; Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society; Kate Figes, Life After Birth; Cathi Hanauer, ed., The Bitch in the House; Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift; Dan Kindlon, Too Much of a Good Thing; Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions; Harriet Lerner, The Mother Dance; Muffy Mead-Ferro, Confessions of a Slacker Mom; Anne Roiphe, Fruitful; Nancy Samalin, Loving Each One Best and Loving Without Spoiling; Daniel N. Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, The Birth of a Mother; Ron Taffel and Roberta Israeloff, Why Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It; Judith Warner, Perfect Madness.
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