OBJECTIVE to explore the factors that influence student midwives' constructs of childbearing, before and during their undergraduate midwifery programme. DESIGN a naturalistic, qualitative study. SETTING a university in the East Midlands, UK. PARTICIPANTS 58 women registered on a 3-year midwifery education programme. MEASUREMENTS focus groups were conducted at programme commencement and at 9-12 monthly intervals with two cohorts of midwifery students who were separated into groups of mothers and non-mothers (32 focus groups in total). This paper draws on data from the nine focus groups held at the start of the students' programme. FINDINGS the main themes that emerged from the data were in relation to image during pregnancy, expectations/experiences of childbirth and parenting. In particular, students believed that pregnancy and childbirth should be special. They suggested that a lack of knowledge about sexuality and choice options affected women's ability to be in control. Although normality was the students' expectation of childbirth, they also assumed that hospital birth was the norm. They were unsure whether the baby's father was the best birth partner. Their mothers were suggested as likely to be more supportive, but there was lack of agreement regarding whether they were the best parenting role models. Students also said that there was a lack of positive images of breast feeding. The overall motivation to become midwives was 'to make a difference'. CONCLUSIONS students need to be facilitated early in their programme to explore their belief systems and constructs of childbearing critically so that they are equipped to support parents to have a positive experience, whether childbirth is normal or complex, and so that they can cope with any dissonance between their own expectations and the uncertainties and realities of practice.