Book Review: What Mothers Do, by Naomi Stadlen
Naomi Stadlen has collated the views of new mothers from hundreds of interviews and conversations. From the women’s words she has defined numerous of the almost-intangible things that mothers do on a daily (and nightly) basis, even though it looks and feels like they are ‘only’ looking after their babies.
She points out that mothering is a unique experience, in allowing us to focus on how badly we are doing, simply because there seems to be no language to describe succinctly all the things we do well.
Some of the things that mothers do are defined as being ‘instantly interruptible;’ comforting; being responsible; coping with tiredness; figuring out what babies want; loving their baby; redefining their own identity; redefining their other relationships, particularly with their partner and with their own mother; and supporting other mothers.
The collection of insights opens one’s eyes both to the huge accomplishments of everyday mothering, and to the subtle pressures and unexpected challenges we encounter. It is so easy for a new mother to feel that she achieves nothing, until we take account of the thousand interruptions and her instant, unconditional availability for her child.
This book along with something on human babies’ normal emotional and psychological development, such as What Every Parent Needs To Know by Margot Sunderland or Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt, should be required reading (though perhaps in digested form!) for any new mothers, to give perspective and positive encouragement.
The value of this book for a postnatal doula is in helping her to step outside her own frame of reference and consider the huge variety of maternal experience. Every mother carries the emotional payload of her own birth and postnatal experience, and of course this informs our work with other women; but this book broadens one’s focus and understanding.
I originally read the book when my son was around six months old, and of course my perspective has been changed both by my own experience and by the stories told by the mothers I work with. I feel more removed from the subject matter now, and find it moving to be reminded of the importance of celebrating what seems like little achievements, and of the context in which we become mothers in our culture.
I particularly appreciated the description of how mothers learn about their babies: not from books or gurus, but from their own baby. Stadlen states that ‘Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother’ (p45) because that is precisely what enables her to learn.
This reassures me that uncertainty is also a good starting point for a doula, and that our role is very much about listening to the stories, pointing out the achievements, and celebrating motherhood.