I am a huge fan of Naomi Stadlen’s first book, What Mothers Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, which I first read when my son was around six months old, and then again five years later when I had just completed my doula training. So I have been looking forward to getting my hands on her second book, How Mothers Love; and as soon as I did, I set about creating some space (ignoring the rest of my family!) so that I could read it.
This is a wise and compassionate book, with a pondering gentle tone and a very Plain English style. In its quest to describe and explain how mothers and babies relate to each other, and to examine the implications of this for the development of relationships in later life, the book provides another wealth of anecdotal colour that would sit alongside a more sciencey tome such as Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.
I read this book holding a pencil with which to annotate moments of epiphany and insightful remarks I would like to quote later. I have underlined something on nearly every page, as I repeatedly recognise something from my own experience or from talking with other mothers, including the idea of mothers as fellow travellers, the dread of disapproval, the feeling that motherhood is undervalued and misunderstood in wider society.
This last point led me to wonder if non-parents could even begin to understand this book, or grasp why it is so important. Stadlen describes herself, beautifully, as being ‘steeped’ in the conversation of mothers, and her frame of reference is highly accessible to me, being similarly steeped. But when trying to convey some of these concepts to non-parents (or even to parents for whom motherhood is not an important subject), I feel like I am speaking a different language. This is why Stadlen has to make up wonderful words to describe something like making ‘heartroom’ for our babies; and why she frequently laments that our language simply has no words for so many of the deeply significant but less tangible things that mothers do.
I had never previously considered the impact of Freud’s work on parenting (perhaps I should give my psychology degree back!) but it was interesting to add him to the pile of ‘experts’ undermining mothers’ instincts across the years. Equally, while I am well aware of the dichotomy in fashionable parenting styles, I had never thought of it in terms of Spartan versus Athenian, a description which really elucidates the fundamental differences between the two philosophies, and the resulting conflict in how mothers think and the ways in which they relate to each other.
For me the book throws up the stark contrast with one group of mothers (and fathers) who do not feature quite so strongly; that is, the expectant ones (and I quite understand why this is). In antenatal sessions, parents-to-be refer to ‘the baby’ as ‘it,’ and their expectations are often that a Spartan approach to parenting will work very well for them. The dawning of realisation that their baby is a person deserving of respect and warmth must be a huge epiphany for many first time parents, and I find it frustrating to have confidence that this almost always happens, but not to be able to convince them of that in the antenatal period.
How Mothers Love enlarges on the themes of What Mothers Do, and introduces new ones, going on to look at how the supply of love expands (like breastmilk, as one of the women in my own antenatal group once said), to meet the needs of the next child, and the next; and how being a mother changes one’s relationships with the other members of the family.
Towards the end there are suggestions about how mothers could co-operate to have their work recognised and valued more widely; but I feel that short-term financial interests will always work against this optimistic manifesto. As a Breastfeeding Counsellor, the work I do is a drop in the ocean. A book like this can make waves where I cannot. Reading this helped to reaffirm my approach to my paid work; but more importantly, to my unpaid work as a mother.
Naomi Stadlen’s publisher, Piatkus, has very kindly offered two copies of How Mothers Love as a giveaway to two readers of the Double Helping Doulas blog. I have never had a giveaway before, and I’m torn between holding an actual competition, or offering the books to the first two commenters. I have no idea if anyone even reads this thing, so to increase the number of comments, just let me know you’re there and you’re interested, and I’ll pick names out of a hat on Tuesday 15th November.