08 Mar

What Mothers Are

I’m reading a very interesting book called The Selfish Society by Sue Gerhardt; and while I really like where she’s coming from, it did get me thinking about the general assumption that motherhood is mainly defined by sacrifice.

The things you’re expected to give up, on becoming a mother, include your pre-baby figure, your sleep, your ability to concentrate, your social life, your sex life, and your peace of mind.

The counter-argument to this is always but motherhood is so rewarding; see various mummy-bloggers’ cute anecdotes about hilarious nappy changes, first words, adoring gazes at 4am, and so on. While this is all very well, it does seem to relegate the mother’s enjoyment of life to a second-hand experience.

There don’t seem to be many sources that acknowledge the positive changes that motherhood brings about, specifically for the mother (and I’m not just talking about the oxytocin high of breastfeeding). Motherhood (and arguably, we could say ‘parenthood’ but I’m just writing about me today) can bring about huge personal growth. Understanding and accepting that you are such a key part of someone else’s world is a huge responsibility, and might be impossible for non-parents to grasp in its entirety; but when you take stock of the resources you didn’t know you had, the range of functioning you can manage on limited amounts of sleep, and the sheer protective strength you can find, all this adds up to quite a superhero status.

Motherhood can bring about a growth in understanding and empathy, especially in our relationships with our own mothers. We find out things we never expected to know about our own babyhood. For me a lot of things slotted into place when my mum talked to me about how she had felt, aged 21 alone with a newborn baby and a husband who – I’m assuming – was as emotionally disengaged then as he is now.

I particularly notice the contrast in empathy from other parents, compared with childless friends. Of course these are generalisations, and I have some wonderful childless friends who have been supportive and fun and great with Bernard. Those are the ones I prefer to spend time with, rather than the childless friends who assume I want a break from being a mother (how can I get a break from my own identity?), and that I am bored of talking endlessly about how wonderful my child is. Seriously, that subject can never tire for me, so forget it. Do you want to talk about your favourite subject all the time? I thought so. The people I tend to take a break with are other parents, who can share that feeling of enjoying the sense of freedom, while simultaneously missing the little ones. They don’t expect me not to be a mother.

Nor do you see, from the superficial coverage that is widely available, that all those sacrifices are rarely black-and white. Some of us like our new bodies; there’s a reason for being a curvy mama beyond mere indolence and chocolate biscuits! I have a far busier social life than I had before becoming a mother; and those shreds of my pre-baby social life that remain, are the ones I really value. And who expects their sex-life to remain static?

I don’t think motherhood in its conventional sense came very easily to me. But as far as my identity is concerned, it has made me feel better-defined, more purposeful and more confident. I know this isn’t every woman’s experience of motherhood; I was and am exceptionally well-supported, and that makes a huge difference. What I’m saying is that motherhood can be these things, and perhaps on International Women’s Day we should be calling for motherhood to be valued and supported so that for women, it is these things.

Originally posted elsewhere on 8th March 2011

04 Feb

Welcome to The Motherland

New guidance from the British Medical Association recommends a change of language, from “expectant mother” to “pregnant person,” in order to recognise trans parents who may not identify as women. I confess that this is very confusing for me, and my confusion arises from how, then, we should define motherhood. There is also a conflict between my inclination to accept whatever terms people want to use for themselves, but also to value motherhood in a way that does not easily allow me to erase the “womanness” of it.

Please don’t imagine that my point of reference for motherhood is limited to floating around in a cloud of organic breastfeeding loveliness. In fact, I think that might be the core of the dilemma: this question of whether to use the word “mother” is just terribly reductionist, as though motherhood can be only one thing.

Motherhood emerges in so many different forms, perhaps uniquely for every single person who has – but there’s the problem – has what? Given birth? Some mothers adopt. Parented? Are women who miscarry or suffer stillbirth not mothers? The literature is at pains to emphasise that they are. Does that mean that women whose pregnancies end in abortion are also mothers? Some of them might feel that way; it was certainly the start of the journey into motherhood for me.

Clearly there is not one single event that turns a person into a mother. Motherhood is more like a place you go to, where you experience new things, which you may have expected or not, and which you may enjoy or not, and which change you, but do not turn you into a specific and new type of person. As with travelling, those experiences will affect you to some extent, but will be assimilated into your existing self.

A close friend tells me that she always knew she wanted to be a mother, by which she means give birth to and raise children, yet a decade in she still feels that this isn’t the real her, these boys aren’t really hers (this existential angst must necessarily co-exist with doing the laundry and preparing packed lunches). On the other hand, I never particularly yearned for motherhood (and I overheard my own mother, when I was six months pregnant, remarking “Karen was never very maternal.”) And yet I simply could not be the person I am now, and do the most fulfilling work I have ever done, without it.

It seems acceptable for other people to identify me as a mother, but I would prefer them to understand that I am not solely – or even mostly – that, while still being that to my very core. Yet having argued that neither being pregnant, nor being a parent, are intrinsic to motherhood, I think we could explore the possibility of having a term that isn’t gendered, to represent having travelled to this place, should it be necessary to reveal that element of one’s identity.

What of fathers, who now are expected to take on more of the nurturing role traditionally associated with motherhood? Up to 50 weeks of parental leave can now be shared in the UK, so dads can take on the majority of the parenting from very early in a child’s life (and technically a man can “father” a child without even knowing about it, so how can fatherhood then be part of his identity?). Perhaps the word “mother” is only differentiated by being the one who is expected to do the majority of the housework, whether he or she works outside the home or not.

[Cross-posted from Huffington Post]

11 Apr

Book Review – Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, by Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Reading Mama is like reading two interleaving books: one collection of vignettes painting a glorious picture of Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s ineffable love for her daughter; and one collection of essays and interviews about parenting in the modern world. There is only the most tenuous connection between the two.

Taking them separately, the vignettes form a profound tribute to love of her family, with whimsical stories of moments when her daughter has made her proud; but also dark tales of her own childhood, displaying a deep resentment of her own emotionally absent parents. The link between the two books, such as it is, is the attempt to explore and understand her own experiences of mothering and being mothered, in the context of the pressures of today’s society. She has learned from her own mother that motherhood has little value in itself, and honestly reports on her realisation of the importance of the slow pace of parenting, that the little things: “kissing, nursing, coddling, caring,” (p60) are really not so little; and yet are perceived by society to be low priorities.

The thesis of the second book is that this society is broken when it comes to parenthood, in that nobody other than a few select parents actually value or appreciate what parenting is, and how it works. This is supported with reference to literature, and interviews with a number of experts who generally make strong statements about how parents (as a generic group) are getting it wrong. Presumably excluding themselves, they largely see parents as a feckless, economically-driven crowd, so welded to their smartphones that they are unable and unwilling to give their children the proper amount of attention. This dysfunctionality is blamed for a range of social and mental health disorders from autism to AGB’s brother’s suicide. There is much handwringing over examples of parenting that have been witnessed by AGB and her interviewees.

Some of the interviewees unfold coherent and interesting arguments demonstrating the feminist nature of motherhood. Stephanie Coontz extends this to argue for the democratisation of care in general. This was the book that I wanted and expected to read, and I was frustrated by the much less coherent inclusion for example of the slow chapter on slow living, and the absolutely harrowing chapter about IVF. Some of the conversations, however, explore the strange and fallacious idea that the world is an unhealthy place, “toxic to children,” (p100), as if there was a time when all childhood was blissful and perfect. Perhaps this was the 1970s; I’m fairly certain that for most of the existence of humanity, children have had to muddle along with the rest of us, taking greater responsibilities at a younger age, subject to real hardship. When the focus shifts to fatherhood, AGB accuses men of “vanishing” (p178) from their children’s lives, yet when in history have fathers been expected to be more hands-on? Steve Biddulph on p83 claims that the children of hunter-gatherers were smarter; how can he possibly know this? And how are modern children even comparable to those whose life expectance was a fraction of ours? Modern concepts of attachment parenting are a very different thing.

AGB is an intelligent writer, and she has had access to some big names in parenting and child psychology. Her feminism rings loud and clear through this book; this is her manifesto for a society that recognises the contribution of mothers. Without the anecdotal chapters, it would be a very earnest book, making some fairly controversial points. Perhaps controversy is necessary to kick-start this important conversation.

After a final chapter on the nature of marriage and what it means to her (a dogmatic view that only marriage – not cohabiting – can facilitate continuity and commitment), AGB bravely completes the book with a heartbreaking epilogue about the horribly ironic end of her own marriage, which must have broken down even as she was writing about her love for her husband. It is hard to read, after some of her strong words (supported by several of her interviewees) about couples not making enough effort to stay together for the sake of their children, and the contribution of divorce to the dysfunctional disconnectedness of society. One wonders where she can go from here, in her thinking and her writing.

Mama presents some important ideas, though none of them are particularly new. I am frustrated and conflicted by this book, which comes out of a deeply personal self-exploration: AGB’s discovery that motherhood should not, after all, be a lesser status; and her shock that the rest of society has not yet figured this out. Because the state of motherhood does include vulnerability, and sacrifice, and menial work; but that does not mean that it wrecks our lives or that we are lesser people for doing it. In many ways, the motherhood she discovered lives up to her own expectations, but she is able to recognise the strengths that mothers must find to fulfil this role in the face of society’s judgement, and the lack of support from the community:

“At the most vulnerable time of their lives, mothers are repeatedly failed by the community.” (p24)

This disconnected, tech-obsessed world is the one we have, and I would rather read a manifesto for the future than a polemic moan about the state of the present, suffused with nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. This is an interesting, challenging read, which left me with much to reflect on.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Mama by the publishers Pinter & Martin]

06 Jun

Precious Vessel

The media week started well, with the heartwarming story about Finnish baby boxes, which I’ll write about later. And then it all went downhill with the release of an amazing report from The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on Chemical exposures during pregnancy.

The RCOG “encourages the study and advancement of the science and practice of obstetrics and gynaecology.” On this occasion, they have taken this to an extreme, by advising women to avoid any possible exposure to chemicals, which may or may not have a harmful effect on their developing baby. While they do explicitly state that none of these harmful effects are proven, this is not how it comes across in the media. Dr Michelle Bellingham, co-author of the report, goes a step further on Radio 4 by asking what harm it does to follow this advice, to err on the side of caution.

So what harm does it do, to tell women not to use cleaning products, shower gel, or make up; not to buy new furniture (presumably including cots and car seats); not to eat any processed or packaged food? Astonishingly, this is presented as “practical” advice. The message it sends is that women themselves are of little importance compared with the package they are carrying. Our job is to breed, and we had better do it well, and if this means no deodorant for nine months, suck it up. In a world where we are made to feel uncomfortable using our breasts for their original purpose and we are expected to glow throughout pregnancy; we are now expected not to wash.

And as the report itself states, there is little or no evidence that any of these items actually do any harm, so this controlling advice is utterly spurious, and the idea that it is supposed to be in any way helpful to women is disingenuous.

Meanwhile any useful evidence-based guidelines are more likely to be ignored by women overwhelmed with conflicting and impractical instructions. On the one hand: good, we are grown-ups, we can make up our own minds. On the other hand, this is a real fail for those of us trying to provide evidence-based support during pregnancy and early parenthood.

Further Reading
The NHS’ excellent Behind The Headlines series takes the report apart here.
Sense About Science dismisses the usefulness of the report and the media coverage here.
Fran Yeoman responds as a new mother, in The Independent.
Risk Sense asks Is everything a risk when you’re pregnant?

06 Jun

What backlash?

The recent Time article has provoked quite a controversy, not least (in my opinion) the decision not to use that cover in the UK. According to The Guardian, this controversy about a photograph of a mother breastfeeding her 3 year old constitutes a ‘backlash against breastfeeding,’ and at the weekend they published Zoe Williams’ wide-ranging thoughts on this matter.

Williams’ article is littered with factual errors, assumptions, judgemental remarks, and references to ‘protests’ that never actually happened. She refers to extended breastfeeding in the first paragraph, but then goes on to discuss ‘breast is best,’ attachment parenting and government policy on health promotion, without ever coming back to her initial, rather impolite remarks that breastfeeding advocates are ‘evangelical to the point of dogmatism,’ and that she thinks we think ‘extended breastfeeders make [us] all look a bit weird,’ and that this is why we don’t discuss extended breastfeeding very much. In fact, we don’t discuss it much because it doesn’t happen much. If fewer than 2% of babies in the UK are exclusively breastfed at six months, just try and quantify the number who still get any breastmilk at all by the age of three years.

Williams goes on to dismiss the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding as mostly syllogistic, methodologically flawed, and generally ignored by parents, while also noting that “I didn’t care whether of not the health benefits were real, I’d do it again even if it made the baby’s IQ go down,” thus negating the point of her entire argument against the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding: like most mothers, she is not basing her decision on health or any other benefits. Mothers are biologically driven to nurture their young.

I use the term ‘benefits’ very cautiously. Breastfeeding is the baseline; it is formula milk that needs to prove its case. Research into breastfeeding may be methodologically flawed (because how can you carry out randomised controlled trials on babies?), but there is certainly no robust research showing health benefits for formula. As for the research, Analytical Armadillo has recently posted an excellent round-up of some very current research from a number of peer-reviewed journals. Williams’ guru in this matter is one Joan Wolf, who supports her view of parenting as a world of extremes, without nuance.

Moving on to attachment parenting, Williams quotes feminist criticism of co-sleeping which describes “putting the child in the bed between the father and the mother.” This is an unsafe practice, and UNICEF guidelines for safe co-sleeping can be found here. The feminist angle here seems pretty spurious, pitting notional extremes of motherhood against each other. Feminism, surely, means we all have the right to choose our own pathway?

Mothers do not divide neatly into two camps: Breastfeeding Mothers versus Formula Feeding Mothers. As Williams points out, the majority of mothers in the UK do initiate breastfeeding (though she quotes an imaginary 91%; the most recent Infant Feeding Survey gives an initiation rate of 81%). NHS South Central provides some interesting data on duration of breastfeeding; locally, we have a high initiation rate of 88%, down to 79% by five days, 72% at two weeks, and just 58% of mothers are still breastfeeding at six weeks. Therefore most of the mothers in the supposed Formula Feeding camp are mothers who have breastfed for at least some amount of time, some of whom will have made a positive decision to stop; but we know that 90% of the mothers who have stopped by six weeks would have liked to continue for longer. So it’s not the case, as William proposes, that the majority of people are not taking any notice of the public health messages about breastfeeding. In the 2005 Infant Feeding Survey, 84% of mothers said they were aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding; those who stopped before six weeks cited, in the majority, lack of support. Williams lightly dismisses the struggles and the disappointments felt by women who choose formula feeding because it’s the only choice they have.

Williams’ main premise seems to be that the government is trying to brainwash mothers into breastfeeding out of misguided social policy. She misses the point, and she misunderstands the research, but at least she gets a plug for her own book.