26 Feb

Book review: Why Mothering Matters, by Maddie McMahon

Why Mothering Matters is a book full of myth and metaphor, exploring the metamorphosis of woman into mother in a world of judgement and inequality. Maddie McMahon is well qualified to write this book, with her years as a doula, doula trainer, and breastfeeding counsellor granting her a profound understanding of the many different forms this transformation can take, and the almost endless pressures and influences that bear down on the work of mothering.

A contemporary companion to Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do, this book starts its journey here in the 21st Century, listening to the voices of mothers who share their feelings and experiences. What this uncovers is a world of contradiction, where we can feel isolated and yet never disconnected from the world, and where advice comes so thick and fast that it is impossible to grasp hold of the threads that might be useful. We see the many different relationships that can smooth out a difficult day, or blow your confidence out of the water, just in a choice of words.

But this book is not all crowdsourced anecdata; and particularly in the chapter on ‘The Chemical Soup of Motherhood’ Maddie gives us the science behind attachment and baby brain development, relating this to the mother’s wellbeing as the foundation stone of healthy growth in both those areas.

We then swim deeper into the global and historical context of mothering, and page by page the book gets more deeply and gloriously feminist, capturing the essence of motherhood: it is hard, we even make it hard for ourselves, and then the world makes it harder; but it is amazing and under-appreciated. What would the world be like, Maddie asks; what would politics be like, if the country was run by a circle of mothers?

It’s a manifesto and a celebration, but also a very personal piece of writing. Maddie writes about how vulnerable mothers can be, and makes herself vulnerable with this subject which is clearly so precious to her. It’s a really beautiful piece of writing, in so many ways.

[Disclosure: I was sent a free copy of Why Mothering Matters by the publishers. You can get your copy here, with a 10% discount if you use the code SPROGCAST at the checkout]

Maddie talks about the process of writing the book in Episode 46 of Sprogcast.

20 Apr

Book Review: Your No-Guilt Pregnancy Plan, by Rebecca Schiller

I’ve been waiting for this book for years – since my own pregnancy, in fact.

Rebecca Schiller, director of Birthrights, has created a manual for pregnancy, birth and the early weeks of parenthood, that is mother-centred and evidence-based, and achieves that incredibly difficult feat of getting the right tone when balancing those two things.

Your No-Guilt Pregnancy Plan – A revolutionary guide to pregnancy, birth and the weeks that follow skips the “your baby is the size of a walnut/pear/skateboard” theme that most writers on this subject consider to be mandatory, and focuses on what is happening to the woman: how she might be feeling, how her body is changing, how the pregnancy/baby affects her world. It includes exercises and checklists to help women reflect on their goals and enjoy the experience; and is kept completely up to date with an accompanying set of links to further reading and support on Rebecca’s own website.

As with most such books, there is a chronological approach. However some things you will not find in most such books are a clear emphasis on the rights of women, on the basis that when women are well cared-for and respected, outcomes improve for them and for their babies. It’s a very realistic book, and a fine example of giving information without advice. With one or two small exceptions, this book is about the reader, not the writer.

And so we come to the breastfeeding section, which you know I looked at first. It’s good. It covers the basics of milk supply and positioning, some of the early challenges, and where to go for help. This sits alongside clear guidance about formula feeding, and not a lactation cookie in sight.

The final chapter of the book helps the reader to refer back to relevant sections of the book, in order to create a personalised plan for pregnancy, birth and afterwards, including a going into labour checklist, and a ‘little black book’ of support for the early days, so you don’t have to figure it out when you need it.

This is the most realistic, practical and informal guide I have seen, and goes straight to the top of my pile of recommendations.

[Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Rebecca’s book.]

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

28 Jan

Nature is Clever

Towards the end of my pregnancy, I remember being advised by friends that it was very important to get out as a couple as soon as possible after having the baby. I know this was coming from a well-intentioned place, but I’m glad I’m grounded enough to know that that wasn’t for me. Talking to new parents, I encounter a wide spectrum of parenting styles, and if you will allow me a sweeping generalisation, the ones who are having the easier time tend to be the ones who don’t put themselves under pressure to ‘get back to normal’ or ‘show the baby who’s in charge’ right from the start.

It may sound deeply obvious, but having a baby is a massive life event. It impacts on the couple as a couple and as individuals. Anthropologists have observed some interesting stuff about how the behaviour of men and women towards each other changes following the birth of a child; new mothers have a deep evolutionary need to remind our partners that they are responsible for us (for example, compulsively addressing him as ‘daddy’). Sorry, Old-Fashioned Feminists, but evolution takes thousands of years, and human behaviour (and biology) still works as though we live in clans with defined roles. My point is that pressure on a new couple to behave as if nothing has changed jars with our instincts and with the reality of life with a new baby.

Consumer-driven Twenty-first Century Western society, of course, has all the solutions for this. New parents can buy whatever they need to help create distance between themselves and this utterly dependent small creature: mechanical rocking chairs, under-mattress breathing detectors, artificial milk; there’s really no need to be at the beck and call of a baby, and it doesn’t do it any harm, does it?

I hate to talk about benefits and disadvantages. I prefer to talk about normal behaviour, biological expectations, and so on. Nature is very clever. Here’s an example: skin contact stimulates the release of oxytocin. What is oxytocin? It’s a hormone that makes you feel good. Remember orgasms? That’s oxytocin. Touching releases oxytocin; holding hands, kissing, nibbling someone’s ear, that all releases oxytocin. When your child grazes his knee and you kiss it better, that releases oxytocin. Oxytocin helps a woman to labour, and releases milk to feed her baby. Cuddling a newborn baby releases oxytocin. For both parties. Wrapping him up in a blanket and leaving him to cry himself to sleep in another room releases adrenaline, which suppresses oxytocin. For both parties.

Last week a couple came round for some help with feeding. It took a while to get mum and baby comfortable, but eventually we found a way [no surprises to anyone with any breastfeeding knowledge: mum reclined, baby self-attached]. The baby fed. Mum said: why does it make me feel so…. good? That’d be oxytocin, along with relief from anxiety and a sense of satisfaction.

Originally posted elsewhere on 2nd February 2011

18 Dec

Milk Machine

It makes me feel like a cow, she said.
Just to look at it now.
Its friendly pastel plastic
Fills me with dread
And I can’t get out of my head
The sound of a robot baby
Taking my milk.
It fills me with dread
When I think of the nights ahead,
The stirring and snuffling noises
That will pull me
From my warm bed;
When I think of the nights,
There’s no light
At the end
Just shattered sleep,
Shattered me,
Overwhelmed with dread,
And with longing
That somebody else
Could do this instead.
I’ll be a cow if it means
It’s not just me
Getting up in the night
To sit in the dark
And long for my bed.
I’ll be the cow,
But it fills me,
It fills me with dread.

29 Aug

Book Review: Growing Up Pregnant, by Deirdre Curley

I sat up in bed and admired all the women in the room. All of us had different birth stories, and we each realised how lucky we were to have healthy babies. Although we were all at different stages in our lives, we were all going to be going through the exact same transition into motherhood. (p184)

Deirdre Curley is pregnant and 19. She is surrounded by a supportive family and a loving partner. She really wants to be an actress, and she isn’t at all sure she wants to be a mum.

In Growing Up Pregnant, she tells the story, not just of pregnancy and birth, but all the things that bring her to this point. And then in detail she takes us through the months of her pregnancy, and the reader witnesses her maturing from good-time girl to “the most beautiful pregnant lady” one waitress has ever seen. When she and her partner make up their minds that they will be parents, they commit to the changes they need to make, even when it’s hard to adjust to the loss of old pleasures and still-partying friends. It’s so interesting to read about their mixed feelings as they adjust to this new lifestyle, and the strength and positivity they bring to it is admirable.

Deirdre pauses between each trimester to give a little rundown of what a pregnant woman might be experiencing, how her baby is developing, and any preparation she might consider doing. This includes the most down-to-earth “what to buy” lists of any pregnancy book I have read. She refrains from too much specific detail about pregnancy and birth, but gives a useful overview that would be relevant to a pregnant woman of any age.

This is a properly grounded book, both reflective and informative, and does as good a job as any (and better than most) of getting across what it’s really like to be pregnant and to have a baby. Although the focus is on pregnancy as a young mum, most of the feelings Deirdre expresses are pretty universal: what is happening to me? Will my body ever be the same again? Can I rely on the support of my partner? Am I going to be a good enough mum? Women twice her age think the same things.

I enjoyed taking this journey with Deirdre and her partner Gary, as they put down roots and prepare for the baby. The birth itself is well-written, and early motherhood is covered with both wistfulness and joy. It is a very realistic description and I would certainly recommend this book to pregnant women, whatever their age.

[Disclaimer: I was sent a free review copy of Growing Up Pregnant. You can order yours from Pinter & Martin, with a 10% discount at the checkout if you use the code SPROGCAST]

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]

15 Dec

Book review: Nobody Told Me, by Hollie McNish

Like many people, the first I knew of Hollie McNish was her poem Embarrassed on YouTube, which suddenly appeared everywhere I looked. I loved the poem for what it said (“I spent the first feeding months of her beautiful life/Feeling nervous and awkward and wanting everything right.“). I loved her delivery and I loved her: she just looked like an ordinary person I could hang out with, and I can see why she became such a poster girl for the ordinary experience of breastfeeding.

Nobody Told Me isn’t just a collection of poems, it’s the journal of Hollie’s transition from pregnancy through to three years, and somehow in her honesty she manages to convey both her own unique experience, and the universality of early motherhood. The reader witnesses the bleakness of the early days: terror, tinged with wonder; and her growth as a mother, into enjoyment of toddlerhood, and finally a recognition of all she has achieved.

Reading Nobody Told Me repeatedly made me weep, as I recognised with real feeling the floundering, bleeding, and nighttime feeding; the absolute reliance on an amazing supportive bloke; and the guilt-ridden enjoyment of a night away from home.

Hollie’s focus grows from the personal to the political (and this felt familiar too), as she experiences social judgement on all fronts, and also fights conventional stereotypes and lack of diversity. People comment on her child’s mixed race, tell her she’s too young to have a child or should be married, and find her overly strident when she objects to all the characters in storybooks being “he” by default. She’s so right, and we should all be rebelling against this – as a poet she is in a position to articulate this nonsense and say it loud.

Hollie McNish is so articulate and her poems hit the nail on the head over and over again. This would be a fantastic book for someone expecting a baby; for me, it’s almost a memoir.

01 Jun

Book review: The Secrets of Birth, by Kicki Hansard

The Secrets of Birth is a book born out of Kicki Hansard‘s extensive experience of supporting birthing women. This book is intended for pregnant women, and aims to reveal five secrets that will help them during birth and the transition to motherhood.

The five secrets can be sorted into two main themes: the first three tell us that childbirth is a normal physiological process, and the last two that becoming a mother is a major personal transformation. This is useful and interesting information, and Hansard covers important topics including straightforward birth, hormones, skin to skin, and the benefits of a calm, safe environment, very effectively.

She goes on to discuss the transformational process of birth, a time when women have “nowhere to hide,” (p72) and a great opportunity for growth. I would have liked to read about this in greater detail, as few books (Naomi Stadlen excepted) seem to focus on this except in the most superficial way.

Hansard obviously has a wealth of experience with women in the birthplace, however this comes across as being a fairly small section of society, since the first chapter discusses at some length the pros and cons of engaging a private obstetrician; and of course the majority of her experience refers to her own clientele, a self-selecting group of people who hired a doula. There are several parts of the book which read like a manifesto about the state of birth in the UK, which may not be generally useful for expectant parents. The language and concepts discussed are more appropriate for birth professionals. One could argue that this subject matter needs to be more widely talked about (but one cannot then argue, for example, that the NCT is “too academic” (p16) in their approach).

I am always wary of birth professionals who appear to set themselves up in opposition to other birth professionals, and some of Hansard’s secrets seem to imply distrust of obstetricians (p12), midwives (p15), hypnobirthing (p38), and even the father as birth partner (p32). While much of the book is based in the author’s experience and personal opinion, there are some well-referenced and useful points, and good signposting to a range of sources. The short section on natural caesarean is one of the book’s highlights. The final chapters consist mostly of birth stories, supporting the various points made earlier in the book.

While The Secrets of Birth is probably not the first book I would offer a pregnant woman, I think it would be a very interesting read for doulas in training, or anyone supporting a birth or a new mother.

[Disclosure: Kicki sent me a review copy of her book – thanks!]

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]