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October 29, 2009

What Mothers Do

What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen is a very weird book. In one sense, it’s actually the most informative book on motherhood I’ve read yet. It’s almost a Scientist in the Crib for moms, decoding their behaviour to show that what goes on all day long is more profound than you’d ever suppose. That all of what a mother might spend her time doing during a day in which she “got nothing done” is full of significance, essential to her child’s development and therefore society at large via that next generation.

Stadlen posits that we lack the language to articulate what it is that mothers do. What mothers do badly, of course, we have all kinds of words for (overbearing, possessive, over-involved, negligent, narcissistic, heartless, cold, etc.), but no way to express anything between these two extremes. And it is this lack of vocabulary that undervalues a mother’s work, that she has no way to express what she has accomplished at the end of every day.

“People ask mothers: ‘Is he sleeping through the night yet?’ ‘Have you started him on solids yet?’ ‘Has he got any teeth?’ No one seems to ask: ‘Have you discovered what comforts him?’ Yet the ability to sleep through the night, or to digest solid food or to grow teeth, has little to do with mothering. Babies reach those milestones when they are mature enough, whereas being able to comfort depends on a mother’s ability.”

In her book, Stadlen points out what mothers’ do do. How their worlds are so completely shaken by the birth of their babies, cut off from matrilineal traditions that might have prepared girls for eventual motherhood. But how this “shaking up” opens up the mother to all the knowledge she will have to come by in order to get to know how to take care of her own specific baby. She expresses that to be a mother is to be “constantly interruptible”, which mothers begin to take for granted, which outsiders might find obnoxious or unhealthy, which is hard for a while not to resent. What mothers do as “comforters”, learning to soothe their babies through trial and error and after a while are able to do it without thinking. Tiredness that is absolutely uncurable. That it’s hard, terrible, and wonderful, and changes the way you relate to the world– to your partners, to your own mothers. Also to one another– Stadlen does a stunning job at pointing out the competitive and defensive dynamic in mothers’ conversations, the cycle of desperate talk which leads to a word of advice, and then mother recounts the reasons that advice won’t work which makes her sound more desperate and receive more advice and so it goes…

Stadlen claims to write without agenda, and I could read her book without throwing it out the window because her lack of agenda agreed with mine, but come on: “The literature on crying babies tends to focus on technique. However, responding to a crying baby involves more than technique. Underlying what a mother does is her philosophy of human nature… Her basic choice is either to see her baby as good, in which case she trusts him, or alternatively to see him as the product of evil human nature, or of original sin, which requires her to train him.” Parents who insist their children must sleep through the night, suggests Stadlen, are the product of a generation who were sleep-trained themselves so to be inflexible and now are unable to accommodate the basic needs of their young.

Unbelievable! As someone who is just too tired at 3:00 am to do anything but feed the baby whilst sleeping, I eat this stuff up with a spoon, but it’s terrible! And perhaps what I get for reading a book by a psychotherapist.

Her chapter on maternal love is also problematic. She cites recent literature challenging notions of maternal love, and new ideas of “maternal ambivalence”. Stadlen is troubled by assertions that all women actually experience these feelings, because she hasn’t found this in her years of working with new moms. She is troubled further by the idea of “maternal ambivalence” itself, but this (I believe) is because she understands it as women feeling hatred towards their babies. From what I’ve read on the subject (which is everything I can get my hands on), it’s far more complex than that– rather that whilst loving their babies, women can be amazingly unfulfilled as mothers, or rather not completely fulfilled, and yet the all-consuming nature of motherhood makes other ventures difficult. Also, that spending a day alone and exhausted, hormonally jacked up, being puked on and cried at, is utterly horrible, full stop.

Stadlen seems to think there is no end to what a mother’s comfort can provide. She also thinks that babies always cry for a reason, and that these maternally ambivalent women just couldn’t get past their own selves to figure out what that reason was and tend to it– I’m not convinced. Stadlen is right to counter the “bad mother” trend that is too ubiquitous in current writing about motherhood, but I don’t think all women are naturals when it comes to mothering. Part of this is because mothering is not valued in our society, as Stadlen sets out in her book and as she seeks to rectify with her explanation of mothers’ doings, reclaiming the art of it all.

So it’s a shame, because the women who’d probably most benefit from the fascinating and wonderful things she has to say about motherhood will find themselves attacked here.

2 thoughts on “What Mothers Do”

  1. sam lamb says:

    i'm reading your post as my 4-month-old rolls around on the floor at 7am and debating if i could get through this book or not. the very notion that words are put to what mothers do throughout the day (because i suffer from the "i-didn't-do-anything-today" syndrome) is intriguing, but i've ben trying to stay away from parenting books this time around (and i'm sure to feel attacked/reprimanded at some point).

    but still…a little bit of inspiration sounds nice right about now.

  2. Kerry says:

    I think you could get through this book. This isn't quite a parenting book at all, and Stadlen would support you staying far away from the rest of them. It is a very strange book though.

    And since you're here, may I tell you that I've been enjoying your beautiful blog for a long time. Congratulations on your new son.

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