London, England, GB
From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 2, 2009, pp. 4-8
One Tuesday evening in 1835, the mother of a ten-month-old daughter confided to her diary: "How all a woman's life, at least so it seems to me now, ought to have a reference to the period when she will be fulfilling one of her greatest and highest duties, those of a mother. I feel myself so unknowing, so doubtful about many things in [my daughter's] intellectual and moral treatment already, and what shall I be when she grows older, and asks those puzzling questions that children do?"
The mother was Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell. If there seems something modern about the way she thought, that is because there was something modern about her. Unlike many nineteenth-century middle-class women, she had a career. She was the wife of a Unitarian minister in a poor suburb of Manchester in England, a position she took to heart. Later she would have a career as a novelist. Her own mother had died when she was small, and she had been brought up by an aunt. Like so many of us, she felt unprepared to be a mother, and turned to books to find answers to her questions. Again like mothers today, she found that "books do so differ."
Although she doubted her ability to be a capable mother, she brought up four daughters. She continued to have loving relationships with each of them as adults, as one senses from the long confiding letters she wrote to them some 20 years later.
Today, we live in a communicative society. So why is becoming a mother still difficult? Why do many of us still feel "so unknowing" with our own newborns? Why on earth don't mothers tell women who will become mothers what to expect? We live in such a verbal culture. After all, men have traveled to outer space, to the moon, yet have found words to communicate what they experienced. The astronaut, Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon in 1969, radioed back from moon to earth: "I can walk okay, but I've got to take it easy." These simple words inform us that walking on the moon feels different from walking on earth.
A crucial difference between an astronaut and a mother is that we expect an astronaut to describe something beyond our own experience. The difficulty with mothering is that mothers are all around us and appear to share common experiences. A baby looks like a simple add-on. It is hard for anyone who has not become a mother to appreciate how much mothers' lives have changed. Women who have become mothers find it hard to explain to their non-mother friends that they may look like their old selves -- but they feel very different.
Babies challenge our identities
A major life-change can be uncomfortable, even if we are prepared for it. But many of us hardly prepare to become mothers at all. We are educated and trained, from school onwards, to join the world of work. We discover not only how to work but also how to create a "work identity." We may be seen by our colleagues as hardworking, or good fun, or sympathetic to talk to, or strong and assertive. This allows us to express something of our own individuality to our colleagues.
Many of us discover only after we have given birth that becoming a mother involves a whole new way of being. Very little that we were good at in the world of work can be transferred to the world of mothering. It can come as quite a shock. Those very abilities, which were valued at work, can feel useless when we are holding our needy newborns. Babies challenge our identities as competent workers. It might sound obvious to spell it out on paper, but it doesn't feel obvious when it happens. It is no wonder that many new mothers feel confused!
If one listens to new mothers talking, as I do, one finds that the primary change they describe is not the practical one of shortage of sleep. If sleep were all, it could be managed. What startles mothers most is the unexpected strength of their love for their babies. This is often a visual response. It may feel "pro-visional" before the birth. The first sight of their babies can be overwhelming. Some mothers fall in love immediately, while others find it takes longer. "If anyone had told me I would love my baby so much," said one mother, stroking her little daughter, "I would never have believed them."
But why is the strength of their love so unexpected? It seems to be because many women today work in very satisfying careers. They cannot imagine loving a baby more than remedial teaching, or athletics, or whatever they have chosen. Some women become mothers in their late thirties or forties after many years at work. "I love my work," women say. Only as mothers do women discover that their love for their babies is even stronger.
This strange new world
Karen Smith outlines this strange new world in her article for New Beginnings, Issue 6, 2008-09, 4, called, "The Basics of Motherhood." She asks 18 basic questions and suggests answers. Her questions are exactly those that mothers ask, for example: "How do I find time to eat?" "How do I get sleep?" These questions might astonish someone who has never been a new parent.
Time takes on a completely different meaning when a mother loves her newborn. She may not realize it immediately. The first weeks may feel like an extended holiday. True, she has to breastfeed through the night. But at least she doesn't have to hurry to work for 9.30 the next morning. It may take her a while to realize what a responsibility she has undertaken. There is never any real "time off." Day, evening and night, week and weekend, even on holidays or her own birthday, she continues to be a mother. She may relax when her partner, or another person she can trust, is caring for the baby. But she is still responsible.
The work environment tends to be organized in a hierarchical structure. Each person has a defined area of responsibility. These areas of responsibility connect us to one another. In contrast, a mother soon learns that all motherly responsibilities related to this child are ultimately hers. Even her partner finds himself deferring to her over decisions about the baby. People say: "The choice is down to you. You're the mother."
At work, a woman's day is punctuated by clock time. But a breastfeeding mother responds to her baby's hunger, round the clock. Neither the beginning nor the end of a breastfeed is predictable. Even the frequency often varies. Days and weeks can lose their usual shapes. "Oh, is today Tuesday?" a new mother will ask. "Tuesday" no longer holds the emotional meaning that it did at work. Instead, mothers value breastfeeding times. "Anyone who has seen a baby breastfeeding," wrote one mother in Hirkani's Daughters, "or has seen that child fall asleep at the breast has seen the closest thing to heaven on earth."
At work, an assertive person who can stand her ground usually does well. One who can be "pushed around" may lose respect. But a mother trying to be assertive in her relationship with her baby can cause panic in the baby. However, a mother who loves her baby and decides that she wants to fit in with his needs can easily feel as if she is being "pushed around" and is failing to stand her ground. She may alternate between moments of feeling proud of being a good mother to her baby with moments of feeling confused and demoralized.
At work, empathy is not always an advantage. Competence and efficiency are valued highly. Even in professions such as nursing or teaching, where you might expect empathy to be important, nurses and teachers can quickly feel drained if they are too empathic. A professional "boundary" becomes essential.
This boundary seems to melt away with a newborn. A mother needs to be very empathic to her baby, however unfamiliar this may feel. It is hard to understand a person who cannot speak. Also it can be quite a challenge to appreciate that a baby really is distressed when he cries. As mothers, we have to try to understand a little person who cannot explain why he is crying, and who feels distress acutely. Mothers must use remarkable amounts of sensitivity in learning to understand their babies. Competence and efficiency have to take second place. There's no point trying to dress a baby in a hurry, to be on time for an outing, if he suddenly reveals that he is desperate with hunger.
There are differences in every direction. Today, in some countries, mothers are fortunate enough to receive paid maternity leave. Even then, though it may seem generous of employers, it surely cannot match the long hours and incredibly subtle and intense work that the mother is putting in. Although she may never have worked as intensely as this before, and although her work may never before have had such far-reaching social significance as bringing up a new member of society, no one is employing her to do it. She receives little social recognition for it. Her social and financial standing have become much less secure.
Even playing with a baby is different when the mother does it. A visitor, playing with the same baby, might be able to enter into genuinely light-hearted play. But when a mother plays, her sense of responsibility is still there. She is watching to make sure her baby does not get over-stimulated or over-tired. She will consider the long-term results. She may wonder what the game is teaching her baby, whether it is beneficial or potentially damaging. It may be play, but there are a lot of issues for her to think over.
At work, a person is usually expected to dress neatly. Even if the job is a messy one, a worker will be expected to look tidy before work begins. But life with a newborn leaves little time for such niceties. A new mother may dress more carefully to go out, when she encounters that other world with its different values. Then she has to hunt around for some clothes that fit and don't need ironing, and try to remember where she last saw her wristwatch.
At work, a woman may be in competition with her colleagues. She might then assume that, as a mother, she must be in a similar competition with other mothers. But this is a disastrous way to relate. For centuries, mothers have found strength in comforting and supporting one another. Mothers who rediscover this warmth and support find it a revelation.
Fear of motherhood
I don't know any mother who has learned to become a mother overnight. It involves major changes to our identities. We do it in steps, over years, rather than weeks or months. It can be exciting at one moment, but too difficult the next, when we long to return to our familiar working identities. "But probably for most women," writes Sue Gerhardt, near the end of her book, Why Love Matters, "who have a sense of identity based on their working lives, [becoming a mother] is a very difficult adjustment."
She explains: "I found that in this Baby World no one knows or cares what you think, what you have done, whom you have loved. You are simply 'the mum with the baby.' This role subsumes all other selves you have been or want to be. For many women, this is intolerable."
This may sound negative, but it must surely help if women acknowledge these difficult feelings openly. However, we also need to recognize that they are transitional. We face a choice as to whether to continue forward -- or to struggle back and find some way of hanging onto our working identities. I think some women do pull back. This is a pity. After an uncomfortable time of transition, we learn to get better at being mothers, and, in doing so, we find strengths that we never knew we had. We are not simply "the mum with the baby" in the way that Sue Gerhardt described. We are our unique selves.
This transition is easier if a mother has enough time at home with her baby. However, women have taught themselves to become mothers, whether or not they return to work early on. But, once back at work, mothers are faced with the temptation to abandon the slow process of motherly transition. It can seem, at first, more a loss than a gain, as though being a mother requires a woman to give up her identity. "The thought of giving myself over to my children was too terrifying," wrote one mother in a British newspaper.
"I am realizing that somehow in our post-feminist culture," writes one thoughtful mother in Hirkani's Daughters, "women are often afraid of motherhood and of the changes that it will bring. I realize that I have embraced those changes, not because I am especially strong or follow some particular parent-oriented philosophy, but because I am simply looking out for my infant. Allowing myself to fall in love with my firstborn helped me to see how much babies need their mothers."
If there were more in print like this, showing how women gain from learning to be mothers, it would be much easier for other new mothers to understand why they feel disoriented at the start, and to persevere.
"Even more attractive"
A perceptive view of this motherly transition occurs in Tolstoy's War and Peace. His wife, Sonia, copied out by hand every page of the entire novel, as Leo Tolstoy wrote it. She jotted down comments to him about each page. By the time the work was published in 1869, she had given birth to the first four of their thirteen children, so she was already an experienced mother. Most mothers of Sonia's social class employed wet nurses. However, Leo Tolstoy insisted that Sonia breastfeed, even though she seems to have found it painful. The character of Natasha, who became a mother by the end of War and Peace, is based on Sonia Tolstoy. We can read it as an intimate portrait, written by two experienced parents in collaboration.
"She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize the slim lively Natasha of former days in this robust motherly woman. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft and serene expression....At rare moments when the old fire kindled in her handsome fully developed body she was even more attractive than in former days."
The important message of this passage is that Sonia and Leo Tolstoy realized that a mother's earlier self might disappear for a while. But that did not mean it had gone. When it resurfaced, and connected to the motherly self that Natasha had developed, she became "even more attractive." The account of Natasha is a sensitive and positive portrait of a mother.
How do mothers change?
How, then, do mothers change? Every copy of New Beginnings contains examples. Tough women soften. But gentle women find, to their surprise, that as mothers they can be strong. When breastfeeding is problematic, these mothers are resourceful in finding help to try to sort and solve the problems. They find their strength, not by being aggressive, but by being persistent and refusing to give up.
Managing on broken sleep takes a bit of adjustment. Yet women who thought they couldn't eventually find ways of conserving energy and pacing themselves.
Through La Leche League, mothers find other breastfeeding mothers who understand about maternal tiredness. Those of us who are fortunate enough to go to Series Meetings encounter the wonderful warmth and understanding that mothers can give one another. Mothers who were in competitive careers, such as the media or politics, often say they can't imagine how they can return to such ruthless ways of relating.
The relationship between a mother and her husband or partner is also changing. Breastfeeding gives a completely new dimension to their relationship. Her role is obvious, whereas his role may seem less defined. Both may feel they have lost the intimacy they used to have. Both may hold ideals of a good mother and a good father. Both may take time to adjust to reality. However, the exuberance of their breastfed baby demonstrates the result of their love, and usually deepens it.
After some months, the baby becomes able to express his love for his mother. His love is completely unconditional. A baby doesn't know how to give by halves. A mother may never have received such generous love before. Especially if she has been brought up by critical parents, the love of her baby may be a profoundly healing experience.
Something seems to come together for mothers, especially when they breastfeed. They are doing something simple, natural, and yet miraculous. It can give a mother more confidence in the goodness of life itself, and in her own body, which nurtured such a wonderful baby, and now provides the perfect nourishment. "I am not at all a religious person," said one mother, "but I feel I have been blessed."
A mother's beauty
The gratitude of a breastfeeding mother is visible. Painters and sculptors have being trying to show us its beauty for centuries. In many La Leche League publications, we see photographs of that special smile of a breastfeeding mother. Ina May Gaskin writes: "This is perhaps a personal matter, but to me, a mother breastfeeding is a beautiful sight, something we need to see in our daily lives, whether or not we have young babies in our families."
Mothers do not necessarily feel beautiful. They are constantly saying they have "let themselves go," put on weight, and have bags under their eyes. Yet they reveal a different kind of beauty. Mothers can look incredibly tender and warm. Today, in their casual tops and jeans, their beauty looks especially poignant because it seems to happen in spite of themselves, without them trying. This is the look of a fruitful woman. Even a mother frowning with worry will nevertheless look gentle and intensely alive. In the midst of her worry, one can observe her growing motherly strength.
Becoming a mother is one of the major transformations in our unfolding identities as women. A mother's beauty is part of this process. It is completely genuine. She doesn't have to sit at her dressing table, or go to a beautician for hours to achieve it. Her baby seems to be the only beautician she needs.
It seems a great pity if women do not realize what wonderful identities await them as mothers. They then need to find a way to become "bi-lingual." One mother described how she would return home from an intense day at work to her toddler daughter, who was in the care of her husband:
"Coming home after work is like taking your place in a completely different orchestra, playing a different tune. And if you're not in tune with it, you get -- I can't think of the word that means not playing in harmony. And the way to get in harmony is to make myself stop before I go in, so I can hear what music my husband and daughter are playing. I have to remind myself to stop on the doorstep. If I stop and then go in, it's all right."
I think this mother had an excellent response to the situation many mothers are in. It can be difficult to alternate between family life and work. But mothers are good at finding creative solutions. It is moving to read the variety of examples in Hirkani's Daughters.
I would like to end by suggesting a word we could use about mothers. We often use the word "motherly." But this word does not have to be about a mother. It can describe anyone who acts like a mother. However, browsing through a dictionary one evening, I came across a medieval word that has fallen out of usage. It is "motherful." It would be good to have this word back. We could use it as we use "wonderful" or "beautiful," to describe something that startles us with its wonder or beauty. A mother might look impressively efficient as she turns up for her work. But when she is together with her child again, we may marvel at the change in her as she relaxes into being motherful.
It may be a challenge to struggle through transitional discomforts as we ripen into mothers. But the better we can understand ourselves, the more we shall be able to support one another -- in being motherful to our children.
Gaskell, E. C. My Diary. London: Clement Shorter, 1923, 8 and 10.
Gaskin, I. M. Babies, Breastfeeding and Bonding. Mass. USA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987, 9.
Gerhardt, S. Why Love Matters. London: Brunner-Routledge, 2004, 208.
Hicks, J., ed., Hirkani's Daughters, Women Who Scale Modern Mountains to Combine Breastfeeding and Working. Schaumburg, Illi: La Leche League, 2006, 15 and 184.
Smith, K. T. The Basics of Motherhood: New Beginnings, Issue 6, 2008-09, 4-7.
Tolstoy, L. War and Peace, First Epilogue, chapter 3. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, 1954. Many modern editions.