Mothering the Mother.

By Sian Hannagan
Dec 2015

This is not some article about how dressing nice or slapping on some lipstick will make parenting easier. I will not tell you to go for a run or get a massage so that you feel less tired. We need to stop lying to women.

Becoming a mother is a vast change in the landscape of our existence that requires both the birth and death of our self. This process can be painful, it can be ecstatic, and it can be both together. Today in our world of post-industrial families, work productivity and material attainment this great evolution of woman to mother is rarely given the pause it deserves. Too often women are chivvied into resuming life as it was, carrying on or ‘getting back to normal.’ In magazines women are applauded on their ability to return to their ‘pre pregnancy body,’ in the workplace we focus on getting women ‘back into the workforce’ so they can contribute as before. So much energy is invested in getting a new mother ‘back to normal.’ I have news for us all. There is no ‘back.’ A woman who has birthed a baby has physical changes going beyond just her appearance, which will remain with her for the rest of her life. ‘Work’ will never again be defined solely by paid employment in a workplace, it will be the myriad of small and large tasks associated with growing a small human as well. The life we had is not gone, it is there holding space for the women we were prior to becoming a mother. But whether we embrace it or fight against it, the life we lead going forwards is going to be different, we are going to be different. And that’s okay.

What is not okay is how the western industrialised social construct for motherhood does not allow that growth. We have a place for motherhood, but it is closely defined by our ability to cope, to contribute, and to be ‘good’ mothers. Women who parent in a community of nuclear families are often isolated, needing to outsource to paid services for the support that historically would have been available from extended family and friends. And from this place of isolation, they are expected not only to parent well, but to continue paid employment (but not at the detriment of their parenting), volunteer in the community, resume social life, resume their pre pregnancy bodiesand otherwise exist in a society that still thinks children must be seen and not heard.

“The obligation that evolves for working mothers, in particular, is a very precise one; the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job,” Annabel Crabb

When defined by society, becoming a mother is rarely about acknowledging what our mothers need, it’s more about ensuring they continue to meet society’s needs.

Those weeks after birth are often cloaked in layers of muzzy sleep deprivation, fuzzy oxytocin, delight, and despair all couched in a sensation of total and utter upheaval. The transition that comes during this time is often difficult. Women get the baby blues, they sob as they breastfeed their babies, they stare at the piles of dishes undone, they wear pyjamas that smell a little like milk, a little like sweat, they think about going out without having to pack a nappy bag or showering and getting dressed. They host excited visitors, they clean when they can, and they get on with it. So often they are given advice on how to manage those messy first weeks, ranging from ‘sleep when the baby does,’ ‘ignore the housework’ and ‘ask for help’ to ‘get out as soon as you can’ ‘ignore your baby’s needs’ ‘put makeup on’ and ‘go for a walk.’ While all of this advice is well meaning, none if it is actually of any practical use to a new mother. Sleeping when the baby does, only works if you don’t mind not showering or have no other children. Ignoring a baby’s needs is very rarely what new mothers want to do and can cause undue stress in both baby and mother. But even if these nuggets of wisdom were helpful, they still place the burden of solving directly onto the shoulders of a brand new mother who is mired deep in this seemingly endless space of sleeplessness and nappies. Sure, you can get some sleep if you are prepared to live in a tip, yes we can help you but only if you ask us specifically for something we can help with.

New mothers need more. They do, an articleby Mia Scotland discussed how the lack of support experienced by new mothers can lead to mental illness. It is well known that new mothers are at risk for clinical depression, we treat this as normal and expected as if this were natures plan, communities filled with isolated, sleep deprived depressed mothers. I disagree. Women need more than assurances that this is normal and medication.

This is what we need:

We need hands on, practical and emotional support through the transition from woman to mother, we need to know we are surrounded by a community of supportive and present people.

We need assurance that the changes we experience are normal, worthy of celebration as well as sadness and have been experienced by women around the world.

We need to know that the feelings we have are valid, whether those feelings are joy and excitement or despair and disappointment. We need to have our emotional journey honoured and understood. We don’t need to be told to ‘enjoy every moment’ or conversely that we shouldn’t be smug about how beautiful being a parent is.

We need the space to build the connection and relationship with our babies without advice that disempowers us and works counter to that bonding process

We need to know that we can be with and nurture our babies and children in public. Be that breastfeeding, eating, or dealing with emotional meltdowns, and that we will receive support for our presence, not angry criticism.

We need to know that if we choose to resume paid employment that our workplace will be truly responsive and parenting friendly. We need to know that all of the skills we obtained asmothers are a boon to the workplace and that taking time to do the work of parenting will not make us obsolete. We need to know that our role as a parent will not lead to discrimination.

We need time to be in the moment during that fourth trimester, and the form this time takes might be different for every mother.

We need our parenting decisions respected and honoured whether or not they meet the expectations of our friends and family. We people to know that we are strong enough to make informed decisions even if there is conflicting advice. We need people to stop talking about ‘mommy wars’ and start talking about true informed consent. We need to stop being told our arguments are petty or inconsequential. Our decisions have value.

We need to stop being told that we should ‘get our bodies back.’

We need a shift in how we view motherhood so that we are no longer reduced to housekeepers, cooks, or budget planners.

We need to receive birth support that is respectful, supportive and evidence based. We need to have our birth experiences validated. We need to be heard.

We need to receive support that honours our traditions, culture, and race. We need to have our experiences validated and our herstories valued.

We as a society have to acknowledge the undervalued contribution that mothers give to our communities and recognise this as something without a fiscal value. Not because it is worthless, but because it is priceless. More and more women are finding the balancing act required of them impossible to maintain. But instead of acknowledging this, we medicate women, we minimise them, we tell them they are doing too much, we tell them to do more, we tell them to lean in.

More articles on the subject:

The Scientific Reason Moms Are Super Tired You’ve Never Heard

Depleted Mother Syndrome (DMS): What it is, and what you can do about it

Why your baby is only happy in your arms

Asking for Help

Indigenous women have healthier pregnancies if given ‘cultural care,’ study shows

Study – Bouncing back? – women’s experiences of their own recovery after childbirth

Postnatal Depletion even 10 years later

Annabel Crabb – about kids, work, and why all women need a “wife”.

Why do mums do all the volunteering at schools?

New Mums May Need 12 months to Recover From Pregnancy and Birth

Torturing new mothers and then wondering why they get mentally ill.