How often has a spouse come home from their paid job, asked a mom how her day was or what did she do, and she responds with, “Nothing really”?
I just finished reading a great book that reframes and refutes this whole concept. Mothers do a lot, even if people don’t see it!
What Mothers Do: especially when it looks like nothing by Naomi Stadlen is touted as a parenting book, but it’s not like other parenting books in that it’s not a how-to guide. Rather, it looks at behaviours of mothers and breaks them down, describing how much in fact moms do every day with their children, even when it may look like nothing.
The untrained eye might see me doing nothing but I see so much more. My baby is one month old here.
She talks about the power of comfort, and that to an outsider, a mother who is comforting her baby may look like she isn’t doing much, just holding her baby. But any mom can tell you much work it is to soothe a child and how satisfying it is once they are able to calm them down and feel them relax and melt into your embrace.
Stadlen makes this interesting point:
No one supports the mother while she is learning how to comfort, or celebrates her when she is able to give it. 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 mother. Babies reach these milestones when they are mature enough, whereas being able to comfort depends on a mother’s ability.
Another interesting point she makes is around how exhausted mothers are, and what is revealed when you compare their feelings to another group of exhausted people: physicians. She notes that doctors “recount their times without sleep like badges of honour, tanglible symbols of their dedication to the profession and testimony, to all, that their sacrifice justifies the status.”
Practicing medicine is seen has having status and that you are tired for a cause. Stadlen asks, what if your cause is a baby? Is that not worthy of status? Instead mothers often feel like they are failures because they are tired, rather than saying they are tired because they work hard all day and night caring for their babies.
Mothers could probably cope better if we all acknowledged how complex and difficult it can be. If a mother says she is short on sleep, this could be a sign not of her failure, but how well she may be mothering. I believe that the real, dreadful qualify of maternal tiredness is the mother’s sense of struggling against prevailing disrespect.
Until babies learn how to talk, mothers need to figure out what they want, and somehow they do! This is huge! A certain cry might mean baby is hungry or wants to be cuddled or has had enough stimulation. Mothers talk about how even when their toddlers don’t use words other people understand, they still know what they want. To an outsider watching, this may look like nothing, but it’s not: it’s mothers being mothers.
Stadlen sums up her book perfectly on the last page:
It’s time we as a society take a closer look at all that mothers do. And we as mothers should be proud of all that we do, even if it may look like nothing. Because I can assure you, you aren’t doing nothing. You are mothering.
“Painting and photographs portray mothers with calm faces holding babies and looking aeons beyond the slightest shadow of self-doubt. Many people find it very hard to tolerate a mother who is feeling uncertain. They perceive her as a person who has lost control, who cannot cope and who needs help. People around her step in quickly, as if filling a vacuum, to supply the ‘missing’ certainty. Some make suggestions; others give orders. This can be disheartening for a mother. It is hard to feel so uncertain. It is even harder if she thinks that other people have lost confidence in her. Instead of seeing her uncertainty as necessary, she disparages it as unmotherly. It seems like a sign of her incompetence, demonstrating that she has failed to become a good mother from the very outset.” ~ Naomi Stadlen, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing
Silence may be golden, but as humans, we tend to find silence awkward. As soon as there is silence in a conversation or around the dinner table, we try to fill it.
This is counter productive when we want to support new moms who are finding their own way in motherhood. Our friends, family, in-laws, caregivers such as physicians, nurses, doulas, may all want to rush in and tell a new mom what she should be doing or how she should be doing it. “Why don’t you bathe the baby this way?” “Does the baby really need to breastfeed again? He just nursed!” “This is how we did it when you were a baby.”
While such advice is likely well-intentioned, it’s actually really unhelpful and can be damaging. It doesn’t allow the mom to figure out what works best for her and her baby, and it also undermines the way she is choosing to do it right now. It could lead a mom to think, Maybe she *shouldn’t* be nursing again. When the truth is, the mom knows her baby best, and every baby is different (and babies don’t just nurse for nutrition! but that’s a post for another day).
And guess what? She might make mistakes as a new mom: WE ALL DO. She needs support and kindness as she learns from these mistakes.
Here is another quote from Naomi Stadlen’s book, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing, that sums it up nicely:
“Rarely is it necessary to tell a mother what to do. It may demoralise her further, and certainly does not help her to learn. A mother needs to feel safe enough to risk feeling uncertain. People who offer advice cannot know all the details of her situation. They also don’t usually have to live with the long-term consequences of their advice. A mother needs time to ‘grow’ into parenthood, together with her partner. She needs enough confidence to experiment and change her mind a few times. She needs to learn that some of her ideas work. The most uncertain and under-confident beginner can gradually turn herself into a unique mother.
The miracle is that mothers manage to survive at all in such an expert-ridden climate. After lonely periods of confusion, they suddenly discover that they are starting to understand their babies. As their babies grow, so does their confidence.”
This is why it’s important for new moms to carefully consider who their caregivers are. They should know when to hold the space and be silent, rather than bombard her with advice, even if it’s well-intentioned.
When my son was about 18 months old, I felt like I was close to hitting rock bottom. I was a stress ball, crying a lot, so I went to see a counsellor. On paper, she sounded great and exactly what I was looking for.
After my first visit, I was frustrated because she had given me homework (make a list of things I could do on my own to “fill my cup”). I felt like this was just another thing on my to-do list, which was already lengthy, and I wasn’t really looking for ways to be away from my son.
However, I went ahead with it and went back to my follow-up appointment, even though I was in a much better head space. I didn’t go back after that, and here’s why:
She made a few statements that were bothersome to me. After I told her some background on my life, she commented, “It’s hard when you have a toddler breastfeeding at night and you’re wondering when they’re going to night wean.”
She went on to ask if I had considered night weaning, and that perhaps that would help us get more sleep. “I support breastfeeding but not if it’s interfering with sleep.” (Whenever a person qualifies a statement of support with the word ‘but,’ they don’t really support it. And I know if I stopped breastfeeding at night then or now, I’d get less sleep. See below.)
Finally, she asked me when I envisioned moving our son out of our family bed, remarking that children often have better sleep hygiene when they sleep alone.
There are a few problems with these statements. First, they make assumptions: I never said I had a problem with my son breastfeeding at night. I never said I wanted to night wean. I also never said that my husband or I had a problem with our family bed: in fact, I said the opposite, that we had talked about it from the beginning, checked in regularly, and we were fine with it.
The second problem with these statements is they are her opinions and not facts. Because sleep is developmental, if I were to stop breastfeeding my son at night, he would still need comfort, and I’d have to find another method. And because sleep is developmental, he will eventually sleep through the night in our bed or his own, when he is ready. And some nights he does! And because sleep is developmental, bottle feeding a baby doesn’t guarantee s/he will sleep through the night, either. Babies are not robots, they are individuals just like adults, who develop at their own pace.
The most important issue with these statements is they could undermine a woman’s confidence. She eventually said, “You know your baby best.” Too late: the damage is done, and the seeds of doubt are planted if a mother is already questioning her decisions. In addition to undermining her confidence, they could make a mom feel like she needs to justify her decisions to other people, which she absolutely shouldn’t have to.
Fortunately, I don’t doubt the decisions we’ve made. Had I seen this counsellor when my son was younger, I may have, and that’s a scary, sad thought.
What I would have liked to have heard is, “What kind of support do you need to feel better? I’m hear to listen. Tell me what’s hard. You are safe here.” And maybe I would have admitted that sometimes it’s really hard breastfeeding at night, but that deep down I think it’s worth it, and I just need to vent. Or maybe I feel lonely because I don’t have many friends whose toddlers breastfeed, so let’s brainstorm some places or ways I can meet other moms. Or maybe I just need to cry and say that sometimes it feels so hard and that nobody understands – even if I know that’s not true, maybe it’s how I feel in that moment, and once I am able to voice it in a safe space, I will feel better.
This is what I mean about silence. I didn’t want or need advice. I wanted to be heard and supported. That’s what all mothers want.
And then we want to be told, “It’s a hard job being a mom, and you’re doing great. Even if you make mistakes along the way, you’re still doing a great job. You are the best mom your baby could ever ask for.”
Stay tuned for part 2 on the importance of choosing the right caregiver.
In case that title caught you by surprise, no, we are not expecting. In fact, a couple weeks ago, one of my best friends had a baby, and I sent the picture of him to my husband, saying, Look how sweet! He texted back, No.
Right now I’m reading Mothering the New Mother by Sally Placksin, a resource book for new moms (though honestly I find parts of it a bit textbook-y, so I doubt I’d have read it as a new mom. Likely better read before baby or a few months after).
I’ve been sharing some of it with friends of mine who recently had second babies, which got me thinking that what I’m sharing with them is likely worth sharing with others as well. Maybe you already have had your second or third child, and you will nod your head along with the ideas from this book. Or maybe you’re planning on having more children or are even expecting now, and some of this might seem like good information to store in your back pocket for when your next baby is born.
Here are the two passages I shared with my moms of 2nd babes (starting with ‘They have learned….’):
The chapter went on to give ideas on how to make the transition easier on the first born:
- Talking with your older child and including him/her in the process to which they are comfortable (ie. bringing diapers)
- Showing your older child photos and videos from their own birth and infanthood (and after the baby arrives, saying things like, “You also loved being held this way” or “You always fell asleep like this” or “You were different from your sister, you liked XYZ”)
- Schedule some time for one or each parent to have alone time with the older child
- Try not to make promises you won’t be able to keep
- Accept the child’s resentment (remind yourself it was a parent’s decision, not the child’s, to have a second) but be clear it’s not ok for the older child to hurt the younger one
- Be prepared for the older child to act out a range of feelings toward the new sibling once s/he arrives (just like Mom might have mixed or some negative feelings, so might the older child, and that’s normal and ok!)
- If your oldest is interested, spend time with friends who have a newborn
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your children to have a perfect relationship when they’re young because it can lead to resentment carried into adulthood (something my husband and I have seen first-hand in our families)
I think what matters most is recognizing the whole spectrum of emotions for the mom and the older child. A friend was here for coffee earlier today, and she commented that she shouldn’t complain, that she chose her life of having two young children close together. Sure, she did choose her life, but how she feels is how she feels, and there is nothing wrong with embracing those emotions. In fact, she *should* embrace them. Sometimes motherhood is beautiful, heartwarming, and rewarding; other times it’s hell, overwhelming, and you just want to cry or pull your hair out. Honour those feelings in yourself and in your child. They are valid.
I would love to hear if you have any other ideas on how to ease the transition for your older child(ren) when a baby comes along! Comment below or post on Facebook.
If you know me or have been following my blog, you know I’m passionate about pregnancy, birth, and parenting. While I don’t read as much about pregnancy anymore, I often read about parenting and lately, how to support newborn mothers.
By the way, I love this definition of a newborn mother from my teacher, Julia Jones:
I’ve become so interested in the topic that I decided to take Julia’s class on how to support newborn mothers postpartum, and I’m so excited to say I’ve passed and am now a Certified Postpartum Professional!
What does this mean? Right now it just means I have furthered education in something I’m passionate about, but in the future it means I look forward to a career where I can support moms: helping them take care of and love themselves so they can do the same for their new babies, providing some nourishing and nutritious meals (I’ve gotten back into the kitchen and it feels good! If you want to be a taste tester, let me know…), belly binding, tips for self and baby massage, and more!
I can’t wait. I still consider myself a new mom and I’ve experienced really great aspects of postpartum (I’ve had a lot of support and continue to – couldn’t have done the class without it) and challenging ones (going back to work at 6 weeks postpartum, thrush, mastitis, moving), so I get it. I’m not an expert, but that’s not my job…you’re the expert on you and your baby, and my job is to help women see and embrace that.
Exciting things to come! Thank you everyone for always reading, supporting, and encouraging. It takes a village.