What Mothers Do: especially when it looks like nothing

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.



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