Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Book review by Gwyneth Little, East Lothian, UK
How Mothers Love and how relationships are born
Naomi Stadlen’s book, How Mothers Love, shows us again just what it is that mothers do, “especially when it looks like nothing.” The focus of her second book is, as the title suggests, relationships and communication, particularly between a mother and her baby, but also, in later chapters, between a mother and her husband/partner, her other children, and other mothers. LLL Leader Naomi clearly shows what a huge impact a mother’s love has on her baby’s communicative skills and future relationships, even into and throughout adulthood, despite what is often perceived by new mothers to be very humble beginnings. “Mothers don’t realise how much they know,” as she points out.
Motherhood tends on the whole to be undervalued in our society, with a general lack of awareness of just how much mothers achieve. This book, however, takes the time and trouble to do justice to mothers. It does not preach to or advise them, but reflects their reality, the extraordinary ordinariness of their experience, in a way that is truly supportive of them and makes for empowering reading for mothers who may feel unappreciated by others or even unappreciative of themselves.
Motherhood tends on the whole to be undervalued in our society, with a general lack of awareness of just how much mothers achieve.
The authenticity of the book is in large part due to the many real-life quotes gathered by Naomi from her weekly “Mothers Talking” discussion meetings in North London, whilst the universality of the mothering experience is brought home by the often inspirational quotations drawn from history, philosophy, literature, poetry, and other cultures.
The book raises some very interesting issues, suggesting, for example, that some of the phenomena experienced by mothers and interpreted by the medical profession and society as symptoms of postpartum depression may in fact be a very reasonable response to the massive upheaval of new motherhood.
Indeed, mothers often know better than the so-called “experts.” One chapter in the book, comparing Truby King and Freud, shows how skewed a perspective these authority figures had of mothers and of the mother-baby relationship. Naomi shows that Freud, in particular, had a distorted view of breastfeeding, insisting that babies experienced it as a sexual activity, a view that she convincingly challenges.
A chapter is also devoted to exploring two mutually opposed approaches to parenting, described here as “Spartan” (rule-bound, routine-dictated) and “Athenian” (child-led, cue-following). Whilst expressing understanding and empathy for the “Spartan” mothers, Naomi successfully vindicates the oft-criticized methods and philosophy of the “Athenian” mothers, showing that breastfeeding works best using the “Athenian” approach. She relates how, for example, the Founders of La Leche League themselves realized that breastfeeding four-hourly by the clock often led to breastfeeding problems whereas breastfeeding whenever the baby was hungry worked much better.
Overall, the book makes a very convincing case for what many of us know in our hearts to be true, and which one mother expresses succinctly: “It’s the biggest learning experience that there is, having a child.”
We are delighted to be able to publish an extract from the book, to give you a sample of its “flavor.” The extract chosen is one that is likely to strike a chord with most mothers. It starts with a quote from the mother of a seven-week-old baby girl:
“‘It’s odd being a mother. I haven’t got five minutes to put on the wash, but I have got half an hour to stand in the street watching a robin. [G, 7 weeks]’ This mother was speaking to several other mothers, and they immediately laughed. They understood how odd it sounded. They didn’t need her to explain how useful the washing machine had become. However, putting dirty washing into a machine can be difficult to do while holding the baby, whereas watching a robin could be combined with baby-holding. Young babies, they seemed to agree, often wanted their mothers to hold them.
And yet there was a rueful sound to the laughter. Watching a robin – what good does that do? Doesn’t that just prove that mothers are doing ridiculous things, unworthy of their time? What is the point of a mother looking at a robin with her baby?
What are mothers supposed to be doing? Mothers have the task of introducing their newborns to social life. They do this by relating to their babies and beginning to communicate with them. At first, babies don’t know how to communicate – nor do they realise that they can. They express how they feel by crying, or by becoming contented. But it doesn’t occur to a newborn to look round and check whether he is getting any response.
A to/fro of ‘dialogue’ seems an enormous change from life in the womb. Human civilisation depends on generation after generation being able to understand and communicate with one another. We aren’t born knowing how. We learn it. Becoming a mother must mean doing some of the oldest work there is. But the mother’s responsibility to help her baby to communicate is not widely recognised. Mothers themselves may not even realise that this is what they are doing.
This helps us to understand the ‘robin’ mother. She had begun to notice moments when her baby seemed contented, and was thankful for them. When her daughter seemed relaxed while she was holding her and they were watching the robin, her response must have been: ‘Thank goodness I’ve found something that you like! Let’s watch a bit longer.’ It’s a good example of how small the first steps of communication can be and how insignificant they can seem at the time. Yet these small steps are crucial.” See pages 41–42.
In the seemingly insignificant event described, there is so much more going on than meets the eye, and the long-term consequences are so much more positive and profound than one might imagine. This is a typical example of the everyday, yet magical, moments that make up a mother’s life, and that this book so beautifully captures.