Book Review – What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen

Have you ever get spent a day busy with your baby, but when someone asks you what you’ve done you can’t think of a single tangible thing they would consider work? If so, you are not alone and What Mother’s Do, by Naomi Stadlen might be a good book for you.

When you are pregnant you receive lots of pampering gifts for you and presents for the baby, but one thoughtful friend sent me a copy of this book, which is different because it’s all about supporting new mothers to understand what a life changing experience motherhood is.

I set it aside to read on my maternity leave, but never found the time, so I only started it when my baby was over 6 months old, and I really wish I’d read it sooner.

The first chapter is all about language, which as my friend worked with me on a magazine, she would know I have an interest in. The author postulates that motherhood was traditionally a skill learnt through observation as all women in the village contributed to childcare. Therefore, it didn’t require specific words to describe the tasks being done. Whilst there are lots of negative words to describe extreme behaviour (e.g. worrier, over-protective, selfish) there aren’t words to describe just being motherly and paying the right amount of attention to a child. This causes problems in today’s society when new mums are more reliant on books and the internet for guidance.

Not every mother over- or under-does it…Logically, therefore, we need a third word that means ‘protecting her child the right amount’

Many new mums face a lot of uncertainty and doubt that they are doing the right thing. In this book the author uses lots of anonymous quotes from real mothers she has worked with in support groups. This makes it a great book to help new mothers realise they are not alone, and all of our concerns are mirrored in other people.

The author also makes a very good point that the work of a mother is often undervalued by society. Mothers can spend the whole day caring for the child but they are seen as having done nothing. Naomi says that in every action we do we are teaching our children how society works, and helping them grow up to be well adjusted adults. Therefore, the very fabric of out society depends on us, which makes motherly work vitally important.

It doesn’t seem too much to say that the whole of civilization depends on the work of mothers.

The book isn’t perfect, and at times it can seem a bit dated because it was written in 2004, and even in that short space of time I think some dads have become more involved in childcare. At the start, the preface says the term Mother can be used to describe any primary carer, but it definitely assumes there is just one primary carer, which doesn’t reflect my reality where we’ve always shared the comforting and bedtime settling duties.

The author is also keen to point out mothers face too much judgement, but she can come across as pretty judgemental at times. For example, I get the impression she isn’t keen on working mothers, a d certainly doesn’t like sleep training. If I did sleep training it would probably be because I’d assume I’d given my baby some bad habits and she needed help to get a good night’s sleep. This description of the motives for sleep training therefore felt very wrong to me:

Her basic choice is either to see her baby as good, in which case she trusts him, or alternatively to see him as the product of evil human nature, or of original sin, which requires her to train him.

Despite these shortcomings I think this is an important book to help mother’s prepare for the psychological aspects of motherhood. Antenatal classes tend to focus on the birth, and some practical aspects of childcare. However there is little information on how fundamentally life changing it is, and how difficult it can be to adjust.

I certainly found it a shock to the system to have someone completely dependent on me, and I often felt like I wasn’t getting many productive things done. I had to learn how to interact with my baby, and it was learning by doing, which is so different to other aspects of like where we study or rehearse.

If I had read this book sooner the insights in it would have made me realise I was actually being amazing, and I didn’t even know it. All the invisible things I was doing were so important, so it’s ok if the cleaning takes a back seat.

I wouldn’t take everything in the book as gospel, but overall I think it is very helpful, so I’ll certainly be keeping my copy to pass on to my next pregnant friend, because it’s a lovely gift to lift a new mum when she most needs it.

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