What Are Mothers Doing at Home?
We were privileged to welcome author Naomi Stadlen as our speaker at the 2012 Open Meeting. For over twenty years Naomi has run regular discussion groups called ‘Mothers Talking’ at the Active Birth Centre in London.
I first got to know about Naomi’s work in 2010 after she had a letter published in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ which spoke from the heart saying that: ‘’Mothers caring for their children at home are working. They are building relationships with their children, and enabling them to communicate and to know they are understood. ‘ She continued: ‘Those mothers who choose this way are contributing work of priceless benefit to society, and taxpayers will be the gainers.’’
At our meeting in central London Naomi began by applauding the organisation’s name ‘Mothers At Home Matter’ but stressed from the outset that ALL mothers matter and that some mothers who are physically in the workplace and separated from their children for much of the day often share similar sentiments and anxieties . If you’re a mother who is back in paid work, ‘time’ becomes even more precious and she related a story of one mother rushing home from work, even deciding not to pick up groceries from the supermarket on the way, so she could be reunited with her children as soon as possible. Similarly being at home with the children isn’t always through choice or preference and doesn’t always mean that a mother is enjoying motherhood or attuned to the needs of her child. Naomi pointed out that being at home with a baby doesn’t automatically turn us into mothers because we learn as we go along and there’s a process of unlearning as well learning in becoming a mother.
Naomi continued by querying the order of the three aims of Mothers At Home Matter as they appear on our new website. She suggested that the aim ‘to enhance the status and self-esteem of mothers at home’ should come first making it clear that a mother’s care is a vital contribution to the welfare of society and the wellbeing of her child (rather than our first stated aim which is to challenge the fiscal system which treats one-earner families so unfairly). As an organisation we certainly agree with Naomi that it’s important to regularly discuss what kind of messages are being put across in an attempt to challenge the direction of policy and to consider the kind of language that best supports mothers in their work with children.
Naomi said that a mother who is in the private domain of her home can feel invisible and undervalued (because she often is invisible), whereas a mother who is back in work is fully engaged in public life and has a ‘voice’. In a changing society where paid work is better understood and respected (and where there are lots of opportunities for women to shine) it can be a challenge to take pride in being a mother at home. Meanwhile in politics and in the media there’s a relentless focus on the ‘problem’ of getting mothers back into work, a subject which seems to unite all three main political parties with a growing belief that professionals can do the job of childcare just as well, if not better. Naomi believes that it is up to ourselves to challenge this narrative by explaining to people what it is that mothers actually do, especially when it looks like nothing (the subtitle of her book ‘What Mothers Do’ ). This is difficult when some people simply ‘don’t get it’ (in the same way that Florence Nightingale herself found it hard to understand when her friend, Mrs Gaskell, author and mother to four daughters, tried to convey matters of mothering to her). Many women can feel trapped by motherhood, because they see it as a long list of boring menial chores. Naomi continued by quoting Sue Gerhardt , author of ‘Why Love Matters’ who has spoken of ‘long days that seemed to pass in slow motion , trapped in the world of the baby’. Naomi spoke of a father who said that whilst children say the funniest things, it’s hugely wearisome when it’s repeated over and over again! Allison Pearson, journalist, wrote of ‘the unsung and largely unacknowledged loving and often numbing work which millions of mothers do every day because it is the woman who carries the puzzle of family life in her head: that great 3-D jigsaw of birthdays, shoe sizes, packed lunches, nutritious meals, carol concerts and chickenpox.’ The list of tasks is endless. As journalist Joanne Moorhead once said , a mother is so many things – a nest builder, a tear wiper, a diary keeper, a strategist, a Jackie of all trades and even a doormat. Naomi pointed out how striking it was that only the list of deeds was mentioned, not the dynamic relationship between mother and child which affects each deed.
Naomi spoke about how the unremunerated aspect of motherhood (‘no pay’) can be a surprising advantage rather than disadvantage in mothering , because mothers are not responsible to paymasters, and therefore have considerable autonomy. Some mothers have started to solve the problem of having no pay by setting up their own businesses while caring for their babies. However, for these ‘mumpreneurs’, as they are called, there are considerable barriers to launching a new business from home and doing two jobs well. Some mothers organise their work sensitively: Sheila Kitzinger, natural childbirth activist, wrote very early in the morning, before her children were awake, whereas Laura Ashley was known to design late at night, after her children had gone to sleep. However another journalist Judith Woods has confessed to closing the door on her baby’s sobbing to get on with her work. Most ‘mumpreneur’ mothers have confessed to the Woods experience , with one admitting to sitting in the larder with the door shut to take an important phone call, while her toddler screamed and hammered at the door.
Some ‘mumpreneur’ mothers fear that other mothers will have more time for their children. They use terms such as ‘extreme parenting’, ‘exclusive mothering’, ‘intensive parenting’ or ‘radical mothers’. These terms have been used to criticise full time mothers.
In the 1980s, mothers competed over how soon babies started solids; in the 1990s, it was about when babies slept; today, Naomi said, the focus is on developing the child’s brain. There has been much interest in neuro-scientific research in brain development. The media has exploited mothers’ anxieties by claiming that there are particular ways to build a ‘fully functioning brain’. Naomi questioned what a ‘fully functioning brain’ was. Our brains have greater potential than any of us could use in one lifetime. A normal baby is highly intelligent already and will be amply stimulated by ordinary life with his mother.
Listening to Naomi articulate these recent trends in child development made me reflect on my experiences and the anxiety often felt by paid childminders and nursery staff who are also under pressure to carry out formal observations and assessments and to develop plans that respond to each unique child, removing the spontaneity, instinct and ‘normality’ that should arguably be part of the joy of caring for a young child in the 0-3 period. If carers are focussed on planning and assessments how can they tune into a child’s needs in the here and now?
Naomi pointed out that some research claimed to prove that looking after children is bad for a mother’s ‘mental health’. She asked us whether we thought this was true. She said she noticed that many mothers learned a great deal from being at home with their children.
Naomi stressed that mothers have the privilege of access to the originality of their own children and it would be wrong to assume that just because their relationship isn’t visible or measurable nothing can be happening – you will not always ‘see’ or notice the internal magic of discovery in a baby’s average day as she gazes around at her surroundings and absorbs what’s going on.
Have we reached a stage where it’s really quite revolutionary to be at home these days? There may be fewer women who feel able to be at home. However, it is important that they are not isolated but find opportunities to pool their observations of their children with other mothers (and I would say other carers, including grandmothers or stay at home dads) and to talk about what is typical and what is unusual. Mothers learn a great deal from doing this.
Naomi ended by saying that many mothers discover insights into how children develop that go beyond what is in psychology textbooks today. This is not part of the job-description of being a mother, but many mothers do it. It shows that mothers at home are using far more intelligence, questioning and observation than most people realise. Questioning and learning, as much as the practical care of their children, is what mothers are doing at home.
After the talk, Naomi invited mothers to discuss their views. She then suggested that participants divide into small groups, turn their chairs to make a circle, and take turns to relate a short anecdote about themselves and their children. At the end of each anecdote, the listeners were to say how far they could relate to it. The large Swedenborg Hall was immediately filled with bright sounds of story-telling, like groups round hot camp fires. Afterwards, Naomi asked what it had been like either to talk or to listen. Participants said they had enjoyed both. Naomi said she hoped they could see from that how much mothers could gain from meeting to talk.
Naomi is a wife, mother of three, and grandmother of three. She works as an existential psychotherapist specialising in seeing mothers and parent couples. She teaches existential psychotherapy at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. She runs Mothers Talking, weekly discussion groups for mothers. Her latest book is How Mothers Love, and how relationships are born.