How Mothers Love by Naomi Stadlen

Posted in: Book Reviews

How Mothers Love.doc April 2013

Published by Piatkus

Naomi Stadlen is the psychotherapist and author who brought us the brilliantly titled “What Mothers Do, Especially When it Looks like Nothing” in 2004.  She has been running London-based weekly discussion groups called Mothers Talking for many years.  The women sit in a circle and Stadlen asks each of them about their week, a question which immediately sparks discussion and prompts the women to open up about their experience of mothering.  Others can make the hard work of mothering look like ‘nothing’ , but we all know that underneath that ‘nothing’ there’s a whole universe of feelings, desires, wishes and problems to be  expressed and solved.  In the safe setting of the discussion groups, women have been given the opportunity to open up to one another and, while children grow and parents move on, Stadlen’s presence has been a constant.

What Stadlen has found over the years is that after the meetings certain phrases and comments kept coming back to her and she started to write them down.  In time she found she was piecing together a fragmented, yet telling portrait of maternal love and shadowy patterns were beginning to emerge.  How Mothers Love is a detailed study of this long term overview; Stadlen has been able to examine her own experience as a mother of three and a grandmother of two, as well as all the insights she  has acquired over twenty years of La Lèche League and the Mothers Talking meetings.

The subtitle to Stadlen’s second book is just as powerful as that on her first; it reads How Mothers Love and How Relationships are Born.  The interesting thing here is Stadlen’s use of the plural ‘relationships’; at once we’re conscious that  we’re dealing with the birth of several relationships when a baby is born, and as that baby grows.  And the mother-child relationship is placed centrally to all others.  This is also evident in the fact that the book is proudly called How Mothers Love; focusing on the relationship between mother and child rather than ‘parent’ and child or ‘carer’ and child. Stadlen says in her introduction, “How Mothers Love is an attempt to rediscover some of our early wisdom.  It is especially important to do this today.  The word ‘mother’ is fast becoming replaced by ‘parent’ and also ‘caregiver’.  But surely the love that mothers give their babies is unique.  One interesting question is who teaches whom to love?….  perhaps love is a mysterious alchemy that is kindled between mother and baby, and is a shared adventure between the two.”  Having listened to so many mothers in discussion, Stadlen is of course in no doubt that the relationship between a mother and child will not always be instant, or faultless or perfect; the idea of a ‘shared adventure’ describes well the unexpected roads our children guide us along.

From a MAHM point of view, there is a very balanced, unfashionably bold, representation of the ‘stay at home’ mother in Stadlen’s book.  She recognises the uniqueness of a mother’s quality of care, something which can’t be quantified in terms of competence alone.  Among relevant topics, the book discusses the fact that a career which has required selfishness to get going does not prepare women for the selflessness required for motherhood, and that education systems are usually inferior to the spontaneous education that a mother can provide, conveyed through everyday life.  Stadlen invokes Aldous Huxley’s dystopia with the modern idea that daycare can teach an infant lessons about cooperation, independence, self-sufficiency and friendship that he would not learn at home.

But as well as this familiar critique of our current attitude to motherhood and childcare, Stadlen sounds some positive notes. She says that she has noticed that mothers do not apologise so frequently for being ‘only a mother’ as they did when she started Mothers Talking in the early 1990’s.  She, with all her first-hand experience to support her, asks, “Is it right for anyone to ignore mothers, or to define their work as ‘time off’?  It’s hard for mothers to give their love generously.  It’s much harder when surrounded by people who don’t value them”.

And at the end of the book Stadlen tells us something  we all believe.  “Mothering certainly matters.”  Most inspiring of all is her call to action: “Can we afford to let ‘experts’ define what we are ‘supposed’ to do, and then complain how badly most of us do it?  If we want respect, especially from our employers, or family members, or the government, we ourselves need to spell out what we do.  Together, mothers are a vast and widespread international group.  Nevertheless, with the internet linking so many of us, we can hold genuine discussions.  After millennia of theorists defining our role, we are, at last, in a position to define it for ourselves.”   I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Mel Tibbs

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