Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Mothers Do (Especially When it Looks Like Nothing)

I loved this book, What Mothers Do (Especially When it Looks Like Nothing), by Naomi Stadlen.  I read it a few months ago and wrote most of this review.  Then I got busy, and it's just been sitting in my drafts folder!

Anyhow, I loved that this book tried to put into words what it is that "mothering" entails.  Lately, I have taken to answering the "what do you do [for a living]" question with something like "I'm a personal chef, I'm socializing two young children, I'm a teacher, a laundress...yeah.  I'm basically a mom."

In July, when A-Train ended up having a colonoscopy to retrieve a foreign object, I had a real "aha!" moment when I realized just how important my "doing nothing" while staring at him had been.  This book reinforced that.

One of the biggest things I came away with is that there are no words for what I do all day as a mother.  I mean, sometimes The Beast comes home and I am still in my pajamas, the house is a wreck, Bean is running amok, A-Train is screaming and in need of a diaper change, dinner is not made....what did I do all day?  I couldn't even tell you.  I know that I get bored just sitting around.  I know that my children wouldn't allow it.  I know I have pressing things to do, I had plans to get things done (or at least some activity planned for Bean), I have phone calls to make, haven't checked my voicemail in 2 weeks (seriously, this is a regularly occurrence!), and I have three emails from someone who was expecting a response to the first...

So I must have done something...  What did I do?  I mothered.  But what does that even mean?

The chapter titles of the book might resonate with you.  So here they are:

1.  who understands?
2.  "nothing prepares you"
3.  "all the responsibility"
4.  "being instantly interruptible"
5.  the power of comfort
6.  "I get nothing done all day"
7. so tired I could die
8. what do babies seem to want?
9. what is motherly love?
10. "I was surprised that I still had the same name"
11.  snapping at my partner
12. closer to my mother
epilogue: circles of mothers

A few items bothered me, like Stadlen's bit on "motherly love."  That section not only dragged on, but much of it made me uncomfortable because I felt she was making judgements rather than being descriptive of different feelings women/authors had.  That chapter felt very out of place to me.

There was also a line in the epilogue that made me cringe:  "Surely there will always be some mothers who want children but whose commitment to their work is primary."  Stadlen was talking about working mothers and stay-at-home mothers (have I mentioned how much I hate those misnomer categories?), but I don't think most working mothers would say their work is their primary commitment.  The mothers I know that do paid work most definitely commit to their children before their careers, as I've seen them struggle with guilt, logistics, and exhaustion to make everything happen.  It's just one sentence, but an irksome one to me.  She does go on to discuss some of the complexities around the choice to go back to work or not, but her bias toward her own choice of staying home definitely shows (and I have that bias, too - I'm sure it shows!  Aren't we all biased toward our own choices if we're relatively happy with them?).

However, I did love that her ultimate conclusion was that mothers are great resources for each other in making choices: "circles of mothers, either at regular meetings or in spontaneous gatherings in shops or on the street.  Here a mother can exchange views and have her assumptions challenged."  (I particularly appreciate having my assumptions - of babies, mothers, society, etc - challenged when I talk to other moms!)  She does mention some of the ways we mothers are off-putting for each other - when we just want compassion but get advice instead, for instance.
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