Naomi Stadlen On Mothers (Revillaging episode 3 transcript)

This is the full transcript of episode 3 of the Revillaging podcast, a conversation with existential therapist and best-selling author Naomi Stadlen about how mothers connect and the great gift they can give themselves, each other and the world. You can listen to the episode below (or search “Revillaging” wherever you find your podcasts) and read the show notes here.

Naomi Stadlen: “I love the way mothering goes under the borders and connects people. I think this is my great hope for the future.”

Adele Jarrett-Kerr: Hello friends, this is the third episode of Revillaging. In this episode I speak with Naomi Stadlen, existential psychotherapist, La Leche League breastfeeding counsellor and best selling author. Naomi’s books include What Mothers Do especially when it looks like nothing, How Mothers Love and how relationships are born and she’s just written a new book called What Mothers Learn without being taught. It’s out on April 2nd but is available for preorder now.

I read Naomi’s books when I was a new mothers and I found them helpful in navigating the identity shift that happened at that powerful transitory period. Hers was a voice that reassured that what I was doing mattered. I had value even though the days felt shapeless. So I felt massively privileged to visit Naomi at her London home and have this conversation over tea and biscuits. She talks about what happens when mothers get together and what the wider implications could be for society if mothers felt supported.

I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Naomi: I think most people’s stories go back to their mothers and their mother’s mother and even further back than that. I’ll just go back to my maternal grandmother. She was the oldest daughter in a family of eight and she helped her mother looking after the other eight. She was in Germany – we’re a German Jewish family or of German Jewish origin and my mother used to say she used up her mothering on her siblings and when it came to herself and her brother she was exhausted and spent lots of time sleeping, she says.

Adele: So that was your grandmother?

Naomi: My grandmother. She would lie down on the sofa for a very long sleep and I couldn’t talk to her or anything when I was staying with her. So my mother grew up without much of a model in mothering. And my father died when I was two and my brother was born so she was very much on her own. She was also told that she wasn’t a motherly sort of person and would never have children. So she was struggling against all this and I think she found it really difficult to be a mother. She sort of got into it her own way in the end but it was hard.

Adele: Who told her that? Who told her she wouldn’t be a good mother?

Naomi: Her parents.

Adele: Right. Gosh.

Naomi: It was very cruel. So I grew up being aware she wasn’t like other people’s mothers. She was her own sort of person. She wasn’t what other people would call motherly. But I experienced her as a mother. She was motherly to my brother and myself. She had to work because my father had died and she decided not marry anyone else.

My mother had to earn as well as looking after my brother and myself. And this was when she was a refugee in London so she didn’t speak English fluently at first. She was the first woman in her family ever to learn a living. She was very proud that she did and she earned plenty of money and did really well.

So when I became a mother, I was determined that I’d be a “real” mother and I wouldn’t earn money for the time I was looking after my children. My husband wanted to be a “real” father so we were pioneering this ancient way of being – of being a real mother and a real father.

I felt very conscious of doing it. I felt extremely lazy just looking after my children when I could remember my mother hurrying around and saying, “Oh, it’s something o’ clock and I’ve got somebody coming.”

So I told myself that when came through it I would write. When I did emerge and all three children were at school, I thought I’d better get a job but there was nothing I really wanted to do. I just really wanted to know what other people had done while they were mothers.

While I was thinking about this, I was a friend of Janet Balaskas who founded the Active Birth Centre and she said, “Would you like to start a group for mothers to come and talk?” And I thought, “Yes! That’s exactly what I would like to do!”

So I started doing that and I became a breastfeeding counsellor and my husband said, “Why don’t you become a real counsellor?” And I became a psychotherapist after that so I sort of built up on my mothering to become all those things.

I’m earning money as my mother did but not in the same way because I’ve got this other mothering experience behind me. I’m almost like a dinosaur because I’ve got experience that other people can’t afford to have.

My heart aches for people who can’t have enough time to be at home with their children because not everyone wants to be. And I’ve known mothers who want to get back to work – they don’t feel liberated at home. They feel trapped at home. So I think it’s very important that we have a flexible system.

And I also think you can’t predict which sort of mother you’re going to be until you’ve actually got a baby and you’ve spent some time together. Because at first it’s so disorientating you might think, “Oh, I don’t want to do this. It’s too difficult.” But if you take time, it gets easier. You find your own way of being a mother. Not like anybody else’s. It’s your way.

Adele: I find it interesting that your, your story doesn’t really follow the trajectory, the arc that we’re told our career is meant to have. A lot of people think that they need to arrive at what they’re meant to do very early on and then pursue that, whereas it seems you have each step of the way done the next thing. So you did the mothering at home and then you went on to becoming a psychotherapist. Well – then you went on to becoming a breastfeeding counsellor and a psychotherapist. Is that something that you had thought earlier on that you would do?

Naomi: No! I always thought I wouldn’t be a psychotherapist because my mother was one.

Adele: Oh right!

Naomi: And I thought, “Well, I don’t want all that anxiety.” Then I married my husband who wasn’t a psychotherapist but after me, he became a psychotherapist! My brother’s always saying to me things like, “Well, it’s important to achieve your goals.” I don’t really have goals. I never have had. I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve always been surprised by what comes my way.

Adele: Yes. I think there’s something really exciting about that, actually, kind of seeing what comes next rather than having your life mapped out, which is impossible to do anyway.

Naomi: I think that’s why people find it so hard to be a mother because I found it difficult but not the way women are feeling now, kind of totally confused because it interrupts the life plan.

There’s a woman who wrote a book called Shattered. Shattered is how she felt. Lots of mothers do. It sort of shatters the sort of idea of who you are, what life is all about and what’s ahead of you. You’ve suddenly got to make space for yourself and somebody else and if you can’t then – or, if you feel you can’t, everyone can but if you feel you can’t – then it makes sense to get back to your work. Your employed work where you know who you are. And it’s important just to be yourself and press yourself ahead – sort of do all the opposite things from being a mother.

Adele: Yes

Naomi: It’s just very difficult to let all that go and relax into being a mother.

Adele: So with Mothers Talking… So you started Mothers Talking at The Active Birth Centre and – could you tell me a bit about what that looks like?

Naomi: We celebrated doing 21 years and doing 25 years and invited people back. What amazed me was that as soon as they get back, not always in the same room, they start talking again, sort of very animated and lively. It’s as if they’s learned to trust one another through Mothers Talking.

Mothers feel very anxious when they first come because they wonder if they’re good enough. And my style is to just let each person be who they are and not sort of say anything about anyone.

Occasionally, I slip up and people say I was revoltingly un-nuanced – I think they said. I apologise where I can. I’m very honest in Mothers Talking. I sort of say what I think but I don’t expect everyone to think like me.

I think mothers very quickly realise that they don’t all have to be the same as each other. It’s fine to cry and it’s fine to enjoy mothering without feeling like you’re doing anyone else down. And we often go out for coffee afterwards and socialise because they realise that we don’t have to have so much in common. They just got this sort of transitional thing of turning into a mother.

Mothers usually don’t feel at war with one another. If they do, they’re feeling insecure. Once they feel more safe as themselves as mothers they’re very sympathetic to any mother that’s feeling upset or disorientated.

So I usually start by reading out something from the papers that’s got relevance to mothers. There’s nearly always something from that week. And then I ask each mother how she’s been this week or how she’s getting on or, if it’s a new person, if she feels surprised being a mother – if it’s what she thought or if it’s different. Something like that.

And, um, I got this idea from working at Penguin Books when we went to book meetings. And we’d sit round, as in all the education department, and the editor would say, “Well, how are you getting on with such and such book? How are you getting on with such and such book?” And we learned a huge amount from each other just listening. And we’d sort of get back to work with a great deal of energy. And so that’s the sort of – that’s at the back of mind – that’s what I’m doing.

It’s very important to have a facilitator at these meetings because everything is so sensitive. So if one mother seems very troubled and somebody else is giving her advice, which I don’t allow, I say, “Well, that’s obviously worked for you and it’s very kind of you to offer so and so what’s worked for you. This other person will have to select from what you’ve said if anything’s helpful for her. She’s obviously not a duplicate of you!” A we all have a chat. Something like that.

I very rarely say it now because I think I’ve put it in one of my books and so people have often read the book and so don’t try to advise each other.

Adele: Mmm, that is interesting because advice is the thing that people want to offer mothers, all the time.

Naomi: All the time. I’ve gone back in history to ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian times. These bossy manuals or papyruses of doctors telling mothers what they should and shouldn’t do. It’s important for mothers to struggle in their own unique way and to feel that nobody is in the position that they’re in – it’s impossible.

Women cry easily at these meetings and I’ve learned by hard experience just to let them cry. Why should crying be worse than anything else? Somebody else will usually give them a tissue, put an arm around them, especially if I don’t do it because it makes it sound as if they’re sort of in a unique position having cried. It’s just normal to cry. I cried all the time when I was a new mother. It’s just ordinary.

I remember one mother in abject tears because her baby was very ill and the mother next to her – it was her turn to speak – said, “Do you mind if I say something happy and nice?” to her. This mother sort of sobbed and said, “No, it’s alright.” And that was such a nice way of doing it because it was a complete transition from her joy to the other mother’s grief.

But that – the whole group has to contain all that, that experience of mothering. It’s very up and down.

Adele: Is it all new mothers who come?

Naomi: No, some mothers come back with second and third children. It’s lovely to see them.

Adele: But they tend to be people who are on maternity leave?

Naomi: Yes or it’s their day off and they come. The majority are, yeah, they’re new mothers and they come in their first year. They get a year off now. Actually, the group numbers have gone down and down. There’s such pressure on women to go back to work. So I don’t have the crowds, the big, huge circle that I used to have, which means we can actually get more said but there’s less people to say it.

Adele: Well, I’m sure it means a lot to those who come.

Naomi: Yes, they say it does.

Adele: It’s a time of isolation, becoming a new mother. A lot of people experience it that way. My feeling is that having a baby alerts us to our need for community and that that’s already there but it may be something that we’re not attuned to and the process, something about having a baby makes us realise, “Actually, I need people. And it’s not OK for me to just carry on independently as I have done.” Now I wonder if that’s something you see as well.

Naomi: Completely. Completely. Yeah. Mothers, when I was a mother, mothers went out to work. So the sort of mothering community was in. Now mothers go back to work. So, you know, back is where they’re supposed to be. And so, if they’re at home, they’ve lost all the social life that they used to have, the sort of network. Even if they’re freelance, they’re freelancing with people and you’ve usually got to sell something and you can’t sell a baby [both laugh].

There’s nothing to kind of sort of relate to to other people through your work. So you might be working very hard as a mother but it’s difficult for other people to see what you’re doing. And it’s difficult for other people to be involved in it. Mothering is unique.

There’s lots of connections you can make online but I think mothers love face to face. There’s something marvellous about seeing somebody, with her baby or her small child, seeing what they do. And also being able to touch her, and people sort of touch each other, when they care about each other, when someone’s crying – it happens a lot.

Also people are gentler to each other when they can see them. So there’s a sort of harshness, which you can get online. People get terribly hurt without the other person meaning to hurt them at all. It’s just that in print it looks different. But when they’re in the same room face to face that doesn’t happen. It just can’t. People are aware of each other. Sensitive to each other in a way that you can’t be quite the same in print.

Sometimes mothers say things that I’ve got no experience of. But there’s always someone in the group who’s got a cousin or who’s got a best friend it’s happened to so there’s always a large amount of experience that can be shared so each person feels that the actual position is unique but arc of the situation they’re describing isn’t unique – other people have gone through it.

Adele: So there’s kind of a pooling of wisdom there that the mother might not even realise that she has until she’s called upon to supply.

Naomi: Yes. So, more experienced mothers, I think their bar goes up higher so they think they should be better. It’s a great help for them to meet new mothers and realise how far they’ve come, looking back. And they can see the new mothers struggling with issues they’ve long solved but hadn’t really noticed it, that the issue had gone away. [both laugh]

Adele: What are the obstacles that you think mothers face to gathering community around themselves now? So, you mentioned work. Do you think there’s anything else?

Naomi: Yes. I think it’s a certain branch of feminism. I’ve tried to describe this in my new book coming up called What Mothers Learn. There’s a chapter on feminism in it and I can see in the literature that feminism has gone in the sort of not mothering way because that felt like an advance and although there are feminists who are mothers and feminists who have found a way to do both, their voices aren’t so loud.

I think the contentment of being a mother means that you’re not trying to prove anything because you know it’s good and the voice is less adamant in some ways so they don’t get heard so much. That’s the only way I can explain it myself because how can feminists not include motherhood? There must be a feminist way of being a mother that’s really motherly.

There’s a woman called Andrew O’Reilly in Toronto who runs a press called Demeter Press. She writes a lot of books about – they’re academic books – about feminism and motherhood. I’m not sure that she’s got the answer. She has for her but I don’t know if she has for everyone.

She’s an author as well as a publisher and she’s published all these books but on the whole they’re very academic books and there’s something humbler and emotional about being a mother, more, I don’t know, visceral in some way that these books don’t touch.

Adele: So the new book is What Mothers Learn – without being taught. What prompted this book?

Naomi: Well I thought I’d written two books and that was the end of it. Then I remembered after the first book, I’d thought that was the end of what I had to say. And at Mothers Talking you just hear all of these interesting things. And I thought, I’ve got more that perhaps I should voice for mothers that would be helpful. And I feel that these books are stepping stones for people to stand on and then realise that they’ve got their own things to say and go ahead and say them.

So many people think that mothering is stupid, basically, and they confuse it with baby care and childcare which it isn’t. Mothering is sort of seeing the child, your child, as a person who’s going to grow and have a future. And everything that you do is both in the future and present orientated so a child – I think you can just sense that the mother is thinking about what’s ahead, not just the immediate. They can’t do that. A small child can’t possibly think beyond the present. They bring us back to the present which is so nice.

It take a huge amount of intelligence to do that. And it’s frightening because you don’t know all the answers. So becoming a mother is not boring and it’s not stupid. It requires very great intelligence and all the education you’ve got. And a huge amount of energy as well. I think mothers get tired not because they’ve been running around doing things. They’re not so much physically tired as mentally tired from all the decisions that have to be made.

Adele: Perhaps that tiredness is another reason why mothers find themselves isolated because perhaps they don’t feel they have the energy to then invest themselve by trying to reach out and create a network. So perhaps mothers are a bit too tired to create community.

Naomi: Yes they are. Yes. And especially if they have to go back to work – if they’re contracted to go back to work soon. It doesn’t seem worth it. Better stay at home and make the most of time with your child or baby, and also prepare for going back to work. And that gives you a different sort of mindset.

Motherhood you have to sort of relax into, otherwise you’re out of step with your child and you won’t understand.

Adele: You mentioned that your chapter “No Mother is an Island” – you thought that that would be particularly pertinent to this idea of gathering community around yourself, of stretching out and making sure that you’re not alone.

Naomi: I think first of all mothers need their islands to regroup, as it were as a mother and sort of let go of other expectations of things that are going on. In 2001, when the Twin Towers were bombed, mothers didn’t have the energy to think outside that, that was too far away and too difficult. And they apologised and some of them had, knew people who had died in the Twin Towers. It’s difficult to grieve even because the present moment feels so central and important to be in. So I think having an island isn’t a bad thing as long as it’s not totally isolating.

And I think, next to that is sort of finding sort of “Mother Land” in some way, where you can connect with other mothers. And perhaps people start online, sort of realising that there are places where they can go to. And I think it’s important that there are groups for mothers, not just music groups for the babies and things like that. They’re important too but mothers just snatch a conversation with each other whereas at Mothers Talking the babies just get on with it. They know that their mothers are talking. They can just sense that something important is going on.

And they either just look up at their mother or they play with things. I’ve got a box. It’s not really a toy box. It’s got all sorts of things that aren’t toys.

Adele: Well, perfect for the babies. They probably prefer that.

Naomi: Yeah, they like that. I think mothers have to return to the wider world in all sorts of capacities: as a family member or as a working member or just going shopping. It takes a bit of doing to take the sort of motherly stuff that they sort of began to develop out into the wider world where they’re not an island, they’re the continent. So the quote is, “No mother – No man is an island for each man is a piece of the continent.” That’s from a sermon by John Donne.

I’ve noticed that mothers are quite shy to take their sort of more compassionate self out into the wider world where it’s slightly more aggressive. But I think the larger world desperately needs mothers so that the more mothers feel confident to do that, to go out into the world not as an aggressive go-getter but as something who’s got more understanding of humanity – I think that could only be good. And also, I think that is feminist.

Adele: Could mothers feeling supported and supporting others affect the wider culture? Maybe another way of putting it is, what role do mothers have as connective tissue for society?

Naomi: I don’t really know how to answer that. I can just see that it’s missing. There’s a kind of harshness in the way people work and the sort of aggressive way that people treat one another. I don’t think that that’s necessary. I don’t think you get the best work out of people who are frightened for their jobs. I think you get the best work where people feel treated as a human being. I can’t really say more than that. I think it’s got to happen.

But also, I think that mothers are often waiting for somebody else to do it for them whereas I think it has to start with ourselves. I think the thing for the future is for mothers to really believe that they’ve done something worthwhile. It’s not doing nothing, being at home, getting nothing done. It’s magnificent. It’s a wonderful thing that mothers are doing. And they’ve done it untaught. They’re just doing it without anyone teaching them how to do it. If only they could look at themselves and think, “Wow!” I think the world would be a different place!

Adele: Do you think that having done Mothers Talking for all of this time and being a grandmother, that that gives you a different perspective on that and on seeing what mothers do?

Naomi: I think it’s got worse, not better since I started Mothers Talking because there’s such pressure on women.

I think mothers can see in one another better than they can see in themselves what they’re doing. So I think meeting and seeing one another and just talking outside a shop or something, if mothers feel secure to admire one another and what they’ve done and think, “Well, I didn’t do that. That’s brilliant”, it doesn’t really matter that they didn’t do it, they did something else that the other mother hadn’t done.

Collectively, mothers are doing their own individual but wonderfully humane things with their children. And I think we’ve lost that. I think we used to have it much more when we did.

I think men are going to react and think that they’ve really lost out by being cast out into this competitive world and not having enough of a home life that women have had.

I think also it’s a sort of good future but perhaps quite a way ahead and it won’t happen unless mothers appreciate themselves through one another.

Adele: It’s so interesting that you say that about men because there’s a lot going around at the moment about men not having community and so many men in their 30s and 40s and not having any close friends.

I was chatting with my husband about this recently because we’ve just come back to Bristol for the weekend and I came from Bristol to London to see you and I have lots of people that I want to catch up but he was saying he doesn’t have anyone that he wants to catch up with. We lived in Bristol for six years! But I said, “But you didn’t have the time. You didn’t have the time really unless you were very motivated because we were having babies so we were exhausted and you were hard at work and you just didn’t have the time.”

Naomi: Well, I’ve tried to set up – I couldn’t set up a Fathers Talking but I set up a meeting in La Leche League for men. I said bring your own beer. And they did bring their own beer but they just wanted to have their own beer themselves, they didn’t want to swap.

I set up a Parents Talking at the Active Birth Centre and absolutely no one came to it. And I’ve talked to various fathers about it and they’ve said, “Oh we don’t like sitting around in circles and we don’t like drinking cups of tea and chatting.” What I was told was men like having a quick word as they pass each other in the gents. That seems a sort of intimate private space. [both laugh]

So I think men do need to talk and do need to think about their fathering but that’s for them to solve, it’s not for a mother to solve. It has to be done in their own way.

Adele: And it’s so interesting the idea of the competitive world out there maybe having an impact on the way men view their need for community. That perhaps it’s just a secondary thing.

Naomi: Yes.

Adele: So what changes as our children get older and as we get older – in terms of our need to connect – the way that we look after other mothers and allow ourselves to be looked after?

Naomi: I think we get more time. Grandmothers have started to realise their own possibilities because they’re living much longer than they ever used to. There’s never been a grandmothers’ society like there is now.

There’s a great grandmother’s society! I can’t remember what it’s called – International Grandmother’s Society – started by an American woman who went to Russia and was amazed that these enemy Russians were just as motherly and just as concerned for their sons as she was for hers. And this is going strong. She’s died now but this internaitonal grandmothers group is growing in many countries.

There’s a Chinese group called Mothers for Tianamen Square or something – I don’t know what they are in Chinese. And in Germany there’s a group called Grandmothers Against the Right so they’re leftwing grandmother frightened by sort of nazi extreme resurgence. There’s a group of indigenous grandmothers who are amazing. They come from all different, various different rural societies. They come together. There’s a group of thirteen and they had a meeting back in 2004. I don’t know what’s become of them since, I must look it up.

But grandmothers are realising that they’ve learnt something. They’re always about peace, about uniting and connecting. And they can pass this on to a younger generation who doesn’t understand that yet.

Adele: Do you think that there’s something specifically grandmotherly or motherly or feminine about that?

Naomi: Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s completely new. People just haven’t lived that long or not in such numbers.

Adele: That’s interesting in itself because older women are often seen as, kind of, well, they’re often undervalued as well.

Naomi: Yes, well, this American woman who started the International Grandmother’s said, “We cannot afford to just sit back in our rocking chairs!”

Adele: [laughs] Love that!

Naomi: Or knitting in rocking chairs, I think she said. It’s brilliant. But there is a concept of a wise old woman so maybe that will help.

It’s very hard to find the language to express what mothers are doing. I think language often comes out of surprise. People use a word, when they’re a bit surprised by something, they find a word for it.

And mothering is so – I don’t know – it’s so what we grow up with, hopefully if all goes well. It’s almost impossible to have no mothering. If you haven’t got it from your own mother, you’ll probably go and look for it from somebody else. So it’s sort of universal. It doesn’t vary a great deal from culture to culture – the style does but the sort of basics don’t. It’s hard to find the words for it because it sort of goes under the radar. It sort of, we’re not able to be surprised by it because it’s what we were born into or sort out early on.

So somebody said that mothering is in a different mode and I thought mode was a good way to describe it. It is different. And perhaps we do need to be surprised by mothering because it’s got rarer and perhaps we need to find some words for this other mode.

Adele: And perhaps there is a need to be alongside other people who are also in that mode because you have a unique understanding.

Naomi: I mean orphans can see very quickly what mothers are doing. They’re the best people to verbalise it. They’re painfully aware, especially if they’ve been brought up by an institution, they got a smidge of mothering, not what they can see other people having. And other people seem to take it so much granted, they can’t believe their eyes that it’s not valued – that people get so cross with their mothers when they’d be so happy to have one.

Adele: It seems to me that that is the theme of all of your work – helping mothers to see how valuable they are.

Naomi: Yes, you’re right. That’s the goal. If there is a goal. To sort of help people feel alright as they are, not as they should be. Chances are that unless they’re absolutely appalling, they’re doing fine as they are.

Adele: And do you chat with mothers who are working? About finding the value in what they’re doing, working around their work situation?

Naomi: Well, I just mostly listen. I don’t tell people things. And I think a lot of mothers find, who’ve gone back to work very soon, find that they hadn’t really developed into mothers. The child has become sort of more extra to their lives – terribly painful to hear. And the main part of their lives is sort of joining the competitive world.

And, I mean, that’s good too. I presume I’m relying on doctors who are also mothers. But I think it’s important to give mothering enough time. I think that can only be done with enough money and that has got to be reorganised. Surely there are loads of mothers who are economists who could look at mothers’ situation and think up something better.

Adele: I know there’s an organisation called Mothers At Home Matter Too and they campaign for…

Naomi: They’re brilliant. They’re brilliant. They’ve got contacts in the House of Commons. They’re very active and good. But I think whatever we set up needs to be voluntary and optional so that mothers can choose. And can realise that they’ve made the wrong choice and go back on the choice and that kind of thing.

Adele: Because, as you say, we’re all different.

Naomi: We are all different. And also we develop differently and people want different things at different times of their lives so it just depends.

Adele: I just wanted to go back because I know you have a chapter called, “Who am I?” and it just made think about how the identity shift that you mentioned earlier – how that affects our ability to reach out to other people, to allow other people in, maybe. It’s a very vulnerable situation.

Naomi: Very vulnerable but I think that vulnerability attracts us to each other because we sort of see that it’s not just us being vulnerable. I don’t know, something about a vulnerable person that evokes humanity and kindness. Like in a pack of wolves, a wolf that’s vulnerable always exposes its neck to other wolves and the other wolves will not bite that exposed, weak part of a wolf.

Adele: Wow.

Naomi: So I think we’re like that. We don’t know that we are but we are. So if a mother breaks down and cries, nobody ever says, “Oh pull yourself together.” It’s just unheard of. Everyone thinks about their own tears and sort of recognises it and sort of has compassion.

And also, tiredness. You’re not supposed to feel tired, you’re supposed to get your sleep but sleep is a universal problem at the moment. When a mother says she’s tired – when I started Mothers Talking, she’d nearly always get advice if she said she was tired and I’d have to say, “Well, each person’s different,” you know.” But now, when a mother says she’s tired, everyone just sort of groans and they laugh in compassion. They say, “Yes, what did you expect?”

Particularly if you’re breastfeeding, breastmilk gets digested very quickly and babies are up at night wanting more. And they don’t really recognise the difference between day and night for quite a while so even if you’re not breastfeeding, if you’re formula feeding you still have that nighttime problem.

Adele: There’s so much about self-care at the moment. I think it almost puts another pressure: “I should be looking after myself. If I’m tired that’s somehow something else to blame myself for.” When, actually, it’s quite natural.

Naomi: Yes, mother’s do do what they call “letting themselves go” a bit in their grooming and so on but I find that they look more beautiful for it. I don’t know what you think. I don’t know, their faces seem more relaxed and something about their movements become spacious and sort of, enlarged. It’s very beautiful to see.

I think it’s a good idea to keep something going if you can like for some mothers it’s a shower, for some mothers it’s writing something, for some mothers it’s going to the gym which has to be organised but that is a sort of set thing which they can do. For some people, it’s really little. And it’s sort of returning to the other mode from the mothering mode, it’s sort of looking at yourself. But if there’s no time for that then there will be time, so.

Adele: Mothers Talking is probably a part of what helps mothers to keep things going as well.

Naomi: Yes, they always go more relaxed than when they came in. It’s very nice to see. And they’ve got more colour, even if they’re tired they’ve got more sort of colour in their face – they don’t look quite so white and strained.

And I think that’s going with self-criticism that they’re not doing this and they’re not doing that but no matter what you do as a mother, there’s always something you’re not doing. You could hit yourself, I don’t know, infinitely for what you’re not doing. What’s important is what you are doing and that’s OK.

Adele: Do you think that’s because we’re self-critical because we’re moving out of this competitive zone when we’re working? And then somehow, we are trying to find the structure.

Naomi: Bringing it with us. It’s really hard to let that all go. And it doesn’t work at all for mothering. Mothering has always been non-political, non-competitive.

There’s a La Leche League group in Northern Ireland I went to. They said that they used to have mothers coming across the border from Southern Ireland and they welcome them but they never ask where these women have come from. They just let them come. It’s rude to say where you’ve come in case you’d come from the wrong part.

So, I love the way mothering goes under the borders and connects people. I think this is our great hope for the future. Sometimes it’s perhaps important to have a sort of national identity or something like that but mothers go under it and see this common humanity that unites us.

I was born in the Second World War so war is something I really don’t want to see in Britain in my lifetime. I think people who haven’t experienced war don’t realise just how awful it is.

Adele: Well, it sounds like your work is a part of protecting and healing.

Naomi: Well, each of us can just do a tiny drop. Like Mother Theresa says, one drop is only a drop in the ocean but without that drop it would be less and I think that’s a fair comment.

[Music returns]

Adele: Well, that wraps it up for this episode. I hope that’s given you a few bits to go away with and maybe a lift if you’re a mother yourself or perhaps something to reflect on in terms of thinking about your own mother or your grandmothers or anybody who’s had a sort of mothering role in your life.

Revillaging is a monthly podcast at the moment so the next episode will be out in February. As always, the show notes are on adelejarrettkerr.com. A lot of references were mentioned in this episode and they’ll all be on there.

I’d love to chat with you about the issues raised in this podcast. Come and talk to me on Twitter or Instagram. I’m @AdeleJK in both places.

And if you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Rate and review if that’s something that you do. See you next month.


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