Twenty five years ago, as I tried to adapt to the reality of being a new mother, I asked more experienced mothers, "why are there no parenting books that speak to the subjective experience of the mother?" My own experience was one of feeling sandwiched between the seemingly insatiable demands of my first-born, on the one hand, and, on the other, the often rigidly prescriptive advice of published experts on "what's best for baby."
How different it all would have been had I been able to consult Naomi Stadlen's careful observations and wise reflections during those confusing, stressful days of early motherhood! I imagine that her emphasis on the infinite varieties of "good enough" mothering would have felt both absolving and empowering -- absolving in the sense that her book lends legitimacy to all manner of unsentimental responses to new motherhood (undercurrents of resentment and guilt, dislocations of identity, frustration, powerlessness, perplexity, humiliating inefficiency and obliterative fatigue) alongside the hours of joy and delight -- and empowering in the sense that even inconsequential-seeming new behaviors,
learned for the sake of one's child, are revealed to be of immense significance.
One example of this is the capacity to be interruptible, "on call," able to drop everything to tend to the baby's needs, and then somehow minutes or hours or days later, pick up all the threads one has dropped. This capacity, the author reminds us, is absolutely central to the health of the child's unfolding identity - and, in turn, to the well-being of the whole human family.
Naomi Stadlen not only gives voice to maternal subjectivity, she speaks on behalf of infants everywhere in emphasizing that "in general" instructions are of only tangential value compared to what one's own unique child asks for and needs and deserves.
In carefully recording the actual comments of new mothers about everyday challenges, Ms. Stadlen aims to convey what is, rather than what should be done or felt. She emphasizes that "each relationship is an original creation... no one has the recipe for perfection...[the] single blueprint for being a good mother."
What Mothers Do is psychogically astute and nuanced, but blessedly free of psycho-babble and professional jargon. Stadlen writes with clarity, grace and precision. At the same time, because of her extensive training and experience, the material is anchored in sound clinical theory and research. Those motivated to do so may use the excellent bibliography to go further with such topics as "the power of comfort," attachment theory, and the origins of "motherly love".
Deep thanks to Naomi Stadlen for her gift to all of us, mothers and babies both.