Good mother welcome

Good Mother, Welcome

I came across this title in one of Leonie Dawson’s workbooks in January.

The title caught my attention, as at the time I was feeling quite at the bottom of my aspirations toward ‘good’ or even ‘adequate’ on the motherhood front.  I thought some wry, sarcastic wit could be just the antidote to my troubled sense of my own imperfection.

When the book came, it was something quite different. It was a book of poetry, tender, heartfelt, real. The first words took my breath away, and brought me to tears. “Good mother, welcome. We are glad you are among us.”

How many of us truly believe we are ‘good’ on the motherhood front? Maybe some of us, some of the time. On a good day. Many more of us struggle to believe we are ‘good’ or even ‘good enough’ in the face of life’s (and our own) imperfections.

“Good mother, welcome.” What makes it so hard? Why do so many of us feel ‘not good enough’?

(And I mean beyond the help of those irritating Facebook memes that assure us, ‘you are enough’. I applaud the sentiment. I’d love for all of us to genuinely feel that all of the time. But if that meme is enough to touch your heart’s sorrow and reverse it, you probably don’t need me or what I have to share here, and I wish you well in your happiness.)

Do you know what it feels like to wake up every day and know that actually things in your life are really not right, that you and your children are suffering from this, and that massive change is going to be needed to bring them closer to right, but feel too exhausted even to begin because the little energy you have is consumed by caring for children? 

I do. I know I’m not alone in this. And it’s not about perfectionism. It’s also not about being inadequate or unskilled or pathologically unwell…and it’s not about being ‘not good enough.’ What I see time and time again is that it is about being in a situation that is hard, and beyond what we feel we can cope with easily or well on our own – and where we nonetheless must carry on.

The details of that situation will vary. It may be abuse or relationship breakdown. It may be a bad birth or breastfeeding experience that leaves us with pain, regret, or on-going trauma. It may be illness or accident. It may be stuff from the past rising up for attention. It may be sheer depletion and exhaustion from the impossible expectations that life (motherhood) can throw at us.

Whatever the cause, so many women, so many mothers are struggling daily with deep heart pain and troubling isolation. And we do our best to keep going, often deflecting and minimising our stories, most of us until we can’t any longer.

Given the experience of motherhood as many of us are living it, I don’t think there is anything abnormal about how we feel. By that I don’t mean that the problems are not real – they are all too real, and all too in need of attention – and change! But what I do mean is this: if you feel crappy in a crap situation, that’s overall a healthy thing – and a good sign that your mind and body are still capable of functioning as they should. And there is a possibility for change.

When there is something out of order in the body or in the mind, there is a natural impulse to keep the body functioning as best as can be. In other words, we compensate. If we have an injured foot, we might walk on the side of it, or hop along, right? 

It’s no different with the emotional stuff. We protect ourselves and our children as best we can. And when we compensate our bodies (and minds) may use convoluted pathways to accomplish what needs to be accomplished so that we can keep going. But over time that stuff builds up. It starts shouting for attention. We are, on a heart and soul level, calling out for what we need most – connection, love, freedom – we want to be whole.

Motherhood makes it tough to process this stuff. Approximately a 1000x harder, in my experience. Because there is nearly no (if any) downtime. How often do you get solitude? A space to process? My guess, if you have small children, is hardly ever. I personally still feel ‘on’ to some degree even when my little one is sleeping. And there is a general devaluing and invisibility to the work that goes on. That work can feel pretty relentless at times.

I had an image of what this feels like to me the other day. I am a bucket, with water flowing in. The rate varies, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on what’s happening in my life. But there are four largish child-shaped holes requiring a constant flow from me. Three of these holes empty into smaller buckets that have some degree of inflow from another parent (in our case this is restricted). One of these is fed almost exclusively by me as he has no other parent. All receive some inflow from social connections, school, other carers – and I’m very grateful for this – but we live far from family, and the bottom line is, most of this comes down to me.

The water (the energy, the intentions, the nourishing of self) that pours into the bucket is always also pouring out to protect and to nurture and to nourish these little people. When the level in the bucket gets so low, and the inflow is weak, or God forbid, the bucket itself becomes damaged, well, I’ll let that image speak for itself. It takes a constant higher level of effort on my part to remain in place than it does for someone who has an undamaged bucket with no holes in it.

We live in a world where most of us have damaged buckets. And even for those of us that stepped onto the path toward motherhood relatively intact, we many of us have had further knocks and blows along that trajectory of ‘motherhood’ in the modern world.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic here. I do not in anyway believe the situation is hopeless, for any of us. The past years of working with women and working on myself have shown me nothing if not that healing – living really fully, with feeling, with joy and whole self – is possible even when we have experienced some truly terrible things. I believe women (and humans) have incredible capacity for resilience. But for those of us who are mothers, who have ongoing responsibility for little people, the path to that needs to be something that encompasses and includes motherhood, not something that ignores it.

I’ve been working really hard over the past months to raise the level in that personal bucket. I let it get too low, for too long, because I kept expecting help or change to come from the wrong places. I’m getting there, now, with although I will be the first to admit that it’s not a linear process, but one where the levels can fluctuate and where often extra care needs to be taken.

For women like me, the quick fixes will never be enough because we are constantly giving in a way that quite probably is invisible to those who have not experienced it. It is difficult to truly value that. I catch myself minimising it, erasing it, hiding it, as much as the next person. There’s something unseemly about motherhood requiring real effort.

And we end up hiding so much, and denying ourselves the credit of what we are actually accomplishing every day (if you personally are feeling unsure of what this is exactly, I recommend to you Naomi Stadlen’s wonderful book What Mothers Do). In doing so, we also often deny ourselves access to the tools and communities that would nourish and support us.

Motherhood is not a place where we should be left  on our own.

I sometimes wonder if the call to ‘self-care’ for mothers I see on Facebook is a bit like the call to train babies to ‘self-soothe’. Are we (in some cases) looking to cut off and shut down the pathways of communication so we don’t have to see what is happening?

Self-care is essential. But it shouldn’t be about shutting us up or shutting us down.

Human beings are social animals. We are tribal creatures. We need connection and acceptance and love in order to thrive. Mothers who are constantly giving so much need this even more – we need holding (not taking away, or reducing our competence, simply holding) so that we can do what is required of us.

It’s really hard for most of us to open to that truth. Self-sufficiency is valued. Vulnerability can feel like (and be interpreted as) weakness. In the worst cases, that vulnerability can be (and is daily) taken advantage of, leading to greater suffering and trauma. And so many of us carry on suffering in pockets of isolation, feeling like there is something profoundly wrong with us because our hearts are heavy and our bodies are strained, and we do whatever we need to do to suppress it and cope and keep on keeping on…until we really can’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Our society – in relation to motherhood and childrearing – is broken. It’s the impact of this brokenness that most of us are feeling when we feel isolated, alienated, traumatised, depressed. These feelings are in essence a healthy response to an unhealthy situation.

We need to address this by acknowledging what parts of this brokenness we are holding within ourselves, allowing ourselves to see and acknowledge what we are actually feeling and experiencing. We need to feel free to access support that doesn’t take our agency and our competence away from us, but that holds a space of safety and resourcefulness where our strength can be restored and our resilience grow. We need to feel loved, valued, held and witnessed – and to be part of things as women as well as mothers.

If what I’m saying here makes sense to you, I’d like to invite you to join me on Thursday, 15 June 2017 at 11am for a free webinar ‘The Wounds of Motherhood’. This isn’t your ordinary webinar! There won’t be lots of slides or teaching. Instead we’ll be holding space for a personal process to reconnect with the (often untold) stories we are holding in a way that makes room for our personal agency in bringing healing, insight, and positive change. This is a process I’ve used many times with my 1:1 clients, and in the “Untold Stories of Motherhood” sessions, but it is the first time I’ll be sharing it live online. At the end, I’ll also be sharing details of the Heart Healing For Mothers programme that’s begining 22 June 2017.

 

Access the free replay The Wounds of Motherhood here.

‘Fed is best’: the band-aid covering the gaping wound of women’s trauma

I woke up this morning to a pro-woman’s choice post from a FB friend, supporting a woman’s right to choose how she feeds her baby, and if she chooses to breastfeed, how long she does so, stating that this is a question of bodily integrity and sovereignty.

I absolutely agree.

But what I see, and what so many of us who have supported new mothers through pregnancy, birth and early parenthood can see, is that this ‘choice’ comes at the cross-roads of conflicting and contested lines of power: power over women at a juncture where power is very much at issue, power over babies and a primary care-giver’s connection to them.

Motherhood is one of the places where our female bodies are most subject to outside control – whether this is through the direct policing of the medical establishment, the seductive images of the advertising industry, or the cohersion to comply with the choices that are socially acceptable as ‘right’ and ‘safe’.

The default for women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood is NOT one of sovereignty but one of deep control exerted over us, our bodies, and our choices…one that is so engrained in us we for the most part don’t even notice it. Too many of us fall into motherhood unsuspecting and unprepared for what awaits us.

This is evident nowhere more than in the phrase ‘fed is best’.

“Fed is best.” On the surface of it, who can argue with that? Of course, ‘fed is best’ – our babies rely on us to feed them, they need to be fed to survive. No guilt, mamas! Get the job done!  

So how is it possible that ‘fed is best’ is swiftly becoming the anti-breastfeeding slogan that no one can argue with? Breastfeeding is after all the biological and physiological norm for humans, but ‘fed is best’ – it’s just about ditching the guilt, right?

“Best” is a slogan that touches the cords of guilt and shame and powerlessness that run deep through women’s experiences of motherhood. It shouts, “you’re not enough (and you never will be), because you are far too imperfectly human.”

Fed is not ‘best’. Fed is what we do to keep our babies alive.

All babies must be fed in order to survive, there is no ‘best’ about it. Babies not being fed adquately – babies suffering from hunger and dehydration – these are serious points of shame and trauma to us all and flat out should not be happening in wealthy western countries, let alone the rest of the world. “Fed is best”, the heart-rending stories and thin, malnourished babies, shows us this is happening, now, today. We cannot look away from that. We must not look away. 


We need to know that skilled infant feeding support will never involve shaming or pressuring mothers, forcing babies to feed in a particular way, waiting until baby is hungry enough to be ‘broken’, or any other such harmful and cohersive nonsense. Skilled infant feeding support involves: listening, assessing the real needs of mother and baby, responding with gentleness, compassion and skill to the situation at hand.

How we feed our babies will come at the cross-roads of many factors: our own family histories, our experience of pregnancy and birth, what happens in the early hours and days after birth, our expectations of motherhood, who we have around us in the early hours, days and weeks of motherhood, our personal resources, the pressures of our lives, and how we personally respond to these.

“Fed is best” is a phrase I’ve seen used in a few specific situations:

*To reassure a breastfeeding mother who’s baby genuinely needs supplementation that it is okay to offer this supplement (whether this comes in the form of the mother’s own expressed milk, donor milk, or infant formula) either short-term or longer-term for the health and well-being of mother and/or baby.

*To pressure a mother who wants to breastfeed into supplementing regardless of whether this was a genuine need for the baby, but because the medical professional was under-informed about breastfeeding science, normal infant patterns and growth, or to conform with the protocol and/or expectations of a specific individual (not the mother) or institutional environment.

*To express deep anger, disappointment and trauma around the mismanaged pressure to breastfeed at all costs combined with inadequate or non-existent support, where mother and baby are both traumatised (and their health, safety, and lives put at risk) due to the lack of information, experience and skill of those ‘supporting’ them. Often this is seen as breastfeeding advocates putting lives at risk over an ideal. The guilt / blame / shame  that is heaped on women who bear this trauma turns (rightfully) to anger and the ‘fed is best’ movement takes form.

But ‘fed is best’ isn’t sovereignty and it isn’t powerful. It’s a band-aid covering over the very real traumas of mothers and babies. The wound beneath remains. As long was we hold up that slogan as a shield we’re missing the point.

We need to reclaim ‘best’ when it comes to motherhood. Best is:

*Best is respect for women’s intelligence, resources, capacity to choose. 



*Best is listening first as helpers (and honouring our own experiences as mothers by speaking the truth of these to those helping us).

*Best is asking what a mother needs right now, what her struggles are, and her goals and wishes over the longer term – and considering how the ways we respond to her will impact all of these things.

*Best is providing every mother and baby with the optimal choices and support for pregnancy and childbirth (suited to her circumstances), knowing that how we give birth impacts our experience of infant feeding and parenthood.



*Best is making sure that all health care professionals have adequate training in breastfeeding establishment and support, in both normal and more challenging situations – and where they do not have this, ensuring mothers and babies can a) know the limits of those supporting them, b) access other knowledgeable support.

*Best is communicating with mothers that formula is not the only alternative to breastfeeding, and that there is a spectrum of infant feeding choices and practices available to them – that what they choose or need to access can change over time.

*Best is offering women accurate and up to date information about the full range of choice and the impact of each choice in the shorter and longer term for herself and her child, without pressuring her into a particular course

*Best is listening to what a woman herself is saying about her personal needs, wishes, and experience and responding to these with compassion and respect.

*Best is respecting mother’s and babies needs and wishes, even when they deviate from our own choices or from what we think is ‘best’.

The anger we need to be feeling is not at breastfeeding endangering our children.  The anger we need to be feeling is about the ways that women are pressured and let down by those we most trust at the time of our deepest vulnerability, and how our babies are being harmed every day by these betrayals.

Because to my mind, this isn’t really about feeding – it’s about control, guilt, shame, and the damage that’s still being done to women (women’s sovereignty, women’s capacity to choose) in birth and early motherhood. 

After many years of mothering and working with mothers and babies, I am convinced that the ONLY was through to change is through mothers taking back our own power and choices. It requires stark truth telling. It requires tears and rage against what is being taken from us so that we can claim back what is rightfully ours – sovereignty and power in motherhood.

And this means for those of us who have been there and passed through, owning full spectrum of our experiences, including the wounds and the pain of of these: seeing these things for what they actually are, accepting the choices we have made, where we bear responsibility for these choices and where we have hit up against forces that have taken away our capacity to choose.

 We don’t have to be ‘best’. We have to be real. We have to tell the truth about what’s happening out there and inside ourselves.

When we do so, we can use our experiences as a bridge to greater compassion and greater capacity for connection with and in support for those who are struggling. We can share the truths that are the ground for genuine choice. We can share the acceptance – that motherhood is hard, and the odds are stacked against us, but even so, we are doing it, and doing it better with the support of other mothers.

“Fed is best” as an inadequate cover for women’s very real pain and struggle. It’s time to pull the plaster off, and tend to the wound. Motherhood isn’t about breast or bottle, it’s about human love and connection.