Unhappy Mothers

Judy Dunn

  • Babyshock edited by John Cobb
    Hutchinson, 255 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 09 140830 X
  • Infancy by Martin Richards
    Harper and Row, £4.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 06 318124 X
  • Childhood by Sheldon White and Barbara Notkin White
    Harper and Row, £4.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 06 318122 3

It is hardly a new discovery that becoming a parent is full of problems. In every society there have been at least some parents who have had a huge stake in the survival of at least some of their children. However high the mortality rates of pre-modern societies, we do not know of a time when parents did not often feel acute distress and anxiety over their children’s health. This is as true now for women in West Africa or India as it was in the houses of Augustus or Henry VIII. It must also have been true in all societies that some relationships between parents and children were of great emotional significance. It would be absurd to suggest that, in societies where the probabilities of illness and death were much higher than our own, the level of concern about illness can have characteristically been lower, yet much popular writing about parental attitudes and feelings in earlier societies appears to presuppose just this. Many today are eager to find discontinuities (over time or distance) in ideas of childhood, and in the consequent tone and character of emotional relationships between parents and children. No doubt there have been many such discontinuities over time (as there are, after all, between the attitudes of different groups and individuals in our society): but, incautiously pursued, the avid search for them readily leads, not to their discovery, but rather to their invention. Philippe Aries, for example, in Centuries of Childhood, cites Montaigne as evidence for the change in European conceptions of childhood before and after the 17th century. But the terms of Aries’s quotations make it clear that Montaigne himself was well aware that his attitudes on this question were far from universally shared: indeed, that they may well have inverted those which most of his contemporaries conventionally expressed. ‘I cannot abide,’ he wrote, ‘that passion for caressing newborn children, which have neither mental activities nor recognisable bodily shape by which to make them lovable, and I have never willingly suffered them to be fed in my presence.’

It is, however, indisputable that in the past fifty years there has been much more emphasis, on the part of doctors and psychologists, on the significance, for its subsequent development, of how each child is mothered in its early years. A new dimension of responsibility has been added to the burden of being a parent. Popular texts have poured out, matching the huge increase in research into early childhood. And in much of this writing, the message that how you relate to your baby really matters is coupled with a picture of motherhood as happy and placid fulfilment (a picture that hardly accords with what we might have learnt from Dolly, Natasha or Princess Maria). How has this deluge of advice and information affected people’s feelings about being parents? For many middle-class women, caught between the pressures towards autonomy in their own careers and the desire to raise their children in emotional security and intellectual vitality, the presentation of motherhood as a period of happy fulfilment, on the one hand, and crucial responsibility, on the other, has added significantly to the unanticipated anxieties and stresses of the real experience. Yet even blaming the ‘experts’ for the anxiety of being a parent is no novelty. Pozdnyshev in The Kreutzer Sonata was adamant that experts, and particularly doctors, with their endlessly changing rules and advice, were to blame for much of the torment of having children: ‘They have ruined my life as they have ruined and are ruining the lives of thousands and hundreds of thousands of human beings.’

What is new, and quite recent, is that books about young children now take into account the difficulties which mothers encounter: the anxiety, conflict and desperation which many mothers feel today, and which, it seems likely, their own mothers felt before them. It would, for example, have been scarcely conceivable ten or fifteen years ago for a professional psychologist to assert on his own authority, as Martin Richards does, that in England most babies are hit before the age of one. Richards’s book is an example of a new style of professional writing concerned to unite social realism with developmental understanding.

We are beginning to acquire firm evidence of the degree of misery involved. Two recent large-scale studies in London showed frighteningly high rates of depression in women living at home with young children, rates as high as 40 per cent among the working-class mothers. It seems unlikely that this rate of depression can be attributed to the pronouncements of psychologists. What it does reflect is the many grounds which the practical circumstances of these women’s lives offer for being depressed. There is every reason to suppose that what is now making it impossible for doctors to continue to ignore the difficulties of mothers is not only the articulate and insistent voice of the women’s movement, but the scale on which scientific research has documented the cost of the stress under which many mothers live.

Babyshock is launched by its publishers as a ‘survival guide’, ‘a companion through the crisis of early motherhood’. Its authors, a group of doctors, psychologists and journalists, naturally believe that there are common themes running through the changes and difficulties which young families experience, but they also recognise that many of their needs and problems will in practice be unique. (‘All families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’) What they attempt to do is to provide information on the basis of which we can make our decisions about how to cope with practical, physical and emotional problems in the way that best suits us as individuals. With pregnancy, delivery and the early months the authors manage extraordinarily well. Descriptions by mothers of their own responses to particular situations – comments which bring the joys and pains of these situations vividly before us – and brief but careful accounts of what is known from research are juxtaposed. It is a powerful combination. The scientific information is provided in a masterly fashion: readable, succinct, balanced and accurate. The responsibility for deciding how to cope is placed very firmly in the reader’s own hands, once she has been shown the choices which face her and the possibilities which are open to her. ‘There is only one imperative “do” and that is to make up your own mind.’ On some issues this seems rather hard on the mother. It is admirable, for example, that the inhumanity of many routine medical procedures should be so fully recognised in the discussion of variations in hospital practice. But when the pregnant woman is urged to find out what local hospitals are like and then to exercise her informed choice about how she is treated, and not to grumble afterwards, the advice scarcely shows a realistic grasp of the range of information readily available to many mothers, or of the social realities of class relations in antenatal clinics and labour wards.

The idea that ‘confidence depends on information’ is, of course, nonsense if taken literally. How would it help a mother who is in labour with twins to know that the perinatal mortality of twins is so high that one in nine second-born male twins is born dead? It is in deciding how and what to tell parents about the risks which they and their babies face, and the implications of what is happening to them, that the judgment and sensitivity of the professional is most exposed. The authors of Babyshock discharge a difficult task impressively.

Where the information is important and the practical lesson obvious, not only is the message given forcefully don’t smoke during pregnancy and this is why not – but there is sensible and helpful advice on how to put it into effect. A great deal of information about becoming a parent does not, however, have clear practical implications in advance of a particular individual’s experience, and since much of the information is pretty unreassuring (many women become acutely upset in the early weeks, many babies cry incessantly), it is not clear that it is necessarily a good idea for most people to be encouraged to inform themselves of every possible problem beforehand. What Babyshock provides is a source of information which can be used as a particular situation occurs, to discover what it may mean, and what can or should or must be done about it.

The discussion of what mothers feel about their babies in the early weeks illustrates particularly well the usefulness of their approach. For most mothers it may well be several weeks, or even months, before they feel deeply attached to their babies, yet many hospitals and doctors now presume dogmatically that ‘bonding’ happens between a mother and baby immediately after birth, and that ‘failure to bond’ spells inevitable trouble later on. The authors’ criticisms of the research from which this idea originally grew are acute, the quotations from mothers apposite and moving, and the recommendations sensible. It is a pity that a book which could help so many people who need help so urgently is likely in practice to reach only a limited audience. The tone in which it is written makes clear what kind of readership its authors anticipate. Advice to tired mothers includes the hint that cleaning the silver can be forgotten for the time being.

One striking disappointment, after the freshness with which the early weeks of parenthood are treated, is how quickly the conventional professional wisdom takes over. When the book turns to the lives of parents with slightly older children the tone changes markedly. Quotations from mothers themselves come to an end, and with them goes the sense of living with young children. Instead, there is a Spock-like account of how to cope with common problems, and the advice has a characteristically unrealistic pediatric ring. On the child who refuses to go to sleep: ‘After a few nights of protest, if he is sure you really mean it, he will give up moaning and begin to fall asleep at an earlier hour.’ For many children this is simply not true.

As childhood progresses, its difficulties increasingly elude the scope of medical authority. The question of how to raise and live with small children is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the question of how to live: ‘babyshock’ may be something about which doctors have real help to offer – lifeshock isn’t.

What is happening as children learn to talk, to think, to understand and enjoy the people around them, is extraordinarily exciting. A book about being a parent should surely manage to illuminate some of these changes, and confirm that, while it may be exhausting and dispiriting to live with a baby becoming a person, it is also astonishingly interesting. Here the Whites’ book has much more to offer than the other two. It is a little coy in style: ‘to estimate a child’s conceptions about himself ... nothing less than science plus poetry is needed.’ But it does succeed in showing, in an imaginative way, some of the dramatic changes in the way children feel and think about themselves and other people. Child psychologists do not know precisely when or how children begin to understand the emotions or intentions of others, and they are unlikely to make much progress in understanding these processes until they begin to collaborate more extensively with parents themselves.