Universal motherhood?

Some spam a few days ago offered me a free copy of ‘Baby Laughs: The Naked Truth About the First Year of Mommyhood’ by Jenny McCarthy. Other than the obvious points that I have no idea who this woman is and that I would be reluctant in principle to own any book containing the word ‘Mommyhood’ in the title, this did get me wondering how transferable the ‘truth’ about new motherhood is. There is a lot in the experiences of pregnancy and caring for babies/small children that does seem either universal or at least very common. Giving birth did make me feel that ‘woman’ is more than a cultural/social construct (though admittedly not all women give birth). And I did start to feel I had a new insight into high rates of infant mortality in historical times when I was having terrific struggles breastfeeding and L was not putting on much weight. Recently, I’ve also been reflecting that even the toddlers of hunter-gathers presumably have to be ‘toilet-trained’, in the sense of knowing when and where to urinate/defecate and the hygiene rituals/taboos around these acts, which don’t come naturally. More specifically, it seems to me that the real divide for modern women is between those that who are mothers and those who are childless/childfree and that this is now a far more significant life-cycle event than marriage for women. Similarly, Edward has discovered a whole new community of fatherhood as a topic of discussion that can unite the most disparate men; even those whose children are long grown up seemingly have etched into their brains some of the trials of babies.
On the other hand, while experiences and problems have a lot of commonality, solutions are immensely varied across cultures and times. What I was taught as best practice when weaning had already been superseded within a few months, while what our mother’s generation learnt about babycare seems archaic if not positively dangerous. One of the most frustrating things about being a middle-class mother, having had a professional career and with highly-developed ‘analytical skills’, is how there isn’t a best-practice with babies or toddlers that works consistently. Despite what books may suggest, babies aren’t consistent with each other or even internally consistent: what works one time or for some mother may for completely unfathomable reasons be unsuccessful in another situation. I sometimes felt that the only way to deal with L when she was crying persistently was to try in turn all the possible solutions and by a random process (or because she’d got fed up anyhow), she’d eventually stop. Equally, I would like to think that the reason L is so unfussy about what she eats (in contrast to many other toddlers and myself when young) is that I reared her just right. However, the fact that the daughter of a contemporary, (who I’m sure reared her child equally well), is an incredibly finicky eater suggests that I may just have been lucky. Maybe it’s this feeling of the randomness of success in child-rearing (and indeed in whether or not you have a good birth etc: NCT members I met, who are all for natural childbirth seem to have a disproportionately high rate of caesareans, while a wimp like me who was prepared to have all the painkillers I could get was lucky and got by on only gas and air), that makes the whole experience so difficult for the middle classes. We’re used to being in control of our lives and knowing what to do, or else being able to find out: it a blow to self-esteem at some level to realise (as I have done) that the carers at L’s nursery, who are not particularly well-educated and whose literacy and spelling is often fairly shaky, are nevertheless far more competent, patient and long-suffering when it comes to dealing with a grizzly baby or stroppy toddler. It was all be so easy if only middle-class babies had read the same earnest books that middle-class mothers do, rather than being the clueless bunch they clearly are!

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