One of many examples of how women who recently gave birth are not receiving support, neither given recognition nor adequate care, left by themselves in this entire new and very vulnerable state, as other tasks, roles and positions have higher priority in the way that Western society is organized. This is mean in itself, as stated in this article, but it is also mean how an apparant and most expensive solution is quickly given entrance into the market: a new drug. This article speaks of the US, but postpartum depression is not only underrecognized there. Alternatives from which women around the globe would benefit include TLC, personal support, longer leave, flexibility and suitable accommodations for breast-feeding when a mother returns to work. Cheaper, more substantial. However, it takes a different kind of world, one that puts care central.
Recently I had the honor to meet Israeli mother and artist Shira Richter. We immediately connected as mothers of twins. In our research network ‘concerning maternity’ she showed many of her works which are artistic interpretions and expressions of the many aspects concerned in mothering: the bodily marks after pregnancy, the pacifying effect of pacifiers and baby bottle teats, the not so helpful comments and advice offered by others. Admire her work and read this interview and this interview.
She is also an activist in a country where becoming a mother means producing a soldier for its defense. She showed an image of a fetus making a military salute and wearing a military baret. It was from an advertisement from an Israeli maternity hospital (that appears in this YouTube video). A shocking social imaginary. In this militarized context, maternity means something else than in a peaceful context like my own, and it came as a shock to me to learn this.
Reading with much interest The Guardian‘s review of ‘Mother’ by Sarah Knott, written by Laura Feigel (also an author I must look up). Knott stands in the tradition of Rachel Cusk and others, describing mother’s experiences in the months preceding and following giving birth. But Knott adds something special: historical research into these experiences, as far as she can find it. That is interesting! She shows how these experiences have changed yet can be communal over time. For even though mothers have lived in quite different circumstances, many aspects of ‘being a mother’ are similar. This comparison sheds a clarifying light on our present culture, in which the working and mothering culture are quite separated and not supposed to have an impact on each other. Knott concludes with a plea that we need to join forces as mothers to make space for caring and create a culture of interruption, where caring is allowed to have priority,, and on the other hand mothers neither need not be totally involved in caring but are allowed to have their attention interrupted too. I quote Feigel’s review:
At the end, she asks herself if she has a political vision for motherhood and suggests “a defence of caring under late capitalism”. She doesn’t expand on this, but I found that there was a cumulative political force in the argument she makes for valuing interruption, given that it is the rhythm of so many of our lives. This means no longer privileging the kind of working culture that assumes that our children must be excluded, or the kind of mothering culture that assumes that our children must be the centre of our thoughts during every hour they’re in our company.
Matrescence is the term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973 for the fundamental changes women go through when becoming mothers. She compares it to the other, common, and well described transition to adulthood: adolescence. In this Ted talk reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks reinvigorates this term for her own practice. She tells that postpartum women are calling her, saying that motherhood ‘isn’t supposed to feel like this’. They feel discomfort and wonder whether they have a disease. ‘Matrescence’ to her is helpful to describe the transition to motherhood, e.g. the normality of it. It is amazing how little we know about it in common life as well as in academia.
The same amazement is expressed in this Dutch TV-show by brain researcher Elseline Hoekzema, neuro endocrinologist Peter Bos and pedagogue Marian Bakermans, who researched both mothers’ and fathers’ reaction to becoming a parent. At delivery women do have a head start to fathers because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Their brains show substantial differences that remain for two years, and never disappear completely. However, if fathers are (substantially) involved in babycare, they can easily catch up in becoming attentive, responsive parents. This is not what a few days of father’s leave can help accomplish, I think.
Interesting: women who are mothers are still quite ‘terra incognita’ for research, and what traditionally has been reduced to a gender or hormonal difference can now be refuted: it is an involvement in practices of care that makes the difference.
Reading this article by Amy Westervelt with much appreciation and acknowledgment. She is so right. Not only mothers, but also women without children, and society as a whole deserve that motherhood is better understood from a feminist perspective. And from philosophy and ethics as a whole, for that matter. This is what our research project aims for: understanding what motherhood is about and seeking to complement theories and practices with an elaborate ethical and existential body of knowledge on maternity.
There are many sources that we can draw upon, this in itself is a journey full of discoveries. Looking forward to continue building a network of researchers and maternity care professionals, as well as feminists, to work on this unfinished task.
With great interest I have read this study by Elizabeth Newnham and Mavis Kirkham who develop a care ethical outlook on midwifery as adequate alternative to bioethical and medical emphasis on respect for autonomy. The authors argue convincingly that the concept of autonomy is as such inadequate in ethical questions in midwifery care. Not only is a relational instead of an individualistic view required, as the pregnant woman is two-in-one, also autonomy does not represent the actual obstetric practice that already focuses on the unborn and is not free from paternalism. Hence attention and arguments for autonomy in everyday midwifery practice seem to be primarily rhetorical. An adequate alternative, the authors claim, is care ethics as it uncovers power relations (instead of covering them up) and focuses on concrete relational practices rather than abstract principles. A view that importantly underpins our research.
Click here to read the article that I recently co-authored with colleague Merel Visse on responsibility in care. We believe that care ethics offers various important critical views on caring responsibility that mutually complement each other. However, by drawing upon the phenomenology of Jean-Luc Marion we believe these views can still be complemented by looking more at the passive, fragile, decentring aspect of responsibility. If we take it more literally, as being a response, it comes second to something else, to something that has preceded it and to which it responds. Responsibility might be less a one-person-task, a personal assignment, an individual burden, if we look at it this way.
Reading this book is a fun and enlightening experience of recognition as well as astonishment. Cusk is a masterfully reflective, funny, sharp, and affecting analyzer of the lived experience of becoming a mother. It is both in similarity and in contrasts that stories like these are clarifying one’s own experience, carving out space for new understandings, and helpful in finding words for the transition into motherhood. Cusk’s own experiences and choices, e.g. how she objects to ‘routine medical procedures’ and experiences the first days after caesarian section as unreal, offer a mirror for mothers and all parents. Here is an adequate illuminative quote:
Full-time paid childcare was what I, with the blithe unsentimentality of the childless, once believed to be the solution to the conundrum of work and motherhood. In those days fairness seemed to me to be everything. I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed. Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them. To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.
An honest story about how parenting involves change, transformation, loss as well as gain, for both parents, and requires partners (and society) to support new mothers. A father tells about the effects of new parenthood, how he thought he did everything necessary, but only when taking a closer look, saw also what his wife went through in becoming a mother. Too often people do not realize this, pay no attention, do not listen. This father did.
Reading and studying Barbara Duden’s book is both a thrilling and shocking experience. She writes on the disembodiment of pregnancy, i.e. how pregnancy became a concept that can be thought of – even by pregnant women themselves – without including a woman’s body. Even after 25 years it has lost nothing of its relevance, considered in the light of many recent developments.
In this extended essay I want to call attention to the profound consequences, for women and for society, that accompany this public [Pro Life, IvN] dispute. Politicians and jurists, theologians and physicians are engaged in a major effort of social creation whose object is “life.” As a result of this effort, a new idea has become universally accepted: just as the Blue Planet – “seen” from space – is the environment of all life, so woman is the environment of new life. Almost overnight, these beliefs have become growth industries for new professional establishments, from ecological systems engineers to bioethicists, to manage. Concurrently, the term life (and a life) has become an idol, and controversy has attached a halo to this idol that precludes its dispassionate use in ordinary discourse. This book deals with the history of this idol – the history of life not as an object but as a notion. I want to examine the conditions under which a new discourse has transformed pregnancy into a process to be managed, the expected child into a fetus, the mother into an ecosystem, the unborn into a life, and life into a supreme value. (Duden, 1993, p.2)