Unsheltered: about mothers and daughters (and mothers who are daughters) and a mother-daughter-conversation every mother and daughter dreams about, about independent, pioneering researchers and class and/or gender inequality, about neoliberalism and capitalism and destruction of the world, about human effort and failure, about finding out how ‘doing the best one can’ is always permeated by social standards which time or the next generation may reveal as false, and about feeling and being socially and materially unsheltered. I love this book.
After my previous enthusiastic thoughts on Rachel Cusk’s classic ‘A life’s work’ (2001) I was alarmed when I heard that she had received many negative responses to her book. I had considered it This is what I found: her own reaction to the responses to her honesty. I was both thrilled to read more about the book’s and the writer’s context and amazed (how naive!) at the mother-bashing. Cusk’s liberating honesty clearly does not have a place in the frameworks that dominate our culture. What a shame. And what a pressure on mothers.
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.
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.