5 Making sense of early mothering experiences

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I think I kind of expected to be more in control of the situation and I

wasn’t really at all. In fact I just didn’t know what to do, it was all

completely new to me and I felt very kind of overwhelmed by the whole

experience. (Philippa, interviewed seven weeks after the birth of her first child)

The subjective experience of being a mother, in contrast to anticipating

motherhood, can throw lives into temporary confusion. As noted earlier,

transformations in patterns of living and changes in the timing and

frequency of childbearing have implications for constructions of motherhood

in late modernity. In the Western world, changes in family size and

ways of living mean that many women come to motherhood with little or

no first-hand experience of its dimensions. At the same time, geographical

mobility and more women working outside the home translates into

traditional patterns of family support not necessarily being readily available.

In this chapter, the ways in which new mothers make sense of their

early mothering experiences are explored through the narratives they

construct. These continue to draw on recognisable cultural notions of

right ways of doing and being. Presenting a self as a responsible mother

involves self-governance around what can and cannot be voiced. As noted

in the previous chapter, the narratives produced in the antenatal period

were tentative, drawing on essentialist ideas of women’s natural capacity

to give birth and instinctively cope, whilst at the same time acting responsibly,

through interactions with experts and expert practices. However,

experiences which do not fit with expectations can be difficult to cope

with and lead women to question their own abilities as women. For if

childbearing and mothering practices are natural and instinctive, as the

antenatal narratives suggest, then how do women make sense of subjective

experiences which are found to be counter to these essentialist ideas?

As will become clear as we continue to follow the women through their

journeys into motherhood, the need to produce recognisable accounts of

early mothering and to be seen to ‘do the right thing’ can become paramount

at this stage in the journey. The women at times struggle to

produce narratives that resonate with what they take to be ‘normal’

responses to becoming a mother, demonstrating to those around them

that they are coping and in control. Now the responsibility for a dependent

child becomes a reality. It is something that must be performed and

managed and ultimately evaluated, within both the private sphere of the

home and the potentially more risky public sphere outside the home.

In this chapter the women’s accounts are once again prioritised as we

engage with fleshy, embodied experiences of birth and the early weeks of

‘mothering’ at home. The theoretical focus remains implicit as the chapter

continues to map the ways in which selves are constituted, maintained and

presented through narratives of compliance and resistance. This occurs

against a backdrop of competing lay and professional time-frames. The

birth of a child can be seen to provide a narrative ‘turning point’.

Crucially, anticipation becomes experience, but the context in which

narratives are constructed must be continually acknowledged (Frank,

1995). It ha s been sugge st ed that motherhood provides ‘an o pportunity

for re ne wed narrative moveme nt par excellence ’ (Bailey, 1999:351)

and whilst at one level this is indeed the case, such claims fail to take

account of the difficulty of voicing what are perceived to be different or

abnormal experiences. The narratives constructed during this period

are more complex than those constructed in the antenatal period.

Expectations can be narrated by drawing on culturally recognisable

and socially acceptable ways of preparing to become a mother. But

experiences may be more difficult to place, and indeed to voice, in

relation to the available repertoire of birth and mothering stories.

Many of the women produced their stories within the context of asserting

that they were ‘now feeling better’, ‘now able to cope’. Lived experience,

in contrast to anticipation, which of course also involves physical,

embodied changes, provides a significant ontological shift in the ways in

which becoming a mother and motherhood can be narrated.

The birth

The early postnatal narratives centred on the overriding sense that the

birth had not been as the women had thought it would be. They felt, on

reflection, that the experts had not prepared them adequately or in appropriate

ways. Yet it was not just the experts who had concealed what giving

birth might actually be like. The conspiracy of silence which some now felt

had surrounded their preparation involved both health professionals and

friends and family members. In the following extract, Faye relates a

conversation with her sister-in-law, who is expecting her second child:

I said to her when Emily . . . the day Emily was born, I said, what the hell are you

going through that again for? And she hadn’t told me.

I too was seen to have been complicit in this silence, as one participant

said to me, ‘to be honest, even you didn’t tell me what it would be like’

(Felicity). The following lengthy extracts are included to both challenge

the conspiracy of silence and profoundly illustrate the contrast between

expectations and experiences:

So everything I’d planned went completely wrong . . . The pushing bit was absolutely

the worst thing that I have ever experienced in my entire life because it was

three or four different sensations to me all at once . . . I had an epidural which

I didn’t want beforehand but at that stage I would have done anything because

I was convinced I was going to die, literally. (Felicity)

Eventually Felicity has a forceps delivery:

. . . awful, it was the most . . . it’s the worst thing that I’ve ever had to go through.

I just felt completely violated . . . I just can’t believe that for somebody who’s

usually so healthy and doesn’t have any tablets, or anything, that I’ve had all this

medication and medical intervention over what’s supposed to be a natural

event . . . I thought I’d give birth naturally, quite easily because everybody said

you’ve got childbearing hips . . . so it’s turned out completely wrong for me.

Similar accounts of expectations and plans being abandoned and control

handed over to/taken over by the experts were narrated by other women:

So then, you see, they threatened me with forceps, but once I was threatened with

forceps I suppose I pushed harder, and out she popped . . . but I thought my birth

was going to be easy. I don’t know why, I just thought that . . . I expected a sort of

four-hour labour, I didn’t really expect stitches or anything like that. I thought . . .

I just thought my body would be very good at that, and it wasn’t . . . I think I did

lose control. On the gas and air, I had quite a lot of gas and air because I was just

on it for so long. (Gillian)

. . . and after about two hours I was just in agony and I couldn’t stand it

anymore . . . I thought about it [requesting pain relief] at one stage, that was

when it was nearly all over, so I thought well, I’ve gone this far, I don’t really

need to bother . . . but it was pretty horrendous, mind you . . . You can’t really

explain the pain of it . . . I mean it’s horrendous, but . . . (Faye)

. . . and I said, oh, you know, I’ve got this twinge . . . if this is what it is, then this is

fine because this doesn’t hurt at all! I can cope with this! But then they started

getting stronger and stronger . . . So I just tried to carry on and have a bath and

walk about a bit and that kind of thing, but by about 2 o’clock in the morning, they

were really getting quite painful, more so than I thought they would be, because

having done yoga and everybody saying how fit and healthy I was, I thought oh

well, this is going to be a cinch, it will probably be all right, I’ll just keep the

breathing up, but it really, really hurt, I thought, so I was getting slightly panicky,

thinking oh goodness me, I’m not really doing very well . . . Because people had

said if you keep the breathing it’s bearable – well, it was bearable because I bore it,

but . . . So I was there thinking, this is so painful, I’m surely going to have to have a

caesarian or forceps or something like this, surely it can’t be this painful . . . I think

if I’d have just known that I was having a normal delivery but it was painful, I think

that’s what I would have liked to have known. (Rebecca)

I wanted to have a water birth originally and because I was induced I couldn’t,

that’s why I was stuck on this bed. And I had like . . . I had everything in the end,

I had an epidural . . . I knew that . . . you know . . . originally they examined me

and they said you’re only three centimetres, you can’t have an epidural yet, and I

was absolutely desperate . . . and they made me hang on for another two hours,

and I was like . . . I just thought I was going to die. (Clare)

I was admitted and I wanted to . . . I didn’t want to have the baby in the water bath

but I wanted to spend as much time in the water bath as possible. But by midnight

I was getting really tired with the gas and air and I just said ‘I’m sorry, I need an

epidural’ because by that time I’d been going almost twenty-four hours . . . And

then the anaesthetist or the doctor who was going to do the epidural took . . . he

was doing something else and he took an hour and a half, and that was the worst

bit, waiting for him . . . It was a long time and I remember being in absolute

agony . . . he was absolutely stuck fast, and after pushing for an hour and ten

minutes they called in the doctor and they got . . . they turned him with a venteuse

and then gave me an episiotomy and forceps delivery. So he was born at 9.03 on the

Saturday . . . I sort of felt in a way that I’d failed by having to go for an epidural but

I just knew that I couldn’t go on any more . . . I’d been to all these sort of aquanatal

classes and everybody said that going sort of swimming helped . . . helped the

pregnancy. And I just . . . I just thought, you know, I’m really fit. (Kathryn)

I mean I think secretly I sort of thought I’m quite strong, I’m quite resilient,

I’m quite fit, I should be able to get through this really. I mean I didn’t

really . . . I don’t think I ever really said that to anybody but I think that was

kind of how I felt about myself, I sort of thought I’d never . . . I thought I dealt

with pain – could deal with pain – quite well. But it was just beyond anything

that I kind of could deal with, really. It was certainly much more agonising than

I expected, and even now I can’t remember how agonising it was, which is the

funny thing, you sort of forget it, and I’m kind of tempted if people say, how was

your labour, I just say oh all right, and I think it wasn’t actually at all, and you

know I have to say . . . if anyone says to me . . . you know if you catch me saying

it’s not that bad, remind me that it is. (Philippa)

I just want an epidural, I thought this is it, I can’t cope with this, this is

ridiculous, in fact give me a caesarian, just knock me out . . . I didn’t scream in

hospital because I was more sort of . . . I felt I had to like try and control myself.


At a later stage in the interview, Diana comments:

. . . and knowing afterwards I thought, well, you know, I wish I’d realised, I would

have maybe felt a bit more in control, because as it was I felt completely out of


Clearly, the women had thought their bodies would be able to cope

because they were ‘healthy’, had ‘done yoga’ and ‘aqua-natal classes’. In

contrast to their antenatal narratives of preparation in which some

had voiced the possibility of medical assistance, we now see that they

had not actually seen themselves as women who would need medical

help: ‘I just thought my body would be very good at that’, ‘somebody

who’s usually so healthy and doesn’t have any tablets’. Relinquishing

to medical intervention involved mixed feelings for the women, but the

most palpable were of gratitude and defeat: ‘I’m sorry, I need an

epidural’. As Felicity says, ‘it’s an odd mixture of being between relief

and resentment of the medical profession’. The tentative voicing,

antenatally, of choice around different forms of pain relief enabling

control to be retained, is not realised during the birth. Most of the

women spoke of handing over or succumbing at some point during

their labour to the experts:

Yes, well, because they were worried about her, although she showed no signs of

distress at any point, but meconium in the waters means you’ve got to have what

they say which is . . . the drip . . . well, I don’t know if . . . much choice. But by

that time I was thinking, I want her out and whatever you think is best and get on

with it. (Gillian)

And I was desperately trying to breathe in and that, and I just couldn’t, lost it

totally. And I had the epidural, told the anaesthetist he was God . . . Because I

tried gas and air, revolting, disgusting, let’s throw up, it was obscenely revolting.

And the TENS machine was well, a total waste of time, I think, but it felt as if you

were in control, and so I had no pain relief at all basically, other than the epidural

when I eventually succumbed. (Abigail)

When he [the consultant] said to me I think we should do such and such, and

I just said yes, whatever, you know best. I just took . . . gave it totally over to

him . . . I knew that I would just want somebody to take control and take over

from me. (Sheila)

Yet even requesting or accepting some form of medical intervention did

not have to mean that all aspects of control were lost or handed over. As

the earlier extract from Diana shows, she requested a range of forms of

pain relief, yet didn’t allow herself to scream in hospital because ‘I felt

I had to like try and control myself’. Yet both the complexities of narratives

and cultural dimensions of birthing behaviours are clear here and

later when she talks of feeling ‘completely out of control’. Aspects of

control, then, are either seen to have been ‘lost’, ‘taken over’ or given

over and/or retained during parts of the birth, in contrast to what had

been anticipat ed (see chapt er 4). The women reflect on their ante natal

preparation and the failure of experts and others to prepare them for what

birth might really be like. But as the following extracts show, they are able

to acknowledge the difficulty of doing this:

Yes, I suppose looking back on the ante-natal care, it was as good as I suppose it

could be, given the fact that the midwife who was leading it had no idea basically of

what we were all going to go through. She knew the kind of experiences that can be

gone through. (Rebecca)

I just think they could do with being a bit more realistic without frightening you,

you know, because I know that they don’t want to tell you what it’s really like

because it can sound quite terrifying if you try to say, you know, the pain is like

indescribable and it is, but you forget, you do forget, I know that it was horrible

but I can’t really remember how horrible. (Diana)

Everybody was saying that they don’t tell you enough about the birth and what it’s

like. (Faye)

Engagement with experts and expert bodies of knowledge characterised

the antenatal period and the procedures involved in labour and birth. Yet

resistance rather than engagement characterises the accounts of two

women who exceed their ‘due dates’ and come under pressure to have

the birth induced. However, although they initially adopt strategies that

question and resist expert practices, eventually they succumb as choices

apparently run out. Antenatally, Helen had spoken of her belief that ‘our

bodies were geared and made in a certain way that we can give birth

naturally’ and so when her pregnancy reaches forty-two weeks it is not a

surprise that she actively resists medical induction:

And it went on and on and on and basically she was . . . she was at forty-two weeks

and they had booked me in at this time to actually come in and be induced, but

I was . . . had quite a strong opinion on the fact that I really wanted it to be

spontaneous. I felt as though that we’d waited nine months and she was going

to come, you know, when she’s ready as long as I wasn’t putting her at any sort of

risk at all, so I’d spoken to the consultant sort of like at forty-two weeks and he

said, well, you’ve got enough fluid around the baby and the placenta’s still

healthy, come in on a daily basis . . . so anyway we went to three weeks over . . .

Although she had been ‘booked in’ to be induced, she challenges this and

proceeds to await a spontaneous start of labour. Helen’s resistance is

bound up with her strong beliefs and earlier assertions of birth being a

natural process, for to resist expert knowledge within the medical arena

could be seen as involving risk. Helen speaks to the consultant and

negotiates her way around induction by agreeing to visit the hospital on

a daily basis to be monitored. Philippa can also be seen to resist and

indeed challenge the basis of expert knowledge. At almost forty-three

weeks pregnant she finally gives birth but only after a verbal struggle with

the experts, whose knowledge is increasingly questioned. They are unable

to provide a satisfactory reason as to why Philippa should have a caesarian.

At forty-two weeks pregnant Philippa is booked in to have her labour

induced, but the attempts to get her labour started do not work:

So they said, come . . . well, no actually, what happened, the registrar said, well we

could go to the consultant or whatever and they said have a caesarian this evening,

which I was just, like why? Tell me why I have to have a caesarian, you

know . . . I mean we sort of tried to work out why. We were just . . . the only

thing I could think of is that they kind of . . . they have . . . they booked . . . you’re

booked in to have a baby on that date and if you don’t have it . . . one means or

another! And the registrar seemed to disagree. I mean, I said is this normal policy

or whatever or is this what you normally do and he said, well, I’ve never really

come across this before and I’ve never used this method of induction before, I’m

just doing what your consultant says and all this sort of thing, so it was a bit . . . I

just felt a bit kind of removed from the person making the decision and yes, it was

all . . . and no one could tell me why I had to have it, they said well, you’re fine and

the baby’s fine and why couldn’t we just leave it and that’ll be it. And they said,

well . . . well, basically they said stay in overnight and see how you feel in the

morning, but we would recommend you have a caesarian tomorrow morning.

And I was just really unhappy about it. I mean had the baby been in any danger or

had I been ill or anything I think I would . . . it would have been fine to have a

caesarian. I didn’t really mind in a way, but I just thought why do I have to have

what is fairly major surgery, you know, and I knew it would take me longer to

recover from it as well. I also wanted, you know, wanted the opportunity to do it

myself naturally.

Both women are driven by their belief that birth is a natural process that

they and their bodies should be able to achieve at the appropriate time,

without medical intervention. These beliefs are, however, tempered with

acknowledging that elements of risk must also be considered. The apparently

arbitrary basis on which expert knowledge was being used to make

decisions was challenged by Philippa: ‘no one could tell me why’; the

registrar said, ‘I’m just doing what your consultant says’. The hierarchical

nature of expert knowledge is also illustrated in Philippa’s account, where

the registrar admits that he is deferring to the consultant, and some of the

midwives applaud her resistant stance:

I mean, a few of the midwives sort of said, good for . . . you know, good for you.

Both women eventually give birth; Philippa avoids a caesarian birth,

unlike Helen. Helen’s beliefs in her own ability to give birth ‘normally’

and ‘naturally’ are retrospectively made sense of in relation to her

mother’s and sister’s experiences:

You know, I suppose that you always look at your sister and your . . . your family

and your mother and . . . you know, never had any problem whatsoever, always

had normal . . . you know normal labour and normal childbirth, to the point

where you know, ignorantly I had never . . . you know all the books and everything,

I think that I was quite well read through the pregnancy, but whenever I got

to the part about the caesarian I flicked over it because I thought, well, it wasn’t

going to happen to me.

Having resisted medical intervention, Helen talks about finally having a

‘medically run labour’:

So at this point I knew that it was going to be a medically run labour, because they’d

said, you know, the only thing that we can really do is . . . is start you off on the drip,

give you an epidural and take it from there, all the things that I said that I didn’t

want I ended up having. There was me ready with my aromatherapy oils and TENS

machine and . . . because I knew that everything was pointing towards a caesarian

. . . they had taken control . . . But in fact I don’t feel disappointed about it in

any way, I suppose because it was taken out of my hands. I wasn’t allowed to be in

control. The time that I was in control I did everything that I possibly could

and . . . so I wasn’t allowed to be in control. I suppose once they started me on a

medically induced labour, it was . . . it was over to them at that point . . . I mean

they had really taken control sort of fromthe timethat they gave meor administered

the first epidural and I knew that it really wasn’t down to me at that time,

and . . . But it was quite anemotional time . . . because thingsweren’t going to plan.

Helen weaves a complex plot, voicing her hopes and expectations for

‘a natural birth’, and her experiences, which involved an ‘emotional

time’, but which at the same time she says she doesn’t ‘feel disappointed

about . . . in any way’. The taking over of control is acknowledged, but in

the light of Helen having done all she possibly could and then not being

‘allowed’ to be in control. Yet interestingly, Helen, having reflected and

produced a narrative of becoming a mother which contains elements of

resistance, reverts to a more culturally recognisable way of talking when

she comments on the birth weight of her baby:

They weighed her and found out she was 8.11 [lbs] which is quite nice . . . Well,

she was forty-three weeks so . . . I know, be grateful for small mercies, I think. Yes,

and to be perfectly honest with you it really has been plain sailing since then. That

day was very up and down, very emotional, it was like a . . . you know, a whole

story, you know, from start to finish, but since then it’s all been . . . it’s been


The notion of a ‘whole story’, implying that this episode is now finished, is

interesting; so too is the implication that she got something right by giving

birth to a large baby: ‘be grateful for small mercies’. Helen can reveal her

unanticipated birth story in the context of the assertion that ‘it really has

been plain sailing since then’ and ‘since then it’s all been . . . it’s been

fabulous’. The tensions and layers beneath the ‘fabulous’ time she is

claiming to currently be enjoying are only revealed in her final interview

and the end-of- study questio nnaire (se e chapter 6). It is only when her

baby is nine months old, when she is again interviewed, that the struggles

and difficulties she is encountering during this interview – to produce a

‘coherent’ and acceptable account of new mothering – can be voiced.

Hospital to home

The women spent varying lengths of time in the hospital following the

birth, from a matter of hours to a week. The interests of the medical

profession shift swiftly following the birth: the baby or other expectant

mothers on the wards were now the focus of the medical gaze. As Felicity


[They] don’t give a damn . . . so I think in a way I feel as if they were completely

obsessed by me and my body beforehand. Now they don’t care. It’s almost as

if . . . you know . . . now I’m not an incubator, then I’ve just got to get on with it,


The women were now mothers. They were expected to naturally know

how to mother and elements of the antenatal narratives suggested that the

women shared this expectation. Professional practices involved more

limited engagement following a successful birth, childrearing being a

largely private activity and responsibility in the West. Yet the following

lengthy extracts illustrate both the scale of the changes which women can

experience around the time of the birth and the competing perceptions

amongst those involved. Wendy is in hospital to have an elective caesarian.

She is expecting twins following successful IVF treatment:

I had baby blues in hospital . . . I stayed in there for a week . . . .Well, they told me

that I could go home on the Friday. I had them on the Monday and they said

I could go home on the Friday. But I said, no I’m staying, and they let me stay and

said I could stay for a bit longer if I wanted to. They were saying about this mother

and baby place I could go to, in Taybury or Norbury? Because they said we should

have been counselled, because they were IVF babies, but we never had anything.

Because you just go in and you think, oh my God, I’m having these two babies

tomorrow and they’re just there and you think, God, what do I do? You just have

to know it all. I don’t think they’ve got much time for you up there because I was

trying to breastfeed Alex and I used to ring them to help me to fix him on and that,

and it used to take them ten minutes to come along. Fifteen minutes and you

think, I can’t cope with this and I just used to give him a bottle. I had to beg them

one night to take them off me for one night and the next night I thought, well, I’m

not going to ask them again because you just think, do they really want them? It’s

really bad. They kept saying it was part of postnatal depression, but it wasn’t.

They sent a psychiatric woman in to see me and she said, do you feel suicidal? and

I said no. I was on the seventh floor. I said if I did I’d be jumping out that window

by now. We went in on the Sunday and that’s all they kept talking about, because

I was quite tearful anyway when we went in and she kept saying I’ve got to tell you

about postnatal depression, and I said I haven’t got it. I’m just teary because I’m in

here and I’m going to give birth in the next twenty-four hours . . . I wasn’t the only

one up there crying. There was quite a few of us. It was weird though, having these

two babies just lying there and thinking, God, what do I do.

Wendy’s sense of not having been properly prepared, ‘because they said

we should have been counselled, because they were IVF babies, but we

never had anything’, and being unsupported once the babies were born,

‘well, I’m not going to ask them again because you just think, do they

really want them?’ is profoundly felt and voiced. But she was not alone in

feeling ‘teary’, ‘I wasn’t the only one up there crying. There was quite a

few of us.’ Wendy rejects the diagnosis of postnatal depression and the

need for a ‘psychiatric woman’, rather she makes sense of her own feelings,

like those of many women, within the context of the scale of what she

is going through and the associated responsibilities, ‘and they’re just there

and you think, God, what do I do?’. Felicity also talks of her experiences

in hospital following the birth of her baby. Her (lack of) interactions with

the staff only serve to reinforce her sense of personal failure and isolation

following a birth that required medical intervention:

In the hospital – I mean this is another thing about the isolating experiences – they

stuck me in a ward with four beds in it and I was the only one there. So I’d had this

horrible experience and then I was stuck in this room on my own and I just felt as if

I was the only person in the entire world and nobody wanted to know me. It was

awful. And they kept doing things like forgetting to bring my meals because I was

the only one that . . . ‘oh we didn’t know anyone was in there’. So of course there

was just floods of tears: ‘I’m not even worthy of them bringing me a cup of tea’.

The shift from hospital to home marks both the beginning of a return to

‘normal’ and the gradual disengagement of medical and health professionals.

Felicity describes trying to convince the hospital staff that she

could cope in her bid to be allowed home, ‘you know, I have to show them

that I’m fit to go home with this child’. In the West the different localities

of hospital and home represent different public and private spheres: the

hospital, in which experts are seen to largely have control and manage

childbirth, and the home, where mothering naturally occurs and the

private responsibility for childcare is undertaken. Yet for the women in

the study being at home with a new baby was not experienced as natural

and the sense of not knowing what to do was profound. Describing the

early days at home with her new baby Philippa says:

I just wanted to go back to hospital actually the whole time . . . after being home

for a couple of days, I thought I just wanted to go back, I want someone else to be

in control.

During the early postnatal period in the UK, midwives continue to be

responsible for mothers until ten days after the birth, at which point the

health visitor takes over and makes home visits, which are targeted

according to professional judgements of coping. In many ways antenatal

interactions prepare women (sometimes inadequately) for the birth of a

baby, but not for coping with being a mother. For many women, mothering

does not come naturally and the early days at home are a confusing

and challenging time, as the following extracts reveal:

I’m thinking, ‘oh my God, it’s a baby, oh God, oh my God . . . mum’s changed its

nappy’ and I’m just looking at it thinking ‘oh God’. (Sarah)

I think I have a right to feel upset and tearful because of, you know, the experience

. . . the enormity of it, I think that’s what made me cry in the first place.


Yet although most of the participants found the early days at home a

challenging time, Peggy did not. In the extract below she places her own

experiences in context:

It’s just like when you get a new dog or a cat or something and you know, settling it

in . . . It doesn’t sound very good, does it? It doesn’t sound very maternal, but . . .

What is interesting here is not the apparent ease with which Peggy has

settled her new baby in, but her recognition that comparing the settling in

of her new baby to previous experiences with her dog and cat, does not

‘sound very good’ or ‘very maternal’. Here Peggy acknowledges that there

are publicly acceptable ways of narrating experiences of becoming a

mother, and this description may not be perceived as ‘very good’. Of

interest too, and showing the complexities and contradictions in

accounts, is Peggy’s earlier comment:

[Antenatal classes] didn’t really prepare you for actually what you’d got to do

when you’d got the baby. Which wasn’t really much use because you just wanted

to be told, you know.

The relationship between the experts and the mothers shifted as they

moved from the hospital to home, with different frames of reference being

used. For example, the women still felt they needed expert guidance and

someone to share the responsibility with and, at times, take control, whilst

professional practices involved limited home visits. The women felt confused

by this new twist in the relationship, as the following extracts show:

I must admit that one thing I didn’t like was that because my emotions were all

over the place and I’m a very organised person, I found that it was very difficult for

me to get my head round who was supposed to be in charge of me, who I was

supposed to ring up and all the rest of it . . . and I was under the impression that she

 [the midwife] was going to keep coming for ten days, and after the second day she

said, you’re fine, I won’t come anymore. And I have felt a bit abandoned really, and

she knew that I was feeling quite emotionally tender, so I think perhaps that could

have been dealt with a bit better . . . and I did feel a bit abandoned . . . the midwife

just dropped me after two days, saying that I was fine, the baby was fine and

everything was all right. But I didn’t feel emotionally all right. (Rebecca)

And I’ve found the whole way through that they’re fairly reactive but then that’s

OK, once you get used to it. I think I went . . . I kind of had the attitude . . . or felt

that everything should be a bit more black and white than it actually is and that

people would actually tell me what to do, and I’ve found . . . I mean even in

hospital no one told me how to sort of bath the baby, for example. I had to, you

know, say how do you do . . . how do I do this? And they said gosh, hasn’t she been

bathed for two days, you know, or whatever? Well no one’s shown me, no-one’s

given me a bath or whatever, I don’t know. And I think emotionally as well, I mean

they were quite supportive. The occasion when I’d seen the midwife one day and

everything was fine and then she said right, I won’t come tomorrow if that’s all

right . . . have a day off, and I called her and said come round, because we’d had

like this sort of twelve, I think twelve hours feeding almost continuously right

through the night, and I just didn’t . . . I mean I didn’t know what I was doing

wrong, whether it was just she wasn’t getting enough or whether she just wanted

the comfort or whatever. And she was great because she sort of came round and

she actually put me to bed and latched the baby on and made me a sandwich

. . . and I felt quite depressed about, you know, ‘oh my God, what have

I done’, because she [the baby] was obviously taking up all my time and all [my

husband’s] time as well and we were both like ‘what have we done to our lives?’

We quite liked our life before and we were just never going to know . . . we just

couldn’t imagine ever being beyond this kind of twenty-four-hour baby care.


The sense of wanting to know ‘who was supposed to be in charge of me’,

illustrates the dependent relationship which has developed through a

protracted period of antenatal preparation and support. Ironically, it is

these early postnatal days that the women identify as being when they

most need emotional and practical support. During these early days they

are struggling to make sense of the scale of the changes that have

occurred, in a context that has changed much since their own mothers

or grandmothers gave birth. Finding that experiences of early mothering

do not resonate with expectations has implications for the ways in which

narratives are produced. Timing is also important, and self-governance

leads women to voice difficult experiences within the context of ‘now

feeling able to cope’, or ‘things now being better’. Voicing experiences

of not coping is perceived as too risky. Because mothering is largely

taken to be a natural ability, to admit to ‘failure’, to not coping, is to

risk incurring moral sanction and a questioning of one’s capacity as a

woman. The content of the womens’ narratives produced at this time

serves to confirm that, if they have experienced some earlier difficulties,

they are now coping. Clearly, the temporal ordering of events is important

in how we present accounts of ourselves to others.

In the following extract, we can see the ways in which Helen uses

various devices, temporal and linguistic, to produce what she feels is an

acceptable and coherent narrative of her early mothering experiences.

Helen begins by reflecting on the antenatal preparation,

The only thing that I . . . I could possibly sort of criticise on now . . . I wouldn’t say

it as a criticism, but I was not prepared for at all [was] the emotional changes of

when you come home and suddenly you’re living this story life when you have the

baby and suddenly when you come home and after all the visitors have started to

dwindle off and it’s just you that’s left, as to how your life is possibly, you know,

going to change, that there is going to be no normality whatsoever . . . I suppose

I’ve been, you know, quite a controlled . . . well, I was in control of my own life,

I knew what I was doing and every day I was quite organised and things, and that’s

completely gone out of the window. And I would say that I hadn’t really been

prepared for those feelings of actually being out of control, which I would say

probably only the last week that I’ve actually got on top of it and I’m actually

starting to feel a little bit more in control.

Helen tentatively voices some concern, ‘I wouldn’t say it as a criticism’ of

her antenatal preparation. But crucially her voicing of earlier difficulties is

within the context of ‘only the last week . . . actually starting to feel a little

bit more in control’. To admit to, or to actually experience feeling out of

control, may mean that it is impossible to construct a coherent, or publicly

recognisable, narrative. To admit to others, particularly professionals

– or even researchers who are known to be mothers – that you

are experiencing difficulties, has all sorts of implications for how women

are perceived. Whilst some women talked of their difficulties of asking for

help, others spoke of the competing perceptions of ‘normality’ in the early

weeks following the birth of a baby:

They’re really worried about postnatal depression, she’s [the health visitor] really

hot on it. And she did keep trying to tell me that I was postnatally depressed, when

I don’t think I was . . . I was in floods of tears continuously . . . and I think it was

just normal. (Sarah)

Midwives came for ten days, well, the ten-day period, this is another thing.

Because I felt so dreadful I would have liked them to call every day to check sort

of my tail end every day, but they assumed that because I was again . . . I suppose

they think this is a fairly nice house, you know you’ve got everything sorted out,

[my husband] was home, they kept saying ‘I’ll not call tomorrow, eh, I’ll leave it

for a day or two’, and I kept . . . it was almost as if I couldn’t say, no actually, I

want you to come back and talk to me tomorrow. So I had to go, OK yes, that’s

fine. (Felicity)

But I still felt as though it wasn’t normal somehow to feel like that . . . you know

my whole life’s falling apart and I can’t do anything and they’re [other mothers]

coping so well. (Diana)

In a later extract Diana talks of her fears of being perceived as not coping

and being labelled by the experts as:

. . . postnatally depressed, we’re going to take the baby off you, and that’s something

I did worry about.

The irony here is that a friend of Diana’s who was another participant in

the study (Helen) was also experiencing difficulties. Yet neither felt able

to voice concerns or difficulties to each other: these were concealed. The

myths, then, of how women should feel, and act, on becoming mothers

are perpetuated because women feel vulnerable, and unable to challenge

dominant ideologies of early motherhood. As Helen recounts in the

extract below:

I suppose I’ve been, you know, quite a controlled . . . well, I was in control of my

own life . . . and that’s completely gone out the window. And I would say that

I hadn’t really been prepared for those feelings of actually being out of control.

Helen then (unknowingly) shares some sense of her life being out of

control, ‘falling apart’, with her friend Diana, yet when she relates that

the midwife had found her to be ‘‘bordering on post-depressive’’, according

to the Edin burgh pos tnatal que stionnair e, 1 she asserts that: ‘I actu ally

do feel a lot better now, I’m starting to feel in control.’ A sense of being in

control, then, of having regained control implies that life can begin to

return to ‘normal’, perhaps that aspects of a previous life start to become

visible again. Yet as the following chapter will reveal, many of these

women were producing accounts of their early mothering experiences

which in fact bore little resemblance to what they were actually experiencing

during this time.