Becoming the expert: practising mothering

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It has been earlier argued that the dimensions of the contemporary context

in which childbearing and mothering occur, promote a continued

dependence on experts and expert bodies of knowledge. This is particularly

the case during pregnancy and through the early confusing weeks of

becoming a mother. But developing competence in doing the practical

things of mothering and meeting a child’s needs lead gradually to a

reassessment of this relationship. Indeed, the disengagement in terms of

professional support and interest which the women felt happened shortly

after the birth, can now be interpreted as having fostered (forced)

independence. Commenting on her contact with various health professionals,

Diana observes, ‘I find it quite amazing that they can be so in your

face for like weeks and then just not there.’ And whilst the underlying

assumption which underpins professional practice, that is that women

naturally know how to mother, differs from the experiences of the women

themselves, gradually most women do become more confident in their

own abilities to meet the needs of their children. The endeavour becomes

less stressful, as Abigail and Helen comment below:

I don’t feel that I need information as much now, because I don’t know it all,

obviously, because he is still only eight months old . . . but I do feel that for most

stuff it’s common sense. The stress goes out of it . . . you become less dependent on

others because your own confidence builds . . . it’s so easy with hindsight . . . somewhere

along the lines it all clicks. (Abigail)

I think I feel a lot more sort of secure about myself and my decisions and what’s

the right thing to do and what isn’t . . . so, yes, but I’m certainly more confident

now. (Helen)

Growing confidence in meeting their children’s needs leads the women to

challenge those they had previously regarded as possessing authoritative

knowledge. In the following extract, Sheila describes the gradual process

of reaching a point at which professional expert knowledge and advice can

be weighed up, challenged and discarded in the context of her own

experiences. Competing constructions of normal development are also

clear in these extracts:

That was, that’s been my real . . . I don’t know, it’s just you don’t know what

you’re doing . . . I always like to have, ‘this is what you’re doing’ and I’m told and

then I just do it. But with solids and everything, you just don’t know what you’re

doing. You have to feel your way . . . on their eight-month check they are supposed

to sit up, they’re supposed to put their hands up to be picked up, and all these

things they’re supposed to do, and I just think, oh, I just don’t care anymore. If

they don’t want to that’s it, that’s their little way of doing things. I know they’re

perfectly happy, healthy children. And that’s what, you know, I’ve come to realise.

Sheila goes on to describe another occasion when she received advice

from the health visitor:

She said, you know, ‘oh you really should be giving them finger food because some

children will get tactile’ and I said, ‘what do you mean’ and she said ‘oh well, they

don’t want to touch things’. So, I was like getting all uptight thinking oh, maybe

I should be doing this thing . . . and then I just thought, oh, sod it, I’m just going to

do what I feel and what’s handy for me.

Here Sheila is able to weigh up the professional advice in the context of

her life, and reject it: ‘oh sod it, I’m just going to do what I feel and what’s

handy for me’. Peggy also talks of challenging expert advice in relation to

weaning her baby on to solids:

I started him at fifteen weeks with the health visitor having kittens.[She] kept

saying, you’ve got to wait until he’s four months old and I said, well, look,

I can’t wait.

Unusually, after a relatively short period of mothering (fifteen weeks),

Peggy also feels able to act in a way which is counter to the expert advice

she has been given. But this action must be seen within the context of

other information and support that Peggy has, as she explains:

Apparently my mother had the same problem with me of not putting on weight

and getting nagged at all over the place, so she said ‘don’t worry about it’.

Supported by her mother, whose knowledge is grounded in experience,

Peggy rejects the professional advice given. This is in contrast to the

accounts constructed during the antenatal period. In these, the women

prioritised professional, authoritative knowledge over that of other

sources, including family and friends. But the women now speak of

finding support from other mothers whose advice is crucially grounded

in experience as mothers. They also speak of their own growing confidence

in relation to meeting their children’s needs, as the following

extracts show:

I met a couple of girls through a postnatal group which I went to once because

I felt I had to, and we’ve become quite good friends and I tend to see them, you

know, every other week or so, and that’s more helpful than the health professional,

I find, but no, I haven’t . . . I haven’t seen anyone. You know, you never see hide

nor hair of them, they just disappear, don’t they? (Diana)

The health visitors are on the whole . . . certainly at the beginning were really good.

I find now that he’s older and therefore probably not prone to as many problems,

I’m more experienced . . . And I think, you know, girlfriends, I tend to sort of ask

them what they’re doing far more than health visitors or professionals, think I’m

much more confident now. I mean I . . . I think as a mother, you just have an

instinct and you know what’s right. (Kathryn)

I’ve got used to the idea now and it’s coming more naturally . . . you become less

dependent on others because your own confidence builds. (Clare)

When she was about four months, I sort of stopped seeing them as frequently.

I kind of had her weighed a couple of times. She had a hearing test and things and

I’ve seen one health visitor once since I’ve been back to work. And they’ve been

fine, actually, you know there’s no . . . I mean not . . . I think because you kind of go

through the whole thing with your health visitor and your midwife to start with it’s

like . . . and they’re much more involved, it’s not the, you know, I just . . . just sort

of go along so they say she looks well, she’s gaining weight and that’s it really . . . I

mean, I just don’t have any worries about her, really, and I think I know that I’m

doing the right thing in terms of with feeding. I’m not worried about her developmentally.

It seems fairly kind of common . . . a lot of common sense to me at the

moment . . . Yes, I mean it’s partly confidence and it’s also . . . I think it’s kind of

easier. She seems like a more kind of robust being rather than this kind of fragile

little thing . . . And also because she goes to nursery as well – this sounds really

awful but I sort of think there are more people involved, it’s not just me anymore.

(Philippa)

It is interesting that whilst Philippa welcomes the shared responsibility of

childcare now that she has returned to work and her daughter attends

a full-time nursery, she believes that ‘this sounds really awful’. Here

the dominance and gendered dimensions of the discourse of intensive

mothering is clearly discernible, shaping the ways in which Philippa,

apologetically, describes her current childcare arrangements. Gradually

then, women become practised in identifying and meeting their children’s

needs and develop their own informal support and information

networks. The professional practices of monitoring and measurement

which provide evidence of ‘normal’ development are increasingly questioned.

The weighing up of risk becomes less fraught as responsibilities

are coped with and met. Yet for all this advancement and success in their

mothering – they and their babies have survived – the women continue to

draw on dominant, gendered constructions of motherhood. They feel

compelled to apologise for their actions, for example in relation to work,

which they perceive as counter to constructions of good mothering.