Selves as mothers

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The claim that motherhood provides ‘an opportunity for renewed narrative

movement par excellence’ was countered in an earlier chapter

(Ba iley, 1999 :351). This was b ecause it did not suffi ciently take account

of the difficulty of voicing different or unhappy mothering experiences.

Given both the moralminefield in whichmotherhood is lived out, and the

‘gendered moral rationalities’ that shape social negotiations around

mothering and paid work, doing mothering is a complicated business

(Dunc an an d Edw ards, 1999). Whe n aske d abou t their feelings on

becom ing mothe rs in the earlier postn atal int erviews (ch apter 5), many

women spoke of coping with the practical aspects of mothering. But they

had ambivalent feelings about actually feeling like mothers in those early

weeks. Many were still coming to terms with the, for most, unanticipated

scale of what becoming mothers entailed. Yet during the earlier interviews

women could be seen to juggle their contradictory feelings. They

worked hard to make sense of the confusion they were experiencing and

to confirm that by the time of the interview they were ‘coping’. By the

time of the final interviews an interlude of eight to nine months had

elapsed since the birth of their children, and experiences remained varied.

Interestingly, some women who had previously spoken of their immediate,

‘natural’ identification with being mothers, now produced contradictory

narratives of their experiences. For example, in the following

extracts Faye’s words from the two interviews are juxtaposed:

Yes, it comes really naturally to me, which I wasn’t sure whether it would or not.

(early postnatal interview).

I don’t know, how does . . . how does a mother feel? . . . No, I don’t really consider

myself as . . . I suppose when she starts calling me Mum or something like that.

(final postnatal interview)

The precarious properties of narratives are demonstrated in these

extracts. As individuals we reflect, reconstruct and produce narratives,

at some level, to make sense of experiences within the context of other

influences. The temporal ordering of events is interesting in any analysis

of narrative construction. In the extract above we see how the lapse of

time enables Faye to reflect and challenge assumptions around womens’

natural abilities to mother. Having survived with her child to nine

months, she is able to risk questioning how ‘a mother’ should feel. The

following lengthy extracts are included to show the ways in which women

experience their changing sense of selves as women and mothers, and the

influence of cultural scripts on how women should feel and respond:

I worry about it the whole time. You know, I worry whether I’m a good mother,

whether . . . whether I’ve got the right responses, whether I’m bonding enough

with him . . . That’s what . . . this is the bit . . . that comes back to the bonding thing.

No, I . . . I don’t know. No, I don’t . . . my self-image hasn’t changed. I don’t

feel . . . I don’t know whether I do feel like a mother? No. And that’s . . . that’s

what worries me is that . . . I still think . . . I still feel that I borrowed Rupert. It

is . . . I still feel that he’s not mine. That it’s like baby-sitting, that I can . . . I’m

going to be able to give him back, that he isn’t mine, and this is the whole bonding

thing, and it really worries me. (Kathryn)

I think I actually half expected that I was going to be an instant mother because

I was so ready for it and so looking forward to having her. That really isn’t the case

at all . . . I suppose the basics are that I am [a mother], this is my new role. (Helen)

But I’ve really enjoyed the whole thing. I’m obviously a lot more maternal than

I thought I was . . . I think I’ve recognised something in myself, you know, perhaps

a sort of need to care for something . . . it’s harder than . . . I don’t know, its easier

and harder. (Peggy)

Sometimes I do but I . . . I don’t know. I mean I do because . . . in the sense that

I know that Sonia is definitely my priority, but other times I keep thinking am

I really a mother? and I’ve felt like that from the beginning, is it really . . . is it really

me? You know, you just sort of don’t really think you’re grown up enough to be it,

but as time goes on you realise you are because you have to cope with so much

more every day, there’s always something else, and you become more sort of

mature, I suppose. So yes, I do feel like a mother, very mumsy. (Diana)

The reality of realising I was a mother came gradually. Being a mother, I think,

instinctively happened. I didn’t . . . it was a bit weird the first couple of weeks

because you’re like, well, what the hell am I doing, I just nearly died, I’ve got this

screaming, demanding thing that doesn’t show me any love, everyone says to you,

‘oh you’re going to love it straightaway’ and you’re like – that? And then you

suddenly realise, oh I really, really, really love him and you wander round going,

I love my baby, I love my baby. And I don’t know, it just sort of happened. (Sarah)

I suppose it has been a gradual sort of thing and then really in a way, sort of, like

things have sort of like changed, you know . . . suddenly, sort of, like, but then it

really happened . . . it really dawned on me that . . . You sort of trudge along and

then like all of a sudden I thought, . . . you know, this is really . . . (Lillian)

I feel like a mother. Not in the way I used to view mothers . . . I suppose I used to

view mothers as very organised, well, like my own mother, sort of very organised,

taking you to ballet, the person that took you to the ballet classes, took you to

school, made sure that you had your wash or your bath or whatever . . . Whereas

the way I feel like being a mother I suppose is just the cuddles . . . and the fun and

just having a little person, a little friend. You know, she’s like my little friend, but

I am responsible for her as well, but there’s less of a big gap and I think also that

might be to do with the age difference because my mum was forty-two when she

had me whereas there’s less of an age gap between us. (Rebecca)

I do, but it’s not . . . it’s not always at the top of my mind that I am a mother.

(Clare)

Yes, I suppose I do really, just because the babies have changed and they do

things, like William will come and give me a cuddle . . . and you say ‘give Mummy

a kiss’, they’ll come and kiss you . . . so I think it’s just because they are doing more.

(Wendy)

But yes, I feel much more like a mother now than I did . . . I suppose I do feel like a

mother . . . you’re a person with a baby, you become a mother and you feel like a

mother. And you call yourself Mummy, I suppose, don’t you, as you’re going

about, you know you say, ‘that’s Mummy’, and ‘don’t drop Mummy’s bag again’,

then you call yourself Mummy so I suppose that makes you . . . But like now, I

could almost forget that she’s there and I do feel like me. But then when she’s

around I suppose I’m on duty again and you feel like a mother. No, I couldn’t

forget that I have her, but I could imagine life . . . I could imagine life without her, I

could imagine going outside for a walk and forgetting her. Not that I would of

course! Yes, but you know, that would be a possibility. (Gillian)

For most of the women, feeling like ‘a mother’ is a gradual process and

one which, even at nine months, may not be perceived as having been

achieved. As Kathryn explains ‘I don’t know whether I do feel like a

mother . . . that’s what worriesme’. If mothering is assumed to be natural,

then to not feel like a mother has implications for a sense of self as a

woman. Kathryn voices her concerns that she is not a ‘good mother’ and

that she might not have the ‘right responses’, or using professional language,

have ‘bonded’. Diana also doubts her own self as a mother: ‘am I

really a mother? and I’ve felt that from the beginning’. Helen also notes

that, contrary to her expectations, she did not feel an ‘instant mother’. In

contrast, Peggy is surprised by her enjoyment of ‘the whole thing’ and her

‘maternal’ self. Interestingly, Peggy begins to describe her experiences of

being a mother as ‘harder than . . . ’, but pulls back and admits confusion,

‘I don’t know, it’s easier and harder’. The increasing responsiveness of

their babies is noted by other mothers and is used to explain how, interactionally,

their sense of feeling like a mother has developed.

Stanley and Wise have observed that ‘reality is much more complex

and multi-dimensional than we ordinarily suppose it to be, and it is

contra dictory’ (199 0:64). Not surp risingl y then, the na rratives produced

as women make sense of their experiences of transition to motherhood are

also fluid and contradictory. Whilst Diana talks of her doubts: ‘is it really

me?’, she also confirms in the same extract that ‘yes, I do feel like a

mother, very mumsy’. Gillian talks of her different identities and the

possibility that she could forget her baby but quickly asserts ‘not that I

would of course’; clearly for ‘good’mothers such an act would be (almost)

unthinkable. In Kathryn’s extract, a thread of personal narrative is discernible

when she voices her worries around ‘bonding enough’ and ‘right

responses’, she asserts that her ‘self-image hasn’t changed’. Indeed, it

may be that Kathryn has not (yet) incorporated a social self as a mother

into her schema of understandings of her self. Similarly, to admit to

feeling that you have ‘borrowed’ your baby is a difficult disclosure as it

does not conform to culturally acceptable ways of describing experiences

of mothering.

What can, and cannot, be voiced around experiences of mothering,

then, is clearly shaped by wider influences, and inextricably linked to

socio-cultural, ‘racial’, ethnic, gendered and structural positions. The

experiences of the women in this study were narrated in relation to

culturally dominant, moral constructions of ‘good mothering’. The passage

of time, and the temporal ordering of experiences, is clearly important

in relation to what can be voiced about mothering experiences and

our children. But self-surveillance may mean that some things are never

voiced. An interesting interchange took place in a final postnatal interview

with Abigail, which touches on the parameters of what can and

cannot be said in relation to our children.

ABIGAIL: I guess we’re just lucky, he’s a nice child. But then have you met anybody

who’s not liked their child?

TINA: I know people that . . . there have certainly been a couple who’ve found it

quite difficult to really fully feel even at nine months that the baby is properly

theirs and . . .

ABIGAIL: But no body surely criticises their child?

TINA: No, no, no one does, no, that is true.

ABIGAIL: Because I think he’s lovely, but I’m bound to.

TINA: No, that is right, no one criticises. They might feel concern that they’re not

doing a good job necessarily or that things could be better or whatever, but

no, the babies have all been . . .

ABIGAIL: Wonderful babies.

TINA: Well no, some have been little sods, I think, but . . .

ABIGAIL: But do parents admit that?

TINA: But no, and some have felt that . . . no, I mean, no, generally the babies have

come out pretty well.

ABIGAIL: Yes, exactly. (emphasis added)

By the time of the final postn atal intervi ews som e pers pective coul d be

brought to bear on the enormous shifts which had occurred during this

intense period of transition. As Frank has noted, ‘the chaos that can be

told in story is already taking place at a distance and is being reflected on

ret rospective ly’ (199 5:98). Wh ilst experi ences had differed, and the time

taken to feel ‘back to normal’ varied, giving birth to a child and coping

with the responsibilities provided a new place from which the women

could reflect upon their experiences. Nine months after the birth of their

child many of the women felt they had regained some control in their lives.

This led to both the disclosure of less happy experiences and struggles

around a sense of self, and also to a palpable sense of achievement. In the

following extracts, more positive aspects of mothering are reflected upon:

All in all it’s just been a life-changing experience . . . I don’t . . . I think I’ve got a

much more positive self-image than I did before because although I sort of feel all

these emotions about not feeling I’m doing anything properly, really, ultimately,

you only have to look at your baby to know that you are. And you know, I just feel

sort of more confident, although I was never a wallflower, but I do feel a bit more

confident about my ability. You feel like you’ve joined a club and that you

suddenly know so much more than you did, and I don’t know why. And I don’t

know, what else do I feel about myself? Well, I suppose I feel quite pleased with

myself a lot of the time. (Diana)

There’s times when I’d like to be able to turn round and tell them to stuff their job

and there’s more important things to life than you know, whatever the problem

is . . . Yes, I feel more . . . more sure of myself. You know, it doesn’t matter to me

now if I don’t go out . . . if I go out of the house without make-up on or you know

I look a mess because there’s some people who get their figure back by working out

and they will always wear make-up and I think, yes, I want to look nice, but it’s not

the end of the world. People can take me for what I am . . . I’ve achieved something

fantastic with him. He’s, you know, the most incredible thing ever. I don’t need

anybody else to . . . to have a good . . . high or low opinion of me. It doesn’t bother

me. I know what I’ve done and if someone thinks I’m fat, well, you know, it’s their

problem. (Abigail)

But now I have more of a . . . I feel I have more balance, I mean it’s affected

me . . . I think it’s changed my outlook. It certainly has changed my kind of

confidence . . . I am probably more confident than I was before, actually, as a

result of having . . . because I sort of feel I’ve . . . I’ve sort of done relatively well,

you know, so I mean although it’s really early days but, sort of thing, she’s

obviously thriving and . . . and I sort of feel a bit more . . . probably a bit more

balanced rather than . . . but I certainly kind of have the same sense of my own

identity . . . I mean probably . . . I don’t know really . . . which is one of the reasons

why I wanted to do something outside the home, definitely, I felt I needed that

space and time, well not really space because it’s . . . it’s just filled with something

else, but I need that time away . . . away from her, some of the time, and I just . . . so

I think work has got a lot to do with it, but because I’m doing the two things now,

it’s probably kind of made me feel more . . . in a sense it hasn’t actually made

me . . . given me a split identity at all, actually, it’s just kind of made the whole

thing a bit more whole, a bit more . . . in a good way, I feel quite genuinely positive

about it. (Philippa)

The women’s growth in confidence in their abilities as mothers is linked

to the development of their child, with comments such as ‘she’s obviously

thriving’ and ‘you only have to look at your baby to know’. The enormous

achievement of creating another human being overrides other concerns:

‘people can take me for what I am . . . I’ve achieved something fantastic

with him’. But not all the women feel as content with their lives and selves

as mothers. Kathryn talks of feeling more positive about herself, but this is

within the context of real concerns about her mothering responses (see

previous extracts). Kathryn expresses unhappiness about the ‘routine’ of

her life, although this is narrated within assurances of still ‘coping’, as the

following extract shows:

Yes, I like myself better, and I think I feel that I . . . I remember saying this to you

before, I feel I’ve got much more to offer. And I don’t worry nearly so much about

myself, my identity . . . I feel I’m coping. I feel I’m on top of it, but I don’t enjoy my

life particularly. It’s . . . you know, it’s back to this rehearsal. It’s . . . I’m doing it

because I’ve got to. I mean I remember bursting into tears last, whenever it was,

Sunday with Christopher [husband] and I said look, it’s the bloody routine, the

whole . . . I get up, I feed Rupert, I get myself ready, I make my sandwiches, I walk

to work, I do my job, I come back at lunchtime, I walk the dog – I have to fit in a

walk and seeing Rupert at lunchtime – I come back to work, I come home, I bath

the baby, I cook supper – and I’m knackered! . . . Oh, it is shattering. And every

bloody day is the same. It’s a routine. And if only it was different.

Whether women engage in full-time mothering, or combine mothering

with paid work outside the home, doing mothering can be both exhausting

and lonely. In the early postnatal interviews several of the women

spoke of restricting their interactions in the public sphere because of a

concern with not being seen as a ‘real’ or ‘proper’ mother. They were

fearful that they may not be able to manage a performance as a mother

because they did not yet feel practised in theirmothering. In the following

extracts, taken from their final interviews, Sarah and Clare talk of their

confidence in having come to know their own children’s needs and so

coping in public settings:

And I don’t know, it just sort of happened. But . . . like when we go to cafe´s or

something it’s like I need to . . . you have to explain to your friends, I need to sit in

the non-smoking area with a high-chair, with a baby room, with baby food, and

it’s like you’re sat on the bus and he starts screaming half way through the bus ride,

and I can sit there and let him scream because I know he’s moaning because he’s

stuck on the bus, and it’s not that he’s in pain, and all my girlfriends go, what’s

wrong with your baby . . . I think it’s just . . . and you can see that everybody else on

the bus is freaking out and you think, chill out, everyone, it’s just a baby, you

know. (Sarah)

For ages I was conscious of, you know, when he was crying and things, but I mean

now he cries, you just sort of laugh . . . laugh at him and . . . and everyone

knows . . . and you think . . . you go round the shop and like where a few years

ago if I heard a baby screaming I’d think, oh what’s wrong, now you . . . just you

know, dropped the toy, wants some food or something, you just think, oh well . . .

(Clare)

Becoming more practised in ‘good enough’ mothering, and recognising

their children’s needs, leads to greater confidence in their own abilities;

regardless of what others might think.