Reflection and narrative reconstruction

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In these final accounts we glimpse a sense of how selves are differently

experienced and made sense of and narrated. The narratives produced

are both more revealing and more challenging of previously accepted

bodies of authoritative knowledge. Elements of resistant, ‘counternarratives’

– produced when experiences do not fit withmore mainstream

ideals – are discerni ble (Some rs, 1994). Previo us acc ounts of early

mothering experiences are now withdrawn, reworked and re-narrated.

By taking a close look in this section at how women construct and reshape

versions of their experiences over time, we can see how narratives through

transition are strategically used to present different selves. Initially, most

women work hard to produce accounts which show they are coping and

responsibly meeting their children’s needs, being seen to be doing ‘good

mothering’. Later versions of their experiences often contradict or embellish

these earlier versions. It is also important to note that an interview

necessarily attempts to prompt reflection and may indeed serve to reproduce

modernist subjects and these important considerations will be

returne d to in chapter 7 (Alld red and Gillies, 2002 ). Telli ng stories of

transition to motherhood is not, as we have seen, unproblematic. In these

final interviews a developing confidence in their own abilities, and the

gradual transition to being the authority on meeting their own children’s

needs, empower the women in reflecting and challenging aspects of what

had gone before. Distance from an event also provides a sense of safety:

the risk of revelation is not perceived to be so great. Having experienced

eight to nine months of mothering, difficult experiences can now be

voiced, revelati ons made beca use they have been survived. In chapt er 5

we saw the ways in which many of the women produced narratives within

the context of now being able to cope, any difficulties having been

resolved. Yet in these final interviews some women contest the stories

they had previously constructed, and now present a different version of

their early experiences of mothering.

In the following extracts Helen talks of her experiences of becoming a

mother. The first extract is taken from her first postnatal interview in

which she is asked about her antenatal preparation; she comments:

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

it as a criticism, but what 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 . . . 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 . . . (emphasis added)

In her final interview, Helen feels able to disclose how she had been really

feeling during the early weeks of becoming a mother:

The emotions were so intense, I think in every way, that my life just turned upside

down . . . I don’t think that there is anything that anybody can do to actually

prepare you for the change it’s going to have in your life. I talk to people about

it now because I think that . . . you know, it is difficult to talk when everybody is so

wonderful that in fact you don’t want to create any negative sort of impression to, you

know, people around you so you sort of go with the flow, but inside you’re actually

quite terrified, and yes, now I can talk to other people about it and they say ‘gosh,

but you, you would never have known – you know you had this real sort of

positive, enthusiastic, unflappable way about you at that time’, and maybe I did,

but I know now and I can express myself as to how I was sort of really feeling . . . I know

that a couple of questions you asked me, sort of, first I was bordering on bursting

into tears, you know, but I mean obviously I contained myself but you know I wouldn’t

let this other side, sort of . . . Because I don’t think I . . . you know I didn’t express it to

anybody. You know, not my health visitor, not . . . not Stephen [husband], you

know, my sister and my mum, you know, have been great sources of support but

they have been so capable. (emphasis added)

The difficulties of giving an account which does not resonate with the

expectations of those around you, or your own expectations, are all too

clear in this extract. The overriding need to contain personal experiences –

to avoid giving any negative impressions – and to provide a coherent

narrative of being a ‘good’ mother appears to be paramount, especially

if those close to you have coped well and been seen to be ‘so capable’. And

this may not only be the case for new mothers. Helen goes on to describe

the difficulties her husband had in voicing his experiences,

. . . it’s a very trying, difficult time and I know that he had emotions which he again

didn’t express then, but he does express now, because he didn’t want to make out to

anyone that this . . . this lovely . . . rosy sort of glowing impression of how it’s supposed

to be in fact maybe wasn’t quite as rosy, the reality of it when you get home. . .

(emphasis added)

The importance of presenting an acceptable and culturally recognisable

account of new parenting is apparent in this extract. The disclosure of

other feelings – even to each other – is perceived as risky. Both partners

then work to construct a different, and what they take to be, a more

acceptable ‘reality’. It is only retrospectively that such experiences can

be voiced. Interestingly, Helen used the end-of-study questionnaire to

again confirm the difficulties she had in voicing her early mothering

experiences:

In the second interview it was one of the first times anyone had taken so much time

in concentrating on my emotional state (even more than the health visitor) – but

I now realise that I was not being 100 per cent honest with my answers and was

too eager to attempt to create a feeling of control, relaxation and total happiness

and contentment. In fact I was feeling quite disorientated and out of control.

(end-of-study questionnaire)

Kathryn began her final interview in the following way:

And I think actually . . . I don’t think . . . I was pretending that I was coping better than

I was. I must . . . I must admit that looking back on that interview I thought I hadn’t done

terribly well. You know, I thought . . . sort of thought, oh I wished you hadn’t

interviewed me then because I don’t know, perhaps I’d just had a bad day or

I don’t know, I just remember . . .Well, I always come across . . .more in control

than I actually am. I’ma real sort of swan paddling below the surface . . . . I think we

all . . . I think all new mothers feel that they’ve got to do terribly well. I mean, you

know everyone says to me in a way I don’t want it to change my life, I don’t want

people to think that I’m not coping or I don’t want . . . you know, life’s got to go on,

that’s . . . that’s the general feeling. And why should we all feel that? (emphasis added)

Having begun the interview in this way Kathryn then goes on to voice her

worries and concerns over her mothering abilities which continue to

trouble her. Having challenged the need to contain difficulties, ‘and

why should we all feel that?’, Kathryn proceeds to reveal personal layers

of narrative which might have remained unvoiced. The narrative she

presents is complex, as evidenced in the extracts which appear in other

sections of this chapter. Her use of words such as ‘which is an awful thing

to say maybe?’, ‘do you think all mothers feel that?’, show her seeking

reassurance and (possibly) permission to voice what she feels are not

‘normal’ ways of talking about being a mother.

A comparison of Sarah’s postnatal interviews also reveals interesting

shifts in the ways in which experiences are narrated. In her earlier postnatal

interview Sarah had continued to draw on essentialist ideas linking

birth and mothering to nature and instinct. Her baby’s birth had proceeded

rapidly in hospital without any need for pain relief, and Sarah

again reiterated her belief that she had coped with the process of birth by

adopting a positive ‘state of mind’:

And having him was fine, I didn’t have any drugs . . . to be honest I think it’s all a

state of mind. I think some people if they’re encouraged to know that they

are . . . they’re a human being and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years,

then they can handle it and I’ve sort . . . people, I know, are like that, that’s their

mentality, but there again, if you’re told oooh, oooh it’s going to be really horrific,

you better take everything available, then you will because you haven’t been

shown that there is another path to take, you know. And I mean I’m not knocking

people that take epidurals and all that kind of stuff because I understand that it

most probably . . . if you panic then, hey, God it must be horrendous. I panicked

twice and I realised how much more horrendous the experience was when I

panicked. And then I thought to myself, wow! aren’t I amazing. You can control

everything that’s happening to you. You know, breathing, you can actually control

the pain and I’d anticipated it being absolutely horrific, so it wasn’t . . . it was worse

than I thought but it wasn’t as bad as I thought . . . I mean I think I was incredibly

fortunate, you know. And I think it’s maybe just because . . . maybe my upbringing

has . . . has told me that, that you are in charge of yourself, and that you don’t need

drugs and this, that and the other, you can do it all yourself. So I mean

that’s . . . I was lucky, I knew I could do it, and there again I knew I could fall

back on the drugs because it would be awful saying to people I’m having no drugs

and then you get there and you think, God, I need it. (early postnatal interview,

emphasis added)

Sarah’s comments at the end of this interview were:

Yes, but I am very fortunate and I’m having a very good time. It wasn’t good at

first, but now it’s brilliant. We’re enjoying ourselves. (emphasis added)

In her final interview Sarah reflects on the previous months and talks of

having experienced a period of what she now describes as prolonged

‘shock’ since the birth of her baby:

I actually feel that I was . . . maybe not postnatally depressed, maybe in shock,

definitely. I feel I was in shock up to about a month ago because I’ve only just

started tasting food again . . . And my mum said to me,‘oh that’s a sign of

shock’ . . . is that you stop tasting things and smelling things. I’ve only started

smelling things again since having him, it’s really weird. But I don’t think it was

depression, I actually think it was shock, and change of the . . . you know. But no, I

just think it’s the shock of the whole . . . the whole sort of . . . I don’t know . . . no,

they don’t sort of tell you these . . . not that they tell you, it’s just . . . the reality of it

all smacks you in the face, doesn’t it, and you either . . . you either go one way in that

you just hand responsibility over to other people and you then lose your child,

because you can do that, or you take it all in your stride and do it the right way,

which you should be doing, which you are capable of doing. But it’s like I say, my

cousin you know, she’s having a really bad time, and the only way she can

do . . . I mean, I believe that she is taking it to the extreme, that she is . . . she’s

got a chemical . . . a chemical imbalance in her brain definitely, she’s ill, but she’s

got a good man. You know, like my cousin is a social worker and he’s a really good

man, and . . . She is in a position to say, take the baby, I can’t handle it, which I

would love to do, but I’m not in a position. I can’t hand him to someone and say

take him, and me run away, because . . . so I just feel it’s the shock of giving

birth.Oh my God, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to death, Jesus! (emphasis added)

By juxtaposing these extracts, the contradictions between and within

accounts are highlighted. The difficulty of voicing negative experiences

is also apparent, and particular time-frames are used to place distance

between the lived experience and narrating that experience. In one of the

first extracts Sarah says that ‘it wasn’t good at first, but now it’s brilliant’.

In the final extract Sarah again places her experiences within a timeframe,

the implication being that now everything is fine, ‘I feel I was in

shock up to about a month ago.’ The intricacies of narratives are also

apparent in this final extract. Sarah says that ‘the reality of it all smacks

you in the face, doesn’t it?’, apparently acknowledging that the lived

experience, ‘the reality’ of being a mother, differs in some ways from

expectations. Here she challenges the dominant ideologies which surround

motherhood, but also colludes with them when she talks about

there being a ‘right way’ to do mothering. Different ways of narrating the

same event are also demonstrated in these extracts. Sarah’s early postnatal

description of giving birth and her later account do not appear to be

descriptions of the same event. In the first Sarah says,‘I thought to myself,

wow! aren’t I amazing’, and in her final interview she notes, ‘so I just feel

it’s the shock of giving birth. Oh my God, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to

death, Jesus!’. The passage of time enables a reordering of experiences,

and shifting perspectives can help to bring new meanings to past experiences,

leading to previously withheld experiences being voiced.

The ways in which time is used to organise experiences into coherent

narratives is also demonstrated in the women’s accounts. As noted

earlier, different time-frames – one professional and one lay and

experiential – are used by the health professionals and by the women in

their constructions of a ‘return to normal’. Within narrative accounts,

temporal ordering shows the ways in which events are woven into

episodes, and experiences made sense of and given coherence. In the

following extracts from Philippa’s final interview we can see the way in

which this reflexive practice is used:

Well, I remember . . . I sort of remember things in terms of like watersheds quite a

lot and I think that three months was the first time . . . because I remember feeling a

bit more human again at that point. So from sort of six weeks to three months I just

probably, much rather saying, but getting a bit, kind of . . . a little bit easier and

getting, you know, to grips. I think also my expectations probably changed, I thought

I don’t really mind sitting breastfeeding the whole time, you know, and things, but

by the time she got to three months it kind of . . . I found I was feeling a bit more like

my old self again, I was getting parts of my life back, I wasn’t feeding twenty-four

hours a day and sleep . . . getting more sleep and, you know, all those things. And

then I mean after that I remember sort of six months being . . . well, between four

and six months things just getting a lot more interesting and sort of thinking this is

more like what it’s about, if you know what I mean, and I just . . . she was much more

responsive, I mean once she sort of started smiling and . . . God, all sorts of things,

I can’t remember! . . . I really can’t remember exactly when anything happened. It

seems very kind of murky. (late postnatal interview, emphasis added)

Philippa organises her narrative around what she calls ‘watersheds’.

These are times at which shifts were discernible, for example, ‘I remember

feeling a bit more human again at that point’ and later, ‘I found I was

feeling a bitmore like my old self again, I was getting parts of my life back’

and ‘thinking this ismore like what it’s about’. Her narrative documents a

journey through early motherhood in which her expectations are challenged

by different, unexpected experiences. An extract from her early

postnatal interview provides a much more immediate account of Philippa

trying to make sense of the early weeks of being a mother:

I mean in terms of my life changing . . . I feel both . . . I’m kind of enjoying what’s

happening now and I’m a bit kind of frustrated by the, you know, day after day on

my . . . a bit on my own, I mean even though I do see people it’s kind of for an hour

or so or whatever, and I do . . . I sort of think, gosh you know, this is major

decision, a major change, you know, I just can’t . . . I can’t turn the clock back or

anything now. I mean . . . and I felt that very much over the first . . . that feeling’s

getting less and I’m sort of now . . . I’m getting more to the stage where I couldn’t

imagine life without her and I’m enjoying her a lot more, but that’s been kind of

gradual. But there’s a little bit of thinking, gosh, what . . . you know, what have I done?

Yes. So a bit of sort of . . . a few negative feelings and . . . But you know, on the other

hand I really . . . you know, I’m sort of enjoying her and I sort of think, you know, in a

way this is more what life’s about than working or whatever, you know, which is

what I had before. You know, some aspects of my life before seem quite sort of

empty comparatively, you know . . . life without children, I think, and I think

that’s kind of . . . that’s coming to the fore more and more, it’s just more of a

gradual adjustment rather than something that I felt immediately very strongly.

And I sort of . . . I do go back to work and I sort of think I’ve no desire really to be

here at all, you know, I don’t . . . especially with nice hot days you know, yes. You

know, I sort of think it’s fairly . . . some of it’s fairly petty and . . . you know, it’s

certainly not a hugely worthwhile job in a way, so it just seems . . . this sort of seems

part of a bigger part of life, you know . . . (early postnatal interview, emphasis

added)

The narrative Philippa produces at this point can be seen to veer between

presenting as a competent and coping mother, and trying to voice her

everyday experiences. Negative aspects are tentatively voiced ‘but there’s

a little bit of thinking, gosh, what . . . you know, what have I done?’, but

always within the context of returning to more culturally acceptable ways

of describing becoming a mother, ‘but you know, on the other hand I

really . . . you know, I’m sort of enjoying her’. The gradual and individual

nature of transition is once again emphasised. In her final interview,

Philippa reflects across her experiences of transition:

I surprised myself by how badly I coped in the first few weeks, actually, because

I kind of . . . because I’ve always . . . I’m the kind of person that tends to cope

reasonably well. I’m quite . . . I know that I’m quite balanced and I’m fairly laid

back and I’m fairly competent and things, so I expected myself to have . . . I had a

kind of vision of myself with children which was that it was all kind of . . . I mean not

completely brilliant the whole time but I sort of thought . . . I thought it would be

fine, I thought I’d be OK, so I’m not really surprised by that, but I was surprised

by . . . because she just cried quite a lot in the first few weeks, that I was surprised

by that, I just thought, oh my God, I’m not sure that this was quite in my kind of vision

of things , which hadn’t like a very kind of demanding, whingy, difficult baby,

which is how she was. (emphasis added)

Her ‘vision’ of herself as amother, her expectations, were not initiallymet

and the difficulties she experienced were not part of her vision. Other

mothers’ accounts also revealed a reordering of experiences. Reflecting

on their first eight to nine months of mothering enabled the women to

make sense of their different, and for some unexpectedly difficult, experiences.

This was the case for Linda, whose journey we now turn to.