Narrating chaos?

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Arthur Frank, writing in the context of illness narratives, has argued that

‘those who are truly living the chaos cannot tell in words. To turn the

chaos into a verbal story is to h ave so me reflexi ve gra sp’ (Fr ank, 1995 :98).

For Linda, the early postnatal period was an unexpectedly difficult time.

Having been labelled as ‘postnatally depressed’, a label she rejected, she

opted out of the early postnatal interview on the advice of her husband

and health visitor. She resisted, or felt unable – or elements of both – to

produce a narrative of her early mothering experiences. Linda had found

out she was pregnant shortly after she had been made redundant from her

office job and in the antenatal interview she had described her pregnancy

as planned. In the following extract, taken from that interview, Linda

describes her experiences of her pregnancy, drawing on different discourses

to do so:

The first three months I didn’t enjoy, I didn’t enjoy at all. I mean I don’t think the

whole pregnancy throughout has been very enjoyable, but the first three months –

I wasn’t sick or anything like that, it was just like . . . I think it was because I was

made redundant, and then I found out I was pregnant, that I think all those kind of

things got on top of me, so I was not happy about the whole situation, even though

I wanted to be pregnant, it was . . . it was just . . . I think it’s the fact that something

else has taken over your body, the fact that you have to give up things that are

probably not so important, but you still have to, you know, change your whole way

of life, really, to carry a child. I used to smoke and as soon as . . . I always vowed

that as soon as I knew I was pregnant – I didn’t smoke a lot, it was just an

occasional thing – as soon as I knew I was pregnant, that was it. You give up

smoking, you give up drinking, you give up the yoghurts, the . . . all the things that

they tell you to give up . . . and I’m thinking this is not fair, you know. But now,

because of you’re feeling the baby and you get to sort of understand it a bit more –

well, you can tell because . . . so much bigger, that yes, I do . . . I’m looking forward to

having the baby. (emphasis added)

And later:

[It’s] the thing about something else actually taking over your body . . . out of

control. Because I suppose I got pregnant quite late in my life . . . I’m twentynine

now. And most of my friends have actually sort of . . . they’ve got children and

they’re three and five years old, you know, and they’ve got another one. Because

I’ve had that independence, that way of life, that I could just please myself as and

when, then you become pregnant, your whole body’s taken over, you feel very

sensitive to things that you could just sit down and cry sometimes, and the fact of

becoming so large and . . . not obscene but I never knew that . . . I suppose I shouldn’t

say this, but I never knew that your backside could actually increase double the

size just through being pregnant. That’s happened to mine . . . .Yes, I’m

really . . . . I know that there’s going to be a bundle of joy at the end of the day . . . and

that’s what I’m looking for, but I wouldn’t go straight into being pregnant again.

I think I’ll have to be convinced that you know . . . I feel that from being the person

in charge, work-wise, to the person that is being taken over by something else or

someone else, is quite a lot to take in. (emphasis added)

But Linda concludes by anticipating the support she will have from her

husband:

. . . and I think Philip and I will actually work things out together and just get on

with it . . . Well, you make it together, so . . .

Perhaps the seeds for a difficult time as a new mother are sown in this

narrative of anticipation. Linda reveals her unhappiness in quite candid

ways in comparison with some of the other women interviewed at this

stage. But she also always returns to what she perceives to be more

acceptable ways of talking about anticipating motherhood, for example,

‘a bundle of joy at the end of the day’. As noted above, Linda opted out of

the early postnatal interviews although we spoke at length, and on several

occasions by telephone, during the early weeks following the birth of her

child when her profound sense of being lonely and isolated was palpable.

Eventually, Linda contacted me to rejoin the study and was interviewed

when her baby was ninemonths old. Linda began this interview by saying,

‘I have been to hell and back’, ‘I feel cheated of the months [the baby] has

been growing up’ and ‘I never knew bringing a baby into the world could

upset your life’. In this interview Linda makes no attempt to edit her

experiences in the ways she had in the antenatal interview, where she had

usually concluded with culturally acceptable ways of talking about anticipating

motherhood. Linda’s difficult experiences have involved emotional

estrangement from her husband, which she traces to the birth:

The birth, I felt, was horrendous, I really did. I think because of Philip . . .I don’t

know. . .we sort of . . . on the birth of Nathan itwas like we split. It was like the bond

had gone between us and I could see on the expression of his face . . .Literally at

the birth . . . ours has changed so much. And I wasn’t prepared for that . . . I think

it is because everybody thinks that Mum and Dad are . . . the Mummy and Daddy

are just going to be a bonding family and everything’s going to be perfect . . .

But it wasn’t, it just wasn’t . . . we’re still working at it . . . . Oh, I won’t be having

another one.

Linda, like some other women in the study, feels physically isolated from

the world of work and her friends, but nine months after the birth is still

coming to terms with the scale of the changes in her life:

I miss work, I miss. . . not work, not my job, but I miss the brain ticking, the

conversation . . .Because you don’t have that contact anymore and the contact that

you do have . . . Imean, I’ve got a really nice friend who lives in [town] and, you know,

she’s back at work or whatever andwe don’t talk about nappies, the price of baby food

and boring things like that, because that does boreme, but you speak to other people

and it’s like, and how’s your baby doing and my baby is doing this and blah blah blah,

and yes, I don’t mind listening to it but after a while you want another

conversation . . .Yes, I would like to go back to work, just part-time, and you know

if I don’t like it, then I’ve got nothing to lose. But, yes, I’d like to venture out again,

dress up in a suit, make an effort and you know, speak to other people, yes . . .I never

thought I’d be carrying this [indicates baby on hip] all the time.My briefcase wasn’t

heavy at all in comparison to a baby but that was heavy enough. And you can put the

briefcase down, that’s the thing, can’t you? Just leave it.

For Linda, and as found in otherwomen’s accounts,work outside the home

appears to offer so much of what mothering does not: it is valued, something

to ‘make an effort’ for, a different, less boring arena in which to

interact and be yourself. The all-consuming dimensions of motherhood

and responsibilities of mothering are also implicit in the analogy with a

briefcase: ‘you can put the briefcase down, that’s the thing, can’t you? Just

leave it.’ But Linda and her baby,with the help of her parents, have survived

to nine months and she feels she is coping: ‘I can cope, I mean I’m coping

with it.’ Having disclosed her own difficult experiences Linda feels able to

challenge what other people might be concealing and she ponders:

And when you see other people, you see them for face value, but when they go

home is it a different story and do they actually tell you? And no, I don’t think they

do and that annoys me because I think to myself, I know what I’ve been through,

or we as a family have been through, and I’d love other people not to know that it’s

us but to know that it’s not all hunky dory and you’ve not failed if something has gone

wrong . . . (emphasis added)

In the end-of-study questionnaire, Linda uses a question which asked the

women to describe their experiences of participating in the study, to make

the following comments:

I would hope being a participant in the research would help other women, as I felt

it very interesting to listen to the tape of myself whilst being pregnant. Tina is

making a great achievement for women, I hope in enlightening us all, that we are

allowed to feel the way we do. Well done, Tina, and thank you.

Linda’s tone is now almost zealous. Voicing her difficult experiences

appears to have been cathartic. Linda comments that she has found

listening to the tape of her earlier antenatal interview ‘interesting’ and

the implication is that it may have been ‘therapeutic’ in some way (see

chapt er 7). Her perce ption of the res earch as ‘enl ightening us all’ and

enabling women ‘to feel the way we do’ is gratifying, and at the same time

of some concern. This is because the shifts required to bring about the

changes she alludes to, which are fundamentally about the ways in which

motherhood is configured in many Western societies, have been at the

centre of an ongoing struggle for so many years. This book can only hope

to make a very small contribution to the wider, enduring debates about

how motherhood should be socially constructed.