Talk Books: Laughter & Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers

Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New MothersBecause books are my first and longest-lasting love, I began my blogging career with a book blog. I eventually gave it up when I felt I no longer had time for it and turned my attention of other blog work. However, I occasionally mine the old blog for content here and I’ve realized that rather than doing traditional reviews, I really, really like doing my somewhat-new “talk books” posts on this blog. I’ve mentioned before that one of my reasons for blogging is simply to store information in one place that I want to remember or come back to later. If I’ve typed up everything I like from a book, I don’t really need to hang onto the book and the “essence” of many books (or at least what I got from them) is all compiled in one place. So, what follows is one of those mined posts (though at the end, I got caught up in the topic and went off into some related thoughts).

Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers was written in 1997 by Lamaze co-founder Elisabeth Bing. I found myself with a dearth of postpartum resource books after giving birth to my first child and desperately hungered for them. I went on a dogged mission to locate them, finding them somewhat difficult to unearth, and eventually I think I read basically every book ever written on the postpartum period.  I started out enjoying Laughter and Tears, but found it less and less engaging as it went on. I think there is such a great need for books about postpartum out there—ideally, for women to read before their babies are born. I wish I would have had one already on my shelf when my first baby was born, instead of having to discover the niche later. However, part of why the book was not engaging by the time I actually read it was simply because it is geared toward women in the immediate postpartum (and also first time mothers primarily)—when I read it, I was no longer there and so my interest in the book waned fairly quickly. I also found a the heavy emphasis on “reclaiming your body” off-putting—there was even a comment like, “now that your baby is a robust two month old, you can begin to reclaim your body by reducing or eliminating feedings at night.” Excuse me? “Robust” TWO MONTH OLD? That is practically still a fetus as far as I’m concerned!

Several quotes I marked to share:

“Our society is profoundly ambivalent about children. On one hand, we praise family values, but on the other, we emphasize individual liberty and the rights of women to have as many freedoms as men. We encourage mothers to desire to have it all, but do not guarantee maternity leave, health insurance, or day care. We use babies to sell products, from laundry detergent to automobile tires, but we don’t want a mother with a toddler in the seat next to us on an airplane. We question the legality of abortion but threaten to withdraw welfare benefits from disadvantaged children. We celebrate children and praise parents for having them, but we do not provide structures or systems to help nurture them.”

And, one I still find extremely relevant:

“The degree of pleasure you take in your mothering is not the same thing as loving the baby or being an effective parent. Keep in mind there is a distinction between mother love and maternal satisfaction. You may love your baby very much but be dissatisfied with your life circumstances.”

There was also a quote that I find a new relevance in today now that our household structure has changed to both parents being home nearly full-time. I’ve been confronted over and over again in the last several months with how many “keys” to the household and family life that I’ve held over my ten years as the primary parent in the home and that, at some level, there is a power in being the one who knows (even if it just where the mustard is, for example) and that switching over to sharing those household details doesn’t actually come easily for either parent, no matter how we’ve said we wish to share them. I’m also noticing how very, very many details of the somewhat invisible work of parenting are still very much my responsibility—such as planning birthday parties or taking kids to playgroup or making dentist appointments or making sure Christmas presents are purchased and equal—and apparently, I do not know how to let those go or start transferring some of the responsibility without feeling put-upon, annoyed, demanding or like, I’ll just do it myself, since I’m the expert anyway. And, as this quote below references, I also have enjoyed being the primary emotional parent as well and still hold on to that terrain—essentially, what I want to share is the cooking and towel-folding responsibilities, while still getting to be the one run to for security and snuggles.

“Men are challenged by their attempts to be more involved and more nuturant than the ‘traditional’ father. Women are challenged not only by developing an identity in the world outside the home, but also by opening up and truly incorporating men into the intimate life of the family. You may have a concept of what a more involved father should be like, but if you are honest with yourself, is your image truly about sharing the love and nurturance? Or is it actually about wanting your partner to help with domestic chores? Are you really imagining a co-parent, or are you thinking of something more like a regular baby-sitter and handyman?”

Whatever it’s shortcomings, this book again reminded me of how vital postpartum support is for families in our society and reminded me of why I originally wanted to be a postpartum doula and how called I felt to that work. In 2004, I trained with DONA as a postpartum doula and felt 100% certain that I had found where I belonged (indeed, I still get Christmas cards and updates from one of my first postpartum doula clients—I was good at the work and they liked me a lot!). I stopped working as a postpartum doula in 2006 though. My biggest reason for discontinuing postpartum work was because at this point in my life I couldn’t reconcile taking care of someone else’s family while my own needed me so much. There I would be washing my client’s dishes and thinking that I have a huge pile unwashed at my own house (that my husband then did at night when he got home) and/or folding their laundry and thinking of the two full baskets at my own house in my own living room as yet not put away. Also, I recognized that I felt more comfortable with and am temperamentally more suited for educational/”academic” types of support  rather than the “intimate” hands-on support that postpartum or labor support requires. For a time after quitting, I really felt embarrassed about it because I was SO sure it was my “calling” and because I spent so much money on training, books, supplies, certification packet, etc. (Luckily, I totaled it up when I was preparing to quit and I made enough money from my clients to at least more than pay myself back for the training!)

I feel fervently that women/families need postpartum doula support (sometimes desperately) and I felt depressed to realize that I wasn’t the person for the role after all. I didn’t understand at the time, but I quickly figured out why the majority of the women in the postpartum doula training with me were middle-aged. They had the energy to “mother-the-mother” and “nurture the family” at that season in their lives, whereas I am still in a season in which I need to nurture my own family before I have the energy to spare to nurture someone else’s. There were also a handful of women in the training, like me, who had very young children. There were no in-betweeners, like where I am right now. I’ve begun to notice this in birth activism work (and to a lesser, but still noticeable extent, in breastfeeding support work) as well—passionate mothers-of-infants or toddlers and gray-haired sage-women are the ones who come together for the bulk of the birth activist workload in various organizations.

I’m also reminded again, however, of why breastfeeding support holds such a lasting pull for me and that is because postpartum is where it is at, that is where we are so very, very deeply needed as support people. Birth is amazing and exhilarating and women most definitely need us there too, but in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, unglamorous, nipples and breast infections, teething, crying, dirty-haired, exhausted, wrung-out maternal web of daily being is a very tender and delicate beauty that becomes visible only when we’re willing to spend months and months, or even years, serving as a listening ear, a medication lookup, and someone to trust with both her laughter and her tears.

December 2013 018Additional resource: Non-Advice Books for Mothers

5 thoughts on “Talk Books: Laughter & Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers

  1. Pingback: Breastfeeding as a (s)hero’s journey? | Talk Birth

  2. Pingback: Breastfeeding as a (s)hero’s journey?

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Tidbits: Birth Transformation | Talk Birth

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