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The Socialisation of Mothers
The past decade has seen a wealth of research studies that have shown a more natural approach to mothering is better for us and for our children. Why then is society so against us mothering this way? Why are those of us who practise co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, baby-wearing and gentle guidance still greatly in the minority? I have to wonder why it is that so many of make the choice to use an inferior milk product, fake teats and a plastic receptacle to feed our babies when we have perfectly good working breasts? Why are we encouraged to use cots and prams and other ‘mother replacements’ rather than hold our children close day and night? Is there something wrong with breast-feeding? Is there something wrong with being close? Apparently, in our society, there is. If we do breastfeed we shouldn’t do it for too long because it requires us to be there for our baby. Breastfeeding makes it rather clear that we are not physically separate. The fact that our baby lives and grows on our milk means they are still dependent on us for life and development. Breastfeeding demands of us a greater commitment and responsibility than bottle-feeding. Furthermore, the mutual dependency, both physical and emotional, fostered by the nursing relationship bonds us to our child. We continue as one.
In our culture nursing is primarily seen as a way of providing an infant with food. Why should we be tied down when our baby can get food from a bottle or a jar, which anyone can give to them? Formula and baby foods were not invented to provide our babies with food that was better than our milk, but rather to allow us to not have to breastfeed so we can do other things; more important things apparently. We are commonly pushed back into work rather than being encouraged to be home mothering our babies ourselves.
These products have made it possible for us to become separate from our babies which is seen as a good and necessary thing. Our inventiveness has given us the ability not to be natural mothers. Why does society view a baby’s need for closeness day and night as a problem? Why do we think it is a good idea to train our babies not to request to be picked up, held, cuddled, rocked, suckled, even though these things are completely natural for a human child? Is it because our society wants mothers to be doing something else, perhaps?
In our society, we do not see anything wrong in leaving an infant without their mother. This is because our society is based on the separateness of individuals rather than on their unity with each other. We do not see it as strange that we separate from our newborns, so they can sleep alone, that they don’t drink from us, and they aren’t constantly held by us. We do not find it peculiar for us to not always be present for our baby’s and to leave them in the hands of strangers, whilst we go to work.
We have been socialised into believing that our baby’s need for constant closeness isn’t a need at all, but a desire, a whim, and if we give in to that whim then we are weak and doing them a disservice. Why should we respond to our baby’s crying if our baby is fed, clean, and not in pain? Our baby has to learn that they can’t control us; that they can’t get away with using their sobs to manipulate us by being ‘overly-demanding’.
We are told time and again – don’t feel guilty, Mum, don’t give in, don’t go in the room. Suppress your instincts to respond and remember you’re doing it for them – for their own good. You’re teaching them discipline. You’re saving your baby from becoming spoiled, from being dependent on you. Your baby needs to learn to be independent of you. Don’t, under any circumstances, pick up your baby, or you will ruin everything; for yourself, for your husband, for everyone. That’s what all the experts say, so it must be right.
Of course, often this approach works and our baby eventually learns not to cry, and to go to sleep alone, which proves that they weren’t really upset after all, doesn’t it? It proves that they were just being manipulative right? What is really happening is that our baby learnt that their cry does not bring a caring response, that their crying has no power. Our baby learnt that their needs will not be responded to so they must ignore their own feelings and accept the ‘rules’. What do we learn? We learn that our baby is trainable, and if we ignore their requests we can make them easier to manage. We learn that it is best to bury our natural instincts that make us want to respond to our baby – to nurse, to hold, to comfort. We learn to become more physically and emotionally separate from our child and further detached.
The biggest sadness of all this is that we modern mothers do love our children desperately and want to give them the very best. However, we have been socialised to believe that in order to do this we must reject and ignore our innate human instincts. Our culture tells us that the best way to raise our child is to direct their behaviour and development in order for them to be normal, healthy, happy, good citizens. As modern mothers we are encouraged not to be guided by nature, biology, or instinct, but by the voices of society.
The ‘right’ way to rear children in our society has absolutely nothing to do with what we need or what our children need, and everything to do with what society needs. It always involves imposing on our children the necessity to give up their requirement for nurturance as soon as possible, and denying us the opportunity to nurture our young the way nature intended. We, ignoring our instincts and driven by our need to preserve our separate identity under the influence of our husbands, relatives, and infant care experts, begin to treat our baby not like a baby. We are encouraged to change our baby to fit who we are (or what society wants us to be). Therefore, we must train our baby to become something other than a human baby in order to ‘fit in’.
From childhood on, we are socialised not to believe in our instinctive knowledge. We are told that parents and teachers know best and that when our feelings do not concur with their ideas, we must be wrong. Conditioned to mistrust or utterly disbelieve our feelings, we are easily convinced not to believe our baby whose cries say “You should hold me!” “I should be next to your body!” “Don’t leave me!” Instead, we overrule our natural response and follow the fashion dictated by baby care “experts.” The loss of faith in our innate expertise leaves us turning from one book to another as each successive fad fails.
It is important to understand who the real experts are. The second greatest baby care expert is within us. The greatest expert of all is, of course, our baby who is programmed by millions of years of evolution to signal to us, with their own unique sound and action, when our care is incorrect. The signal from our baby, the understanding of the signal by us, and the impulse to obey it, are all a part of our species’ character. Our socialisation as mothers has damaged part of the signal – our impulse to obey.
Our conditioning leads us to question – Should I teach my baby that I am the boss so they won’t become a tyrant? Although our babies begin by letting us know by the clearest signals what they need, if we ignore them they will eventually give up the ghost. We will have a baby who complies but at what cost? As this is what contemporary Western civilization relies upon, it is little wonder why the relationship between parent and child has remained steadfastly adversarial.
So who benefits from the socialisation of mothers to ignore their instinctive knowledge? With the popularity of bottle-feeding and childcare, we mothers have become no different than anyone else. We have become unable to appreciate mothering because society places no value on our role. Once we don’t have to be there for our baby’s, when we become separate, we are no more qualified than anyone else to take care of them. We are no longer special.
The trend is for us to work whilst we pay others to care for our children. The trend is for us to be more than ‘just’ mothers by continuing our careers, and other interests. The trend is for us to ‘have it all’. We aren’t fighting for more support to stay home so we can care for our babies, but for more and better childcare, so we can work. Why? Are we really choosing to work because we have to or because we want to? Certainly it is far harder to live on one income these days but could it also be that our society has convinced us that stay-at-home mothering isn’t a desirable or worthwhile role?
If early attachment is so good for children why is our culture so opposed to it? Because early attachment is bad for the economy. This could result in us ‘indulging’ our children and not wanting to separate from them. This could result in us not wanting to return to work. This could result in us not wanting to pay a childcare establishment to help raise our children. This could result in us not paying for formula or other baby ‘essentials’. This could result in us having less money to spend on consumer goods in general. None of this is good for the economy and business. To ensure we mothers play ball, our society places little value, honour or priority on attachment mothering so we have to be very strong to overcome the values all around us, which strongly oppose that which is natural to our species.
We are commonly persuaded that it is imperative that we not allow motherhood to rule our lives and to carry on our careers as before with no drop in our standard of living. Our children will be happier and independent mixing with other children their own age, and we will be able to afford to give them the ‘important’ things in life like a private education, nice clothes, good food, holidays every year, two cars, and a sizable house in a desirable area. If our child cries and protests when we leave them, we are told they have Separation Anxiety Disorder, or they are having a tantrum. Either way we should ignore our child’s protests and ‘train’ them out of these anti-social behaviours.
Governments have been promoting this concept for decades with financial incentives to get us back into the workforce as soon as possible after birth. In Australia, commonwealth government spending on childcare has increased by 4000 per cent in real terms since 1980.
The mental health profession believes that the damage to children mentally due to early childcare is considerable. British Psychologist Dr Penelope Leach (Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five, 1997) conducted an anonymous study of 450 infant mental health professionals from 56 countries who were members of the World Association for Infant Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. When asked what care they considered likely to be the best from birth to 36 months, the majority said that from the infant’s point of view it was ‘very important’ for babies to have their mothers available to them ‘through most of each 24 hours’ for more than a year, and ‘ideal’ for infants to be cared for ‘principally by their mothers’ for durations averaging 27 months.’
Leach concluded, “Those findings suggest that there are many professionals in infant mental health who believe that a child’s best interests would be best served by patterns of early child care diametrically opposed to those politicians promise, policy-makers aspire to provide and mothers strive to find”.
It is a rare mother indeed who does something they think will harm their child in any way. Many working mothers will argue that after the initial settling-in period, their babies or toddlers no longer cry when taken to childcare. Influential child psychologist John Bowlby (Attachment and Loss Volume II: Separation, 1975) argues that this isn’t because their babies have settled-in, but because they have given up protesting. Many child psychologists agree with his theory that what is actually happening is the trust the child had for their mother is broken and the child detaches – the general consensus in the field being that it takes up to four years for a child to have brief periods away from their mothers without feeling a sense of loss.
Leach (1997) says it is so important for us to listen to our children’s protests, “Whatever you are doing, however you are coping, if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to put things right or make the best of those that are wrong.”
We women have been our own worst enemies as, afterall, this was what we fought for in our pursuit of female liberation. It is only been in recent times that it is dawning on us that we don’t want to juggle careers and motherhood. Somehow the reality of what we were fighting for just doesn’t match up to the dream. Of course, women’s liberation was important, but we know now it should never have been at the expense of our children. We want to be good mothers, and we want our children to be happy, but we are being duped into believing our children are better off away from us, and that we will be more rounded, interesting human-beings if we go back to work. We are even told that we are being good role models for our children if we work, especially for our daughters.
Is this really what we wanted? Did we really want the ‘right’ to be separated from our children and not be respected as mothers? What will be the effect on future generations when so many will have attended long daycare in their formative years? Passing the job of mother on to another is doing us and our children a massive injustice. It’s like handing a rare and priceless gem to a stranger.
Rather frustratingly, even Germaine Greer (The Whole Woman, 2001) had a sharp turnaround after inspiring a generation of women not to pursue motherhood. She said (she), ‘mourns for her unborn babies’, and she confessed that ‘the immense rewardingness of children is the best kept secret in the Western world’. Betty Friedan (The Second Stage, 1981), talks about her hugely influential book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and said, “The equality we fought for isn’t liveable, isn’t workable, isn’t comfortable in the terms that structured our battle”. Cheers for that, then! These words must be like a sharp sting for those women who hung on their words and fought the great fight, only to hear that ‘oops, sorry, turns out motherhood is rather nice afterall – my bad!”
I do believe mothering is feminism’s unfinished business. Sure, the first-wave feminists began the fight for mothers to be valued but, as their daughters, we must continue the battle. Independent, educated, propertied, successful, and working! Is this the legacy our feminist mothers have left us with? Why did feminism forget motherhood? The truth is it didn’t.
From the first to the second wave with Simone de Beauvoir’s work (The Second Sex, 1989), feminists have identified motherhood as a primary factor in the oppression of women and a vital ground for struggle. Mary Daly, Shulamith Firestone, Adrienne Rich, Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein, amongst others, advocated radical change in motherhood as essential to women’s liberation. Amongst the suggestions were communal child-rearing and greater community responsibility for children, and higher levels of input from the father.
None of these theories suggested we should swap the baby for the briefcase. The radical feminism of the 1970s envisioned societies where the care of others would be our primary economic value. Such societies would be based on principles of nurturing, connectedness, and altruism rather than on ‘masculine’ principles of aggression, individualism and competition. Mothers would be fully-waged and all forms of hierarchy, domination and discrimination would disappear. To tackle the inequities of reproduction, we would need to dismantle capitalism. The aims being nothing short of revolutionary.
Having failed to overthrow capitalism, the 80s and 90s saw feminists settling for a few modifications instead. Getting through the glass ceiling, more child-care places, better services for women, sexual harassment laws, equal pay, maternity leave, employment laws – all important gains that were hard fought and won. However, inequality is still at the core of our system. We now live in our society that condemns us to an either/or choice between children or career, or an insane juggling act between the two with us burning the candle at both ends. We need to imagine an economy that pays its most important workers; mothers.
Despite all the information readily available out there about the negative effects of childcare the ‘good-for-women-good-for-children’ argument is a powerful one that has convinced many women in top positions in the social sciences and politics, that more non-parental childcare is a positive step forward.
Always high on the political agenda and in the news, the childcare trend ignores the real needs of babies, young children and mothers. Have we in our quest to break through the glass ceiling gone from the frying pan and into the fire? Have our materialistic desires outweighed our children’s needs to have us close? Has this led to even worse outcomes for us women, our children, families, and society?
Our governments are choosing to ignore the accumulating evidence of risk to the mental health and well-being of mothers and children resulting from childcare. They don’t promote social settings, which support healthy, more natural mothering of small children. Our feminist mothers took this leap of the imagination. The world they envisioned for us saw motherhood as supported, financially and socially, by the community. To create a society that values mothering is to create a world in which human beings matter more than money. Sadly, this world seems very far away. Our feminist mothers have left us, their daughters, with the legacy of their unfinished business; motherhood. We need to rise to the challenge.
Currently, men work longer hours than ever before to meet society’s high standards of materialism – 60 hours a week is not uncommon – and for men to father effectively they need to be in the home far more than they are, and they need to have their role honoured and widely respected.
Both men and women feel the increasing pressure to provide in our consumer driven world. There is a checklist of must-haves for family’s today that is desperately hard to achieve on two incomes let alone one, making the working mother and childcare train very difficult to jump off of once you get on. Surely, though something is very, very wrong in our world if we cannot afford to be there to breastfeed and nurture our own babies? We know the economy requires our labour and our spending power, but surely our babies must have first dibs on us. Their need is greater than anyone’s to have around the clock access to the person who only a few months ago was carrying them.
Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth, 2005) gave us an insightful view into the concept of the ‘ego’ and how it drives us all. What he argues is that it is important to keep it in check and be mindful of how it influences us in our daily lives. For example, the people in the advertising industry know very well that in order to sell things to us that we don’t really need, they must convince us that those things will add something to how we see ourselves and others. In other words, it will boost our ego and cause us to be a Mrs. Judgey-Pants with others who are lacking. They do this by telling us that we need to keep up with everyone else and ultimately aspire to stand out from the crowd, by buying their watch, car, sofa, – whatever. We are told it will make us happier and more desirable to own that item. Life will be rosier when we own their product. Designer labels are so popular because they are a collective ‘identity-enhancer’ that we are drawn to buy into. Only the ‘special’ people get to be in that club, because they are expensive and therefore exclusive. If everyone could have them, then they would lose their psychological value, and be far less desirable.
In these consumer-driven times, a large part of our lives is occupied by obsessively ‘collecting’ things – masses and masses of ‘stuff’ that is purchased over the years. Our ego’s commonly tell us, ‘I will be happy when…I have that new dress, new watch, new sofa, new computer, new phone…” To fight this, we need to be alert and honest to find out whether our sense of self-worth is bound up by the things we possess, and acknowledge that this is really our ego talking, not us. It is not who we are.
What does all this have to do with mothering? Well, it is the same with anything society places a high value on such as a good job, the right education, and extends to the way we mother. In our society, there is a high value placed on conventional parenting, so if we allow that influence to shape our mothering then we are succumbing to our ego. Our ego is begging us to massage it, to feed it, so we can feel better as a mother and not feel ‘different’. By mothering the same way as those around us, and the way society tells us is right and good gives our ego what it is asking for. But our ego is not us, it is not our conscious self. It is not who we are. If we ignore our ego and start focussing on just ‘being’; being who we are and giving our child the space to be who they truly are, we can overcome our ego.
How do you bring ‘being’ or consciousness into a busy family life? The key is to give our child our true attention; our true self. Conventional parenting focuses on form-based attention or ‘policing’ – “Don’t do that. Stop that now!” That’s not what I am talking about. I am talking about being in the moment with our child and not correcting them or thinking about what we have to do next. Just be with them in their presence, in the moment. Looking at, listening to, touching or helping them in some way, and being fully conscious, alert and present. If we can do that we can replace the ego and make way for ‘being’, meaning we give our child our true attention – our true self; a treat that sadly conventional parents tend to miss.
Tolle (2005) predicts that the human race is poised for a profound shift in consciousness. As each individual raises his or her state of consciousness, this in turn increases the momentum of the collective unconsciousness. In other words, we change the world when we change ourselves.
Tolle points to the history of the human race as a history of madness. In other words, that which we consider ‘normal’ is at its very root, dysfunctional. What we consider ‘normal’ arises from the ego and the ego is rampant with greed, pride, the lust for power, anger, fear, jealousy, insecurity, etc.
This new consciousness for mothers means rising above the “voice in our head”, which is influenced by those all around us. It is about realising it is not who we are, or even what we truly believe; we are the being behind the voices and we need to mother consciously and intuitively to reach it.
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