Pregnancy has always had a sacred place in mythology. From the Palaeolithic Venus figurines, to the various stories of deities born from virgins, pregnancy has been cloaked in mystery and draped in awe –the curious interregnum separating being from non-being. That special state when the woman is suddenly not alone in her body, and then, equally suddenly not just a person, but a mother –a transformation that is as miraculous now as it was in millennia past.
It is still a source of wonder for me, even after 40 years as an obstetrician. But I think one has to be particularly careful in its blanket ascription to every woman –To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. For many women, it has been a rite of passage, a validation of their gender, whereas for others…
I am always on the lookout for popular articles on pregnancy and its resulting motherhood –not so much for resolution of the pro-life/pro-choice conundrum, but mainly to understand the current societal prescriptions for acceptable attitudes and behaviours of mothers. How intrusive is social media in moulding conduct and beliefs? There were a few clues in an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/30/detach-myth-motherhood-from-reality-future-generations But, judging from the tenor of the piece, it would seem difficult to avoid dissenting views.
The author, Angela Saini, introduces the topic by saying, ‘It’s hard for any woman to escape the expectation to be a mother. The maternal myth suffuses every human culture, from Catholicism’s Virgin Mary to Hinduism’s goddess mother. It’s considered the most natural state of womanhood, leaving the childless woman the object of pity. Let’s not even mention the woman who doesn’t want or like children at all.’ And then she imputes an opinion to a famous restauranteuse who was criticizing the UK prime minister about something –that ‘motherhood somehow makes a person automatically care about not only her own children but everyone else’s as well; and that women who aren’t mothers don’t have the same caring sense towards future generations.’ Fighting words, as they say.
Saini goes on to write, ‘But maternal instinct is not a switch that exists in every woman, ready to be flipped as soon as she smells a baby. Relationships between mothers and their children are frequently far more fraught than the myth leads us to believe. It shocks us that mothers can be selfish. […] There is scientific evidence to suggest that the maternal instinct may even be contingent on a woman’s circumstances. […] maternal instinct may sometimes depend on whether a mother has the support she needs. We’re not a species designed to cope alone. Indeed, we’re at our most social when it comes to parenting, often recruiting many people around us to help. It really does take a village to raise a child.’
Her point, obviously, is that maternal instinct is not an all-or-none phenomenon –it can exist in degrees, and like a flower, it may take a while to fully bloom. ‘[…] motherhood is not always an against-all-odds epitome of selfless caring. Sometimes it can involve emotional calculation, weighing the needs of both parent and child. We all assume that a mother always wants the best for her child, above her own needs. What we seem to deliberately ignore is that a child’s welfare can also depend heavily on the mother’s own needs being met.’
And so, ‘For the sake of both mothers and children, we need to begin detaching the myth of motherhood from the reality. It’s unfair of any society to expect women to be the best mothers they can be without economic or emotional support, just because they should love their children. Not all women are happy to be mothers.’
She concludes by observing that ‘Many mothers will know that birth doesn’t always signal a rush of immediate love. The maternal bond may build slowly over time. For a small few, it may never appear. And some never experience the urge to have children. We think of all these as unnatural exceptions, bucking the normal trend of how a woman is supposed to feel. But the scientific and historical evidence shows that none of it is strange at all. […]The most unnatural thing of all is forcing a woman into motherhood in the anticipation that she will biologically fall into line when a baby arrives.’
As an obstetrician, my responsibilities ostensibly end with the birth of the baby, and yet how can a duty ever end? Delivery is seldom the last time I see the woman and her baby, and it is certainly not the last time I hear their stories. We are all stories.
Jennifer sat in my office crying inconsolably. It started out as most other visits start, as I remember. She was seeing me for her post-partum checkup, six weeks or so after the normal delivery of a healthy baby boy. It was her first pregnancy and everything had gone well in hospital. She had left smiling, if a little stunned at the rapidity of her labour.
When she came into the office she was the picture of contentment, although I did wonder why she hadn’t brought the baby. I don’t deal much with babies, but the mothers usually bring them to show them off. It’s always nice to see how they’ve changed since birth, and marvel at the almost constant eye contact between the two of them. Usually, I get the impression the mother is only half listening to my questions –she is completely involved in a world I cannot really enter.
But when I asked Jennifer how the baby was, her face changed. “Jonathan was marvelous for the first day or so…” she said, her voice trailing off. “But I was so amazed at him, so involved in his every move, of course he seemed perfect.”
The first tear slid down her cheek and she stared out the window behind me for a moment, as if she were afraid I’d ask her more. Then, she grabbed for a tissue from my desk and wiped her cheeks. “Doctor, he never sleeps! I feed him, I burp him, I change him, I rock him… And so does Tony, but it only works for a while, and then he starts again. We took him to the pediatrician, but she just smiled and reassured me. Some babies are like that, she said. It’s not colic, it’s not something Tony and I are doing wrong… And it will settle.
“But it hasn’t! Neither of us are getting any sleep and now Tony and I are fighting… I wish we’d never decided to have a baby…” She stopped talking and suddenly stared at me in terror as if she’d admitted to some unspeakable crime… And to the doctor who’d seen her excitement for her entire pregnancy…
She began to sob. “I don’t think I’m a very good mother, doctor. My friends seem able to manage with their babies… They don’t need any help!”
I waited to hear her out, but she just sat huddled in front of me weeping inconsolably. “Did your mother stay with you?” I said softly. “I remember she was with you in labour.”
She shook her head sadly. “Tony and I figured we could manage.” She wiped her cheeks again and grabbed another tissue. “She wanted to stay and help, but I’ve always been her independent child.” She sighed with a deep stertorous gulp of air. “I was kind of embarrassed to admit I might need some help, to tell the truth…” She stared at me with wide red eyes, like a doe peering out of the woods.
I smiled and sat back in my chair. “There’s an African proverb I’m sure you’ve heard, Jennifer: It takes a village to raise a child. I think it also takes a mother to help her child…That’s what mothers are for, isn’t it…?”
She stared at me for a second or two, a weak and wobbly smile fighting to control her lips. “You mean…?”
“Phone her,” I said.
And she did –right there in the office.