What Mothers Do: Who Understands?

11/04/2007

This is reflection one.
Summary: This chapter is about how it is difficult to convey to others what a mother does all day long parenting her child. For one, people who are not mothers don’t understand how “nothing” gets accomplished all day. This is especially because mothers often have nothing tangible to show for their work. Another reason that Naomi Stadlen brings up is that the English language doesn’t really have words that express what a mother is doing. We have words like “warm, loving, wonderful, patient, understanding, kind, caring, nurturing, concerned, responsible, and unselfish” but that “most of these words don’t indicate anything good that she might have done. They describe the state of a mother’s heart.” So, I can love my child, but what do I really have to show for it?
My Thoughts: I received a phone call from a fellow coworker and she said that the other people who work at my school were taking bets to determine when I would go back to work. Nobody thought I’d ever be a stay-at-home mom and several of them thought I’d come back before my maternity leave was even over. Why? Because they thought I was a busy person who loved to do things, which implies that stay-at-home moms don’t actually do anything. Apparently, one commented that staying at home with a child was one of the most boring things she’d ever done in her life. (I wasn’t there during the conversation, so this is just hearsay). It is clear that many people are not aware of the many details that go into mothering a child.
I was thinking about the lack of words to describe what a mother does all day. At first I disagreed and thought, no I’ve been mothering Caleb, cuddling him, swinging him, etc. Then, I recognized that those words fail to describe being a mother just as the warm, loving, wonderful, patient, etc. words above did. Merely stating the outward task of what I did doesn’t:
(1) Have a lot of respect associated with it.
When is the last time you were commended for excellent cuddling or swinging? People don’t come to my house and see me with Caleb and say, “Wow! You are the best at burping a baby! Well done!” It just seems like something basic and obvious that any person with half a brain should be able to do.
(2) Get at the depth of all the things that are actually happening.
Think about it. My baby cries, so I attempt to discern from the type of cry he is giving me and his non-verbals what he actually needs. Is he hurt? Hungry? Lonely? Scared? A combination? Then, I start trying stuff, at least until I learn what his different communications mean. Eventually, I start picking up on his cues.
A few weeks ago at church, I left the sanctuary with a crying baby. Today, I knew he was hungry by the way he moved his lips, and that told me to leave and feed him. He never got the chance to cry. So, when I’m caring for my baby, I’m also learning to understand his cues. This learning is not implied in any of the words listed above that describe what a mother does all day.
I’m also learning how to best respond to his cues. When Caleb has to burp, sometimes he likes to go in typical “burp position” facing over my shoulder. However, I’m learning that when he has a bigger burp, he prefers to sit on my lap. I have learned this because his cries/frustration will continue until I put him where he is best able to get the burp out. Not only am I learning how to understand what he wants, I am also learning how to best give it to him.
These are just two examples of things that are happening when mothering a child that are not accounted for when I try to explain what I did all day. There are more things that happen between a mother and a child (sharing language, developing cultural understanding, learning social skills, etc.) during the day. These things are significant to the growth of a child, and yet, how do I explain to someone what I am actually doing all day? I’ve tried simplifying it down to saying that I was “mothering,” but that word only makes sense to those who are mothers.
(3) Take into account that I still don’t have anything tangible to show for my time.
If you come to my house at the end of the day, and ask me what I did all day, and I respond that I was “mothering” (sounds so lame…), you look around and see nothing different from the day before. My baby is not suddenly reciting Shakespeare with a perfect British accent. My baby is not three times his normal size. My baby cannot prove that he is 1/100th smarter than he was the day before. And my house definitely doesn’t look any better. :-)
When I worked in the “real world,” I had lots of tangible things to show for my time at the end of each day. I had lengthy checklists that I would plow through and baskets labeled “To Do” that I would empty before going home. If anyone asked me what I had done all day, they could see the stacks of papers graded, the parent phone calls made, the art displays put up, the orders placed, the clay cut, and so on.
This contrast to mothering makes it even more difficult to grasp that mothers might actually be doing something of value at home with their babies all day. What do I have to show for my weekend? Not a lot. But, man am I tired.