An open letter to Naomi Stadlen


Dear Naomi,

I bought your book after hearing discussions of your talk in Cambridge and reading a rave review – of both the talk and the book – in the local NCT newsletter. It sounded like a book that would reinforce my prejudices – which is what all of us feel the need for from time to time – and perhaps help me to form further a lot of half-formed ideas I’ve had over the last few months. Ideas, in particular, about the inadequacy of goal-directed approaches to life and work when thinking about motherhood, and about where the guilt associated with mothering comes from and how to deal with it or avoid it.

I loved the first few chapters of your book. You have named so many things that haven’t previously been named (as far as I, and apparently you, know) and have also named their namelessness. You’ve spoken, for example, about mothers’ “interruptibility” (and you couldn’t think of a good name for it, and I can’t either), the way we learn to drop everything without quite dropping anything – at least, not so it breaks and can’t be fixed. (I’m recalling a conversation I had early in my son’s life in which another mother said that she had on occasion got as far by mid-afternoon as chopping an onion as the first step towards cooking the evening meal, and when the mealtime came there was the chopped onion, nothing more; and I recognised what she was talking about). You’ve described beautifully the shopping trips and walks and conversations in which every action is “doubled” – getting something done and showing it to/ explaining it to/ making it fun for/ making it safe for the child – and in the process shown why mothering is hard work. You’ve written about the comforting of a baby precisely and lovingly enough to make me cry, though admittedly I do cry easily, especially these days. And you’ve spoken about some very difficult things, like why encounters with other mothers can lift us up and keep us going but can also crush us, the competitiveness into which we are drawn despite ourselves, despite all our best efforts, the judgements that aren’t spoken and aren’t often even intended but are somehow heard and internalised.

And then I came to the chapter in which you talk about maternal love and maternal ambivalence, and it all went wrong for me. You see, up to this point I had somehow thought that you yourself in your approach were completely free from the pattern of feeling oneself judged and passing judgement on others. I expected too much of you, of course; you’re human too. So now I’m angry with you, and I want to acknowledge that this anger is my own, it comes from where I come from and I would not expect others to share it. I’m angry with you because I feel you have not tried to understand something important about me, something I find I share with the women writers on whom you heap what I can only describe as unfair criticism. You describe their writings on ambivalence, and you include quotations from their work to which I wanted to shout (as I wanted to shout at many points in your earlier chapters) “yes, that’s exactly how it is, thank goodness somebody understands” – and then you quite casually undermine them. You say, or I hear you as saying, that these women (when they feel trapped and helpless, when their babies’ crying drives them to desperation) have not tried hard enough to understand either their babies or themselves; and then you laugh at them, expecting all sensible women to join you (as, probably, they will) for spending so much time trying to analyse or write about their feelings; and then you blame them for writing about it so well and so powerfully that they make other women think they are supposed to hate their babies as well as loving them.

Naomi, I hate to say it, but I don’t think you get it. I’ll take the last point first, because it’s the easiest one to take; if you really think a handful of women writing books, even good books, can make that much difference in a few years, I think you and I live in different worlds. I mean – we should be so lucky… But that’s a cheap shot, and that’s not what makes me angry. What makes me angry is being demeaned as a mother who wants to write and think. And I don’t think you get it. I’m not proud of the fact that I feel a pain almost but not quite as bad as when I can’t do anything about his crying when a call from my son interrupts my writing, but I do. I’m not proud of craving academic reading like I craved certain foods in pregnancy (yes, it’s that physical and feels that irrational), but I do. I have four new books in a bag downstairs and I have no idea when I’ll have time to open even one, and at the moment I can’t stop thinking about them. I long to have the first months of my baby’s life over again, not because I particularly enjoyed them but because I want to be able to think all the half-thoughts I had in that time, through to the finish. This is part of what mothering means for me.

And reading your book made me think you wanted me to feel guilty about this, and I’m fighting back the urge as I type this to put in lots of disclaimers about how much I love my son, about quite how seriously I’ve considered abandoning my academic work to be with him, even about how carefully I’m listening to the snuffly noises he makes in his sleep as I type – but why should I, since we all know, or you apparently know, that the maternal love is natural and it’s the analytic brain that’s the result of dubious indoctrination or bad experiences in childhood…

You write so casually, Naomi, about the women who are afraid that motherhood will stop them writing – thinking, apparently, that a single counter-example, of a novelist who did some very successful work after becoming a mother, will answer their fears. I don’t think you quite get it. If you did, you would be kinder to the writers who are after all only following a vocation, to tell the truth as clearly as they can.

And, incidentally, you don’t know that, besides the moments of ambivalence they describe, they didn’t also have nice calm rational times when they worked out that the whole problem with the baby’s crying was positioning in breastfeeding. I can’t tell you how angry it made me when you decided that you had the whole explanation for the problems one of them was encountering and it had to do with her breastfeeding technique. (The careful excuses you made for doing this kind of remote diagnosis didn’t help, I’m afraid; I’ve read too many similar efforts). But that’s really because it pushed my buttons; suddenly you were the oh-so-sensible woman in the hospital who breezed into the cubicle where I was struggling to feed my son and said “Are you relaxed, Mum? It won’t be easy if you’re not relaxed, the baby can tell, you know”… and of course I felt simultaneously guilty about being too emotional, and guilty about thinking and analysing too much to relax. Probably you were also, in my mind, one of the people in discussion groups at my church, too many times to mention, who, when I’ve started to talk about what really matters to me – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, I have never been good at splitting them up – have responded as if I was trying to blind them with science or introduce pointless difficulties.

Now I think about it, this is disturbingly close to an old story. Women shouldn’t think too much, women shouldn’t try to be too clever, women certainly shouldn’t work to order their worlds by analytic thought. It suppresses their feminine instincts and makes them bad wives and bad mothers. The point is not that you said this (I don’t think you did), but that I heard it. I started to hear it in all of your digs at “experts” male and female, much as I agreed with many of them and much as I knew you didn’t mean them that way.

And then this goes to make the real point – because of course this is not really about me, nor about you. It’s about this whole cycle of feeling judged and responding with anger or guilt or both, and about how difficult it really is to make enough room to listen to each other properly. I wanted to learn about this from you, from your experience of listening to mothers, and I did learn a lot. But I ended up wondering if you could listen to me – and my friends – whole, or if you’d want us to leave our intellectual passions at the door and bring in only our passions for our children. By the end, this is what you’ve taught me: if we cannot listen to each other whole and have com-passion for the passions we really feel, I don’t believe we can help each other.