Updated: Apr 28, 2022
(especially when it looks like nothing)
One of my absolute favourite books - that I wish every mother, scrap that, every person in the world could read - is “What Mothers Do - especially when it looks like nothing” by Naomi Stadlen. It provides such a brilliant window into the experience of mothers, who can often feel isolated, overwhelmed and uncertain in the postnatal period. It equally offers powerful words of encouragement, which is what mothers often need most, but seem to get so very little of.
We live in a society that likes to measure things and we like to see immediate, quantifiable results to our actions. We need to be productive at all times to feel like we are worth something, and have a pay-check to show for it. Time is money baby!
No wonder we have such a hard time when we become mothers and our world slows down, almost to a halt (even though we hardly get a moment’s rest and feel more exhausted than we ever thought possible!). We feel powerless because we don’t get any “real work” done and have nothing to show for ourselves at the end of the day. All of which can leave us feeling like we are no longer part of the society we once belonged to. We feel unimportant, excluded, unseen, unvalued, unappreciated.
Yet the Real Work we do, is so indescribably important. It matters the world to this little person who just entered our life. It is every time we respond to our baby’s cries, every time we pick them up to tend to their needs, every time we hold them close to make them feel warm, safe and loved, every time we wake in the midst of night to feed them, every lullaby we sing, every tickle, every soft kiss. But this sort of thing isn’t quantifiable, measurable, or even visible at the end of a long, taxing day and even longer night, full of questions and self-doubt.
If a mother works round the clock to care for her baby, but no-one is around to value it, did it really happen?
The work postnatal doulas do can be similar at times.
Yes, most postnatal doulas take on some of the visible tasks as well, like preparing warming, nutritious family meals, doing some tidying or putting the washing on, to allow the mother to rest and focus on the most important job of looking after her baby. But a very important part of the job can be equally hard to measure and appreciate if you haven’t experienced it first hand: it is being present, holding space, listening to and valuing the mother’s experience, thoughts, worries, fears and joys. Without any form of judgment. It is providing reassurance and guidance and encouraging her to trust her instinct, helping her to feel more confident and proud of her achievements. It doesn’t always show, and yet it can make a world of difference to a new, exhausted mum who questions everything.
I started thinking about this when I listened to a colleague postnatal doula live on Facebook: she was reflecting back on a job she had done years ago, when she supported a mother who went through a lot of challenges. At the end of their time as her postnatal doula, she questioned if she had made a difference, since she didn’t feel like she had provided a solution to that mother’s struggles, which had left her feeling very unsure. Yet recently, she was contacted again by that same mother who wanted her support with her next baby, because, as she wrote, she felt the doula’s presence had been such a relief to her the first time round.
And I believe this really shows how we underestimate the importance of just being present for someone. Even if that means we have little to show for our time at the end of the day. We don’t always have to fix other people’s problems and make everything better. There is something so very powerful about just listening and accepting someone else’s experience, resisting all judgment, giving advice or taking over. Just being present with someone who is having a hard time.
And I think this is also a very valuable message for partners, family members and friends of new mothers, not just for postnatal doulas. It can be really hard for many to resist the urge to “fix things” when they see someone they love having a hard time. And with the very best intentions, people seem so keen to give advice and tell the mother what to do. But in my experience, it is so important to take time to really listen without jumping to conclusions about what you think it is the other person needs. Allowing someone to feel what they are feeling, has the potential to provide so much comfort, and it shows genuine care. Sometimes, that compassion can be all that is needed to give someone enough energy to carry on, or to encourage them to start thinking about a solution that feels right to them.
This kind of support, even though it looks like nothing - especially when it looks like nothing -, is just so empowering and ultimately, mothers will feel more in control of their life and have a more satisfying mothering experience.
by Anne, Postnatal Doula, Breastfeeding Counsellor and founder of MamaMoon.uk