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Book Review

What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing

by Naomi Stadlen
Available from LLLI
No. 1745
Order online at or call 800-LALECHE

reviewed by Christine Strothers
Charlotte NC USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 5, September-October 2006, p.225

Has anyone ever asked you, "So, what do you do all day?" Did you stare back at the person, dumbfounded by the question? Did you stomp your feet in frustration at the lack of words to describe all that you do as a mother? You aren't alone; you have the company of the mothers in Naomi Stadlen's What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing.

Stadlen, a psychotherapist in private practice and a breastfeeding counselor at the renowned Active Birth Center in London, wrote this book to address the deeper meaning behind what mothers do when they are "mothering." After many years of working with mothers in group counseling situations, Stadlen realized that women had universal concerns about their worth as mothers, the nature of mothering, and the shift in their lifestyle, relationships, and selves that occurs after becoming a mother.

Each chapter addresses a different issue, starting with how little validation mothers get for the important work they do. Stadlen argues that there aren't even many words to describe what so many mothers do so well. The author states:

Perhaps up till now, mothers haven't needed precise words to describe mothering. Perhaps that explains why we haven't got many. Women saw each other being mothers. The importance and value of what they were doing was obvious.

Mothers are given a voice in this book as women are quoted extensively throughout. Many new mothers go through overwhelming changes as they struggle to cope with new responsibilities, learn about their babies, and create a mothering style of their own. Stadlen often turns society's negative definitions and stereotypes of mothers into positive strengths and characteristics. She argues, for example, that the much-maligned nervousness of new mothers is appropriate. It creates a heightened environment for learning and maintains vigilance -- even in a sleep-deprived state. One section addresses the societal pressure to "schedule" babies and "return to your normal life." Rather than accusing a mother of allowing her baby to make all the decisions, Stadlen applauds the "interruptibility" and availability of mothers. When a mother stops her work and responds to her child, she builds trust with that child.

Stadlen repeatedly validates the higher calling of motherhood and stresses the importance of looking beyond the household duties checklist. She writes, "Our whole society depends on the way each mother relates to her child. This is her motherly work." But not all mothers feel that motherhood is a higher calling. The painful chapter, "What Is Motherly Love?" features numerous authors who portray motherhood in negative, and even pathological, ways. Although the negativity may be overwhelming, the information helps the reader understand many current perceptions of motherhood.

Mothering changes more than a mother's lifestyle -- it changes her as a person, and it changes her relationships with her partner, family, and friends. Motherhood has changed society as well. A quote from a mother in the author's support group, "I Was Surprised That I Still Had the Same Name," is the title for the inspirational chapter that examines the positive transformations that happen to women as a result of becoming mothers. Stadlen writes, "The world benefits from the sensitivity and compassion of mothers," and she lists many societal changes that have been brought about by concerned mothers. But these changes do not come without a price and mother-to-mother support is important in helping all mothers cope with challenging situations.

What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing is unique in its focus on the place of mothers in society. Mothers need more support, such as that offered by La Leche League, as they do this most important job. The author's understanding of the struggles of both employed and at-home mothers makes this book an excellent read.

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