Motherlife Interview #5 Part 1.
All mothers in this Motherlife interview series are anonymous and have been given nature names as their super heroine pseudonym. The names have been chosen from the list of nature words that have recently been deleted from a well known children’s dictionary.
Motherlife Interview #5, Part One.
Mama Hazel, age 69.
Was 28 when her first child was born, she had her second baby at 31 and third at 37.
First child was born in 1977, and her three children at the time of this interview are ages 41, 38, 33.
At the time of her first child’s birth, she was working full time as a psychiatric social worker.
Sophie: How was your first pregnancy?
Hazel: It was excellent. My excitement about being pregnant was palpable. I had some fear around giving up full time work and spending a lot of time at home by myself and being aware that I was in a suburb where I didn’t know many people and we were on a big block of land and there weren’t many people around. Most of my friends lived in the city. We only had one car at that time.
So you were worried about not having community or not around you?
Did they have mothers groups back then?
No. They did have Nursing Mothers Association but I was concerned they might be a bit too radical.
Did you have friends that had children?
No, no friends had children, I was the first one. My greatest friend at the time would have had a baby at about the same time as me but she moved interstate instead.
And how was the birth?
Ok. It was fine. Nine hours of reasonable labour. Nothing too difficult. My husband at the time was very very supportive. He did absolutely everything to support me and help me through the process. He came to childbirth education classes with me. And he was very eager to listen to everything I had to share with him and was very vocal that I was the expert and that I could teach him.
So what sort of things did you find supportive in the labour and the birth?
Having eye contact and being coached through breathing. Just general support. Perhaps neck massage.
Did you learn about that support in the childbirth education classes or what did they cover?
They were run by a physio so they were fairly medically oriented. But they told me all about the mechanics of birth. But I studied the Lamaze method.
Was that in Australia then? How did you study it?
I read about it and learned about it and also Leboyer birth. I wanted to have a ‘quiet birth’, in a still place. So I sought out a doctor who was willing to do that. Most doctors in those days were not willing to do that. I considered having a home birth but I chose not to. And I found that we could create our own nice safe environment in the hospital and do exactly what I wanted to do. I was very well educated in the area.
Why were you so well educated about birth?
Because I worked in child psychiatry and I did a lot of social and developmental histories of people and we would go back to the birth and get people to describe what it was like while they were pregnant and whether they wanted the baby or not and what the birth was like and whether it was traumatic or not and who was there and whether the baby cuddled in or whether the baby pushed them away or whether the baby flopped like a sack of potatoes. So I had an understanding of what the initial experience for a baby and a mother was. And I wanted the absolute best experience for my baby. I had a good understanding of attachment and bonding and the necessary processes that needed to happen. So I chose a doctor who would support all that. And she did it very well.
And was that because you’d learned about the importance of it or because you’d seen in your work what you didn’t want?
Both. I saw what I didn’t want but I also did my own personal research because for me, having a baby was the most momentous and significant event in my life and I really wanted to give my child a different experience from the one I had when I was a baby.
My mother used to laugh and talk about the fact that when I was born the Doctor grabbed me by the heels and held me upside down and whacked me on the backside. And she also would be vocal about not knowing anything about babies and not knowing what it was all about. And I didn’t want to be an uneducated mother.
Ok that’s interesting because that story of a baby being held upside down and wacked on the bottom is pretty common. What made you think that wasn’t what you wanted?
I’m sure it was very common but I think it’s abusive. I didn’t think it was right. And I knew it wasn’t right from my training as a clinician really. At that time we were experts in secure attachment theory.
So what were your expectations of early motherhood?
My expectations were that it was the most important job in my life and I wanted to be the best possible person I could be for my child and children. And I knew it was going to have repercussions for my marriage and I knew it was going to be a life changing experience for me. I’d already written a number of papers on how the birth of a baby impacts on your emotions and intellect. And I expected my life would change. But I don’t think my husband did.
And so did the reality match up with your expectations?
It was probably harder than I thought it was going to be.
In what way?
Well I had to do it on my own really. I felt quite alone and unsupported and criticised. I’m very sensitive to criticism. I like to be approved of. And so a lot of my ideas and my thoughts about childbirth and parenting a new infant were put down or giggled at or made fun of. But I’ve always been a creator of new directions. So I know the path that I was on was right. To marry that up with my own psychological development was not that easy. So trying to deal with myself as well as a baby as well as a marriage and trying to do it all became quite heavy. It became a heavy load sometimes.
These days people sometimes have Midwives or Doulas to support them, or a mothers group, did you have anything like that?
I had a mothers and babies nurse. And I think the mother’s groups were just getting started but I didn’t go to any. I think I was probably quite anxious. Because somewhere in that time I was offered a job as a consultant to mothers and babies where I could take my baby with me to work, it was about eight hours a week to start with. And because I was training people to be parents and manage childbirth, when I went to see the clinic nurse she’d say ‘beautiful baby’, but she never ever asked me how I was. And probably if she’d asked me how I was I would have told her. But maybe I wouldn’t have either because I was very busy trying to show that I was pretty good at this. And I was good at it, but I was also vulnerable and I don’t think anybody else picked that at all. In fact the only person that picked it eventually was a friend of mine and she and I talked about that sort of thing.
Did she have a child around the same age as yours?
A bit older. So she was trying to do something different too. She had a similar belief system about parenting and birthing and meeting the needs of the child, not the needs of the parent so much. But you also need to be able to have people around you if you want to do that, to support you.
Meeting the needs of the mother?
Yes meeting the needs of the mother. Instead of being criticised and put down.
So as a new mother you felt alone?
I felt very alone. And sort of unconfident but also confident. I was in a real dichotomy of emotions really.
What would’ve you liked to make you feel better?
Somebody to actually say “you’re doing a good job, and can you tell me how it feels for you?” And to have a husband who was there and not split between what his wife was saying and the beliefs of his family that he grew up in. They were very powerful beliefs. There was this righteousness about how my mother in law had brought up four children and they’d all turned out alright.
I can remember many many nights we’d go to their place, that in hindsight may have been their way of being supportive, but I don’t know that it was really. And my husband would say “just one more drink. Just one more drink.” And I’d be exhausted and probably what I should have done, though I didn’t have the confidence at the time, I should have just said “well I need to go,” But I didn’t. So one more drink might get to midnight knowing that the baby would wake up again at 3am for a feed or something and it would be me obviously who would have to get up. It was exhausting, even though the baby was next to the bed.
Did you co sleep?
Yes. Or sometimes she was put in the crib beside me. But she often slept between us because she slept better then. And that was frowned upon to you see. I actually had a lot of criticism. So that was hard. Either verbally or inferred. It was very hurtful actually, more than anything else.
It was a really really hard twelve months. God it’s going to make me cry. It’s terrible. They were so cruel. I can’t tell you how cruel they were.
My baby was so important to me. And I just wanted to do it so differently to my own family.
Where was your mum? You said she was quite supportive of you for the birth.
She was supportive of everything because she would say she didn’t know how to do anything.
So it was the most beautiful experience of my life but it was the hardest experience, because I’m so idealistic. And I was being mocked. It hurts to be mocked. I was mocked. And my needs a lot of the time were not acknowledged. It was like “it’s alright you’re at home, you’re not doing anything so it’s alright to have another beer.”
As in when you were at your in-laws house?
Yes we were expected to go there at least once a week or something. And it didn’t even occur to me to say “no.” I was too frightened to because I was too frightened of being rejected. But I was being rejected anyway. And I wasn’t rejected really until I started to assert my difference. But if I complied with the rules, although I didn’t actually know what they were half the time, then I’d be ok.
But at the same time my mother was getting really sick, so she didn’t have anything to give me. I’m sorry, I didn’t think I’d get so emotional.
She was sick. And she wasn’t the most pleasant person either. So I just repeated the same things in my marriage really, peace at any price. So I’d try to make everybody happy. And of course many years down the track when I tried to stop making everybody happy everything fell apart. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I don’t think they ever tried to connect with me. And that’s why I got exhausted I think. I know. None of them. Not one person in my life at that time asked me how I was. Except for one friend. My husband just assumed. I Don’t know what he assumed really now.
I know you’re talking specifically about your family, but culturally I think this is not an unfamiliar experience for many women.
It’s not, and that’s what I was trying to educate people about at that time. But you’re still doing it. You know, it’s going to take another hundred years. Because what you’re talking about is what I talked about.
But you must have had women friends?
Well I had one local friend. But I didn’t know anyone who’d had babies except the people at work. And my whole belief system was being reinforced, because I pioneered mothers of first babies groups and I became the head of the toddlers clinic there. I should have written that work up. But I didn’t have time. I was trying to pay the bills as well as run the household. And I had lots of support at work. My colleagues at work were very reinforcing of me. There used to be a joke in the first mothers group that I ran, that people lie about their experience as a mother.
How do you mean they lie?
Well, they say it’s all easy. And it’s not all easy. Not in our culture. I don’t think it’s ever easy. In other cultures like traditional Greek cultures the new mother is looked after for three or four months and she doesn’t have to do anything except look after and feed the baby. And that’s actually what my son has been doing for his wife. I know he goes out to work, but she’s also got a nanny there.
So some of the training I’ve done for the postpartum work I’m doing is that postpartum support is really conventional in a lot of traditional cultures around the world and it’s our Western culture that doesn’t identify that period of early motherhood as being a time when women need a lot of support.
They do, I needed it and I didn’t get it.
Yes I’m so sorry, I understand, and you’re not the only woman who didn’t. And that’s what I find really interesting because you were working with lots of women and could identify the need for it but couldn’t create that for yourself.
I couldn’t create it for myself because I was mocked.
But that’s where culturally I think we need a better understanding for the whole culture, because you can’t create community when you’re a new mother, you’re vulnerable. You need the community to step in.
You’re really vulnerable. We used to teach about that vulnerability and I used to teach that to my husband but he never understood, because of the family background I think.
So you found work quite supportive?
Yes it was the best thing I could do. I loved going there. It was my life. I took my baby there and I had mothercraft nurses there who loved her and so she was brought up in a way by a little tribe there who would just carry her around, and look after her and when she needed to be breastfed they just brought her in to me. I was working about 15 hours a week at this point. It was the ideal working situation! There was a very alternative GP there and a physio and we pioneered baby massage and appropriate touch for babies. And so I was in an amazing community there. I was living in one world as a new mother at home, but as a clinician I was living in an amazing world. But unfortunately that world that we started evolving at Mothers and Babies shifted when it became a part of a bigger organisation. So the changes that were beginning to occur in maternal health got swallowed up into the cultural stuff.
Ahh, so I was wondering where did this focus on Mothercare go? It’s coming out again now, but that’s the difference between 40 years.
I know and I look at the way new mothers push themselves and I wonder when they’re going to collapse. So it is coming out, and it’s coming out with you but I guess this is what happens, it comes out, it goes back in, it comes out, hopefully it’ll stay out a bit longer this time.
What was your greatest fear around becoming a mother?
Probably the fear of doing it on my own.
And is that what happened?
Yes, a self fulfilling prophecy really. My mother in law offered to come in and stay for three months. But I was terrified of having her in for three months because she would have just taken over. She wouldn’t listen. She didn’t listen to what I wanted. If she was living with us for three months I probably would have had a nervous breakdown.
So your mother in law offered to come and stay with you but you didn’t want her to come because you felt like she would take over. But she had her own experience of becoming a new mother. Did you ever talk to her about that?
I tried to. She told me how terrible it was. The actual birth of her first baby was terrible because she nearly died. She was booked into a hospital but something happened on the night she went into labour, there was a terrible storm and when she arrived at the hospital there were no beds available, so she was turned away and sent to a different birthing place. It was pouring with rain and her father took her because her husband was still interstate in the navy, and she was ushered into a back room and left there all by herself in labour. Somebody came and checked on her at one stage, but then they left. And she was there for about something like 12 hours all by herself, she was 20 years old. Afterwards they realised she was being treated as if she was an unmarried mother, just a girl off the street, which shouldn’t have made any difference.
The next day after her baby was born and they realised her father in law was quite high up in the health department as a doctor, everything changed. But that night apparently she nearly died because of the hard labour and I think her blood pressure went down. I’ve forgotten the exact circumstances now but it was very frightening and scary for her.
So she would tell that story many, many times. My story would not ever equate to that. But I don’t think she was ever actually interested in my story. I made sure I didn’t have a birth like that.
So she wasn’t able to reflect on her experience and think how scared and lost she felt and then support you better?
No. There were all these criticisms of how I should do things. I should do it this way, I should do it that way. She should be sleeping through the night by now. It was always that I was flawed somehow. And I was coming in with these new ideas.
Which were not new ideas, they were ancient ideas!
The really profound book that I read at the time was ‘The Continuum Concept’ by Jean Leidloff. And that informed a lot of my early months of parenting. So really I got my support from my work as well as from books. And a little bit from a new friend I made, who was a teacher.
So many women go through an experience similar to what you’ve described of feeling quite alone. I don’t understand why there’s not a sense of wanting to then swarm around the next generation of new mothers to support them. I wonder why your mother in law didn’t want to help you have a different experience to her and help you feel less alone? Or perhaps she did, and that’s why she offered to come and help and for some reason it just didn’t work out.
Look out for part two of Hazel’s Motherlife story which will be available next week.