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6 October 2015

Why is our idea of motherhood still based around self-sacrifice?

To become a mother is to leap, definitively, onto the side of the carers, with no possibility of turning back.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

It comes as a shock, that first night. No matter how much you try to prepare yourself, reading all the books that tell you it’s nothing like in the books, it’s only once you’re experiencing it for yourself that you find out what they really mean.

Giving birth is, of course, not like anything at all. We can grasp at as many analogies as we like –climbing a mountain, shitting a pumpkin – but, as with being born or dying, it remains its own unique, brutal experience, one which can only be gone through alone. If it falls into any sort of category, it is perhaps that of “massive, life-changing exertion, after which one deserves a long, undisturbed, triumphant rest”. Only you don’t get one. Had you, under any other circumstances, had someone slice open your stomach and pull out seven and a half pounds of matter, you’d be given some time to recuperate. But since that matter has a beating heart, you’re expected to stay up all night feeding it, the pull of that tiny, eager mouth on your not-yet-hardened nipple functioning as an instant initiation into years of sacrifice.

So you get through that first night, which is always very dark, even in the middle of summer, and then there’s the next one and the next. The daytime – morning-after bright – is when you remember to be happy because, after all, you are (what new mum wouldn’t be?). Thoughts such as “will it get easier?” are banished the moment they arise. This lasts until you get to the third day. Then your hormones crash and the milk comes in and what was left of your person becomes a hardened, tender, sticky mess of bodily fluids, red-brown blood and yellow-white milk, and still that tiny mouth keeps on gnawing.

I am eight years away from the first time I experienced this, five weeks away from the last. It’s taken me until the birth of my third child to admit that it’s been difficult at all. We structure our emotional lives around artificial binaries: public/private, work/leisure, carer/cared for. To become a mother is to leap, definitively, onto the side of the carers, with no possibility of turning back. We pay lip service to the notion that Mum has needs, too. The day my son was born I got given a New Mother’s Pamper Pack: bath oil, body lotion, moisture balm. It sits unused in the bathroom. My son is outraged at the time I spend in the shower or going to the toilet; a “pampering” bath is out of the question. The gift of being one of the cared for, just for a little while, didn’t come with the lotions and potions.

When Charlotte Bevan walked out of Bristol’s St Michael’s Hospital, her daughter Zaani Tiana was four days old. Just enough time for milk to come in, hormones to crash, panic to set in, even for a mother without a history of severe mental illness. Bevan had, according to her mother, been “breastfeeding constantly” and had stopped taking risperidone, the medication used to treat her schizophrenia, in order to avoid passing on the drug to her baby through her milk. Less than an hour after leaving the hospital Bevan is thought to have leaped to her death in Avon Gorge, taking her daughter with her. It is a terrible, shocking waste of two lives. Particularly painful is the fact that, however beneficial breastfeeding might be to infants where the cost to the mother is low, for Bevan the cost was clearly far too high. Regardless of whether her drugs would have saved her, breastfeeding just shouldn’t have been that important.

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Of course, it’s easy to say that now. Still we’re told that breast is best (look, it even rhymes!). However much we might claim that in becoming a mother, in making that irrevocable shift from cared for to carer, certain people (the very ill, people like Bevan) should consider themselves exceptions to the usual rules, this does not necessarily make things easier for them. Our cultural construction of ideal motherhood is based around self-sacrifice; what other way is there? And while so many aspects of this are intangible, at least breastfeeding and not taking medication are measurable acts, enabling one to achieve at least one form of purity.

By all accounts Charlotte Bevan wanted to be a good mother. She may have fallen between the cracks for a number of reasons –lack of mental health resourcing, the inexperience of practitioners, inconsistency in the advice she was given – but she was also a victim of our intolerant, rules-based standards for “good” mothering. No one around her was demanding that she meet these standards, but it would have been impossible for her not to know they existed. Moreover, the more vulnerable one is, the greater the pressure one might feel to conform to them, to prove that, contrary to disablist beliefs about who can be a “fit” mother, one can still be the care giver rather than the cared for (because there is no space in which to be both).

This week, as the inquest into Charlotte and Zaani’s deaths continues, Rethink Mental Illness are publishing the results of a survey of over 1,000 people affected by schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and psychosis. The results show that 89 per cent feel long waits and inadequate care are negatively affecting their lives, by which is meant not just a worsening of symptoms, but a knock-on effect to work and relationships. It is a reminder that prejudice and a lack of resourcing do not just mean schizophrenia patients miss out on care; those around them miss out on the care these people have to offer. It is a cost that is rarely counted due to the assumption that one can only either give or receive.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the Bevan case comes from knowing the close proximity of joy and despair. The early days with a newborn need not be one bewildering, sleep-deprived fog. They can also have a peculiar magic to them. Your baby is a curious little alien, eyes not quite focused on a world in which everything is new. He or she hasn’t yet learned of all the arbitrary divisions we make. You have a creature who knows absolutely nothing and seems all the wiser for it. Amidst the boredom, pain and panic, it’s a wonderful thing to watch. You just need to know the wonder won’t make the dark feelings go away. It’s not a case of either/or. You can be the besotted mother and the person who needs extra support to make life bearable.

On a day-to-day basis I know that I am the carer, my baby is the cared for. My one-month-old is vulnerable in ways I am not. But there are grey areas, places of overlap where such rigid distinctions break down. A mother’s vulnerabilities coexist with her strengths. That first night she spends alone with her baby might be experienced as a baptism of fire, in which she enters a world where here needs come second. Many can and do endure it, but there ought to be a gentler way.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised here, you can contact the Samaritans free by calling 116 123 – all details here