The 20th century continued the global historical trend of transferring jobs and money to cities, far away from the agricultural communities that the majority of the world existed in for centuries. The 21st century will only amplify this. As agriculture and manufacturing become more efficient, more and more young people will need to leave their homes in search of financial opportunity miles away from the friends and communities that that have sustained them.
In my own family, my grandmother (Catherine’s daughter) left Scotland as a young girl and moved away for the opportunity of work. There she gave birth to her own children in a city far away from Catherine’s experienced support. Her daughter (my mother) later left her home for similar opportunities, eventually becoming a Mother in a place very different from the one she knew. And me? Same story. The bright lights of the big city beckoned, and I became a Mother miles away from my own.
At the time, I thought it was a great adventure. I was in a big city and creating my new life. A new chapter was beginning. Things seemed pretty swell. Except...
I barely knew anyone in my new home of 19 million people. I was disconnected at best - and at risk for outright isolation if I am telling the truth. Still, I knew that lots of people moved far away from home, for all sorts of reasons. It never once occurred to me that this might be a problem once the baby arrived. The thought of being alone at the most vulnerable period in my life never seemed to be real risk. Until, of course, it was.
Normal life is tough enough without people you can call on for a little laugh or a hug when it’s needed. When you have a tiny life to sustain and haven’t slept more than two hours at a time in six months - solitude becomes painful. Connections with others refuel us and provide a needed respite. In isolation, our worries and pains seem to grow geometrically.
Above all else, we humans are social. We define ourselves by our connections with others. We all need a tribe - and a new Mother, newly arrived, under-packed and under-prepared, on the shores of an enormous experience, needs a tribe acutely. In our rush to improve and move on from our old worlds - are we paying enough attention to how we’ll build new ones when we need them most?
Having a baby today means you are becoming a parent in a time of unprecedented information availability. It can also mean that plenty of well-meaning ‘experts’ are happy to jump in and do the learning for you. Parenting today - like food production, medicine, home building and just about anything else - has become professionalised. It is as much the realm of rarefied high priests and priestesses, wizards and know-it-alls, as it is the Mothers and Fathers who stumble through it.
As a result of this ‘professionalisation’ of parenthood, and my absorption of our cultural preference for ‘experts’ over my own ideas and industry, my confidence in my innate parenting ability when my daughter arrived was at absolute zero. (And I am a confident gal - so that’s saying something.) I couldn’t so much as trust myself to figure out how to get my baby to drink milk without deferring to some professional opinion.
As for Britain’s ancient “folkways” and the wisdom of the ages - well…Not only did my early experience with the ‘intensive parenting industry’ make me feel that I had no clue how to care for my child, I was also made to feel that, due to the modern obsession with “new” - my own (very expert) Mother and Grandmother and Great-Grandmother didn’t have a clue either. That it was incredible any of us made it out of infancy at all.
As a result of all of this well meaning advice from the ivory tower of parenting, I started to feel a little helpless. Me - the great adventurer. That’s not a great place to be beginning the biggest challenge of your life.
I was amazed at how much love I could feel for my new daughter. And totally blindsided by how terrifying the world was now that I had to secure her place in it. My guess is that has been a pretty typical feeling for new Mamas throughout history.
But I became a Mama in a unique time in history. I had the internet. And safety warnings on everything I read. Suddenly, everything whispered “you might screw this up”. I quickly learned that the default way to approach parenting should be assume the worst will happen at all times. Not because it actually does - but because there is so much information out there to let you know that it could. And that’s terrifying. Especially when you don’t have any confidence. So I quickly became a darker, more anxious, pessimist than I had ever been during what should have been a very happy time. Some dark days, the worry shut out the joy. (And remember, I didn’t have many people nearby that I could talk to about this).
So where does this leave our new Mother (a.k.a. me)? Oh yes. Lonely, lacking in confidence, worried and pessimistic (in case you were keeping score.) And no, in case you were wondering, I hadn’t really noticed this change in adventurous, happy go lucky me. Well, at least not in the beginning.
Resources and Resilience
In the practice of physical medicine, an organism’s vulnerability to disease has much to do with it’s physical strength beforehand. The better nourished and rested we are, the more resources we have to call on in our defence and the more likely we are to be resilient in the face of stress.
A year into Motherhood, my maternal mind was not nourished nor was it rested. It was worn down by worry, self-doubt and isolation. And, as happens in any life, things didn’t go according to plan sometimes. I had worked through a litany of stressful events in my life. Yet I had always bounced (or clawed) my way back with my trademark vigour. This time around, I couldn’t seem to scale the wall in front of me. I felt like should have been resilient, but I was not.
My environment had reached its tipping point. On balance, it took away more than it gave. The factors that sustained me were overshadowed by the ones that depleted me. So, instead of bouncing back in a healthy way, I began to crack under the strain.
In hindsight - this was all completely avoidable.
Connection. Outlook. Resilience. Expertise. New words, old concepts. Really old. So old, no one bothers to pay attention to them anymore. Until your mind starts to notice. That in the midst of all of this gleaming modernity - its core necessities are lacking.
You should know, a few years on, I am much better. I really am my old self again. Yet it took a lot of introspection and a few years of research to figure out what happened to me in those darkest of days - and why.
The mind alerts us to unhygienic conditions in the same way the body does. It feels pain. It becomes tired, inflamed and feverish. It withdraws or redirects focus in an attempt to heal. Yet despite these very real signals that an environment is causing us pain, there is little language or protocol available for new mothers to give the problem a name and make improvements.
Change is not new. Humans are adaptable. Yet what feels new today is a growing state of isolation and self doubt as we all work to find a way for ourselves and our families.
It is hard to know what Catherine would have made of the world today. I wonder if she would ask me: In what do you trust? What are your lessons? Who is your tribe? A few years ago I would have told her her I have no idea. That we all make it up as we go along now. So much has been lost along the way.
We doubt she would have found that to be a very satisfactory answer. Neither did we.
So where to begin, sisters?
Perhaps like Catherine, we should put on our spectacles and take a long, hard look at our world through the following lenses:
Connection: For mothers, friendships are big magic, and big medicine. And if the pace of life has taken you far away from your home, the importance of nurturing new relationships is of critical importance. If you take stock of your relationships and feel like they could use a little improvement, follow that lead. Take purposeful steps by ringing up an old friend, striking up a conversation with a new Mother you meet at the park, or finding a group of like-minded Mamas on the web. You don’t have to hit it off with everyone you meet. Yet by taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance with the arrival of a child. It’s not a vanity. Its crucial.
Outlook: If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. The world is awash in information. For a fair few of us, this can create anxiety as the collective experience of millions is distilled into soundbites and relayed to us in an instant.
Yet, being aware and informed does not need to stand in the way of living an enjoyable life. Each of us has a tendency to either see the glass half empty or half full. And each approach (optimism or pessimism) can lead to valuable outcomes in different ways. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook.
Expertise: Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this - and any manner of challenges the world might bring your way tomorrow. Within the parenting realm, we all know what we’re NOT good at. When faced with a weakness (say..making healthy meals) we can chalk it up to an innate talent deficiency and outsource the problem (hello pizza). Or, we can entertain the possibility that a good dose of old fashioned practice would shore up our skill gap and improve our self-confidence at the same time. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Read up on the topic. Try it out. Mess up. Experiment. Try again. And then keep trying. Pay attention the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself as you do get better at practically anything you want to get better at. The practice of parenthood belongs to YOU - not an industry.
Resources and Resilience: Resilience is not a modern invention. It was what helped us cross the oceans and fight off the cave bears. Its no secret that your resilience will be helped by factors much more timeless than your cell phone.
You can’t really know how resilient you are until a challenge presents itself. But you can take an informal inventory of the resources you have to call on, should the world veer stage left. How energising and sustaining are your key relationships? How helpful are your day-to-day attitudes in light of what you are hoping to accomplish? How confident are you in your abilities to handle what the world has in store for you? What aspects of your environment tire you out - and which ones sustain you?
By now, you might be starting to think about the crucial role your mind is playing in Motherhood. How an understanding of the things we can’t see, or maybe even name (but can nevertheless feel) can have a resounding impact on our well-being. How the world of a Mother is impacted as much by the environment she inhabits as it is by the objects she can acquire. And how wellness can be made by design.
Anywhere a Mother’s mind is not given the same due as her body, Motherhood is not - yet - a truly healthy endeavour.
Yet we have every reason to be optimistic. As a society, we have the tools and the impetus to get there. One hundred years on from 1915, it’s our turn to push things forward. We think Catherine would approve.
Read more about bringing together confidence, outlook, expertise and resilience to prepare for this new stage in your life, here.
Luthans, F., Youssef, C. & Avolio, B. (2007) Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Edge. Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M.P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. Vintage.