Words: Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Throughout history, the most brutal cultures have always been distinguished by maternal-infant separation. Like almost every other woman I know, I once perceived motherhood as the consolation prize for women who didn’t have what it took to make it in the workplace. In her mid-thirties, a girlfriend – now, ironically, a family-cultivating politician – dismissed mothers as “drudges” and “breeders”. To us, being a mother was acceptable only if motherhood was not one’s raison d’etre. As a sidebar mention, it passed muster; as a passion, it indicated only a paucity of capacity and imagination.

In the West, this perceptual template is now near-universal. The nurturance of a child is considered a squandering of the educated and the elite. Female high-achievers now hunger for “challenges” in place of connections. British economist Alison Wolf reported that women now make up the majority of undergraduates in the West. “There are now four women graduating with bachelors degrees in the US for every three men,” she wrote. “In the UK, almost 60 per cent of students, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, are female.” An American study of Harvard and Radcliffe graduates demonstrated that women “increasingly delayed marriage as the decades progressed, and nearly 40 per cent of women in all three groups never had children at all.”

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer recently referred to mothers raising their own children as a “lifestyle decision”, as if it were on a par with nudism or polyamory. This perspective is reinforced by the behaviour of women we admire. A week after giving birth to her third son, Cate Blanchett – the most celebrated actor of her generation – was addressing a summit. Rachida Dati, a minister in former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet, returned to parliament in heels five days after a Caesarean, a procedure now classed as major surgery. And actor Halle Berry, pregnant with her second child, said, “After giving birth I will go back to work as soon as possible. When I got Nahla I took time off for almost four years. But now that job-wise everything is going so well, I definitely want to keep on working.” (Her depiction of babies as impediments to a woman’s primary purpose is made clear by a related headline: Halle won’t let baby stop her.)

The Chancellor recently referred to mothers raising their own children as a “lifestyle decision”, as if it were on a par with nudism

Singer Lily Allen was similarly frank about her desperation to return to the unthreatening world of praise and objects. Of her two daughters, then under three, she said: “I love my children, but I’m a very impatient, busy person naturally so two babies, neither of them can talk, it was quite boring! … I missed the positive feedback about my music from my fans. I missed the rush of performing. I missed the free clothes and handbags and the good tables in posh restaurants. I did!”

Such responses are unsurprising given the menial status of motherhood. Our cultural take on both success and heroism – the ideals of any civilisation – reflect a prejudice that is staggering in its latitude. Throughout human history, heroic conduct in particular has almost exclusively been attributed to men; women are generally only considered heroic in the context of wartime and even then, in token numbers. Despite the fact that heroism pivots on courage, self-sacrifice and the reservation of other lives, the billions of mothers who have died in childbirth have been forgotten.

Despite the mortal risk, there is no gravity attributed to motherhood. Instead, it continues to be almost universally disparaged by feminists and sentimentalised by men. In 2013, four times as many women died giving birth around the world than there were casualties in the Syrian Civil War, and yet there were no headlines, crisis bulletins, aid packages or expressions of public outrage. The 293,000 women who die in pregnancy and childbirth every year (and the seven to ten million who suffer severe or chronic illnesses caused by pregnancy-related complications) do so without public recognition of any kind. There is no statuary. There are no wreaths, medals, processions. Residents do not stand in silence for the mothers who have fallen.

It would be considered demeaning to present a veteran of war with bows and candy to commemorate his service, but women who have almost haemorrhaged to death, whose sexual organs have been irreparably damaged through episiotomies, whose bladders are perforated during c-sections, who have been rendered incontinent, paralysed by epidurals, suffered ost Traumatic Stress Disorder after botched c-sections or spiralled into an incapacitating postpartum depression in the service of their families are presented with similarly infantilising tributes by their partners every Mothers’ Day. (For those who consider such situations exceptional or outlandish: the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that 94 per cent of American women who gave birth in 2008 had “some sort of pregnancy complication” resulting in an expenditure of USD17.4 billion).

There is no gravity attributed to motherhood. Instead, it continues to be almost universally disparaged by feminists and sentimentalised by men

The seriousness of childbirth on every level – emotional, spiritual, physical – for mothers is not only ignored, but effectively derided. “Congrats! You’ve had the baby … now what?” Fitness magazine trumpeted, before suggesting that “the general rule of thumb is to head back to the gym six weeks after birth”. Implicit in advice like this – and it is everywhere – is the understanding that having a baby is an event like any other (“now what?”), that a mother’s instinct to place her infant’s needs before her own is old hat (“the general rule of thumb”), and that it is not only acceptable but correct for a mother to separate from her baby. The extent of this disconnection is made clear by the popularity of 000-sized onesies printed with the words, “Get off Facebook and feed me!”

Maternal/child attachment is mostly eroded in increments. The separation begins in hospitals, where mothers are not only made to feel inferior to medical professionals in relation to their infants, but regularly separated from their infants for examinations, bathing and so on. One mother I know remains traumatised by her experience of giving birth in an elegant private hospital. “My son’s Apgar scores were actually very good,” she said, “but he was immediately whisked off to NICU without me even having had a chance to greet him. They did wheel him past me on the way out so that they could tick the box that I had seen my son. While being stitched up, I thought: ‘I feel like I have had my appendix out, not a baby.’ I didn’t get to experience my baby at all.”

She was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her premature baby again until the next day as they had no-one to wheel her to NICU. Despite having had a c-section, she was determined to spend time with her newborn son and, against all advice, staggered three floors down. “I just sat there talking to him and trying to touch him,” she remembered. “I was forbidden from holding him. They repeatedly told me that I wasn’t permitted to hold him because he was too fragile and it it was too much trouble to move all the equipment. And, as my son had no suck reflex, I was made to feel redudant by the staff. I was a nuisance; I got in the way of them performing their jobs. Bonding, love and warmth had no value to them at all.” She wept as she recalled watching as a nurse almost ripped a strip of skin from her son’s face as she removed the tape for his breathing tube.

In her new book, the Australian journalist writes that "we need to decide what constitutes a good life, and then adjust our lives – and policies – accordingly"

Shamefully, human beings are the only mammals to separate mothers from their infants. Dr. John Krystal, rofessor of Psychiatry and Neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, described the impact of maternal separation on the infant as “profound”, citing the recent discovery that the autonomic activity (heart rate and other involuntary nervous system activity) of two-day-old sleeping babies is 176 er cent higher during maternal separation. “We knew that this was stressful but the current study suggests that this is major physiologic stressor for the infant,” he concluded.

The association of maternal-infant separation with developmental havoc is not new. Scientists have, for many decades, separated newborn animals from their mothers to study the resulting damage to the evolving brain. And yet despite the evidence, little difference has been made to the way mothers and babies are treated, both by hospitals and by society at large. This separation has a trickle-down effect, resulting in a disastrous chronological apartheid.

Children are placed in care and then in school (in Britain, policy wonk Paul Kirby has gone so far as to suggest extending the school day from nine to six); adults work themselves into cardiac arrests alongside their coevals, and the old are stored in aged-care facilities until their expiry dates are up. That which is lost in the wash is love. There is a world of difference between the experience of “care” – the wiping of a bottom, the bathing of a body: basic biological obligations – and the intimacy that makes us want to live. Willingly, we are scripting simple happiness out of our lives.

Arguably the most destructive facet of this attitude is our cultural repudiation of maternal sensitivity, a quality that can only evolve through quiet, calm, sustained proximity to one’s baby. The very matrix of our ability to love and bond in later life, maternal sensitivity – or lack thereof – also determines cultural tenor. Throughout history, the most brutal cultures have always been distinguished by maternal-infant separation. And yet how can maternal sensitivity develop when we effectively bully mothers into returning to the workforce before their uteri have even had time to shrink? This bullying takes various forms, from shaming – some of it disguised as concern (“Aren’t you worried that you’ll lose your place on the ladder?”); some of it indirect (“What’s your post-baby body plan?”) – to financial manipulation (“Surely you want your child to have the best?”).

The post-partum confinement period – a 30 to 40 day tradition in many countries – is necessary to allow mothers adjust to motherhood at a pace conducive to maternal-infant bonding

Two working mothers I knew – warm, vital, exhausted – were discussing mothering children under five. “I feel terrible admitting this,” one exclaimed, “but looking after the children just isn’t enough.” Intrigued, I asked if she felt that motherhood was in itself insufficiently stimulating or whether she felt dispirited by the social response to motherhood. My question surprised her, and she paused. “Everyone thinks you’re boring if you talk about children,” she savagely said.

In Erin Brockovich, the 2000 biographical film that won Julia Roberts an Academy Award for Best Actress, the protagonist, a harried, working-class single mother of three, is asked why she won’t quit her improbably demanding job. “How can you ask me to do that?” she asks. “This job – for the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. Up in Hinkley, I walk into a room and everyone shuts up just to hear what I got to say. I never had that. Ever. Don’t ask me to give it up.”

American director Brad Bird concurred with this damning analysis. Of the reaction to his editor wife’s decision to dedicate herself to their children, he recalled: “When you’re talking about work, everyone could connect with that – everyone GOT it, but once she said she was a mother, that she worked in the house, their eyes glazed over, and they kind of dismissed what she did.”

Such dismissals are a form of bullying with which all mothers are familiar. Intimidated, we reframe our vulnerability into socially acceptable formats. Under the heading, “When is it appropriate to leave newborn to return to work?” a frightened new mother implored the internet: “The thought of it makes me want to cry my eyes out, but I can’t take any more depending on my hubby and family for everything! It makes me feel completely miserable! I was always the type of girl to work for her money so I could buy what I want without anyone telling me otherwise!”

The bar is now set by technology: jarring, bright, near-instantaneous. Intimacy, on the other hand, is quiet, slow

Using money as a metaphor for mastery over her world – the postpartum body is also a popular metaphor – this woman reached out to a universe of similarly overwhelmed strangers to no avail. What she really needed was tenderness and guidance to help her connect with her baby; what she got was glib replies about women easily leaving newborns and emotionally frozen complaints about “boredom”. At the most vulnerable time of their lives, mothers are repeatedly failed by the community.

The post-partum confinement period – a 30 to 40 day tradition throughout China, Greece, India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam – is necessary not only to allow mothers to recuperate from the almost incomprehensible energetic expenditure that giving birth to a child entails, but to adjust to motherhood at a pace conducive to maternal-infant bonding. Hurried through the process – often in the unfamiliar environs of a hospital – women in their millions are failing to give birth without intervention, and to breastfeed.

The magnitude of the childbirth experience has been minimised for economic purposes, blighting an experience that could otherwise be infused with the purest bliss. Our cultural de-emphasising of joy and pleasure in relation to the maternal/infant bond has numerous ramifications. As the relationship that determines our ability to accept ourselves in all of our flawed humanity is weakened, so is our ability to accept others in theirs; in that, a lessening of our capacity to love and to be loved. For what is the unhurried love of a mother if not complete acceptance of our ineptitude, of our fragility? Only maternal love can create that sense of security.

Michel Odent, the architect of water births, believes that our oxytocin system – oxytocin being the hormone of love, fundamental to birth and bonding throughout life – is growing weaker, and with catastrophic results. Our culture has come to be defined by adrenaline. In every area of our lives, we are jump-started, from the way in which we awaken (strong coffee, blaring alarms, television, radio) to the way in which we mate (Tinder, Grindr, Blendr, Tingle and so on).

But babies cannot be jump-started, and therein lies the fracture. The Google doctrine stipulates that, “[f]ast is better than slow,” but the veneration of acceleration is one of the greatest obstacles to intimacy and, perhaps, the most toxic in terms of parenting. An accelerated existence not only allows no time to consider either priorities or choices, but precludes deeply caring about those priorities or choices. Life just comes at us, and we react.

The bar is now set by technology: jarring, bright, near-instantaneous. Intimacy, on the other hand, is quiet, slow. Attachment is the sum of repeated exposure, vulnerability, the consolidation of trust. There is no expediting love. And it is precisely at this point that our culture has started to fall apart. The fact that there is a need to specify attachment in relation to parenting tells us everything we need to know about the rupture between twenty-first century man and his heart. Emotion is no longer placed at the centre of human identity, which puts the very value of humanity at risk.

Professor Bruce Perry, the renowned child mental health researcher, stated that the most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which he sees as “absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love and procreate”. This capacity is, he carefully explained, “related to the organisation and functioning of specific arts of the human brain. Just as the brain allows us to see, smell, taste, think, talk and move, it is the organ that allows us to love – or not. The systems in the human brain that allow us to form and maintain emotional relationships develop during infancy and the first years of life”.

Researcher David Metler agreed, finding that while there are almost no universal theories in Human Development and Family Studies as each depends on context and culture, there is something “very special” about attachment theory: supported by a substantial number of important empirical studies across various cultures and contexts, “the theory seems universal for humans.”

Effective mothering requires not only a sustained investment of energy into the child by the mother, but a equal investment of energy into the mother by her partner, family and community

In essence, attachment theory began taking shape during the Second World War, when Anna Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic child psychology (and Sigmund’s daughter), observed that children who had been separated from their families for safe-keeping during the Blitz were suffering developmental issues. Despite the sometimes superior physical and intellectual ministering they received, these children were subject to fits of aggression, emotional withdrawal, headbanging, bed-wetting and soiling, tantrums, regression and other behavioural disturbances. They were, Freud realised, reacting to the disruption of their attachments, and she wrote movingly of the lack of adult appreciation for “the depth and seriousness of this grief of a small child.”

Freud laid the groundwork for psychiatrist John Bowlby’s exploration of the issue. In 1951, Bowlby, now known as the father of attachment theory, changed the landscape of developmental psychology with his powerful monograph for the World Health Organisation. In it, he emphasised that it is “essential” for the mental health of the infant and young child to “experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. Given this relationship, the emotions of anxiety and guilt, which in excess characterise mental illness, will develop in a moderate and organised way.”

In short: Germaine Greer’s assertion that “[b]ringing up children is not a real occupation, because children come up just the same, brought up or not” could not be further from the truth. Parental devotion has an irreversible impact on children. Only 20 to 25 per cent of the brain is complete at birth, and even then, only in terms of autonomic function (heart rate, breathing, etc.); the rest of the brain is literally formed by the infant’s experience of love or by its absence.

Newborns have been shown to be so vulnerable that they are now referred to “external foetuses”; in evolutionary terms, this allows babies to be “customised” to enable adaptation to their environment and circumstance. The first three years of life in particular are critical in terms of shaping both the capacity to form loving relationships in adulthood and the stability that makes happiness possible.

“Empathy, caring, sharing, inhibition of aggression, capacity to love and a host of other characteristics of a healthy, happy and productive person are related to the core attachment capabilities which are formed in infancy and early childhood,” Perry noted. Given that this is the case, the current epidemic of disconnection makes it clear that our current child-rearing methods do not equip us with the capacity to sustain intimacy. Certain biochemical systems – the stress response and emotional systems among them – can be set in what sychotherapist Sue Gerhardt describes as “an unhelpful way” if a child’s early experiences of care-giving are inconsistent, insensitive or indifferent. Gerhardt added, “Even the growth of the brain itself, which is growing at its most rapid rate in the first year and a half, may not progress adequately if the baby doesn’t have the right conditions to develop.”

We need to rally around mothers on an individual and a cultural level, enabling them to bond with their babies so that the next generation does not suffer

To be abandoned by mother in infancy – the neonatal brain is wired by evolution to interpret being left even only briefly as abandonment – not only damages our ability to connect with others (expression of need equals abandonment), but creates the sense of self-loathing that can destroy a life (through substance abuse, depression, anxiety disorders). Concomitantly, the World Health Organisation reported that suicide rates have increased by 60 per cent since 1945. In such a climate, is it surprising that American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that the rate of face-lifts – the reconstruction of the identity we present to the world – has increased by 50 per cent?

The media has been the fall guy for what is really a First World epidemic of self-loathing. When mothers find themselves isolated in the suburbs from status – and by partners forced to work hours historian Stephanie Coontz describes as “insane” – they can feel as if they’re drowning. Because effective mothering requires not only a sustained investment of energy into the child by the mother, but a equal investment of energy into the mother by her partner, family and community. The change we need demands a revision of priorities.

We need to decide what constitutes a good life, and then adjust our lives – and policies – accordingly. As palliative care worker Bronnie Ware noted, one of the top five regrets of the dying is working too hard (“[People realise that they] missed their children’s youth”). To achieve change, we need to start at the beginning. We need to rally around mothers on an individual and a cultural level, enabling them to bond with their babies so that the next generation does not suffer the wounds that have made ours so dysfunctional.

Maternal vulnerability is neither indolence nor a sexist myth, but a normal response to our most sacred duty. Critically, we need to redefine our understanding of importance to include love, and to understand that far from being drudges, mothers are, in fact, creating the very tenor of our future.

Foreword take from MAMA Love, Motherhood and Revolution by Antonella Gambotto-Burke. Published by Pinter & Martin, July 2015

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