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Interview with Naomi Stadlen author of 'What Mothers Do (especially when it looks like nothing)' and 'How Mothers Love'

A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to meet the wonderful Naomi Stadlen, author of our favourite (life-changing) parenting book 'What Mothers Do (especially when it looks like nothing)'. As well as writing books, Naomi also facilitates a fantastic groups for mothers at The Active Birth Centre in Archway so we went along to her group to see what goes on there and then followed up with an interview. You can read all about it here.

We've mentioned previously how excellent we think What Mothers Do is (you can read our review here) and we are not alone in this. The Guardian wrote that it is the 'best book on parenting - brilliantly insightful' and Anne Diamond said after reading it that "I wish I'd had this book years ago - to show bosses who didn't understand, to friends who couldn't grasp why I was permanently tired and even to myself". We've even heard of mothers who have sent it to their husbands to read so that they can help them to understand what they are going through on becoming a mum for the first time (and why the laundry is never done!)

At the time I wrote the review of the book I had no idea that Naomi was in fact a North London local and ran the Mothers Talking group that the book is based on from the Active Birth Centre in Archway. Once I found this out however, I knew that I had to go along to see the group for myself and to meet Naomi in person. Fortunately this coincided with the release of her new book How Mothers Love which explores the mother-child relationship in even more detail and examines how the relationship develops and impacts on both parent and child.

I read How Mothers Love before going along to the group and really enjoyed it. It seemed to me to build on the themes of What Mothers Do rather than being an entirely new book but was similarly comforting and interesting - helping me to see my mothering in a new and more positive light. In particular I loved the first chapter which explores how mothers make 'heartroom' for their babies once they are born - a lifelong shift to a new way of loving someone.

Mothers Talking takes place every Thursday morning at The Active Birth Centre in Archway and also every Monday afternoon at Born in Stoke Newington. I was quite unsure as to what it would be like when I got there - I usually find sharing in group situations fairly anxiety inducing, especially when I don't know the people I'm talking to. Luckily I had my one year old along with me (children can come along as long as they are not old enough to understand what you are talking about) and she helped me to break the ice by crawling all around the room and trying to sit on the other mothers' laps. Naomi herself is also an excellent facilitator. She is welcoming, kind and calm and puts everyone at ease. The concept of the group is very simple. Naomi asks each mother how her week has been and we go around the circle in turn telling her about the ups and downs of our weeks with our children.

There were six of us there the week that I was there and I quickly felt comfortable with this lovely group of women. We were all at different stages - from those with just one child, to those with three - but all had much common ground in the issues that cropped up around sleep, feeding, sibling rivalry, relationships with partners etc. I came out of the session feeling quite buoyed by the experience and comforted that most things I worry about are quite universal and quite natural. I could definitely see how the groups have informed Naomi's excellent books.

After the session, I sent Naomi the interview questions. She wrote back the next day and told me that it was exactly twenty one years ago that night that she had been preparing for her first Mother's Talking session the next day. She worked out that over the years that had been about 1300 meetings! Naomi's words are shown in blue and my questions in black:

It's interesting that you wrote to me tonight. Twenty-one years ago tonight, I was extremely nervous because I was starting the first meeting - called Open Morning for Mothers and Babies that first time - next morning. My husband took me out for a coffee in Highgate that evening to discuss why I was anxious. 'I don't know why,' I said, when we had run through several possibilities. 'That's just the trouble. I feel sure there will be all kinds of pitfalls and I don't know what they will be.'

I found out very quickly once I started. I had been right to have felt anxious. New mothers are very sensitive. They need to be, in order to guide their babies into the complexities of human social life. But their sensitivity means that they can be easily hurt, either by me or by another mother, and I needed to be quick to address difficult situations.

Firstly I wondered if you could tell me what inspired you to start Mothers Talking in the first place and then to write What Mothers Do?
Janet Balaskas, founder of the Active Birth Centre, invited me to start the meetings that became Mothers Talking. She said she wanted mothers who came to her ante-natal classes to be able to continue talking to one another after their babies were born. 'I haven't time to organise it,' she said. 'But I thought you might like to.' She was right. It was exactly what I wanted to do. But I hadn't thought of this until she suggested it.
My own children were all at school. I felt that learning to be a mother had been an immense experience and I wanted to write about it. I hoped that Mothers Talking would bring me more understanding, and slowly it did. However, it took me nine years to complete What Mothers Do, and earlier versions have been rejected by many London publishers. Looking back, I'm glad it was difficult to find a publisher. It's a much better book for all the rewriting that went into it.

What do you think is the main thing that mothers take from the Mothers Talking group?
I hope the main thing that mothers take home with them after a Mothers Talking meeting is renewed energy for the challenges of being a mother, and also the awareness of doing work that is priceless.
My first job was working as a copy-editor for Penguin Books, and we used to have departmental meetings. I used the basic structure of these publishing meetings for Mothers Talking. I had started by expecting that the publishing meetings would turn out to be a waste of time. There weren't enough hours to keep up with all our work, so how could we spend a whole morning listening to one another's progress reports? However, we were always taken into an attractive meeting room and offered hot drinks in flowery cups. The tone of the meetings was relaxed. By the end, we felt connected to one another, and had far more energy to work. So I noticed I made much better use of my time than before the meeting.
I hope mothers feel this sense of connection to one another, and an exciting increase of energy when they get up to go home.

Do you ever get bored of listening to mothers talking (presumably about similar things) week after week?

Mothers often tell me they are sure I must get bored. It's true that issues of feeding and sleeping are discussed often. But, no, I don't get bored. The social context in which we discuss these issues is constantly shifting and changing, so last week's discussion may no longer be relevant for this week.

If you could pass on just one message from your books to our readers, what would it be?

Your way of being a good mother is unique to you. Only you can discover your own way, and only you can update it, to adjust to the way your child is developing. Books for mothers are often very didactic, yet no one could possibly dictate how you 'should' mother. 
We really enjoyed meeting Naomi and attending Mothers Talking and recommend that you try out a meeting and see if it is for you.  
Have you read Naomi's books or been to Mothers Talking? We'd love to hear your views. 

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