I'm still reading Mothering the New Mother, and I'll admit there are times when the book makes me a little uneasy because it really does put a huge emphasis on supporting mothers in ways that go so far above and beyond the cultural norm. Why does this bother me? Because we've all seen narcissistic, selfish mothers who treat their children more like lifestyle accessories. On some level it feels as though all this nurturing and support and understanding must surely turn into flat out pandering. It can also be hard to see someone else get something that we didn't have - witness my moment of out and out anger when I saw that another postpartum friend's mom was doing her laundry for her. No one was doing our laundry. Why is she so special?
So here's the dilemma. On one hand we have mothers who are so fixated on their experience that they aren't willing to do what's best for their child. They ignore medical advice, spend money on useless designer crap, and in general turn their experience into a true Bridezilla sequel. On the other hand we have mothers who are turned lose into a largely atomized culture and expected to thrive with very little support or encouragement. Both approaches betray a cultural and/or personal ignorance of or indifference to the needs of motherhood.
What we need are the dual expectations that mothers will in fact pour themselves into their children and seek their good combined with the expectation that older women in the community will in turn pour themselves into this younger mother. What I'm seeing from other cultures, from this book, and from the Bible itself is that motherhood is like some vast stream that catches us up and bears us onwards. When the Bible says that older women should teach the younger women to love their kids and husbands and take care of their homes I'll admit I've often thought of it in the sense of older women laying down the law about how these younger women need to step it up and stop complaining and being lazy. Upon reflection though, I think a gentler connotation is warranted. The ESV says "and so train the young women." That's a lot of what this book is talking about - training mothers to be good at being moms. Instead of grandmothers and aunts and cousins skipping a generation to pour all their love and attention into these new babies, they need to step back and take a look at the mom and make sure that she's equipped to be a good mother.
Unfortunately Titus 2 women seem about as rare as snowflakes in Florida, and we find many younger women existing in a state of benign neglect. I say benign neglect because I rather doubt these older women don't care that their friends and daughters are struggling with motherhood, but it's also neglect in that these older women are failing to do what they ought to do. I'll confess that the more I think about it and see evidence of it the less patience I have with even benign neglect. In some ways it's gentle nature almost makes it more virulent - it's harder to complain about someone who brings over a casserole and coos at your baby even if that person leaves you feeling lonely and frustrated at their lack of understanding and support. In my own life I've seen this play out in very similar fashions with two women who could not be more dissimilar in how they otherwise love and care for people. One person is a giver, and the other is a narcissist - they neither of them understand how to mother the new mother.
Grandmothers and great aunts and old cousin and sisters and the like have a crucial role to play in postpartum care, and they fill that role best when they look first to the mom and then to the child. An infant doesn't really "need" a grandmother, but he surely needs a mother who is encouraged and supported and feels capable of loving and nurturing him. In that sense, a grandmother who coos at her granddaughter while ignoring her own daughter's needs is being just as selfish as a mother who "needs" a certain type of birth. I think it's entirely possible that our current postpartum culture is partially the fault of grandmotherly selfishness, but because this selfishness manifests itself in lots of cooing and baby snuggles we either can't or don't see it for what it is. It needs to stop though. These babies do need the love and wisdom of older generations, but the way they most need that love and wisdom initially is poured out through the care their own mothers receive.