By Eden Anderson – Edinburgh, UK
Naomi Stadlen. What Mothers Learn – without being taught. London: Little, Brown Book Group. 2020. ISBN 9780349412443. Paperback, 296 pages.
“Many women today can’t afford to give much time to being mothers, and some don’t see the point of it either. The qualities that enable a woman to get ahead in her career are different from those that enable a woman to connect to her child. Yet these motherly qualities add a whole new dimension to our way of being. Many women don’t realise how much they benefit.
What Mothers Learn is written to show, first, how learning to be a mother takes time, and then what a wonderful experience it can be. It also makes the case that, if enough of us agree that mothering is necessary, we must find a way to support those mothers financially who want to devote enough time to it – or simply time to try it.” 
Best-selling author and La Leche League (LLL) Leader Naomi Stadlen has plenty more to say in What Mothers Learn – without being taught, her third book on mothers. The publication of her first two books, What Mothers Do – especially when it looks like nothing (2004) and How Mothers Love – and how relationships are born (2011), marked Stadlen as a gifted observer of what it means to mother a child and as a sophisticated exponent of the value of mothering. What Mothers Learn continues this basic premise, but focuses on a little-researched topic: what mothers learn without being taught.
Naomi Stadlen is an existential psychotherapist, working mainly with parents of young children, who has conducted ‘Mothers Talking’ groups at the Active Birth Centre, London, UK since 1991. She also holds monthly LLL meetings in central London.
A journey guided by the words of mothers
Reading What Mothers Learn is a journey with Stadlen via the anonymised words of mothers as recorded in these discussion groups – a fascinating foundation for a book and one which will resonate with LLL Leaders and a general audience alike.
The women are self-selected, from many countries and different family backgrounds. Stadlen synthesizes the spoken insights of these hundreds of mothers with calm, authoritative guidance showing the breadth of learning achieved by mothers themselves. In the course of almost 300 pages, Stadlen subtly draws you toward her point of view: the injustice that is the social demotion which women experience upon becoming mothers, the pervasive disrespect, the lack of remuneration.
Looking at mothering from a different perspective
In the chapters ‘Am I still a feminist?’, ‘Is mothering a spiritual experience?’, ‘Fathers in flux’, ‘When are you coming back to work?’, Stadlen addresses such topics without judging the mothers’ accounts, but bringing an acute sense of justice to their worth. Her knowledge of feminist authors, historical and contemporary, is woven gracefully throughout the book. She discusses the struggle for equality with men and liberation from confinement to home and family, and the less well-known feminist recognition that childbirth and breastfeeding can be empowering.
In the end, she asks, “Can we feminists learn to accept ourselves with our differences and combine our strong points in the unfinished struggle for equality and choice?”  Negotiation, time management, intelligent thinking, relational skills: Stadlen says employers should head hunt returning mothers for their payrolls. Chapter by chapter, the reader gradually tunes into the perspective that the essential work of a mother, relating to her child and creating a two-way conversation, is of unrecognised value to society. Mothers bringing up their children to understand our shared humanity, to be humane and sensible adults surely must be of extraordinary worth.
The value of mothering
What Mothers Learn touches and provokes thought at many levels of relevance to anyone pondering the value of mothering and struggling with its economics and the social perceptions surrounding it. Stadlen focuses on uniting mothers, neither categorising nor identifying them as single, LGBTQ+, heterosexual, adoptive, divorced, intended (via surrogacy), having conceived via IVF or receiving other fertility treatments, or in other myriad circumstances. This may be a point of challenge, but it is entirely deliberate on the author’s part. In all of her books, she says, “[she] has tried to keep mothers together as a whole group, with a lot in common”.
Otherwise, the book is well-referenced, indexed, and with a bibliography; this work is essential reading for mothers and particularly for those involved with La Leche League. One hopes that Stadlen’s thesis on the significance of mother work will not go unheard in the public sphere.
Eden Anderson co-leads La Leche League Edinburgh. She has been a Leader since 1988, living in Toronto, in Honolulu, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then relocating to the UK (2008). She and her husband have three adult sons and one baby grandson, seen mainly via video link with London. Eden was Chair of La Leche League GB from 2014 to 2020, and soon after was appointed Honorary Director.
1. Naomi Stadlen. What Mothers Learn – without being taught. London: Little, Brown Book Group. 2020; 2,3.
2. Naomi Stadlen. What Mothers Learn – without being taught. London: Little, Brown Book Group. 2020; 130.