By Naomi Stadlen – Central London Group, UK
Once, each of us was a baby, as soft as those born to us. So the La Leche League phrase “Softening into motherhood” is a return to a way that we used to know well.
Many of us didn’t know we had grown harder until our arms felt the tenderness of our newborns. La Leche League recognises that we change: “Most of us are used to being in charge, if not of a department or workstation, then at least of how we structure the loose ends of our day.”  Paid work usually means doing a task within a set time. We may have to work quickly to focus on that and nothing else, so we can finish in time. Too slow and we risk losing job and payment. No wonder, then, that we have learned to become a bit harder.
At a La Leche League monthly meeting, a group of mothers discussed “Softening into motherhood”. 
Mother: I like working to a schedule. But when my baby was born, I had to become more flexible.
Many of us discover that a clock-schedule, essential for many jobs, doesn’t help breastfeeding. A newborn feeds well when hungry, which can be at any time. He may be deeply asleep exactly when his mother has scheduled time to feed him. And she may also have scheduled a time for the feed to end. However, her baby may need longer at her breast. Once urgent hunger is satisfied, calmer sucking may transport him to a state of relaxed bliss. So keeping to her schedule can lead to a battle. The mother may win, but by overruling her baby’s needs. However, if she softens and allows herself, when possible, to respond to her baby’s timing, the two of them can live in harmony. 
Mother: You are answering a baby’s needs. If you don’t give them what they need, you get a big battle.
When a mother answers her baby’s needs, she usually finds she has to prioritise them. Her other plans will have to wait. She may grumble: “I had to feed the baby, so then it made me late for my appointment.” However, she must have weighed her choices and decided to feed her baby, even though she knew it might make her late.
Mother: I tell myself to ‘go with the flow’.
Another mother: From their perspective they need us. If I go out of the door, I could have gone to New Zealand as far as a baby is concerned. They can’t do a thing about it. They need to know their food’s there, comfort’s there. When they get what they need, they’re happy.
When a mother keeps fulfilling her baby’s needs, he gazes at her with a look of adoration for the wonderful person she is. She may not expect to be seen like that. She may be critical of how she looks, of her abilities, and much else. Yet mothers who allow themselves to receive their babies’ loving gaze, report that self-criticisms seem to melt away. It’s an extraordinary experience of softness and peace.
Mother: I feel so moved at the way my baby looks at me with her big undefended eyes.
Another mother: I met up with my ante-natal group last week. We were much more guarded when we were pregnant. Now everyone had softened.
Softening can mean recovering a lost and very sensitive part of our potential. When we regain it, we change. Many new mothers report feeling almost too sensitive, easily overwhelmed by tragic news items which seemed normal before motherhood. As they – we – get used to this softened sensitivity, we notice injustices, not only in worldwide situations but in our daily lives. Our human compassion is aroused. Just as a baby’s suck feels soft, yet strong, so our softness can be the source of our strength. We may find new energy to engage with our lives.
Unfortunately, family and friends often misunderstand the connection between mother and baby, and urge her to stop being “so soft” on him. Most mothers have “back-seat drivers” who take a view on whatever she decides.
Mother: I was told to lay my baby down in her cot and pat her chest, and she would go to sleep. So, I patted her chest, but she didn’t fall asleep. I needed to soften up and take her into bed with me. But my family were all telling me I was doing the wrong thing.
A mother can then feel confused and critical, not of her baby but of herself.
Mother: I have an inner critic. When I’m tired, it gets noisier and noisier and noisier. I try to be kind to myself.
Me: How do you do that?
Mother: I say, would I talk like that to my friend?
Me: And would you?
Many of us are hard on our mothering selves. We are doing responsible work, and it’s easy to see how we could do better. Who hasn’t had moments of being angry with herself for something she should (or shouldn’t) have done? Who hasn’t been alone with a distraught baby or child, feeling like a terrible mother? Who doesn’t need a comforting friend to balance her sense of shortcoming by reminding her of all the good things she has done?
During the pandemic, many mothers are unable to visit one another to share confidences, a meal, and to enable their children to play together. Without this comfort, mothering can be more difficult. Don’t we need to be fair, not just to our children, not just to our society, but to ourselves? Whenever we notice something we could have done better, there must be something else to remember that we did well.
Mother: It helps me to say nice things about tiny details of my mothering. Then I feel good about what I did.
Besides, the closeness of the breastfeeding relationship is one way in which our children can become sensitive to our feelings. If we are hard on ourselves, we may be giving our children an unintended message that we are kind to them but not to ourselves. What will they make of that?
Mother: I’ve learned to be kinder to myself when things aren’t going according to plan. Often, I think I should have managed better and that’s when I… [She mimed an explosion.] And whenever I’m kinder to myself, I’ve noticed that my son is always happier.
We and our children are connected to each other. So the La Leche League phrase “Softening into motherhood” can’t mean only being kind to our children. It must also mean kindness to ourselves.
Naomi Stadlen has three children and three grandchildren. For thirty years, she has led the Central London Group La Leche League GB. She is the author of What Mothers Do – especially when it looks like nothing (2004); How Mothers Love – and how relationships are born (2011); and What Mothers Learn – without being taught (2020). The first two books have been approved by La Leche League International, and the third book is under review. Naomi lives with her husband in London, UK. They are both existential psychotherapists.
References and Notes
1. La Leche League International. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 8th revised edition. Edited by Diane Wiessinger, Diana West and Teresa Pitman. New York, USA: Random House/Ballantine Books. 2010; 153.
2. Quotes from mothers are from the notes I took during a La Leche Leader Great Britain series meeting on “Softening into motherhood.” Permission has been granted to use their words.
3. With apologies to female babies, I have used the male pronoun to make a clear distinction between mother and baby.