There are two types of first-time mothers: those who have experience with other babies and know what to do with them, and those who have no clue. I was in the latter category. During my pregnancy I was painfully aware of my incompetence with babies; I had no previous experience, no idea how to do things, no confidence in myself – and it was completely overwhelming.

Like most new mothers in my shoes, I turned to parenting experts as a solution and read everything I could possibly find online or in books. But I still felt uncertain and unprepared – and I know many mums can relate.

“Motherhood is socially learned. You can’t learn it from books and experts – you learn it from watching other mothers.”

Despite the endless number of parenting experts and books available to us, the majority of new mothers still feel uncertain about what to do once the baby arrives. Or perhaps not so much with what to do, but how to do it. Why is that? The answer, as I now know, is actually quite simple: motherhood is socially learned. You can’t learn it from books and experts – you learn it from watching other mothers.

We are social beings: we need to feel connected to other people, we need to form meaningful relationships with others, and we need human interaction in order to learn certain things. As it happens, motherhood is one of those things.

The problem is, in our modern times first-time mums often have no lived and felt experience of motherhood and babies until they actually have their own baby literally in their arms and they’re suddenly left wondering, “What do we do now?”

This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with modern mums, or that they’re somehow less capable than mothers of previous generations. This is simply a by-product of modern living. The disappearance of large, extended family units is a phenomenon widely seen in the Western world due to urbanisation and globalisation. We grow up in a nuclear family and often don’t witness our sisters, aunts or cousins taking care of their babies on a day to day basis. We’re busy studying and working and can’t see those friends regularly who had babies before us, simply because we don’t have the time.

Without this exposure to everyday situations where babies are involved we basically feel like we lack a template and don’t know what to do. Turns out we’re not the only species who will struggle without such a template. Let me tell you a story about a gorilla in the Ohio Zoo. This is a true story by the way, which I learned in my postpartum training with Julia Jones.

This gorilla was born and kept in captivity, and later became part of a breeding program. She had her first baby. The zookeepers were really hoping it would all go well but when her baby was born she picked the baby up and held it facing away from her body. She couldn’t figure out how to breastfeed and unfortunately the baby died. The next time she got pregnant the zookeepers were very keen to help her – but of course you can’t help a gorilla with books and experts, can you?

In their desperation they got in touch with the local La Leche League. They asked volunteer breastfeeding mothers to sit in front of the gorilla enclosure and feed their babies. At the beginning the gorilla didn’t pay much attention to the mothers, but as the pregnancy was progressing she started to observe them more and more closely. When her baby was finally born she still wasn’t sure what to do – so the zookeepers quickly rang the volunteer mothers to come with their babies. They got them to sit in front of the enclosure, and this time the gorilla mother was really interested. She was looking at them through the glass and watched as the volunteer mothers picked up their babies and held them to the breast – and she did the same with her baby.

What this story tells us is that parenting is a learned behaviour, and we are not the only species who will struggle without seeing appropriate examples. We learn to mother from the things we see all around us – and if we don’t see much, we feel lost, uncertain, and we think there’s something wrong with us.

“Motherhood is not supposed to happen in isolation.”

But there is nothing wrong with us. It’s just that motherhood is not supposed to happen in isolation. We are social learners and we need to have other mothers around us, we need to be experiencing, watching, observing motherhood around us.

Parenting books and experts have been trying to fill this void. This is the reason why there’s such a staggering number of parenting gurus out there – and yet mothers are still struggling. Books can help, but it’s not quite the same as having other mothers around you. Nothing can replace the experience that you can live, see, and touch.

We learn from watching. We learn from doing. We learn from making mistakes. We learn from getting our hands dirty – even if it feels scary at first.

The best thing you can do to prepare yourself before the baby arrives is hanging out with other mothers. Watch how they interact with their babies, how they respond to their cries, how they breastfeed, how they change the nappy, how they put them down for a nap. Watch and learn. You might not agree with everything they do, perhaps you might make different choices; but at least you will know how you don’t want to parent. That’s a start already.

If you have friends or family with small babies, speak to them, ask if you can help them for a few hours, ask them to show you how they do things. They will be happy to have some company, and you will learn something new and really valuable: it’s a win-win for everyone.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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