The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art celebrates the Mother-Artist. The MAMAs column is dedicated to sharing the stories of all things Mother*+Artist – personal and universal, integral and peripheral, iterative and ongoing, purposeful and playful. May you find yourself here. Welcome!
by Catherine Mueller
*Statement of inclusion at end of page.
Everybody Ought to Have a Jane
First in a series: Call + Response, Reclaiming the Lost Village
Sarah Beasley and I have been friends since the 9th grade, somehow discovering each other during lunch at our small progressive public high school in Nashville, TN. Without revealing exactly how long ago that was, I will share that several decades have passed. When we met she had waist length hair, played the flute, and was unwaveringly kind. I had braces, my hair was permed and adorned with my signature Ski Slope Bangs, and I fancied myself a poet. Our friendship had withstood time even before the recent ease/onslaught of unlimited long distance, text messaging and social media updates as a way of keeping track of former classmates. Now, Sarah is the Coordinator of Collection Development in the Carnegie Public Library, a mother of two, and still as elegant, calm and kind as ever. I am a mother of one and the person writing this essay. But this essay is not about Sarah. It is about her mother, Jane.
After the birth of Sarah’s first child, I called to offer congratulations. Jane answered the phone. We greeted each other with enthusiasm engendered by decades of care and respect. I asked how the birth went and she reached for and read the doula’s account of Sarah’s birth story aloud to me over the phone. We both cried. She told me she had not read it before and that it felt amazing to hear her grandchild’s birth recounted with respect and reflection by a witness. I then asked if I could speak with Sarah. Without hesitation Jane replied, Oh, no. Sarah is resting. She must rest. You may not speak to her right now but I will tell her that you called. And then we hung up.
When I gave birth to my son, my mother was still recovering from complications from lung surgery and back surgery. No one from my family was able to visit, plus our modest one bedroom apartment in New York City did not easily accommodate guests. A few days after bringing our son home from the hospital, my (then) husband’s family came to visit. They lived in New Jersey and drove over the bridge in the early evening. The baby was not yet nursing and I was still unable to sit down in any chairs. To encourage my milk supply, I was practicing skin-to-skin by holding my naked newborn to my chest at regular intervals during the day then pumping breastmilk afterwards. It felt strange to do this with guests in our home, but I did it anyway. My son’s non-nursing was yet another unexpected post-birth hurdle.
Though I did not fully understand it all myself, I tried to normalize my experience as I explained what I was doing to those gathered, whose listening reverberated with detached impatience. I had anticipated nursing to be uncomfortable but instinctual. I did not anticipate it simply not working. As a physical acting practitioner and educator, I was thoroughly unprepared for how displaced my entire body felt after giving birth or how disinterested others would be in the complications of my post-birth experience. I had a special insert to raise the level of our toilet seat, since sitting with my hips below my knees was beyond my capacity, and will never forget my 21-year-old niece-in-law recoiling in disgust and asking what is that?! when she entered the tiny bathroom. For everyone present, post-birth life revolved around the new baby. I felt invisible, inconsequential and inconvenient.
My small, elderly mother-in-law hugged me on her way out, patted my wobbly abdomen and told me I could get a girdle for that. I calmly replied that it had only been six days since the baby was born. And I thought: there was just a human in that space, my space, in me. Her statement made me feel like I was supposed to erase all evidence that he was ever in me as soon as possible. My body’s job was done and now it should bear no evidence of its recent feat.
Right after this uncomfortable visit, my mother called from Tennessee. I had been avoiding talking to her since the birth because I knew that if I did I would cry. My husband answered the phone and handed it to me. I said hello to my mother and then I wept.
A Jane understands that when a new mother cries it is not because she is broken but because she is broken open in thoroughly new ways.
Often, when we become mothers, we most need our own mothers, and mine was missing. I had not understood until that moment how alone I felt, how strangely disappeared and assaulted by the need others had for my child, how betrayed by my own body; also how thoroughly overwhelmed but simultaneously certain that I knew what was best for my baby and that this included his laying naked on my chest for as long as either of us wanted him to. It was in this tearful, desperate conversation that I realized the power of Jane’s presence after Sarah’s children were born and the enormous void that gapes open when a person like this is missing. I did not have someone, as Sarah had, to simply say No, Catherine is resting, you may not interrupt her at this time. I did not have a Jane.
A Jane is the person who acts as an intermediary between the new mother and the rest of the world, like a benevolent buffer or bouncer. Traditionally, this role is filled by a mother, mother-in-law, Aunt, trusted friend or maternal figure. A Jane is gentle but firm. She manages visits to the baby, making sure they are never too long. She ensures the new mother has food in her refrigerator, drinks plenty of water and sits in her sitz baths. She oversees the household, keeping laundry, kitchen, dishes and bathroom clean. She is an act of service.
A Jane understands that when a new mother cries it is not because she is broken but it is because she is broken open in thoroughly new ways, and she is just barely beginning to grapple with her forever altered self. A new mother’s birthing partner cannot serve as a Jane because this person is often grappling with their own transition into parenthood. They may lack the foresight or skill to manage well-intentioned visitors or to recognize the recent particularities of their own new role as parent, the limitations of their spouse, and the profound trauma and triumph that accompanies every birth.
A Jane can, for at least a few days or weeks, provide some semblance of the cocoon of loving isolation a new mother needs to gently meet her new baby, learn his rhythms, and heal her own body. A Jane can schedule appointments, order groceries, and install the car seat. A Jane can make sure a new mother has water by her bedside, snacks within reach, and clean clothes. A Jane can politely ask a guest to leave, reschedule a visit for another time, or simply decline visitors altogether. A Jane can also explain that all guests in proximity of a newborn must wash their hands, remove their shoes, and any coughs or sneezes are prohibited. A Jane can keep track of items that may arrive as gifts from others for future thanks. A Jane can send those thanks. A Jane can take the phone out of a new mother’s hands and put the baby in them. Or vice versa. A Jane can lower the curtains when the sun is too bright. A Jane can put the blanket on a new mother’s feet when she cannot reach either blanket or feet. A Jane can sit by her side and tell her stories of the other babies she has held, of the weather, of anything other than or related to childbirth – whatever is required, the Jane does.
Without a Jane, a new mother is left to do everything she did prior to birth plus everything she is expected to do after birth. Without the foresight to hire (at her own expense) a post-partum doula to serve in this role, she is faced with managing multiple, overlapping situations that she is learning anew in each moment. She is not the person she was, though professionally or personally others may expect her to be, and she may expect this of herself and be shocked to discover it is not so.
Additionally, in America, a new mother’s post-partum care is entirely her responsibility to arrange. She must transport herself to any medical follow-up appointments, often with not-yet-healed stitches and a constantly nursing baby. The pressure America puts on new mothers is criminal.
My son did not latch until he was eight days old. I frantically located and hired a lactation consultant to come to my apartment and with her guidance he began to nurse. Almost immediately, some of the anxiety of the previous week dissipated. For me, nursing normalized my mothering and afforded me a kind of sacred boundary, presenting a tiny layer of protection from the overtures of others. There are mothers for whom this activity does the opposite or for whom it does not materialize at all. The first weeks of new motherhood are staggering in the exhaustive learning curve that descends.
Everybody ought to have a Jane.
This is a universal need. In the first months after I gave birth, trying to understand my own frustrations, I read about an ancient Chinese tradition called Sitting the Month, or Zuo Yuezi. In my introductory understanding of this practice, a mother and her newborn are confined to home for 40 days after childbirth. A team of people stealthily provide all her meals and take care of household concerns such as laundry and cleaning so that the new mother can intimately bond with her new baby in blissful isolation. Aspects of this 2,000 year old tradition can include strict dietary restrictions, an avoidance of wind and cold, and so on. All the mother does is rest, eat, sleep, and feed her baby for 40 days without books, television, media or any other work. The act of reading on my phone at night kept me tenuously tethered to the rest of the world in ways that left me torn between my new reality and the one going on around me that I had just, freely, been a part of and now was left out of. I was inherently interstitial, in-between and isolated.
Clutching my newborn to my chest in my small Manhattan apartment, Zuo Yuezi sounded heavenly. No grocery shopping. No cooking. No visiting in-laws. No Netflix. No noise. No frantic taxicab rides to follow-up appointments with my OBGYN. The midwives come to you, in your home, recognizing the undisputed need for healing and learning that comes with the arrival of each new baby.
Everybody ought to have a Jane.
When we lost the village, both in its physical iteration of proximity to others and in the more psycho-spiritual one of being surrounded by a conclave of trusted people who looked out for each other, we lost the innate understanding of the necessity of a Jane.
The loss of the Jane is one of the lesser known losses that accompanies the disappearance of the village. Previous generations of new mothers came home to an explicit understanding that they were deserving of healing, space, and care. Elders were available for counsel. Aunties were able to amuse other children. Blessings and ceremonies were prepared with predictable, ritualistic care. Multi-generational homes are now dispersed far across state lines and the age at which women are become mothers is increasing. We are often no longer 22 but birthing as established professionals in our fields, independent and grounded. This aged space contributes to our capacities in many ways but also leaves us further alone when we least need to be. We are still daughters when we become mothers.
When we lost the village, both in its physical iteration of proximity to others and in the more psycho-spiritual one of being surrounded by a conclave of trusted people who looked out for each other, we lost the innate understanding of the necessity of a Jane. American society thrusts new mothers into a frenzied and fast adjustment period, many having only six weeks to heal from birth, learn their baby, and if they are nursing, pump copious amounts of breastmilk into tiny freezer storage bags for their inevitable, imminent return to work. It is far from relaxing. Add to that all the societal expectations of engagement that exist online and in person and it is enough to make any mother frustrated, angry or confused.
An article in Vogue from May of 2021 cited statistics from the World Health Organization stating that 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of new mothers will experience a mental disorder, the main one being depression. The list includes perinatal depression, perinatal anxiety, post-partum depression, post-partum anxiety, and post-partum psychosis. That this medical news appears in Vogue is akin to erectile dysfunction reportage appearing in Sports Illustrated. The secret universal can finally be seen by all. Maybe women are less likely to hide the commonality of this experience if it is read about between advertisements for lipstick and shoes. In my local group of mothers there are women who have experienced all of these disorders, some more than once. Imagine if our society cared for women from the beginning of pregnancy in ways that actively engaged their mental health by locating consistent community support which easily transitioned into a version of Zuo Yuezi tailored to the new mother, complete with a Jane to lead the efforts. I posit that these statistics would adjust if maternal health care considered Janes as essential as doctors or midwives. Perhaps articles about post-partum care should appear in Sports Illustrated, in an attempt balance the exposure.
A new mother may not even realize, as I did not, that she is missing this key piece of her post-partum care until it is not there, until it she is overwhelmed and finds herself sitting on a donut pillow in her living room, eating cold pizza and making small talk with people holding her baby, while worrying about her stitches bursting, her baby’s weak latch, and how much it hurts to use the bathroom. Visits to newborns are made out of love, but without a Jane to manage them they can quickly burden a new mother and a responsibility to maintain social norms is not hers to bear. She has just borne a human. She deserves a break from small talk.
A Jane embodies maternal protection, maternal sacredness and maternal celebration.
Disclaimer: when a mother expresses anger, frustration or sadness at the circumstances surrounding childbirth it is not an immediate indication that she is angry, frustrated or sad at her new role of being a mother, at her child or children. It is possible to be angry and full of love for a tiny human at the same time. This duality thoroughly baffled and enraged my son’s father. He did not understand how, with the arrival of this extraordinary human, I could be filled with anything but bliss and gratitude. My son was a miracle to behold from the minute he appeared in his first ultrasound. My relating to him as such did not diminish with my morning sickness, restless leg syndrome or incessant heartburn during pregnancy. It did not diminish with 29 hours of labor, vaginal tearing or the persistent, post-epidural numbness that consumed the entire right side of my lower body. It did not diminish with my mounting confusion regarding how the world related to me once I became a mother. It is unfortunate that when writing of the discontent of mothers I must always include a clause reinforcing that love for children and motherhood can coincide with such discontent in order to ward off total dismissal of me or any mother as a monster. The complexity of a mother’s experience is allowed and should be understood.
I also imagine that if there were something men did regularly that resulted in 10 to 13% of them feeling depressed, we as a society would have already dedicated decades of research to studying it, resulting in codified, funded and easily accessible strategies to prevent men from feeling so taxed and sad. But, since only people with uteruses can birth and traditionally these people have not been in charge of medical care or society at large, this sobering statistic has not rallied enough people to critically adjust the circumstances surrounding childbirth that contribute towards it.
Everybody ought to have a Jane.
A Jane embodies maternal protection, maternal sacredness and maternal celebration. When we lose the village, we lose all the wisdom that comes with it: the generational, cumulative wisdom of women, the wisdom of paying attention to neighbors, the wisdom of bringing a casserole to someone’s door and leaving it there with flowers and diapers. It is the wisdom of kindness and quiet, stillness and savoring, validation and honor.
Regardless of the circumstances of your birth: vaginal, caesarian, natural, medicated, pool, bathtub, birth center, delivery room, surgical suite, alone or accompanied – you will need a Jane.
I don’t know a single birthing person who hasn’t, regardless of their birth story. If your baby latches perfectly in hospital, your milk comes in effortlessly like sweet honey from heaven, you don’t tear any part of your body or soul during a labor which proceeds just as planned, and your family perfectly understand and respect boundaries and new baby etiquette; if you have a housekeeper, cook and laundress, no stairs in your home, and no friction with your partner; if no one asks anything of you that you do not want asked or know how to answer; if all of this converges into an effortless arrival, then you and your Jane can sit back and have tea and biscuits in acknowledgement of the rarity of such bliss. A Jane is for the afterwards, for when you come home and have to keep the baby alive, for when the ways your life and body have been so thoroughly dismantled come slowly into focus. A Jane is for encouragement and reflection, sadness and celebration. A Jane is for the mother.
The PAMAs / Pregnant Artists Making Art strives to further unite a pregnant person with their inner artistry, strength and voice, before the certainty of motherhood brings constant trial and triumph alike. The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art is not a replacement for the lost village, but it is slowly rebuilding our collective awareness for its imperative presence, one mother-artist at a time.
Everybody ought to have a Jane.
This column is part of The MAMAs / Mother Artists Making Art. The MAMAs and its sister subset The PAMAs / Pregnant Artists Making Art is leading a movement that foregrounds the value and visibility of mothers who make art.
The MAMAs embraces ALL who identify with the words Mother and Artist, including biological, adoptive, surrogate, foster, those who have experienced pregnancy or child loss, Trans, and non-binary parents; and passionate and/or professional creative practice across all forms and disciplines. The PAMAs welcomes people who birth.
Both PAAL and IFCAP welcome all caregiving responsibilities and realities in the background or foreground of any meetings, phone calls, and exchanges and gladly receive your life in our pursuit of productive and supportive practices.
PAAL and IFCAP are transgender and non-binary affirming spaces. We support a safe space for everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and beyond. Our programs are designed for anyone going through the huge changes we experience as artist-parents, whether that’s as someone who identifies as a mother or birthing person, including cis-, Trans and gender non-conforming parents and caregivers. “Mother” is for all who identify with it. PAAL is actively working to develop an organizational standard of language that expands caregiver terms off the binary.
PAAL and IFCAP commit to anti-racist roots in our structures, practices, policies, principles, and producing.