She was holding a little baby, and smiled at me with a new-found confidence as she uttered those unforgettable words, “Now I am someone”. It was some time ago, and they have come back to me again and again over the intervening years. Now after a weekend in the presence of at least three mothers with little babies, I thought that the time had come to try to work out something of what this young mother might have meant, and what the implications are for me and those in similar caring roles.
We begin with the implicit admission of the mother that before the birth of her baby she was a “nobody”, or at the very best, lacking in self-worth. And there were plenty of good reasons for that. Her parents had separated when she was a young girl. She had had no contact with one of them for years, and the contact with the other parent was less than fully affirming of her as a person. She had grown up in the Mill Grove family and despite all our attempts at consistent care and affirmation, nothing we did seemed to make any impression on her feelings of inferiority. School did not improve matters: for she was a below-average achiever. And she did not have any idea of what she might do as a job or career.
I guess we should think hard about how many young people have similar reasons to think of themselves as nobodies. My point is that apart from those who are acting out or seriously depressed, few will tell us how they feel. Why should we care about them, and what difference would it make if they did tell us? It was only when this young lady had undergone such a transformation that she had revealed how she really saw and rated herself so tellingly to me.
Now that a baby had been born to her, she had become a somebody. One obvious change was in her status as far as the rest of the world was concerned: she was now a mother. Until this moment she had been: a teenager, a young woman, a young person in the care system, or a below average pupil. Whatever category people had used, or that she thought they were using to label here, they were now either obsolete or substantially modified. Motherhood is understood by all, and she had become a mother. (In very practical terms she was now a priority on the local authority housing lists: a reminder that it was a real change of status, if ever there was one!)
Part of this change in status was that she had become an adult responsible for another human being. Until this event she had been the one receiving care, education, and help from others. Now the boot was on the other foot: she had changed from being a receiver of care, to a care-giver. There was someone else now dependent on her: she mattered to another. She was a Significant Other. Perhaps we have used this term thinking largely or only of the child: but it is a huge importance to the adult who now has such a vital role in the life and well-being of a little child. The “other” might not have felt “significant” until this moment.
The newborn child has to trust the mother: that is how things are, even if in time that trust might be found to have been misplaced. Still the mother is a focus of trust. And in time there will be a mutual exchange of smiles: face to face and close-up.
Groups and opportunities would open up for the mother: opportunities that had not been there before. She had openings into society and community. No longer was she a stranger in the world of social relationships in the locality or neighbourhood.
Given that she had no idea what work she wanted to do (even) if it had been available, now she had found her true “vocation”. The word may have fallen out of use in the contemporary, commodified world, but it was exactly the right one to describe how she saw her new role in life. It was not about a job and pay, but about one of the most time-honoured roles in the history of the world. The Judaeo-Christian Scriptures are full of stories of women who saw their barrenness as a disgrace, and welcomed their motherhood as a God-given privilege. It is something when you can join in the Magnificat as one who has been similarly blessed in motherhood, even if the status of the baby in question is not in the same league as Mary’s boy child!
This is a challenge for our society and our current political and economic values and calculations. The government policy will tend to devalue to role of the mother when set alongside the advantages of her being in employment. She will be offered child care vouchers or the like to enable her to apply for a job. But have we really considered the comparative rewards, the different natures of motherhood and work as a domestic or in some form of retail or factory work? We may have looked at the likely future benefits to the child if his or her mother is in paid employment, but have we considered the role and status of the mother herself?
I have seen the change in mothers and their evident joy in parenting, in ways that simply do not happen when people are in menial jobs. I would venture to say that there is no comparison, no competition.
From this starting point there are a number of avenues that can be explored of course: what of the father of the child and the change in relationship between the mother and him? Sadly many fathers I have known have been in relationships with young women because that is where and how they achieve a sense of worth, but this is rarely transferred into an increased estimation of their female partner when she has given birth. The status of father does not seem to work in the same way as that of a mother.
And what of the generations of the families of the father and mother: how does that work in terms of the sense of self-worth that a mother has?
How long does this sense of worth last? Once a somebody, always a somebody?
There is little doubt that the young lady speaking to me was sharing something of considerable importance, not only to her as an individual, but because of its meaning in our contemporary society and world. And it led me to wonder if her insight can help us to consider other ways in which a person may become a somebody. Motherhood is not for all, and it is hardly a panacea for all who lack self-esteem. I doubt if there will be other things that work so deeply and so immediately, but the attempt to understand a little of what might be going on, and breaking it into its constituent parts, is surely worthwhile.
For isn’t a goal of social work, social care, fostering, residential care, counselling, even education, that the person being helped develops their sense of self-worth: that they begin to realise that they are somebody?
So what might we do differently, I wonder, in the light of this insight? We can work at praising a person, consistently and appropriately, now that we know there is likely to be so much low self-esteem around. But it has to go further and deeper than this. There must be responsibility given to, entrusted to the person, almost certainly not just for physical things (such as cooking, dress-making, shopping, gardening and the like) but for other people.
I have sent this work at Mill Grove when the babies of others have been among us: who can calculate the sense of self-worth when a person has a baby placed in their arms, and is trusted with a human life? It may not be a baby, of course, and some times perhaps it should not be (for a variety of reasons to do with conscious and unconscious factors). Could it be someone who has some form of disability who needs particular help or support? Could it be an elderly person? Could it be alongside the staff in a nursery or school, or club?
And could it be me? For the avoidance of doubt, I think that this young mother was reminding me of the overriding truth that there is no substitute for human relationships. Whatever we think we are offering by way of counsel or advice, even money or goods, a person will never become a somebody through the receipt of these. We become somebody through relationships: long-term, unconditional relationships. And if we are involved in supporting and caring for others there will be times when it is our relationship with them that may have the potential (in some small measure) to do what the little baby did for the young mother.