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The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby: My Fan Mail 

The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby: My Fan Mail
(p. 241) Original Broadcast Scripts

Robert Adès

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date: 10 July 2020

The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby: My Fan Mail

The final in a series of broadcast talks on Woman’s Hour, BBC Light Programme, I. Benzie (producer). Wednesday, 20 February 1952. See [CW 12:Introduction].

This is the last of what has turned out to be a rather short series of talks on mothers and babies.

My fan mail consists of eight letters all of which are interesting and if I had time I would just read them out.

First I will refer to a useful letter from someone in Liverpool who says she continues to be interested in the problems of infant care although her little girl has started going to school. This mother points out that I have given the impression that books on child care are no good, whereas she gets a great deal from books, and she mentions one which happens to be by a friend of mine, and which I agree is immensely useful. I see what has happened. I have been trying to show that the management of a baby at the very beginning is something that goes deeper than book-learning, that it comes naturally under suitable conditions just because of the fact of the mother’s motherhood. I do think that this that is natural can be disturbed by books if the mother feverishly plods away at trying to learn, when really the important thing is to get the right conditions for the development of natural processes. I am very glad to have the chance however to make it clear that books that give information and that dispel ignorance are of the greatest value, especially as the infant gets away from the very early stages, becoming gradually less dependent on a sensitive adaptation to needs.1

A writer from Bexleyheath, Kent, takes up this very point. She says, ‘I am certain that, if left alone, the ordinary mother will establish a good relationship with her baby and will succeed in completing nature’s cycle and nourishing it with her own body. But how many of us are left alone?’ Here she goes off into a lurid description of the way her baby was presented to her in a nursing home, a home which I am sure she would not want to criticise on any other grounds. ‘Twenty-four hours after my daughter’s birth she was brought to me for her (p. 254) first feed, amid much hustle and bustle, and without any initial holding or fondling to enable us to accustom ourselves one to the other, her head firmly grasped in one of the nurse’s hands, my breast equally firmly grasped in the other, and the two held together in a vice-like grip’. And so on.

How often I have heard this story and the sad sequel. Shall I read on? ‘I am now awaiting the birth of my second baby, and if anyone’ (underlined twice) ‘tries to interfere in those precious moments together I shall pick up my water jug and throw it at them … Surely your talk is directed at the wrong people!’

I agree, but at the same time I am worried because I might be misunderstood. When we say these things, and no language is too strong, we do not forget that mothers owe a tremendous lot to those same doctors and nurses because they have been able to make child birth something that is nearly free from the awful disasters that were common fifty years ago.

And another worry: what about the effect of a discussion of these matters on a young expectant mother? For instance, someone in Devon writes: ‘I go for my confinement soon; it will be to a small hospital (as I have no help at home) where I am told, the mother only sees her baby actually at feeding times. I know that in actual hours this amounts to quite a lot, but wondered how in these first two—surely all-important weeks the mother can begin to understand her baby’s needs without sometimes the cradle by her. I should be most grateful for advice. … If you felt that this right contact with baby could not be established in such an institution I would make a great effort to arrange to have my baby at home’.

My feeling is that this mother should not change her plans just on the basis of hearing my talk, simply because there is so much else to be considered. A woman who is expecting a baby soon, especially her first, is very much in need of doctors and nurses in whom she has confidence, and it would be better to have confidence in someone on the spot (who is of course human and not perfect) than upset arrangements on account of one true thing a voice may have said over the air. Everything depends on this woman’s general practitioner, who might, of course, agree with the idea of her having the baby at home, and then all would be well because he would then become the responsible person that is needed at such a special time.

On reading this letter I did at first feel that it must be altogether unwise to talk critically of established procedure, but in the end I felt that we must be able to talk, as long as we are careful to make it clear that we are talking generally and not trying to advise individuals. It’s another version of the saying: ‘special cases make bad laws’.

I know a young mother who had her first baby in a beautiful hospital, twilight sleep and all that, and the baby taken over and bottle fed by the most excellent nurse, but one who happened to dislike the idea of breast-feeding. The next baby she produced in the same hospital, but she achieved having the baby while fully conscious, simply by deceiving the nurses. You see she wanted (p. 255) to know what it was like to go through it. But this second baby’s feeding was also taken over by the nurse who preferred bottle to breast. The third she had at home. She said she would take all the risks just to be able to prove she could breast-feed. She did, but she nearly lost again, because the maternity nurse was also one of those who distrust the natural processes. She only succeeded by firing the nurse, and relying on an unskilled relation, quite a brave thing to do I thought. Let me hastily add that in the last few years maternity nurses have altered, and more and more can be relied on to wish that each infant be breast fed.

Talking about relations, I said something disparaging about mothers-in-law. I’m awfully sorry. No, I do not want to qualify as a comedian as suggested in the letter from Tunbridge Wells.

I see I shan’t have time to refer to all the eight letters, but I must mention an unsigned letter from Manchester. This letter is unsigned because it is fiercely critical, and it may be that the details of the relationship between a mother and her baby are strong meat for all but those actually on the job. I wonder what you think?


1 At this point the following two paragraphs were struck through, and probably not broadcast:

This letter goes on to describe the way in which the writer was able to help another young mother start her baby on breast-feeding by calmly providing the necessary setting and by giving information about facts, and how someone else produced panic in the mother by worrying about a slight loss of weight, so that immediately the milk dried up. She also points out that the mother’s husband could have helped, but he was against breast-feedings, and this all the time increased the mother’s doubts about her own capacity to feed the baby that way.

On a post-card a grandmother of Streatham avers that breast-feeding was the loveliest thing of her married life. She managed it with all her seven. She adds: ‘Now I am a grandmother with ten grandchildren. I would very much like to know what is the difference from then and now; they are much better looked after now’. I am all the time wondering whether doctors and nurses who have become so much more skilled and clever in the promotion of bodily health have not got one more thing to learn which is that in the mothering of a new-born baby only the mother is able to do really well, since the baby needs exactly what the mother and no one else is shaped for.