Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey

In 1935 a young mother wrote a letter to Nursery World asking “Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life...can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude “thinking” and cost nothing!” Through this letter the Cooperative Correspondence Club, CCC, was formed by a group of women who wrote to each other through a private magazine that was circulated between them. Jenna Bailey was researching material for her Master’s thesis and came across the collection of correspondence. Can Any Mother Help Me? is a selection of what she discovered.

The women came from different backgrounds but were united by their roles as housewives and mothers and their isolation within those roles. In the 1920’s “marriage bars” were implemented so that women had to give up some professions, like teaching, when they married. Many resented this and struggled with negative feelings about what they had sacrificed to raise a family. Some were isolated from communities or family and rarely had the opportunity to speak with other adults or mothers. Thus the CCC became a lifeline for them to share emotions and experiences.

When researching for the Suzanne Kamata interview I started thinking about “mummy bloggers” and their networks. Reading this book it occurred to me that the CCC was the original mummy blog network, just through a different medium. What I love about this book is that it demonstrates how the issues of motherhood transcend time; what members of the CCC were writing, I could be saying to my friends today. Mothers always have and still do find great emotional benefit through sharing and communicating, all that has changed is how they communicate, and the immediacy of that communication.

This book offers unique unedited anecdotes about how life was really lived, without the sheen history can give. The women were born at the end of the Victorian era and lived through two world wars so saw enormous change in their lives. Some are still alive today. It is a great book to help me put things in perspective. I felt humbled by their struggles. If I ever start to moan again about how hard my life is I shall think of Accidia who had seven children, “made” her own electricity, had no washing machine or vacuum and very little hot water - it took thirty minutes to boil the kettle!

It also helped to read the snippets of her children’s behaviour and so realise that children of history behaved in exactly the same way as ours do today. So often I chastise myself that my children are riotous compared to the Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard generation but from what Accidia wrote I take comfort that all children are just children “frequently maddening, infuriating, worrying, silly, exasperating...but extraordinarily interesting and delightful beings”.

Reading what these mothers struggled with has made me realise how relatively easy we have it in our modern world and wonder whether we moan too much. With modern conveniences to help us we have time and energy to complain; we are almost encouraged to complain, call our dissatisfactions “syndromes” and seek therapy.

We are also liberated and enlightened in comparison. We have choice, maybe too much choice, about how and when we work, how and where we give birth, what we expect from our husbands and what we expect from ourselves. The women of the CCC could only dream of some of the freedoms we have but these freedoms have just created a different type of pressure and expectations for mothers of our generation.

Ultimately the power of this book for me is that it highlights how important a support network is for mums of any generation or culture. Whether through extended family living together in a compound, a toddler group, blog network, Internet chat room or correspondence club, there is such therapy in sharing experiences. The CCC wrote to each other “in an effort to escape their isolation and make connections with other mothers”. When you realise you are not alone and that the problems you are experiencing are normal, suddenly you don’t feel so bad. There is such danger in isolation.

I also felt inspired by this book to enjoy my role and domesticity and make the most of my life in its current form. Despite their limitations these women were not “just” mothers; they showed extraordinary resourcefulness in what they did with their lives.

Being an obsessive writer I could really relate to these women, to how they read and wrote and thought and worried and shared these emotions with each other. One noted “I write to CCC to help clarify my thoughts” and I can understand that entirely. In fact, reading Can Any Mother Help Me? has given me lots more to think about while I ponder (probably too much) motherhood; what it means and how I do it. There will, no doubt, be more blog posts to follow on the issues it's raised...

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