The Mother Magazine, Editorial
Issue 59, Jul/Aug 2013
The Cruel Mother, by Veronika Sophia Robinson
There’s just something about the combination of those two words ~ cruel mother ~ that makes my heart clench. My head wants to shake from side to side and say ‘No! Those words don’t belong together!’ Cruel: unkind, mean, nasty, pitiless, brutal, malicious, spiteful, vindictive. Mother: looked after, cared for, protected, loved, nourished, tended, nursed. They’re polar opposites, aren’t they?
When the title of the book, The Cruel Mother, by Siân Busby, tipped its spine towards me on the bookshelf of Wordsworth Bookshop and Café, I found myself both instinctively moving away and intrigued. It was to be another few weeks before I found the courage to actually take it off the shelf and see what it was about: though the title was kind of a giveaway! It was actually a magazine article about the BBC’s financial editor Robert Peston that gave me the permission I needed to step into that book. It was written by his late wife, and the article about his grief for her had me reading further, wanting to know more about her, as a writer and as a mother. So I bought the book, and though it ripped me open, I’m so grateful to have been a witness to her family’s story.
The memoir is about laying a family ghost to rest. In 1919, her great-grandmother, Beth, gave birth to triplets. One of them died at birth, and eleven days later she drowned the surviving babies in a bath of cold water. She was sentenced to an indefinite term of imprisonment at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. Before you recoil in horror at this cruel mother and judge her, you should know this: a year and a half before, her four-year-old daughter died of diphtheria. In an isolation ward, the little girl struggled through the illness which would eventually claim her young life. Imagine her mother’s grief at being separated from her daughter when they both needed each other more than ever? The parents travelled by horse and trap each day to be with her, but were unable to actually parent her in any way. They were met at the hospital gates and informed about her state, but they were never allowed in. Right near the end of little Maisie’s life, the matron told Beth that her little girl was very ill.
‘You can come into the room, but you must keep your distance from the cot. If she sees you and tries to cry, that will finish her.’ And they watched their little angel sleeping, then walked away. There was nothing more anyone could do.
The grief from losing her daughter, Maisie, catapulted her (not surprisingly) into the depths of depression. She had two older sons to still look after, though. She had to keep functioning.
It was her mother-in-law who suggested that perhaps she just needed to have another baby. It would give her something else to think about. (Yes, I found myself wanting slap her across the face! Such stupid, though well-meaning, advice.)
Beth’s husband obliged, and the following year she was giving birth. No one had any idea that there were triplets. Beth was given a drug to close up the uterus, and this clamping down killed the third baby.
Episiotomies were common back then, but they often led to physicians sewing a woman back up so tightly that they nicknamed it the ‘husband’s knot’. Sex became painful, if not impossible, for the woman concerned. Beth was extremely concerned about the damage which had happened to her, and the operation which would be needed to repair her ruptured perineum. She had a fourth-degree laceration. She had great fears about a lifetime of incontinence where she wouldn’t be in control of her bladder or anal sphincter, not to mention the effect it would have on her sex life.
Reading Beth’s story, I was not surprised by the turn of events in her life. Infanticide was more common in the late 1800s and early 1900s than any of us would like to imagine. The women most likely to be affected were poor, often with illegitimate children, and no way to feed themselves properly.
‘Maniacal Depressive Insanity’ was frequently associated with childbirth, and written about in the 1921 edition of the Practitioner’s Encyclopaedia of Midwifery. A study of what the author John Fairbairn advocated to remedy this is quite shocking, but it’s clear to me that these women were suffering nutritionally, and were deprived of the essential mineral: magnesium. Even back as far as 1920, it was understood that women who had experienced a difficult birth or had traumatic interventions, such as forceps, were far more likely to become victims of the illness. Most often the onset of this particular ‘insanity’ occurred within a fortnight of giving birth.
We might live in a different world now, but the truth is that even with all the foods we have available, and the equipment to simplify our lives (washing machines, cars, etc.), women are still susceptible to postnatal depression. Modern lives are not simple. They’re stressful.
In Britain alone, 600,000 women will give birth in the next twelve months. Sixty thousand of those women will experience some version of postnatal depression. This can manifest at its most extreme version as loss of appetite and libido, sleeplessness, irritability, fatigue, anxiety and lack of enjoyment in life. Of these women, five percent will end up being seen by psychiatric services.
There are many triggers to what sets a woman off on the path of PND, such as lack of employment (her or her partner), poor housing, bereavement, traumatic birth, moving house, unresolved emotions, poverty and so on. But how is it that stress can trigger such huge changes in a woman? There are countless hormonal upheavals which take place during a woman’s pregnancy and birth. Even in situations of poor nutrition, the human body does everything it can to feed the growing foetus, even ‘stealing’ vital sources of nutrients from the mother’s body. Magnesium is essential for over 300 bodily biochemical processes, and is one of the first minerals stripped away during times of stress. The irony is that we need it to help us deal with stress. Without it, our nervous system falters and we make poor decisions, and many of our actions are based on the fight-or-flight response ~ which, ironically, causes more stress as our adrenal system goes into overdrive. It’s a vicious circle.
In our modern world, you might think there’d be plenty of magnesium in our foods. And in a healthy, wholefood diet there is…but once you factor in modern life: traffic, lack of sleep, 24/7 living, bright lights, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, bills, disruptive relationship with a spouse, and so on, the magnesium vanishes.
The way we deal with pregnancy, labour, birth and parenting rests on us being healthy: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. With the best will in the world, if our body isn’t fuelled adequately, then we can’t be the best mother possible.
If postnatal depression is something that has cursed your family for generations, and you feel powerless to change it, then consider that perhaps you were born into a magnesium-deficient family, and seek to remedy that. If you’re a mother who is always snapping at your children, and feeling like you can’t cope any more, think about your magnesium levels. If you’re a mother who experiences a lot of physical pain or your nerves are always on edge, consider the part lack of magnesium is playing.
Transdermal magnesium (through the skin) is eight times more effective than oral supplementation. If your levels are low, don’t rely just on food sources to sustain you, until they have returned to healthy.
There can’t be many mothers on this Earth who haven’t had a moment or several moments of feeling like they couldn’t cope any more. If we allow ourselves and others to be honest, these low points in our parenting are reminders that we’re all vulnerable and susceptible to the archetype of the cruel mother. This topic is rarely talked about in mothering circles. It’s the great taboo. After all, the words cruel mother just don’t sit comfortably together. Women who are experiencing difficulty in their role as a mother should look at all their systems of support. It’s so easy to blame a spouse who works long hours, or a child’s unruly behaviour, or lack of sleep, or a mountain of bills, on our unhappiness, our depression, our anger…but the truth is ~ the TRUTH is ~ that support for ourselves as women, as mothers, begins inside ourselves. It’s never external. How we feed our body, on every level, determines how we will cope with the events of life. We would feel so differently about everything if our body was coming from a place of calm, rather than the frenetic nervous energy of a body that hasn’t been sustained and nourished, and is fighting for its own survival.
Magnesium deficiency affects a huge chunk of the population (an estimated 70%), and mothers are most susceptible because of the hormonal stresses of menstruation, conceiving a baby, nurturing a pregnancy, giving birth, and then raising children. It’s a huge job, and taxes the body enormously. And yet, we still talk about things like iron and folic-acid supplements. Why aren’t we educating women (and doctors and midwives) about the essential function of magnesium? To me, that seems cruel: that something so simple can alleviate a lot of suffering, and yet is ignored or overlooked.
The author writes “The arrival of a baby is a psychological adventure: it pushes a woman back into memories of her own babyhood, back into collective memories of parenting, and back into the animal, instinctual part of her being. It urges her to confront her relationship with her own mother, and in no small way, the mothers in her line”.
The author of this book spent her whole life living under the umbrella of her family’s shame, and so when she started having nightmares and then a prolonged bout of post-natal depression, she decided it was time to investigate the story, and lay the ghosts to rest. I knew from the outset, when I read Siân’s words, that this book was her way of letting her great-grandmother know that she was forgiven, that huge healing had taken place in that particular family tree.
** Read Transdermal Magnesium Therapy by Dr. Markus Sircus, and educate yourself about this important mineral. Magnesium deficiency is associated with many conditions, such as anorexia, pain, nervousness, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, hyperactivity, heart attacks, strokes, PND, PMT (PMS), ADHD, autism, and so on.