Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Doing ‘Nothing’: The Phenomenology of Mothering and of Psychotherapy. Naomi Stadlen conducts Inner Circle Seminar 261 (13 September 2020)

Doing Nothing

The Phenomenology of Mothering and of Psychotherapy

Naomi Stadlen
conducts by Zoom
Inner Circle Seminar No. 261
Sunday 13 September 2020
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Naomi Stadlen

Naomi Stadlen writes:
It’s impossible to do nothing. Mothers often say: ‘I’ve got nothing done all day.’ This can’t be a literal statement. It’s a statement of value. While I was writing What Mothers Learn, I noticed many similarities between the work of mothers and that of psychotherapists. Both can feel as if they are ‘doing nothing’ exactly when they are working well. So ‘nothing’ must be ‘something’ that we seem to undervalue. We will use this seminar to identify and explore some of the actions that so easily get dismissed as ‘doing nothing’. Psychotherapists, mothers, and interested others are warmly invited to take part.
Mother, grandmother, existential psychotherapist, supervisor and teacher Naomi Stadlen has conducted weekly discussion groups, Mothers Talking, for nearly thirty years. Her books What Mothers Do – especially when it looks like nothing (2004) and How Mothers Love – and how relationships are born (2011) are translated into many languages and enjoyed by mothers round the world who say that their experiences are described and valued in them. Her third book, recently published, is What Mothers Learn – without being taught (April 2020).

Since 1993 she has worked as an existential psychotherapist and has taught psychotherapy and counselling students at Birkbeck College and the College of North East London, also for many years teaching and supervising existential psychotherapy and the phenomenology of families, particularly the family studies of Laing and Esterson, at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, London.

She has edited journals and published many articles. She has also contributed chapters to books: ‘Families’ (with Anthony Stadlen) in Existential Perspectives on Human Issues, A Handbook for Therapeutic Practice edited by Emmy van Deurzen and Claire Arnold-Baker (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); ‘The Challenge of Intimacy: Fear of the Other’ in Existential Perspectives on Relationship Therapy edited by Emmy van Deurzen and Susan Iacovou (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); and The Existential Freedom of Mothers’ in The Existential Crisis of Motherhood edited by Claire Arnold-Baker (to be published, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 4 January 2021).

This seminar is a comparative phenomenological study of the work of mothers and psychotherapists, drawing on Naomi Stadlens decades of listening to mothers, as well as on her practice, supervision and teaching of existential psychotherapy and family studies.

The seminar will not be about motherly’ therapists or therapeutic’ mothers; nor will it be about the unconscious phantasy’ of the therapist-as-mother in the clienttransference’ or in the therapistcountertransference’ (important as these may be in other contexts).

Rather, it will be an examination, in the manner pioneered by Naomi Stadlen in her highly original books, of what mothers and psychotherapists do, which they may experience at times as nothing.

Why are her extraordinary books on mothers known, translated, and treasured by mothers and others round the world?

The heart of the books is what Hilary Mantel has called, when speaking in Inner Circle Seminar No. 205 about the families in Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Familythe simple words the people speak’: the words of mothers, talking about what they and their babies and children actually do, rather than what textbooks by self-appointed experts imagine that they do, or dictate that they should do. The mothers hesitantly and carefully struggle to find words, both simple and subtle, to describe what has often not been described before. At the same time, these books are philosophically, phenomenologically, existentially steeped in what has been most deeply thought.

Anne Karpf wrote: ‘I threw away the baby care manuals ... virtually all of them infantilise mothers.’ But, she wrote, Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do is ‘something miraculous ... brilliantly insightful ... the best book on parenting’. ‘Her book is being passed from mother to mother like contraband.

Thomas Szasz wrote:
I love this book. A work from a pure heart and informed head. It is at once simple and profound, as is the subject it addresses. It reads as if the author were in the room speaking to the reader. No pseudo-science, no psychobabble. Just the truth.
Richard Smith, Professor of Education at Durham University, wrote of what he called Naomi Stadlens ‘philosophy of mothering’ (Paul SmeyersRichard Smith and Paul StandishThe Therapy of Education, 2007, Basingstoke and NY, Palgrave Macmillan: 213-215):
The new mother has no map, and the available maps that display the techniques of motherhood cannot be trusted. In offering help, Stadlen too acknowledges that the map is under construction. And although she does not say so, the problem is essentially a philosophical one, and her efforts are philosophical in the way that Ludwig Wittgenstein conceived of philosophy as non-dogmatic and therapeutic. 
Professor Smith expanded in that book on his earlier review in the Journal for the Philosophy of Education (Volume 39, Issue 1, February 2005, p. 179):
Naomi Stadlen argues persuasively in What Mothers Do: especially when it looks like nothing (Piatkus Books, 2004) that motherhood has fallen victim to the language and dominant ideas of our time. When confronted with new challenges, we expect to be trained and equipped with skills to deal with them. As one of her interviewees notes, ‘the dominant culture…is all about planning and controlling’ (p. 48). We are used to jumping through hoops and over hurdles – examinations, Duke of Edinburgh’s awards, applications for jobs and for promotion – and so childbirth too comes to seem another hurdle, after which life will surely go back to normal (p. 34). When it turns out, by contrast, that life will never be the same again, we naturally look to the appropriate experts to tell us how to manage, and the bookshops are of course full of guides to the appropriate techniques.

Being a mother to a small child, however, ‘is all about feeling your way’, as the same interviewee puts it. According to Stadlen it is less a matter of techniques than of something like responsiveness, a constant alertness and attuning of oneself to the needs and nature of this particular child now, to whom no one else is responsible in the same way. And this is all the more difficult for us to understand because we do not have the words for it: which is why what mothers do can look like nothing from the outside and often feels like not very much from the inside either. At the heart of being a mother is the state which can only be described as ‘Being instantly interruptible’ (the title of Chapter Four): the condition in which she is endlessly there for her child to the point that she may feel she has no life of her own. We have many words for being a bad mother – Stadlen gives a list of over thirty words and phrases – but the list for being a good mother is much shorter and the words (e.g. caring, nurturing, patient) do not so much describe what mothers do as what they are like as persons (pp. 18–19).

Part of what is at issue here is that our world recognises and values busy-ness and activity, but mothering requires a kind of passivity, being there for the baby rather than exercising techniques on her. It requires the mother almost ‘to loosen her active conscious mode and sink into something older and simpler in order to get close to the world of her baby’ (p. 89). We generally expect people to become more focused and confident as they begin to get the measure of new demands made on them, but this may not be the mother’s experience, and she may be right not to experience things like this:

If she feels disorientated, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her. If she really considered herself an expert, or if her ideas were set, she would find it very hard to adapt to her individual baby. … Each child will be a little different and teach her something new. She needs to feel uncertain in order to be flexible. So, although it can feel so alarming, the ‘all-at-sea’ feeling is appropriate. Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother. Through uncertainty, she can begin to learn (p. 45).

In this implicitly Wittgensteinian way Stadlen sets about the difficult task of assembling the reminders that help us to achieve a new way of looking at things (Philosophical Investigations 1, 127 and 401). It is the essentially philosophical business of exploring ‘what it makes sense to say’, as Peter Winch put it (The Idea of a Social Science, p. 72). In its emphasis on alertness and attunement, flexibility and the ethical nature of motherhood (see especially p. 106) Stadlen’s description comes very close to the Aristotelian picture of phronesis or practical wisdom. She claims an historian’s rather than a philosopher’s background but the whole book is of great philosophical, as well as educational, interest. And thanks apparently to Thucydides (this must surely be the first time that Thucydides has been credited as a major influence on a book on childcare), it is well and sensitively written.
This is a sensitive and perceptive review; its author clearly understands that Naomi Stadlen’s books are not on childcare’, in the degraded sense in which this term is used today: it was manuals on childcare’ that Anne Karpf ‘threw away’.

Stadlen’s second book, How Mothers Love – and how relationships are born (2011), rediscovers, finds evidence for, and reflects on Kierkegaard’s phenomenology, in Works of Love, of what he termed in Danish the Hjerterum’ (heartroom’) that a mother makes for her baby, a word also coined earlier in English by Coleridge, unknown to Kierkegaard, and later in German (Herzraum) in a poem by Rilke and an essay on Rilke by Heidegger. 

We are far, here, from technological toolkits’ for childcare and ‘mental health’ taught by health professionals’ and parenting counsellors’.

In todays seminar, Naomi Stadlen draws particularly on findings of her latest book, What Mothers Learn – without being taught (April 2020).

Naomi Stadlen conducted Inner Circle Seminar No. 77, Listening to Mothers, on 25 April 2004; and (with Anthony Stadlen) Inner Circle Seminar No. 125, Merleau-Ponty: The Childs Relations with Others, on 16 March 2008.

This will be an online seminar, using ZOOM.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; payment must be made in advance by bank transfer; a ZOOM invitation and instructions will then be sent; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857  iPhone: 07809 433 250
E-mail:  or:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and universities.

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