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Successful Motherhood Is a Collaboration

Understanding the role of community in motherhood

Mothers raising children at home alone is a strange and recent phenomenon and contrary to optimizing child development and mothers’ flourishing.

At least three things collaborate in motherhood: the community, the mother, and the child.

The community. Community is the backdrop for motherhood. By “community” I mean how well the mother and her ancestors are/were supported emotionally, socially and physically.

Community includes the support a mother-child dyad experiences. In the social context of our 99%*, even when physical life is hard, there is deep social and emotional support for community members (which of course includes mothers). Mothers are never isolated with their children but embedded in community activities with multiple familiar adults sharing caregiving (Hrdy, 2009). We know scientifically that support of a human mother directly affects the type of attention she gives to her child (Hrdy, 2009). Mothers take direction from the community about whether and how to care for a child.

Community extends back in time too. Experience in one generation has epigenetic effects on subsequent generations. For example, grandparents’ experiences influence the health of their grandchildren (Gluckman & Hanson, 2005). Mice of one generation exposed to toxins in the womb affects the sociality of subsequent generations (Wolstenholme et al., 2012).High nurturing rat mothers raise high nurturing daughters but low nurturing mothers raise daughters who are even less nurturing than their mothers due to cross-generational epigenetic effects (Champagne & Meaney, 2001; Meaney, 2001).

So there is an interplay and cascading effect of community support on how well mothers mother.

So when adult mothers are regularly inattentive or uninterested in mothering, we can surmise that there is a history of poor community support and/or a contemporaneous lack of community support.

The mother. The mother envelopes the child in attention and love under natural conditions (of community support over generations and contemporaneously). In traditional cultures, the mother is responsible for the wellbeing of the child in the womb and early life when her emotional energies shape the child’s. Calm, tender love fosters flourishing—designing physiological and social systems to be stable and strong (Carter, 1999).

Mother’s “everyday” body is amazing. With skin-to-skin contact, her breasts change temperature according to what baby needs (Cleveland Clinic, 2014). The content of her breast milk changes based on the needs of the baby (e.g., for greater fat during growth spurts, antibodies for an infectious agent) (Attachment Parenting International, 2014).

Mother’s attentive touch can seem miraculous. Touch brought a baby back to life.

But mothers also transfer cultural assumptions about human beings to their children. So we are back to community influence! If she understands that babies’ personalities are shaped towards the ways they are treated or has been taught that babies are gods or reincarnated ancestors (traditional societies), she will follow deep maternal instincts to treat the baby well. If the culture has taught her that babies are sinful and evil, then she may feel the need to deny her instincts to nurture her children with love and instead punish and deny babies what they need.

Under natural conditions mother’s body guides her in loving the baby and it is highly pleasurable. But this largely only happens when she is supported by a community of caregivers, allowing her to enjoy adult company too most of the time and rest when needed.

The child. The child is the last in the trio. The child is massively shaped by early experience when all sort of developmental and epigenetic processes take place. The child is born with only 25% of brain size in place but is already shaped by womb experience (more irritable if mom was stressed) and by birth experience (more unresponsive and irritable if drugs were used or less self-regulated if separation occurred after birth) (Bystrova et al., 2009; Davis et al., 2007).

Thus treatment of expectant mothers and birthing practices matter for the child. These are community responsibilities. The child has no control over these things--his genetic and epigenetic inheritances, the community he arrives in, or the relationship the mother offers. He will embrace whatever is there and learn to survive in that environment. The child will do what he can to fit into the particular community.

Children need multiple adults to help them survive and thrive. So, adults beyond mother, like dad, but also others in the community (the village) play a large role in how well the child develops (Hrdy, 2009).

In other words, human development and the type of nature a child develops are communal affairs. If the child is difficult, it is ultimately a community’s responsibility. A misraised child is reflection of the community’s lack of support for the mother and/or of the child. Thus, the community may actually be the most important aspect of successful motherhood.

Mothers help us realize our place in the world. If they are distracted by stress or distress (unsupported by the community contemporaneously or back in time), we will carry that memory in our bones and pass it to the next generation.

So, when you see a mother and child, please do your part as a member of the community and give them support. Encourage loving interactions by acknowledging the mystery and beauty of their relationship.

NOTE: Check out the September 2014 double conference (one part aimed at parents/practitioners and the other at those interested in research) at the University of Notre Dame, Pathways to Child Flourishing.


Attachment Parenting International (2014). The Composition of Breast Milk, Part 2. Downloaded on May 11, 2014 from:

Bystrova, K., Ivanova, V., Edhborg, M., Matthiesen, A.S., Ransjö-Arvidson, A.B., Mukhamedrakhimov, R., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Widström, A.M. (2009). Early contact versus separation: effects on mother-infant interaction one year later. Birth, 36(2), 97-109.

Carter, S. (Ed.) (1999). Hormones, brain and behavior: Integrative neuroendocrinology of affiliation. Boston: MIT Press.

Champagne, F., & Meaney, M.J. (2001). Like mother, like daughter: Evidence for non-genomic transmission of parental behavior and stress responsivity. Progress in Brain Research, 133, 287-302.

Cleveland Clinic (2014). Kangaroo Care. Downloaded on May 11, 2014 from:

Davis, E.P., Glynn, L.M., Dunkel-Schetter, C., Hobel, C., Chicz-DeMet, A., & Sandman, D.A. (2007). Prenatal exposure to maternal depression and cortisol influences infant temperament. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 46(6), 737-746.

Gluckman, P. & Hanson, M. (2005). Fetal Matrix: Evolution, development and disease. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Meaney, M. J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 1161–1192.

Wolstenholme, J.T., Edwards, M., Shetty, S.R.J., Gatewood, J.D., Taylor, J.A. Rissman, E.F. & Connelly, J.J. (2012). Gestational exposure to bisphenol a produces transgenerational changes in behaviors and gene expression. Neuroendocrinology, 153(8), 1-11.doi: 10.1210/en.2012-1195

*Humanity’s 99%

Human genus history includes the last 1% since agriculture began (around 10,000 years ago). Our 99% represents the type of social structure in which we evolved—small-band hunter-gatherer societies. These are small groups (5-30 on average) who are nomadic, with no possessions. I use these societies as a baseline for human development and human potential. They practice the evolved developmental niche, child raising practices that initially emerged more than 30 million years ago with the social mammals and intensified with human evolution. These practices are now scientifically documented to optimize development (soothing birth experiences, lengthy breastfeeding, extensive positive touch, responsiveness, free play embedded in the natural world, multiple adult caregivers, positive social climate). These practices shape personality and culture and morality—e.g., towards more calmness, empathy, self-regulation, conscience and communal imagination.