The Science and Art of Mothering
Communities used to know a lot about mothering.
Posted May 05, 2019
Human biology and sociality are designed to be largely shaped after birth—with early plasticity and extensive epigenetic effects, to a greater extent than for any other hominid (Gomez-Robles et al., 2015). Born with only 25% of adult brain volume, the intensity of the human nest evolved with the maturational schedule of the child which is rapid in the first years of life (taking three decades in total). When children receive evolved-nest care, their well-being and sociality develop optimally because their capacities (governed by the right hemisphere) are scheduled to lay their foundations in the first years of life (Schore, 2013).
We know now more than ever that the child’s body “is the result of mothering and being mothered” (Vaughan, 2015, p. 38). For mammals, who are named for the breastfeeding provided to the young, mothering is essential (i.e., nurturing from mother and others). Initially, the nurturing that mothers and others provide is about unilateral gift-giving and then shared gift-giving as children give to others themselves. This gift economy is built into natural nurturing and child raising: The child is a “product of gift-work” (Vaughan, 2015, p. 39). Mothering, characterized by sensitive caregiving, is essential for endocrine systems, neurotransmitters, stress response, self-regulatory systems and so much more (Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013a).
So much of the brain develops after birth that children’s capacities for social wellbeing are shaped by the particular nest of mothering (mothers and others) they receive. In species-normal conditions, children are ready for reciprocal relations from the beginning. Trevarthen & Reddy (2016) concluded that children are born with capacities to share emotions and intentions with caregivers (studies are usually with mother-child dyads), as observed through films of fetal then baby gestures in in spontaneous communication after birth (Delafield-Butt & Trevarthen, 2013; Trevarthen, 1986a; Trevarthen & Delafield-Butt, 2013; Zoia et al., 2013) as well as in clinical observations of newborn self-awareness and self-regulation (Brazelton, 1979; Brazelton & Nugent, 1995; Nugent & Morell, 2011).
Importantly, we know that parents instinctually want babies to have the best possible start in life, though sometimes they do not know how to provide the care that fosters flourishing. Humanity’s evolved nest provides what the baby’s body and brain expect.
How do motherers nurture or show love in early life? They are attuned to the signals and needs of the infant who moves “with rhythms of prospective awareness from birth, show[s] insight for learning what the world affords, and share[s] their feelings of imaginative vitality in affectionate adventures with other persons” (Trevarthen & Bjorkvold, 2016, p. 28). A child is gradually socialized into her culture by the type of relational interaction in which she partakes. “By three months, a baby may participate in simple conventions of a culture, inviting older playmates to play games with routines and rituals, joining in narratives of purpose with feeling” (Trevarthen & Bjorkvold, 2016, p. 29). Mothering is about engaging and growing full human capacities, and in traditional societies includes a developing a deeper sense of connection with the community and with the larger All (Turnbull, 1984). Mothering brings together the art and science of relational living.
Supported Mothers and Mothering
John Bowlby (1982) identified two attachment systems. The first is the child’s attachment system, which develops during the first year of life, and is typically studied as secure or some form of insecure attachment. Children who are well-mothered develop secure attachment and are better able to handle stress throughout life because, as mentioned, good mothering promotes optimal epigenetic shaping of multiple processes including the Oxytocinergic system that undergirds bond formation in mammals, represented by secure attachment (Atzil, Hendler & Feldman, 2011).
The second attachment system Bowlby identified is the caregiver’s attachment system which reflects neurobiological substrates like the oxytocinergic system that influence the caregiver’s ability to develop attachment with their own children. Adults who report better parenting as children exhibit greater oxytocin indicators (peripheral and brain activation) as well as more sensitive parenting (Feldman, 2012). Animal research shows that well-mothered mothers exhibit more affectionate care, accompanied by higher oxytocin indicators during pregnancy and birth (Champagne, 2008). Caregiver attachment leads to nurturing behaviors that shape the child’s attachment system. In the immediate perinatal period after a naturalistic birth, the mother-child dyad is optimally attuned to bond due to hormonal shifts that promote sensitivity in the dyad; animal models show us that brain reward systems are set to be imprinted immediately after birth, perhaps in both child and mother, making this period significant for biosocial reasons. (See Buckley, 2015, for a review.) (It should be noted that there are other opportunities to foster secure attachment later in development—e.g., Lieberman, Padrón, Van Horn & Harris, 2005). The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (of the World Health Organization, recently adopted in the USA) promotes keeping mother and neonate together, which influences the opportunity for mother-child bonding and for breastfeeding success.
Nurturing behavior reflects the nurturer’s own history, which ideally should also be one of support as motherers (nurturers) incorporate the gift-giving relational experiences they had in early life. That is, when they were nurtured themselves by motherers, it becomes a part of how they relate to others. They learned to cooperate first by receiving from motherers what they needed as embodied creatures, body to body, gradually reciprocating with mini-gift giving back to the motherer with the same type of attention received (shared resonance of feeling, games, and communication) (Vaughan, 2015).
If a mother or caregiver lacked support herself in childhood and in motherhood, she is less likely to convey these supportive types of attention and feeling. Instead, she is more likely to communicate impatience, dismissal, and detachment. She has fewer nurturing skills because of her own lack of experience. Animal studies show that poor mothers breed daughters with worse mothering skills (Weaver et al., 2005; Weaver, et al., 2004; Weaver, Meaney, & Szyf, 2006). Offspring will not grow as well or blossom if this is the home they face.
Hopefully, there is at least one person in each child’s life that “mothers” them, showering love and acceptance, in whose presence they can grow their uniqueness. Extended family life allows for this but so do neighbors, teachers and coaches. Every child needs an ongoing bath of love to flourish.
*Thanks to Genevieve Vaughan for her suggestions.
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