From Mother to Motherers: We're Grateful for Their Support
Mothering grows us, and we can also do it for others.
Posted May 09, 2020
In honor of my mother, who passed away 26 years ago, I am writing about her each day this month. We did not always agree on things, but she was consistent in trying to be a good mother. Most mothers are.
Mothering is a science and an art.
Mothering is a science in that mothers build the child’s brain and body, not only inside the womb but postnatally through the quality of their caregiving. Virtually every characteristic of a child is influenced by mothering in early life: from the immune system to stress response, vagus nerve to attachment (and social orientation) (Narvaez, Braungart-Rieker, et al. 2016; Narvaez, Panksepp, et al., 2013; Narvaez, Valentino et al., 2014).
For example: Converging evidence on the science of early life affectionate touch demonstrates that it nurtures a well-functioning stress response, oxytocin system, and self-regulation of multiple systems.
Mothering is an art too, in that mothers respond to the child in the way appropriate for the moment and for that child. Responsive care is individualized, like a virtue: action is taken spontaneously in the right way for the circumstances and for the needs of the developing child.
For example: When bathing an infant, the skilled mother knows to have the water and everything ready before undressing the baby, because otherwise the baby will be unnecessarily distressed and resist the bath.
Of course, the art of doing anything requires practice and knowledge; in this case, knowledge of baby development and how to give care with sensitivity. Too much control (intrusiveness) or too little attention (neglect) must be avoided. Instead, responsiveness means the relationship provides the appropriate support at the moment of need.
Moreover, no human is meant to mother alone. Neither the art or science of mothering is optimal outside of community support. In fact, our species evolved to have community mothering from multiple people so that there is always someone ready to respond to a child’s needs, which for babies most often means breastfeeding, affectionate holding, and companionship play (Hrdy, 2009). (See evolved nest for more.)
We cannot overstate how central mothers and motherers (other nurturers, allomothers, or alloparents) are to society (Vaughan, 2015). But also, how societal support, in turn, is vital for mothering activities.
Mothers offer the nurturing that initiates a child’s entry into the community. The caring community welcomes the mother and child with responsive support. Mother’s reliability and tenderness build the necessary psychoneurobiological features that will allow the child to enter the community as a growing member.
But the mother’s devotion to her child depends on felt community support — is the mother’s pregnancy, and the child, welcome? (Hrdy, 2009). The effects of support begin before birth. The mother who feels the strength of the community beside her stays calm, keeping the fetus calm, optimizing the biochemistry for the development of many systems growing rapidly in the womb.
Postnatally, the baby is welcomed at birth with tenderness by the mother and her helpers. Under normal circumstances for our species, the mother is fully engaged and committed to the baby once the baby has crawled up, massaged her nipple, and latched on—during the first hours when physiological reward systems in both mom and baby are geared up to bond (Buckley, 2015). The mother, who has adequate support, will be devoted and tuned in to that child’s needs like her own.
With guidance from skilled motherers, this mother becomes skilled herself at guiding her baby along the pathway of optimal arousal (not cacostatically — over- or under-reacting), maintaining the biochemistry of growth (rest and digest) rather than the inhibitory chemistry of stress (flight, fight, freeze). The mother and motherers understand that the baby relies on them to meet his needs, fully at first — in those first 18 months, babies expect womb-like treatment (Montagu, 1968) — preparing the child for autonomous independence later.
Psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott called “good enough” mothering the healthy beginning for the child’s psyche (Winnicott, 1957). When the mother is in a state of “primary maternal preoccupation,” she identifies with the infant and attempts to deeply respond to what the infant needs. The “holding” of the child is not only physical but mental—how the mother holds the child in her mind, how she perceives the child.
Winnicott considered “the child’s impulse to share its heart with the mother … crucial for the child’s wellbeing” (Hilton, 2012, p. 81). The mother’s receptiveness to the spirit or heart of the child promotes self-confidence and a sense of security right at the time when those seeds are planted for lifelong growth. A mutually responsive orientation builds secure attachment, cooperation, and conscience over the course of childhood (Kochanska, 2002).
Following an intrinsic schedule, “a hunger to fill archetypal forms with specific meaning,” children move through different interests and capacity development in infancy, childhood, and youth (Shepard, 1982, p. 110). The mother’s care establishes the foundations for the pathway and the relational web a child gradually grows with other community members, first, typically, father and grandmother (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). The responsive tenderness of alloparents is a building block for the child’s expansion of trust to the wider community.
Throughout childhood, the types of alloparent connections vary in style and type, leading to a child who becomes flexibly skilled in social relationships, and has a mature — wide and inclusive — sense of relatedness (Shepard, 1982). With extensive outdoor free play in the natural world, this sense of relatedness includes a grounding in the matrix of living on the earth.
In adolescence, traditionally the child was given the opportunity to “gestate” once again and be reborn through ceremonial death of childhood, undergoing initiation rites into adulthood, learning new skills and capacities to endure the travails of adult life, and expanding their sense of devotion to the cosmos (Shepard, 1982).
Initiation into adulthood is considered to occur naturally for girls who enter the transition to adulthood at the start of menses (which, before industrialization and its effects on puberty timing, was typically around age 17). Traditionally, girls are then typically interested in forming lasting bonds and starting a family. These processes pull the girl out of her own concerns to transcendent ones.
For boys, something more deliberate is required to expand their imaginations and commitments. A vision quest, a set of trials, in which they learn to rely on their skills and the universe’s signals brings about a new commitment and sense of purpose. Fathers are particularly important in modeling and supporting the young man’s seeking and finding a place based on his gifts.
In each phase, the child moves from the mothering or nurturing of one person to that of others, from the biological mother to the mothering provisioned by the broader community, to a feeling that the universe, traditionally concretized in the forest or desert (the landscape), also nurtures the self. In each case, the child is seeking to fulfill their human potential—to become a full human being, with integrated heart and mind—but also determine what particular gift they have to offer the community.
When the child is nurtured all along the way, their inner treasure will be polished and prepared for gifting to the community in adulthood. Without mothers and motherers, the child’s treasured self would not be uncovered naturally but require therapy in adulthood to heal wounds and integrate mind and heart (Hilton, 2012).
Let’s be thankful to our mothers and the motherers who helped us all along the way. And let’s remember that we can all become motherers ourselves, pitching in to support mothers and to support children in helpful ways.
Buckley, S.J. (2015). Hormonal physiology of childbearing: Evidence and implications for women, babies, and maternity care. Washington, D.C.: Childbirth Connection Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families.
Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.
Hilton, R. (2012). The ever changing constancy of body psychotherapy. International Body Psychotherapy Journal: The Art and Science of Somatic Praxis, 11(2),74-93.
Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 191-195.
Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.), Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford.
Narvaez, D., Braungart-Rieker, J., Miller, L. Gettler, L., & Hastings, P. (2016). Contexts for Young Child Flourishing: Evolution, Family and Society. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.). (2013). Evolution, early experience, and human development: From research to practice and policy. New York: Oxford.
Narvaez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J., & Gray, P. (2014). Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Shepard, P. (1982) Nature and madness. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Vaughan, E. (2015). The gift in the heart of language: The maternal source of meaning. Mimesis International.
Winnicott, D.W. (1957). Mother and child. A primer of first relationships. New York: Basic Books.