A Mother's Love: Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths

How we think about motherhood, and why we shouldn't

Posted Feb 26, 2015

Wikipedia Commons/Robert Whitehead
Source: Wikipedia Commons/Robert Whitehead

What constitutes good mothering—or good parenting, for that matter—is a cultural trope, varying not just from nation to nation, but from decade to decade, Maternal practices—breastfeeding, swaddling, co-sleeping, how long and whether to let an infant cry, for example—go in and out of style, dependent on cultural mores and the most recent expert advice. Just as the practice of wet nursing, practiced in different cultures for literally centuries, now seems cruel at least and barbaric at worst, so too current American assumptions about appropriate maternal behavior may seem outlandish or odd to people of other nations, and vice versa. A single homely example suffices from my own experience. My daughter, when she was a toddler, was wont to migrate from her bed to her parents’ with great stealth, which distressed her father greatly. We happened to consult a physician of Indian descent and my husband brought up what he considered to be a child-rearing problem that needed solving immediately. The doctor smiled, and explained this was less a problem than a cultural stance. She explained that her own two children, as was customary in her and her husband’s native culture, slept with their parents until they were nine or ten and ready to sleep on their own.

Our cultural vision of motherhood is informed by both myths and misconceptions that shape our thinking without our conscious awareness. If motherhood had a color or a palette, it would be the gentle pastels of Mary Cassatt or Auguste Renoir. If motherhood had a scent, it would be that of roses, lilacs, or lavender.  Our idea of motherhood is influenced by images of the Virgin Mary, no matter what our faith, and deeply connected to our most idealistic beliefs about love.  And our willingness to accept these tropes—not to mention the cultural onus on challenging them— is reinforced by no less an authority than the Bible which, in the Fifth Commandment, instructs us to “Honor thy mother and father” which effectively makes a discussion which includes criticism off the table.

While these myths provide some social comfort and elevate the status of motherhood, they also do damage. They hobble women who become mothers and discover that they are disappointed or overwhelmed; the shame of admitting that motherhood doesn’t deliver the expected joy forces them into denial and guilty silence, and to suffer without support. The children of unloving mothers, too, are forced to suffer alone and in silence, since few people are willing to accept the truth of a story which deviates from the myths our culture holds dear. Unloving mother? No, it must be child who’s difficult or at fault. As I have said before, in the court of public opinion, it is always the daughter—not her mother—who’s on trial.

Here are the three myths we all need to look at.

Myth: Motherhood as instinctual

While it’s true enough that certain physical processes connected to childbearing and maternality—such as milk letdown when a baby cries or the alteration in a mother’s brain seen in an MRI when she recognizes her own child—are automatic and lie outside of conscious awareness, it’s simply not true of maternal behavior as a whole, which anthropologist Sarah Hrdy explains in great detail in her book Mother Nature. I think we cling to this myth in part because it helps to allay the fears of every new mother who wonders whether she will be up to the task. In addition, thinking of mothering as instinctual also helps women avoid thinking about the inevitable loss and gain involved with having a child because, as Deborah Tannen so astutely observed in You’re Wearing That?, “in reality, though, many women, even those who genuinely want the children they have, may not foresee, or be that all that happy about, the ways their children will limit them.”  Motherhood both gives and takes away at once, and may challenge a woman’s sense of self and personal needs.  Reducing mothering to “instinct” denies that possibility.

Truth:  Humans are complicated creatures and while it’s true enough that some maternal behaviors are automatic, how women mother is also shaped by conscious factors.  Despite the built-in dispositions to nurture, as Hrdy writes, “maternal investment in offspring is complicated by a range of wholly new considerations.” Hrdy lists cultural expectations, gender roles, sentiments such as honor or shame, and sex preferences. Additionally, since human infants are dependent on their mothers for years, the mother’s vision of the future is a factor as well. Cultural tropes aside, foreseeing years of struggle or deprivation doesn’t jumpstart maternal love.

Is it any surprise that sometimes these motivations are in conflict, and that some women will feel expanded by motherhood while others will feel limited?  The problem is that our view of motherhood doesn’t permit any ambivalence.

We are thinking creatures, for better or worse, and so it’s important to remember what the authors of A General Theory of Love have to say about mammals and maternal love: “The lack of an unattuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and a shattering injury to the fragile limbic brain of a mammal.”

Myth: Maternal love is unconditional

Please don’t start yelling at me, which is what usually happens when I call this a myth. I like the idea of unconditional love as much as the next person and for exactly the same reason, living as we do in a world where love is hard to find and even harder to hang on to. As an unloved daughter, I was stunned at the age of fifteen to read Erich Fromm’s description of maternal love: “Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.” Wow, and please count me in. But what does this idea really mean? Does maternal love always have no conditions? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

Truth: While mothers can love their children deeply and passionately—parents who show up on television after their kid has committed some heinous crime and profess their total love nonetheless—science shows that calling this love “unconditional” may be more hopeful than accurate. For one thing, even loving mothers who have more than one child have both preferences and love their children differently; it doesn’t matter whether you ascribe that to “goodness of fit” or personality or more subtle, unconscious motives. Research on siblings reveals that “equally” isn’t always the adverb that goes with the verb “to love,” and that children are more affected by the differentiation between themselves and their siblings than they are by demonstrations of parental love. It’s the differentiation they remember.

We should toss the idea of unconditional love because it gets in the way of understanding the job of motherhood. It’s our obligation as parents through childhood, adolescence, and beyond to set reasonable boundaries for our children, and, yes, those are “conditions.” They are too easily confounded with “unconditional” love and love itself. How you set conditions—as an authoritarian who is to be obeyed or as a parent who sets rules authoritatively and invites dialogue—matters too, as it does if you set no conditions at all. While we may love the idea of the one love that cannot be altered, it’s a myth that doesn’t always help us mother well.

Myth: The maternal bond is instantaneous and universal

Again, one detects human optimism and hopefulness in this myth, which was vigorously promoted by none other than Dr. Spock—the very man who presided over the rearing of America’s Baby Boomer generation. This is not to say that mother-infant bonding doesn’t exist—it does—but not all women bond with their children and it doesn’t take place in the instant super-gluey kind of way the cultural mythology suggests. One article in the New England Journal of Medicine 1972 turned the writing in the sand into stone with the promise of ending all unhappy mother-child stories with just a bit of quiet and the pressing of flesh against flesh. To echo Ernest Hemingway, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Truth: Bonding isn’t attachment, and attachment—which isn’t a myth—is a process and a complicated dance of maternal-infant interaction on physical, psychological, and neurological levels. It's not always successful. Nor does it take place in a moment. The popular idea of bonding focuses on the mother, but attachment is a thoroughly dyadic process which requires the mother to be responsive and attuned to her infant’s cues which,when successful, creates a specific kind of synchronicity. Science has shown again and again that how an infant is attached—whether securely or insecurely—is highly predictive of the emotional and relational trajectory of that individual’s life.

As a layperson, I think it’s attachment, not instantaneous bonding, we should make part of the cultural dialogue. Why? Because, as a process, it emphasizes the conscious work of motherhood and could stop someone in desperate need for love from having a baby before she’s ready to make a commitment. Because understanding the true complexity of attachment—its glorious possibilities and its possible pitfalls—might encourage self-reflection and honesty before a baby comes into the world. Because, once you are a mother, it will help you to consider your hehaviors and the effect they have on your child or children,not just in those moments after birth or in the early weeks of your baby's life, but for years to come.

It’s high time we set aside the myths of motherhood for truths which will permit a richer and more open dialogue on every level.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2015

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Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters In Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Robert Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Colophon, 1962.