The lack of real dialogue about motherhood—its challenges, rewards, successes and failures—can be laid at the feet of the mythology our culture embraces. It’s a virtual tsunami of pastel-tinted thoughts, epitomized not just by those flowery Mother’s Day cards but all those mugs and tea cozies that read “Home is Where Mom is” and “#1 Mom.” Heaven forfend if you tell a story that’s different because no one wants to hear you.
The reality is that roughly 50%-60% of children get their emotional needs well met in childhood by their primary caretaker, most usually their mother. They grow up to be securely attached women, who are confident in themselves, are desirous and capable of intimate connections, and are attracted to people who are also securely attached. They feel good about themselves and others in ways that make them fine colleagues and friends, as well as intimate partners.They are productive and deal with setbacks well.
That leaves some 40% -50% of children who don’t grow up with an unattuned or loving mother, who—to either a greater or lesser degree—don’t get their emotional needs met, and have an insecure attachment style. They have trouble forging close connections, may display anxiety in relationships or demonstrate an unwillingness to be intimate, and have more trouble managing their negative thoughts and emotions than securely attached people. While they may be outwardly successful, they are still dogged by feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Others are less lucky and either underachieve or indulge in self-destructive behaviors.
We tend not to talk about these children because the myths of motherhood don’t have room for results like these. But, gee, when close to or half of all of us don’t grow up paid attention to in the right way, isn’t it worth talking about?
So, in the hope of opening up an ongoing dialogue, here are five myths about motherhood and mothering no one should believe. If you are suspending judgment about a mother—overlooking behaviors you’d be critical of in any other context—you need to realize these five statements are myths and nothing more.
1. Mothering is instinctual
Yes, if you’re an elephant, a gorilla, or a cheetah, among others—and these creatures are very fine mothers indeed for many reasons—and no, if you’re a human being. (Yes, the photo is of an instinctive mother and her baby.) In our species, mothering is learned behavior and not hardwired into us. I realize this comes as a blow to many cherished tropes the culture holds dear about women and mothers but it is, alas, true. Recognizing that maternal behavior is learned is key to understanding family dynamics, especially between and among generations. When destructive patterns of behavior an individual understands as “normal” within a family remain unconscious and unexamined, such as verbal aggression, they will be repeated in the next generation. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. Since it’s learned behavior, we can unlearn what we experienced and can learn to mother as we weren’t with conscious awareness. If you fall within that 40-50% group, your children needn’t.
2. All mothers are loving
Again, another gauzy, pastel-hued cultural myth which is simply untrue. There are many and various reasons some mothers are unloving but the bottom line is that they’re not nearly as rare as you might think. Shall I repeat the 40%-50% statistic if you’re skeptical?
3. What matters are the good things you do for a child
It’s totally counterintuitive but children are much more affected by negative treatment—being ignored, unheard, dismissed, or disparaged for example—than they are by the occasional reprieve, whether it’s taking them out somewhere special, carving out time to spend together, or complimenting them from time to time. Tough love isn’t love. Many mothers actually believe that the “stuff” that is given to daughters—clothes, food, the roof over their heads, family vacations—more than make up for the day-to-day treatment at home. It’s not true and here’s why. Human beings are hardwired to pay more attention to bad things because it once had an evolutionary advantage: You were more likely to survive if you were alert to dangers or possible threats and, as a result, your brain tucks those memories away in a different place than happy moments and, additionally, makes them more retrievable. As Roy Baumeister and his colleagues noted, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” In case you’re interested, the proportion that pops up in many studies including John Gottman’s work on marriage is that it takes five good exchanges to balance out the effect of one bad one.
Similarly, research shows that verbal aggression by one parent isn’t mitigated by responsive treatment by another. You will want to keep this in mind.
4. Words don’t affect infants, toddlers, and small children
Nope, nope, and nope. Studies show that talking to a baby actually grows the infant’s brain capacity; humans learn language by hearing it and, yes, the more you talk and the more words you use, the more the child thrives (and the more her intelligence will be enhanced). That’s especially true if those words are accompanied by facial expressions and gestures that show the baby that you are super-aware of her and paying close attention; it’s just like watering a seedling.
But just as words can build the child’s brain, they can also damage it. Disparaging or hurtful words actually change the structure of the child’s developing brain, whether directed toward her or whether she’s growing up in a place with a lot of screaming and yelling. Please skip the “they’re only words” defense; it’s really no different from physical abuse.
5. Babies and children are resilient by nature
Because Americans love “come from behind” success stories—especially when they involve growing up in less than ideal circumstances and then becoming financially successful—many people actually believe that “grit” or resilience is somehow inborn or innate. And, additionally, that a tough childhood is more likely to produce a winner than a coddled one. Actually not.
Babies are fragile, in fact, and, in order to thrive, have needs that go far beyond food, water, and shelter. If you think of them as heat-seeking missiles in search of love, touch, eye contact, attention, and attunement you’d be very close to right. Children, as they grow, are larger and more independent versions of their infant selves, with greater understanding of the world and sensitivity to words and gestures which, in the right supportive environment, will make them more resilient and, in an unsupportive environment, will not only make them less resilient but, in fact, broken in places.
What can a loving and attuned mother accomplish? As Thomas Lewis and his co-authors write in their superb book, A General Theory of Love:
If a parent can sense her child well—if she can tune into his wordless inner states and know what he feels—then he, too, will become skilled in reading the emotional world.
There is much at stake.
Bottom line: Mothering is hard work and many women are stuck learning on the job while others—the lucky ones—just do what their moms did. The myths of motherhood do us no good in understanding what works and doesn’t and get in the way of open dialogue. Please park your cultural tropes by the door and examine mothering and let’s start a discussion that benefits both women and children
Photograph by Casey Allen. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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Baumeister, Roy, et al. “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001) vol.5, no. 4, 323-370.
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.