Challenges In Mothering

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Mothering can occur only within the context of a relationship between a mother and a child. Likewise, a child can survive to grow and develop only within the context of a caregiving relationship. It is clear that the most significant period of mothering appears to be during the early years while the child has the most dependency for care. The mother-child relationship is an asymmetrical relationship during this period, in which the child needs more and gives less than the mother.

At first it seems that it is the expectant nurturing aspect of mothering that is the most important, as it has a direct impact on the child's well-being. However, we believe it is the aspect of the mother's capacity to make an emotional connection with the infant that determines survival and the child's developmental trajectory. This emotional connection is the foundation on which the developmental trajectory will play out. Initially, the child needs mothering that reflects hands-on care and her physical presence. Over time, and as maturation progresses, these needs shift. The child no longer needs mothering to survive, the goal instead becomes one of preparation for individuation or becoming a functional, responsible, socially appropriate adult—and this goal is met through the emotional connections made between the mother and child.

The work we have done with mothers in Early Head Start programs has taught us strong lessons about emotional connections for children. For mothers whose past traumatic events were not resolved in their own psyche, we found they could not make space for their babies in their minds. We think Bergum's (1997) labeling the phenomenon of "a child on her mind" is the unique contribution that mothers make to children's well-being.

TABLE 1.1 Expectations of Mothering

Age (years)

Child's Needs and Actions

Maternal Responsibilities

Infancy: 0-3 Basic care-food, shelter, stimulation, interaction

Temporal regularity of sleep and feeding patterns Opportunities for a few independent decisions i.e., feeding self, on parent's lap or next to parent, clothes preference

Preschool: 3-5 Spending longer periods of time independently of primary caregivers Developing some autonomous actions Establishing a mental model of mother and other primary caregivers Decision making about eating preferences, favorite activities and toys, bedtime routines

Early School: 5-8 Opportunities and support for learning and decision making Engaging in healthy competition Gaining competence and a positive sense of self Solidifying mental images of mother and other significant caregivers and extended family Expanding emotional literacy and understanding rights of others

Middle School: 8-12 Establishing a sense of self, including mastery, reliance, behavioral control, esteem, emotional literacy, friendships, values and beliefs Participating in social activities with family and peers

Preteen: 12-15 Understanding of sexual self

Developing peer relationships Increasing autonomy

Adolescence: 15-18

Infancy: 0-3

Discovering emerging adult self Evaluating values and beliefs Evaluating consequences of decisions

Basic care Temporal regularity Opportunities for a few independent decisions, i.e., on parent's lap or next to parent, holding parent's left hand or right hand, and so forth

Providing food, safety, stimulation and security Providing consistency and predictability Being emotionally available and present Responding to child's distress Developing routines, such as bedtime Responding in sensitive and empathetic

Setting well-defined and consistent limits and routines Modeling and encouraging expression of feelings Encouraging opportunities for age appropriate independence from caregiver Encouraging development of mental models of mother through symbols, transitional objects and imagery

Providing discipline and limits Providing opportunities for independence while still monitoring Supporting emotional development Setting limits on inappropriate expression of feelings Promoting awareness of other's values and beliefs

Supporting self-reliance and maturing abilities Honoring the developing sense of self and emotional growth Providing discipline and limits

Providing guidance in transition to adulthood, peer network and autonomy Listening to child's expression of sexual and physical changes Monitoring peer network

Providing love and ongoing support Supporting decision making Providing access to resources Empathizing with tensions in transition to adulthood Advocating for child's rights

Providing food, safety, stimulation, and security

Providing consistency and predicatability Developing routines for certain interactions, such as going to bed Being emotionally available and present Responding in sensitive and empathetic ways


TABLE 1.2 (Continued)

Age (years)

Child's Needs and Actions

Maternal Responsibilities

Preschool: 3-5 Spending increasingly longer periods of time independently of primary caregivers to begin to develop autonomy Developing a stronger mental model of mother or other primary caregiver for sustaining longer periods of separation Structuring of decision-making opportunities, e.g., bath now or after dinner, dress or pants, careal or toast

Encouraging and supporting self-control through the setting of well-defined and consistent limits and routines Modeling and encouraging expressions of feelings; setting limits on inappropriate expressions of feelings Encouraging and providing opportunities for age-appropriate independence from caregiver Supporting and encouraging the development of mental models of mother through symbols, transitional objects, and mental imagery

One of the successful aspects of assuming the mothering role is to be able to think of one's self as a "mother" and to think of the child in your arms as "my daughter" or "my son." If the mother cannot take possession of the baby in her mind, she will never be able to fully take possession of the living and breathing baby in her life. When the mother has the baby "on her mind," it represents the emotional connection that the mother has made with the child. When a baby is never taken into a mother's mind, the child becomes an emotional orphan whether or not a mother is physically present. We saw this in some of our Early Head Start mothers who described their mothers as living with them and providing food and shelter, but who also described these same mothers as "not there for me." They described feelings of rejection, abandonment, and a sense that no one really ever cared for them. They talked about their childhood wishes and dreams of having mothers who could do things with them like homework or even simply talk with them.

We found that when the mothers' minds were full of their losses and traumatic experiences there was no room left for their babies. We videotaped the interactions of one mother with her 5-month-old baby, which demonstrated this vacancy quite dramatically. In feeding her infant she did so by giving him the bottle while he was in a plastic infant seat. She made no eye or body contact; rather she visually scanned the environment. She did not talk to her child and would dissuade him from exploring his environment by pushing his hands down anytime he reached up for the bottle or her hand. Witnessing the emptiness of this interaction left us feeling empty. When we understood the significance of her past experiences, her emotional trauma, and her lack of loving relationships (case of Amy), we could more readily understand her behavior and recognize the challenge of forging emotional connectedness for the baby. It is our speculation that approximately 25% of new mothers have unresolved trauma that interferes with the emotional connection and having the child on her mind.

Another factor we have recognized is the limited perspective new parents have had in observing maternal role models and how important this is to the formation of their own parenting. Again in our Early Head Start experience many of the women had been emotionally rejected by their own mothers and, in turn, became rejecting of their own mothers. They did not see their mothers as "models" of mothers whom they might look to, neither could they identify an alternative positive model from their network. If a woman does not have a model of mothering in her mind, where can it come from? Stern and Bruschweiler-Stern (1998) hypothesized about the need women experience after birth for contact with other women. Ongoing research with doulas (a birthing witness and support) seems to confirm that when low-income women have a doula that provides support, information, and coaching there is a much different outcome in the pregnant woman's ability to carry the fetus to term and in the incidence of continued breast-feeding (Chicago Health Connection, 2000). We need to evaluate in our current society a structure within which children learn mothering behaviors. Few new parents have had the luxury of watching younger siblings parenting or even watching care of children by other parents or in childcare. Yet it is our experience that women without good role models who realize this have a hunger for good role models once they are pregnant.

Another factor to consider is the aspect of the intergenerational patterns that have an impact on mother-child relationships. Again, the case of Amy is illustrative. She had no positive mothering figure. Amy's biological mother was emotionally and physically unavailable to her and used the "child Amy" in abusive ways to get her own needs met—she abandoned Amy to abuse and neglect. Her stepmother afforded Amy no sense of safety or protection—she abandoned Amy to abuse and condoned this abuse with her lack of action. Amy not only experienced the primary trauma of abuse and neglect, she also experienced relationship trauma through the inadequate and rejecting mothering she received. We could see this emotional unavailability passed on to her infant son whom she refused to touch or interact with as she fed him in a mechanical manner. Her son already mirrored her lack of affect and emotionless face by the time he was a year old. Observing them together was like peering into two deep holes, each an emotional abyss hungry to be filled but with no sense or expectation that filling these voids would ever occur.

Without intervention both this mother and her child would continue with the cycle of rejecting and empty relationships, always at risk for trauma. The mothers we have seen to be effective in breaking this intergenerational cycle are those who have been able to garner emotional support from persons outside their family systems. For some mothers this meant completely and physically separating from their families of origins; for others it meant learning to keep tight boundaries on their families and essentially separating from them emotionally. The actual breaking of this cycle is often a very painful experience for the mother doing the separating; one mother made the following comment:

"I look at my daughter, who is now 12, and I think about where I was at 12—my mother was boozing it up every night, no one was ever home, she didn't know where I was or what I was doing and I was living with different friends, smoking dope, drinking, and looking for guys to help me feel like I existed. Sarah is reading books and playing softball, we talk and have a good time, she likes to be with me and I like to be with her... sometimes I wonder why I was the chosen one, the one who had to stop it all."

When asked how she became the mother she is now she replied,

"I found it in everyone else I met, I watched people in church, I watched other kids at school, I asked for help and accepted the help offered, and I swore I would never be like my mom... I still work at it everyday, but I know I am the best mom I can possibly be."

In fact, this mother quit her drugs and alcohol, she joined Alcoholic's Anonymous by the age of 16 and has been clean and sober since that time, she sought counseling, joined a church supportive of her desire to change, and facilitated relationships with her "healthy" relatives and friends for emotional support—she refers to all of this as "I made my own family, a healthy one, where I knew I would be loved and supported." The change in this woman's life is quite striking; she calls it "working from the inside" and acknowledges it would not have occurred if she had remained emotionally enmeshed with her family of origin.

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Confident Kids

Confident Kids

Although nobody gets a parenting manual or bible in the delivery room, it is our duty as parents to try to make our kids as well rounded, happy and confident as possible. It is a lot easier to bring up great kids than it is to try and fix problems caused by bad parenting, when our kids have become adults. Our children are all individuals - they are not our property but people in their own right.

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