Think about the word "mother." Close your eyes and allow the images evoked by this word to come into focus. What comes to your mind? Images of a woman with a child? Images of your idea of an ideal mother? Images of your mother? Maybe the image you have is of a special person who mothered you at different times in your life? Regardless of the image you create in your mind, it is most likely a powerful image, spawning intense feelings of love, adoration, fear, sadness, or even rage. Continue to hold the image in your mind. What else do you see? A child? Someone you knew? A sad, withering child who is in need of mothering? A happy, robust child who is in the arms of a loving mother? The child that was once you? Do these images jog your memory? What comes to mind? A quiet moment over homework? An outing? Sitting down to a meal? Being held as you cried over your skinned knee? Being punished? Or perhaps, the sight of your mother walking away from you on that first day of school?
There is nothing small about a mother; she evokes powerful images, feelings, and memories. Throughout history mothers have been revered just as often as they have been feared. Even death does not alter the power of mothers. Folktales and traditional beliefs of several cultures maintain that the power and influence mothers have in the lives of their children and their children's children transcends death and remains strong. Scandinavian folklore includes the story of the passing of wisdom from one generation to the next through grandmothers, mothers, and daughters (Paxson, 1998). Paxson tells of the young girl who sets herself down on her grandmother's grave in order to learn from her teachings. Through the night the girl experiences a dreamlike phenomenon within which her kerchief-wearing grandmother appears with a plate of strudel. Come morning, the girl awakens to find herself still on the grave of her grandmother. She also finds the taste of sugar on her lips and the teachings of her grandmother in her mind. The maternal power has been passed on to her, adding maternal strength to her family. Mothers transcend boundaries to share wisdom. In other cultural tales, mothers transcend human boundaries to protect their children in times of danger (Paxson, 1998). Some have the ability to foresee the future, predicting the fate of a child.
The concept of mother connotes an interesting dichotomy between an altruistic, benevolent, wise, mystical goddess holding the power of fertility and birth and the awesome, secretive, merciless, devouring goddess holding the power of fate. Jung (1959) simply referred to this dichotomous archetyping of mothers as "the loving and the terrible mother." Mothers have the power to give life and sustain it through their motherly love and actions, just as they have the power to end life or condemn it through the abandonment and refusal to bestow their motherly love and actions.
Historically, mothers have consistently filled both the "loving" and the "terrible" roles. In fact, van der Heever (1990), in an exploration of several studies, found that the further one goes back in history, the lower the quality of childcare and the more children were likely to be abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused (French, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook). Examining the relationships between parents and their children reveals an indifference to infants and small children, by mothers, fathers and society as a whole. Badinter (1981) characterized motherhood in eighteenth century France, where infants were routinely abandoned or left to the care of wet-nurses or surrogate mothers (often women of the lower, poverty class). van der Heever elaborated on this concept, suggesting that these children, even those from well-to-do families, received the poorest of care as women of poverty would often feed and care for their own children first, providing for the surrogate child only as time and resources allowed. Motherhood and caring for one's infant were not seen as loving roles or behaviors, but instead were something to be passed on to the "peasants."
The turn of the twentieth century brought with it the beginning of a shift in how mothers and children were seen (Cohler and Paul, in Vol. 3 of this Handbook). It was around this time that Sigmund Freud (1913/1955) made the claim that there was no love like a mother's. He stated that this relationship was the strongest of all relationships, enduring for a lifetime, and the root of one's future intimate relationships. His ideas gained momentum over the years, strengthening the beliefs that mothers were crucial to the development of an emotionally stable and successful adult. The acceptance and support of this belief came by way of a difficult scientific journey, which has taken over 100 years. Two separate but interconnected trails led to this understanding: maternal deprivation and maternal impact.
In this chapter we begin with a discussion of these two trails, maternal deprivation and the maternal impact. The meaning of motherhood in the context of becoming a woman is then explored in the section on becoming a mother. Next, the preparation for motherhood is examined within the pregnancy and postpartum periods in subsections on processes in pregnancy and processes in the postpartum period. A discussion on the capacity for mothering is presented, followed by a discussion on mothering from the context of a holding environment for the child. In this latter section we focus on three important functions of mothering: monitoring and surveillance, expected nurturing, and the responsive caregiving-social partner role. Finally, maternal responsibilities during interaction, developmentally based mothering, and challenges in mothering are explored.
Was this article helpful?