05 May Imperfect Mothers, Take Heart!
May 5, 2016
Imperfect Mothers, Take Heart!
A few days ago, my 82-year-old mother and I were sitting on a little bench near two large lilac bushes. The sky was blue, and the air sweetly-scented. We held hands in silence, and then she leaned her head against mine and said, ” I am so happy to be alive with you right now.”
It was a profound moment for me. The dementia that has overtaken my mother’s final years often confuses her thinking and scrambles her words. But this simple sentence was so clear and perceptive, it pierced my heart deeply. Even in her weakened condition, she was teaching me how to treasure life and love.
I confess that my mother and I had our share of clashes when I was a teenager, and a few more through the years. But sitting on that bench together, I couldn’t remember any of them. Maybe I was catching some of my mother’s memory-loss (which my children would probably say is true). Or Maybe those events just didn’t matter anymore. I saw my mother for whom she is: a loving, dedicated woman who was — and still —doing the very best she can.
With Mother’s Day coming up this Sunday, some mothers are bracing themselves for an onslaught of mixed feelings. Imperfect mothers, take heart! You wield great power and influence upon your children and upon the world. Sometimes it happens with big events, but most often a mother’s power is experienced in simple, everyday ways, from the moment a child is born.
From the very moment of childbirth, mothers give unique and distinct gifts their children. As Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson* explains, “Mothers are biologically primed to provide nurturing oriented toward creating a strong attachment relationship. Dramatic increases in oxytocin and oxytocin receptors during the process of giving birth and caring for infants act like a switch in mothers, turning on maternal behaviors. New moms find themselves expressing positive feelings, affectionately touching and gazing at their infants, and engaging in “motherese” vocalizations. Infants’ level of oxytocin parallel their mothers’, producing feelings of calm and well-being that similarly bond mother and offspring.”
She continues, “From infancy on, children are more likely to seek out their mothers for comfort in times of stress. And mothers are much more likely to identify, ask about, listen to, and discuss emotions with children. A mother’s unique orientation toward identifying, expressing, regulating, understanding, and processing emotions is not only important for self-awareness and emotional well-being; it also lays a foundation for moral awareness, including a sense of moral conscience with the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.”
In other words, from the beginning of a child’s life, mothers are specially hardwired to fill the child’s need for care, comfort, and conscience. Even in her imperfection, a mother has enough to be enough.
Summing up a 20-year study of child development, Dr. Erickson stated, “the significant influence of mothers in not realized in perfectly orchestrated enrichment activities for children, but in a million small acts of care and responsiveness. When all is said and done, it really is through the hundreds of diaper changes, baths, nose wipes, late night conversations, car rides, meals, and questions about feelings and friends that her love becomes a powerful source of influence.”
She adds, “In spite of popular belief that power is wielded through a ‘public voice’, it is the private voice of a mother that shapes a generation.”
It is the power of a mother’s love, and her daily loving acts — not her perfection — “that enables a child to truly become.” We love how this concept is illustrated in a heartwarming 2-minute Video “To My Everyday Mother” narrated by Dr. Erickson.
So as you are changing diapers, reading stories, and browning the hamburger, please remember that you are a part of something much bigger than you may realize. Your love and service is helping to bind together and move forward the entire human family. That is a lot of power!
A Little Caution and a Lot of Courage
Dr. Erickson has also cautioned that “Mother’s Day can be painful because it seems to remind us of the ways we fall short of the ‘ideal’ — whether that means not being able to have the children we yearn for or not being able to care well enough for the ones we have. But Mother’s Day is not a celebration of the ideal. It is a celebration of reality — mothers all over the world and throughout time have given something no one else could do in the same way.”
So as imperfect mothers — which we all are — let’s keep going, keep serving, and keep loving. And when we make mistakes, we can take courage from the fact that we can keep trying! Dr. Randal Day points out that in family relationships “we sometimes believe that our encounters with our close family members are continuous. Actually, they are not. Each time we meet and greet is a new scene in the relationship play.”
And perhaps someday, after we’ve done our mothering-work the very best we can, we may find ourselves sitting on a bench with our adult child, sharing a perfect moment of love and memory-loss, just happy to be alive together.
United Families International, President
* United families International is pleased to welcome Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson as the newest UFI Board member. An Affiliated Scholar at the Wheatley Institution and former assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU, Dr. Erickson’s research specializing in maternal and child wellbeing has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Slate Magazine, and the Today Show. She has authored more than 20 scientific articles and book chapters and presented at national and international conferences. In 2004, she was selected as a Social Science Research Fellow for the Heritage Foundation where she completed research analyses on non-maternal care for policy makers. Erickson received B.S. and and M.A. degree from Brigham Young University, and a PhD in Family Social Science from the University of Minnesota. She is currently a regular columnist on family issues, while she and her husband Michael enjoy their family life journey with two young children.