Every woman who bears a child thus has a sacred responsibility to provide loving nurturance so that child can develop toward his or her highest potential. While both mothers and fathers are essential to a child's healthy development, this article centers on the contribution and responsibility of mothers. See articles Equal Partnership in Marriage and The Sacred Responsibility of Fathers.
Mother as Nurturer
Biologically, mothers have been given the hallowed opportunity to bear children. Because they nurture the developing child in their own bodies, they almost always feel a compelling drive to protect the new, entirely dependent life they've given birth to. Most mothers also feel inherent motivation to comfort and guide their child. So it's natural in the vast majority of cases that a mother becomes her child's primary caregiver, especially during the first few years of life.
Infants and small children are completely dependent on their caregivers to survive. As a child grows, she becomes less physically dependent but continues to need the nurturing care of her mother, including acceptance, love, understanding, and teaching. These many hours of care each day make mothers most often the person closest to their children and the person with greatest influence. Experiences with Mom powerfully shape a child's perspective, attitudes, and sense of self. Without good nurturing in these early stages, a child's development can be seriously harmed. See article Being Loving and Nurturing.
A Mother's Contribution
Mothering is among the most complex and demanding work imaginable. Being a mom can require learning the stages of a child's development, preparing nutritionally balanced meals, and helping with algebra. The role is made even more complex by the need for individualized parenting. As a mother spends quantity and quality time with each child, she learns each child's individual needs and the best way to lovingly fill those needs. See article Practicing Individualized Parenting.
Studies show mothers approach parenting differently than do fathers. While fathers tend to be more physical with their children, wrestling and tickling and playing ball, mothers tend to talk with their children more, explore feelings, and foster social skills. As children share what's going on in their lives in casual conversation, Mom gets the chance to gently guide, teach, and advise. When she does this well, her children come to see her as their number one supporter. See article Parents as the First and Foremost Teachers .
Motherhood Often Devalued
Motherhood often is seen as a submissive role with few rewards. In a world that values material possessions so highly, the intangible and unpaid work of mothers can seem unimportant. A paycheck may become attractive because it may help Mom feel more valued and allows kids to have a higher standard of living. Women who buy into these ideas might start to think they're not needed at home. Maybe their children can take care of themselves or someone else can care for them just as well as they can. A mother might decide her children need the material advantages of life more than they need her presence.
But children need their mothers. No material possession can replace a mother who is present and available to her children. They thrive when Mom is home when they are, when she's loving and accepting, and when she listens to them and tries to understand. While children might complain if they don't have name-brand clothes or the latest technical gadget, as they mature they come to understand and deeply appreciate the gift of a mother who was present for them.
The Problem of Burnout
Pure fatigue is a universal experience among mothers. Add to that a society that says what you're doing isn't really very valuable and you get a dangerous combination. The risk of burnout for stay-at-home mothers is perhaps greater today than it has ever been. Mothers – and fathers – should be on alert for and guard against this danger.
Burnout rarely occurs because of major crises. Instead, it builds from the small everyday events that happen to every mother. It's more likely to occur in mothers who have unrealistic expectations and mothers who hold themselves personally responsible for things they can't control. Researcher Carol Tannenhauser (1996) offers four ideas to help mothers – and couples -- diminish the frustrations and fatigue of motherhood.
- Align expectations with reality. What if things don't turn out perfectly? Does it really matter? As mothers sit back and look at what's truly important, it's often easier to see that life's minor follies can't spoil the big picture.
- Do what works for you and your child. Think through your own ideas about what it means to be a good mother and what parenting style is the best fit between your personality and your child's personality. Get advice when you need it, but stay in the driver's seat. You don't have to follow other people's advice if you don't feel right about it.
- Time take for your own rejuvenation and development. As valuable as it for you to be available at home, you don't have to be there every minute. You need time to yourself. If you don't set aside reasonable time for your own interests and development, you're more likely to burn out.
- Maintain a support system. Every mom needs a network of relatives and friends to lean on for socializing, reassurance, and childcare relief. Nurture these relationships and ask for help when you need it. When you're under particular strain, consider supplementing your support system with professional help.
Benefits of Mothering to Mothers
Studies show that women who are mothers believe their lives have greater meaning than women who don't have children. It's difficult to measure the value of unselfishly giving of yourself to a child who depends on you. In the words of lawyer and mother Jennifer C. Braceras, mothers "reap extraordinary rewards that are impossible to quantify" (p. 2). And as researcher Ellen Galinsky (1987) points out:
Taking care of a small, dependent, growing person is transforming, because it . . . exposes our vulnerabilities as well as our nobility. We lose our sense of self, only to find it and have it change again and again. . . . We figure out how we want to interpret the wider worlds, and we learn to interact with all those who affect our children. . . . In the end, we have learned more about ourselves, about the cycles of life, and humanity itself. (p. 317)
Written by Jennifer Crockett, Wendy Woodfield, and Sarah Smith, Research Assistants, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, and Shirley Klein, Associate Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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