The Importance of Mothers

Mother’s Day is almost here. It is a no-brainer to declare that mothers are important. But we live in a no-brainer age in which the very concept of motherhood is now under attack. Thus we must come to the defence of mothers and motherhood.

This seems odd, given how valued mothers have been throughout human history. Mothers provide invaluable benefits to all, and their work is priceless. As Ann Crittenden wrote in 2001, “The very definition of a mother is selfless service to another”.

She cites two old sayings in connection with motherhood: A Jewish adage says, “God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers”. And an Arabic proverb puts it this way, “The mother is a school; if she is well reared, you are sure to build a nation”.

Yet despite the overwhelming importance of mothers, like all things decent and of value, mums are under siege. So this brief paper will seek to examine the importance of motherhood. The topic is of course too broad to allow all the data to be canvassed, so here I will simply focus on one aspect, the vital role which mothers play in the raising and wellbeing of children, especially during their early years.

This of course raises related issues, such as women and careers, formal day care, and other contentious topics, which will be touched upon along the way. But here I mainly wish to summarise some of the data which verifies what we already know by common sense, that mothers are crucial for the development of our children.

The evidence

(Stop the press. Just as I finished this paper, I was made aware of a brand new 70-page ebook which covers much of the same ground as I have. The book is a terrific summation of the evidence, and is available as a free download. I refer to Mothering Denied: How Our Culture Harms Women, Infants, and Society by Dr Peter Cook: www.members.optusnet.com.au/pcook62/090424MDA4.pdf )

Numerous international studies have shown that maternal deprivation at an early age can affect the mother-child bonding process, and can impair a child’s emotional, social and psychological development. For example, a major 1990 American report found that a higher proportion of children under age one in day care “show anxious-avoidance attachment to their mothers than do home-reared infants”. More recent research has found that maternal separation can profoundly affect the brain’s biochemistry, with lifelong consequences for growth and mental ability. Commenting on the new research, Mary Carlson of the Harvard Medical School said, “Our findings support clinical research showing that infants cared for in institutions grow slowly and have behavioural retardation”.

The work of people like John Bowlby, Selma Fraiberg, Robert Karen, Jay Belsky, Ronald Haskins and Mary Ainsworth, to name but a few, has shown a clear connection between extended periods of maternal absence, and lengthy stays in day care (as little as 10 hours a week) for infants, and later developmental problems. (For an excellent analysis of the many studies on the shortcomings and problems of child care, see Early Child Care by Peter Cook.)

Not only is the important role of instilling values, purpose and responsibility best met by a child’s biological parents at an early age, but so too is the cultivation of a sense of security and wellbeing. Indeed, as one expert put it, the attachment relationship that a young child forges with his mother “forms the foundation stone of personality.” Regular and prolonged detachment from the mother can demonstrably impair a child’s intellectual and emotional development, and affect a child throughout his or her life.

Studies in bonding and attachment theory have shown that a child’s emotional and mental well-being are inexorably tied up with continuous, sustained, stable physical and emotional contact between mother and child. Taking the child away from its mother during this critical period can result in a number of harmful results: “Children deprived of parental care in early childhood are likely to be withdrawn, disruptive, insecure, or even intellectually stunted. New research [even suggests] that the depression resulting from separation anxiety in early childhood can cause a permanent impairment of the immune system making these children prone to physical illness through their lives.”

Or as family expert Steve Biddulph writes, “It now appears that mother-baby interaction, in the first year especially, is the very foundation of human emotions and intelligence. In the most essential terms, love grows the brain. The capacities for what make us most human – empathy, co-operation, intimacy, the fine timing and sensitivity that makes a human being charismatic, loving, and self-assured – are passed from mother to baby, especially if that mother is herself possessed of these qualities, and supported and cared for, so that she can bring herself to enjoy and focus on the task.”

A parent’s absence or inaccessibility, either physical or emotional, can have a profound effect on a child’s emotional health. Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi has observed that individuals who suffer from severe nonorganic emotional illness have one thing in common: they all have experienced the “absence of a parent through death, divorce, a time demanding job or other reasons”.

One study from Norway, for example, found that children experiencing less maternal care than others had higher levels of behaviour problems. Learning can also be impaired. Ernest Foyer, former U.S. commissioner of education, and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has said that children in day care suffer in terms of language skills development. A recent American study of 4000 children found that mothers who return to work soon after giving birth may harm their child’s school performance. The study showed that children of mums who work full-time struggled academically compared with those whose mums stayed at home. Other studies have even found that children who spend a lot of time in child care are more likely to join gangs as surrogate families.

A recent 10-year study involving 1,300 American children found that the more hours that toddlers spend in child care, the more likely they are to turn out aggressive, disobedient and defiant. The researchers said the correlation held true regardless of whether the children came from rich or poor homes.

More recent American studies bear this out. The largest long term study, which began in 1991, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that the longer the hours a child stays in day care, the more aggressive, disobedient and difficult to get along with they become. And the Institute of Child Development of the University of Minnesota found similar problems of aggression and anxiety among young children who spend long hours in day care.

An American study published in 2003 found that babies in childcare are more likely to show behavioural problems and low self-control later in life. The study of 17,000 children found that those who had the most problems were those who were in care for more than 30 hours a week and who were in day care before the age of one.

A more recent long-term study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US found that “spending a year or more in a long-daycare centre increases the likelihood that a child will be disruptive at school”. The effect can last until the child is 11 or 12. The study said that the child’s gender, family’s income level and quality of daycare made no difference to its conclusions.

Educational psychologist Burton White, director of the Harvard Preschool Project, has written extensively on the subject of nonparental care. This is how he summarises his experience: “After more than 20 years research on how children develop well, I would not think of putting a child of my own into any substitute care program on a full-time basis, especially a center-based program.”

Babies need a mother’s love and attention. Child development experts indicate that children do not engage in peer play until they are about two years old. The late psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg said that babies need mother most of the time until age three, and afterwards, can tolerate a half day’s absence.

As Connie Marshner sums up, “The quality of love and care that a child receives in the first three to five years of life is the main factor in whether that child will be able to think, to learn, to love, to care, to cooperate with other people – in short, whether that child will merely exist or will thrive and flourish and add to human society”.

Conclusion

Much more can be said by way of the evidence of the special and crucial role which mothers play in the development of children. What has been presented here is simply a small part of the overall information we have about mums and their importance.

As mentioned, it may sound strange to actually have to defend motherhood, but we live in strange times. As George Orwell once remarked, “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

So if we have to celebrate this mother’s day by restating the obvious, then so be it. Mothers are absolutely vital to every one of us, and their role and service needs to be recognised. Three cheers for mothers – they deserve all the accolades and praise we can heap upon them.

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