“Mothers Aren’t Important” Or Another Reason “Nobody Does Childhood Like the English”

Years ago, Mike Myers had a character on SNL called, “Simon.”  The segment would often show Myers as a little boy in a bathtub cheerfully and guilelessly talking about his awful family life, which he took completely in stride and wrote off with the catchphrase, “Because nobody does childhood like the English!”

I doubt anyone else remembers the segment, but as a family therapist, it stuck with me.  Well, flash forward a few decades later and The Guardian gives us another great example of why Simon was right with this article by columnist Catherine Deveny,     I’ve copied part of it here for your convenience but you should go read the whole thing.    My response to the article is below.

Being a mother is not the most important job in the world. There, I said it. Nor is it the toughest job, despite what the 92% of people polled in Parents Magazine reckon.

For any woman who uses that line, consider this: if this is meant to exalt motherhood, then why is the line always used to sell toilet cleaner? And if being a mother is that important, why aren’t all the highly paid men with stellar careers not devoting their lives to raising children? After all, I never hear “being a father is the most important job in the world”.

The deification of mothers not only delegitimises the relationship fathers, neighbours, friends, grandparents, teachers and carers have with children, it also diminishes the immense worth and value of these relationships. How do gay dads feel about this line, I wonder? Or the single dads, stepdads or granddads? No matter how devoted and hard working you are, fellas, you’ll always be second best.  READ THE REST HERE.

So let me take a moment to respond to Ms. Deveny because despite the snark, she raises some important questions.  Namely, why is motherhood so important?

Motherhood and The Music of Life

People have a tendency to think that babies don’t start learning until birth, but that isn’t true.  Research shows that babies are learning the entire time they are in the womb.  In particular, they are bonding to mom, learning her voice, listening to the music of her body and using that “music” to begin setting the rhythms of their own body (this process of learning to set the rhythms of their body to the rhythms of mom’s body will continue after birth for quite some time and is called “entrainment”).    The entire time baby is in the womb, he is learning to have a special relationship with mom that will continue for many months after birth.  Dads are important, but as the linked study shows, mom’s relationship is primary and unique.

Motherhood is the most important job because without mothers, life would not exist.  Yes, the man contributes sperm and the woman contributes an egg but the woman provides the environment for that life to grow–and only the woman can do this.  This is part of the “feminine genius” Pope John Paul II referred to and it is not incidental to the development, not just of a viable baby, but also to the development of a human person who is capable of neurological and emotional regulation.    Although it flies in the face of common parenting practices, the reason that mom continues to be primary to the child after birth is that because he has been listening to the “music” of mom’s voice and body (and has been learning to set the rhythms of his body to her music for the last 9 mos) it is actually jarring to the baby’s development to not be able to hear that music after he is born.  Over the next few months and years the baby will be learning many other “tunes” (Dad, Grandma and Grandpap, etc) and discover their own unique beauty, but for the first several months of life–really almost the first two + years–the baby’s body needs to learn mom’s song first so that his body and brain rhythms can be synched to hers.

The Best Music Teacher:  Mom vs. Many

Imagine that it is your job to learn a difficult song.  Imagine that the person teaching that song to you keeps patiently humming that same song over and over.  Bit by bit, you learn each measure, each key change, each crescendo and decrescendo until you have mastered the song.  Although we are using poetic language, the “song” in this metaphor represents the neurological work that is going on in the baby’s body. The baby has been taught in the womb to listen to mom’s body to learn to set his biological rhythms.  Those rhythms are not completely established at birth.  For instance, babies still get days and nights mixed up, they can’t reset their heart and respiration after stress on their own, they can’t self-soothe.   They need another person’s body to help them do that.  Mom’s body is actually best suited–biologically and neurologically speaking– for this job.  The more mom keeps baby close to her, the easier the child feels it is to learn the neuro-biological “song” that wires the different parts of his brain that enable him to have good emotional health, biological regulation and relational acuity.

Now, other people can soothe the baby, but their body sings a different music.  It may be beautiful in its own way, but it is different.  If someone else tries to comfort the baby the child will be confused, at least at first.  He has not been taught to listen to this strange song and will fight it at first because his brain and body viscerally react to the different rhythms contained in this other persons’ “song”; rhythms that conflict with the neurological  song the baby has been learning from mom for months in utero.  Imagine having to learn a very complicated bit of music, but instead of hearing the same bit of music over and over again, you hear a half dozen songs covering a half dozen different genres (classical, hip hop, rock, alternative) and then you are tested on how well you’ve learned that original, complicated piece; that very piece of music that is supposed to serve as the neurological foundation for the rest of your life.

Many Songs = Attachment Deficits

Eventually, most babies cared for by someone other than mom can learn to put enough of a song together to learn to at least basically regulate their neurological and emotional systems.  These babies will exhibit some degree of secure attachment but they will not be as securely attached as a baby who got to spend the majority of his time with mom.  That said, the more people who are caregivers to a baby and the less consistent those caregivers are the harder it is for the baby to learn any song at all.  This child develops an attachment disorder which, more than a psychological problem, is a neurological disorder that indicates that the child has not developed the structures of his brain that are responsible for bodily/emotional regulation and interpersonal attunement.

More than anyone else, it is the mother who is primarily responsible for setting all the baby’s basic brain and body functions that not only allow a child to be born, but allow that child to be a human being capable of bodily/emotional regulation and interpersonal connection.  Without mom, this process is significantly, and sometimes catastrophically, impaired.  This work is not only important, it is challenging but it is absolutely worth it.  In fact, it is essential for the optimal development of the person.

Motherhood:  It’s Elementary

Of course there are many more reasons why motherhood is important and challenging, but the reasons articulated in this response to Deveny’s article are not widely-known and are often unappreciated by even the most sensitive parents and even professionals.  Biologically, neurologically, and psychologically speaking, motherhood is important in basic and essential ways that fatherhood is not.   Fatherhood is tremendously important, and dads bring many unique gifts to the parenting table, and their absence is profoundly felt, but motherhood brings the more essential, and, in many ways, more elementary gifts to the parenting table.

People like Deveny, who are ignorant of science and psychology and buy into the unscientific feminist paradigm that says gender is just a social construct and that the body doesn’t really matter don’t get motherhood, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.  It just means that that they are blind to reality.

If you’d like to learn more about how moms matter and how to help your children experience the attachment they need to become everything God created them to be, check out Parenting with Grace: The  Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

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