“Oh, I know that I owe what I am today to that dear little lady so old and grey / To that wonderful Yiddishe momme of mine.” (from the song “My Yiddishe Momme,” by Sophie Tucker, 1920s)
It was not until the early part of the 20th century that a day was created to honour and officially acknowledge the importance of mothers. Founded by American Anna Jarvis and first observed on May 10 in 1908, Mother’s Day will be celebrated this year on May 12.
But times change, and what may have applied in Jarvis’s time doesn’t go far enough in our present society. A distinction should be made between the mother and the act of mothering: one is a noun, the other a verb. Historically and biologically driven, the role of mothering has been primarily fulfilled by the biological mother. However, in the 21st century, this role is now often carried out by a variety of others, such as fathers, grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, step-parents or paid caregivers.
The explosion of neuroscience research over the past few decades has provided a meteoric rise in neurobiological literature with findings that support their predecessors’ observations and predictions in child development. Selma Fraiberg (1977) was farsighted when she wrote that mothering “is the nurturing of the human potential of every baby to love, to trust and to bind to human partnerships in a lifetime of love.” The evidence from various sources converges in the consensus that the human capacity to love is formed in infancy and this bond should not only be considered a gift of love to the baby, but a right – “a birthright for every child.”
Unfortunately, the recognition and awareness of the crucial role of mothering in a child’s healthy development and, consequently, to future generations, is gradually being eroded. It is often seen as a secondary role in the scheme of our busy lives. It was 42 years ago when Fraiberg wrote that we are seeing a devaluation of parental nurturing and commitment to babies and young children, which may affect the quality and stability of the child’s human attachments in ways that cannot yet be predicted. She warned that the deprivation of a mother or mother substitute will diminish a child’s capacity for life.
Fraiberg’s cautionary notice is eerily apparent in the growing numbers of young children and troubled youth as reflected in mental health issues and criminal behaviours. For example, Canadian Bullying Statistics (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 2012) indicated that 47% of Canadian parents have had a child who has been a victim of bullying; Canada has the ninth-highest rate of bullying in the 13-year-old category in a survey of 35 countries; and at least one in three adolescents have reported being bullied.
The basic needs of children have not changed, but our priorities seem to have been rearranged, as advertisers increasingly shape our wants into needs. We did not invent childhood. We are only discovering what has likely existed since the beginning of time. Louis Cozolino, PhD, (2014) notes there is “a causal link between interpersonal experiences and biological growth.” These links are of particular interest in their impact on early caretaking relationships, when the neural infrastructure of the social brain is forming.
As Lloyd deMause notes in The History of Childhood, “That because psychic structure must always be passed from generation to generation through the narrow funnel of childhood, a society’s child-rearing practices are not just one item in a list of cultural traits. They are the very condition for the transmission and development of all other cultural elements, and place definite limits on what can be achieved in all other spheres of history.”
A world of mothers and mother substitutes has taken on the loving and arduous tasks of mothering, with all the pleasures and perils of parenting. To those who are fortunate to still have mothers in their lives – be thankful and let her know how much she is cherished. For those who don’t, treasure the memories that have become even more precious. And for those who are themselves mothers, you have undertaken the most difficult but important task of life with all its joys and sorrows. You have taken on the most valuable contribution to society and its future as well. So, to mothers and to those who mother, we honour you today and every day.
Libby Simon, MSW, worked in child welfare services prior to joining the Child Guidance Clinic in Winnipeg as a school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. Also a freelance writer, her writing has appeared in Canada, the United States, and internationally, in such outlets as Canadian Living, CBC, Winnipeg Free Press, PsychCentral and Cardus, a Canadian research and educational public policy think tank.