The Maternal Ideals of the Motherhood Constellation
Daniel N. Stern’s 1998 book The Motherhood Constellation has continued to exert a lasting influence on the field of child development. A recent article in Psychology Today cites portions of the book in describing the cognitive shift in priorities of expectant mothers as they prepare themselves emotionally, and socially, for the demanding role of motherhood. Stern asserts that all of the relationships in a mother’s life, including the relationship with her own mother, have an effect on her ability to successfully care for her child.
His theory addresses four basic elements of successful parenting. One of those elements is referred to as “identity reorganization”. This term is used to refer to the mother’s ability to imagine herself as a mother and shift her priorities towards meeting the responsibilities of motherhood. Research suggests that identity is constantly being reconstructed according to changing motivational goals.
Six recognized motivational goals are
- belonging, and
Identity is also shaped through meaningful social interaction.
Identity reorganization has an effect on the other themes, which include the level of concern for the development of the baby, her level of connection to the child after it is born, and her social system of support. That social support system is what Donald Winnicott referred to as ” the holding environment”, in which an expectant mother can develop her future maternal behavior. Ideally, this environment consists of several experienced mothers and other adults who can provide encouragement and support as well as serving as positive role models for the development of positive maternal ideals.
This support system is especially important for teen mothers. One study investigating the concept of the motherhood constellation in the context of teen pregnancy found that one of the difficulties faced by teens becoming mothers was an overlap in developmental tasks. For example, mothering skills would have to be acquired at the same time as other difficult skills associated with young adulthood. While teen mothers often require more assistance as a result of this overlap, achieving that delicate balance can be difficult. Studies show a link between excessive grandparent involvement with a teen mother’s firstborn child and the teen having a second child more quickly.
Impact of Family Therapy on Maternal Ideals
An article from the Mental Health Journal is critical of the delay in incorporating the research findings into modern methods of family therapy. According to the author, family therapy is still too focused on the dyadic relationship between mother and child, rather than taking into account the many familial and community relationships that play an important role in child development.
Ideally, therapy for new mothers can help reshape the maternal ideal by offering a wider variety of possible examples of mothering for her to choose from, or avoid, in creating her own maternal ideal. The majority of infants in most cultures around the world are influenced and acculturated during their formative years by a number of significant caregivers in addition to their mothers. The influence of these caregivers, as well as the quality of their relationships with both mother and child, are often minimized by mental health professionals who continue to focus primarily on the maternal ideals reflected by the mother-child relationship.
According to author Patricia Minuchin,
“studies of the parent-child dyad…do not represent the child’s significant reality, especially after infancy”.
The child’s reality, rather, consists of the complete family and community that serve as the center of the child’s security. Many experts now believe that it is more beneficial to observe parents and babies within the context of interactions between the larger family unit to successfully diagnose potentially damaging patterns such as interference, undermining, exclusion or disengagement. Diagnosing such patterns is considered critically important in understanding and treating maladjustment.
One of the useful diagnostic tools that help reveal familial patterns is called Lausanne Trilogue Play, which utilizes information gained from body postures and affective signaling. In one study, researchers were able to document four distinct family alliance patterns, which they labelled disordered, collusive, stressed, and cooperative.
Therapy that focuses primarily on altering a single relationship, such as the mother-infant relationship, can potentially cause a negative ripple effect, such as increasing competition, within the larger family system.
Further research has also revealed the importance of considering the family’s cultural context when analyzing data, which in the case of bi-racial families, may include multiple cultural contexts. Patterns of engagement between grandparents and children can vary widely between, and even within, different cultural groups.
The Expansion of Maternal Ideals
Dr. Stern’s work has contributed significantly to the understanding of the importance of multiple relationships in healthy child development. Perhaps more importantly, by advocating the conscious development of healthy maternal ideals by all important caregivers in a child’s life, it has relieved mothers of the stress associated with the belief that they alone are responsible for their children’s well-being.
After his death in 2012 at the age of 78, a tribute in the Telegraph praised his efforts towards transforming maternal ideals into social ideals for the benefit of future generations.