maternal myth

Motherhood: To Be or Not To Be Should Remain the Question

“Surely all women must have a maternal instinct or the human race would die out.”

–Gillian Rossdale

Modern Motherhood & Maternal Myth

Elisabeth Badinter‘s 1982 book, The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct” is one of five books she has written that challenge the maternal myth surrounding women lives. It’s forerunner, published in 1980 was “Mother Love: Myth and Reality: Motherhood in Modern History”. In addition to being an author and considered one of the leading feminist intellectuals of Paris, she was also featured in Forbes magazine as a billionaire after inheriting 19 million shares of Publicis Groupe, a public relations company. Her 2010 book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women was a topic of hot debate after it became a bestseller in Europe.

According to an article in the New Yorker, she believes that young women are undermining the progress they’ve made in achieving a degree of social, political, and economic equality. The maternal myth is a social construct in which women’s primary value lies in their accepting complete responsibility for child rearing. Her concern is that the resurrection of that myth in modern form will result in a loss of life options for women, including the option not to become mothers at all.

She refutes the importance of the scientific findings of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy regarding the role of hormones in determining maternal behavior. Similarly, she also questions many of the benefits of breast-feeding, such as increased immunity and potential for increased cognitive development. Neither does she believe that breast-feeding is a necessary element for mother-child emotional bonding. Further, despite our genetic similarities with the primate world, she does not believe that the results of studies of primate behavior translate to human society.

Badinter uses the phrase “motherhood fundamentalism” to describe the development of a new maternal myth in which mothers are all-important in child development. She regards this idea as having originated in the West in response to economic hardship, and supported by the religious right until it became a socially contagious cult. In an article in the Globe, she likens the modern version of motherhood to

“spending all day in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective…”.

While her style may alienate many mothers, her level of concern that women’s rights to financial independence and a social identity separate from motherhood is evident.

A piece in The Nation seems to confirm Badinter’s belief that a right-wing backlash against many of the modern conveniences that contributed to women’s freedom originated in America. It points out the maternal myth that childbirth imparts parenting skills rather than the reality that parenting skills are learned. Most American parents live in a different city than their parents and many have no childhood experience with infants. The large number of immigrants also points to a lack of traditional transmission of parenting skills from generation to generation. This phenomenon makes American parents more susceptible to manipulation from child care “experts”, who often present conflicting advice that results in guilt, rather than improved parenting skills.

Badinter uses some disturbing statistics to challenge the maternal myth that childbirth results in maternal love. She makes the point that the pendulum of modern society has swung to the opposite extreme– from not valuing children’s lives at all, to valuing them more than the lives of women. For example, in 1780, wet nurses outside the city cared for 19,000 of 21,000 infants born in Paris, and that more than half of them died before they reached their second birthdays.

In response to the assertion that mothers did not bond with their children due to high infant mortality rates and fear of losing them, she counters that perhaps

“It was not so much because children died like flies that mothers showed so little interest in them, but rather because the mothers showed so little interest that the children died in such great numbers.”

Those same statistics show that the children who remained with their mothers to be breast-fed were twice as likely to survive.

At the heart of her arguments lies the belief that neither children’s lives, nor the ecology, should not be valued more than women’s lives. As the mother of three grown children herself, in her view, modern inventions such as bottle-feeding and disposable diapers make it possible for motherhood to be just one aspect of a woman’s life, rather than consuming it completely.

One common criticism of Badinter’s books is that many view her devaluation of the maternal myth as devaluation of motherhood itself. However, most agree that the concept of motherhood has been often been subject to sentimentalism and maternal myth. That sentimentalism is most evident when society states that motherhood is the most important job in the world, yet provides no financial compensation or social support for mothers doing this valuable and important work.

Despite its benefits to society, the work of raising children remains largely a labor of love. So long as the number of mothers and children living in poverty continue to rise, there will continue to be a need for voices that advocate for a greater number of options for women’s lives.

maternal myth
Mother and Child in a Boat, by Edmund Charles Tarbell
Maternal narcissism

The Destructive Power of Maternal Narcissism and How to Stop It

“There’s a definition of narcissism that when a parent is narcissistic, instead of the child seeing himself reflected in the mother’s face and the mother’s joy, the child of the narcissistic parent feels like, ‘What can I do to make her okay, to make her happy?'”

–Susan Sullivan

Symptoms of Maternal Narcissism

“Narcissism” is a word that has been appearing with ever greater frequency in social media in recent years. In the age of the selfie, it is used most often to describe someone who is excessively vain or temporarily self-absorbed. However, unlike its meaning in common usage, narcissism is also a very real psychological personality disorder. There are many stories of people recounting childhoods in which a parent exhibited the damaging behaviors associated with narcissistic personality disorder.

Maternal narcissism, in which it is the mother that suffers from the disorder, is characterized by a number of symptoms.

  • One of those is the inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others, one of the most essential nurturing qualities of a parent. Those suffering from this disorder require constant admiration themselves and are frequently envious of any attention paid to others unless it reflects positively on themselves.
  • Other characteristics of the disorder include a sense of superiority and entitlement to special privileges as well as the inability to respect personal boundaries. These personality traits are often manifested in unrealistic expectations of others combined with attempts to exert excessive control over their lives through manipulation. One of the manipulation techniques commonly used by those who suffer from maternal narcissism is constant criticism.
  • Another is taking advantage of the weakness of others, and children are among the most powerless.

Causes and Effects of Maternal Narcissism

The causes of maternal narcissism are not well understood, but it is theorized that narcissism is a generational disorder. Rather than accepting responsibility for changing them, narcissistic parents tend to project their own undesirable character traits onto their children, which perpetuates the cycle. Some experts believe that it may be caused by inconsistent parenting in which a child is both excessively punished and excessively pampered.

Children of narcissists often feel that they are a burden to their parents and experience a deep sense of existential shame. Some of the damaging behaviors frequently displayed by mothers suffering from maternal narcissism include dividing siblings through deliberate favoritism in order to prevent them from forming alliances and reducing her degree of parental power.

Maternal narcissism can have serious negative effects on a child. Children of narcissist parents often feel that they are fundamentally flawed and unacceptable and must therefore adapt their personalities to become “good enough”. They also suffer from tremendous anxiety due to the inconsistent and conditional nature of the parent’s acceptance.

The sense of being fundamentally unlovable often persists into adult life. These feelings of low self-worth often result in adult children of maternal narcissists gravitating towards people who are similarly critical, rejecting or emotionally withholding of acceptance and affection. Having little previous experience with true intimacy based on consistent acceptance, they may find it frightening. Many adult children report having moved frequently, partially to avoid a level of intimacy that they’d never before experienced. Children of narcissists usually grow up having their personal boundaries constantly violated, and often have little ability to maintain healthy boundaries as adults, which also interferes with intimacy.

Additionally, each move represents an opportunity to build a new life with a clean slate, free of the past mistakes which they were convinced made them unacceptable to their narcissistic parent.

Resources for Treatment

There are an increasing number of resources and support groups for adults who experienced parental narcissism as children. A recent article by a survivor describes some of the details of their emotional recovery, and feels that it’s important for people to be aware of and accept that all humans have narcissistic tendencies. One aspect of recovery is learning to be able to accept and enjoy praise without suspicion or fear of envy.

Another important aspect of recovery is that of restoring, or building, self-confidence. Narcissistic mothers often discourage their children from becoming self-sufficient because it means losing control of them. Self-confidence is also damaged when children have to compete with more capable adults for both attention and resources. All too often, children learn to criticize themselves, which leads to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism in adulthood, robbing life of much of its joy.

Many helpful books have been written to help adults that suffer from the damaging after-effects of maternal narcissism. Dealing with feelings of inadequacy, fear of abandonment, and emotional emptiness can be extremely difficult, especially with the demands of work and family. Many people seek professional help in breaking the generational cycle of abuse.

Recovery requires a deep commitment and willingness to face the pain of childhood, but healing makes it possible to build future relationships based on mutual respect and acceptance, and there’s no better legacy for future generations than that.

Maternal narcissism
Narcissus by Caravaggio, gazing at his own reflection (1594-96) Public domain
parental situation

Keys to Parental Gatekeeping: Why The Motive Matters Most

The Potential Positive Power of Gatekeeping in Parenting

Gatekeeping can be defined as a power dynamic in which a parent assumes and exercises the power to decide how much and what type of contact they will permit the other parent to have with a child. Child custody cases are often called “gatekeeping disputes”. Parents engage in gatekeeping behavior for a number of reasons, some of which are positive, and others which can be destructive.

According to an article written by a psychologist who specializes in providing psychological assessments for child custody cases, there are three kinds of gatekeeping. Gatekeeping can be positive or negative, depending upon the parental situation surrounding the gatekeeping behavior.

One example of positive gatekeeping occurs in a parental situation in which a primary reason for a separation or divorce is abusive behavior towards the child by a parent. In such cases, a parent participates in restrictive gatekeeping behavior with the primary purpose of protecting the child from abuse. This type of gatekeeping may entail demanding supervised visitation. Gatekeeping can also extend to other family members, such as grandparents, and friends.

Another parental situation in which gatekeeping can be positive is one in which a parent displays behaviors that demonstrate negative role modeling. For example, if a parent has substance abuse issues that cause impaired judgement and lessen impulse control, the other parent may choose to limit the amount of time the child spends with that parent in an attempt to lessen their potential negative influence on the child.

Gatekeeping can also be a useful tool in facilitating the development of a positive relationship with a parent who has been absent from the child’s life for a period of time. Brief supervised visits on a consistent basis over time can help the child feel secure while developing trust.

In a parental situation in which one parent has very little parenting knowledge or experience, gatekeeping can also be a valuable tool in helping that parent acquire parenting skills and confidence in their new parental role. Based on the parent’s behavior and the child’s reaction, the visits can then become longer until gatekeeping is no longer necessary.

The Potential Destructive Power of Gatekeeping in Parenting

Unfortunately, gatekeeping behaviors can also be punitive in nature when employed with a negative motive, which usually produces negative results for everyone involved, especially the child. In a parental situation in which there has been an emotional betrayal of some kind, parenting decisions can be affected by personal anger or resentment. If this kind of negative gatekeeping behavior occurs for a prolonged period of time, children can become emotional pawns in an adult game of emotional retribution.

Despite the importance of the continued presence of both parents in the life of the child after a divorce, many divorcing parents have difficulty controlling their negative feelings towards one another in the best interests of the child. Research shows that continued involvement by both parents results in children being able to adjust to the changes that accompany divorce more successfully. One study of divorced parents and their children concluded that children having a say in custody arrangements was an important factor in whether they viewed joint custody as a positive or negative experience.

Negative gatekeeping is not limited to restricting physical visitation, but can include anything that actively hinders the other parent’s active participation in the child’s life. A parental situation in which telephone contact is limited or information regarding important events or activities in the child’s life are withheld would also would be considered negative gatekeeping. Other examples might include deliberately scheduling other activities for the child during the parent’s regular visitation times or even speaking negatively about the parent in the child’s presence.

The Value of Effective Co-Parenting

The benefits to children of effective co-parenting are almost too numerous to count. Increasing their sense of security and sense of self-worth are among the most important. However, parents too benefit by increasing their ability to communicate calmly and effectively. Clear communication results in fewer conflicts, which means less stress for both parents and children.
Research has provided ample evidence of true value and lasting importance of every caring adult that a child is fortunate enough to have in their lives. Child development experts believe it’s so important that there are even online classes designed to help parents struggling with the difficult process of learning to effectively co-parent after a difficult emotional adjustment. Other resources include personal parenting coaches, co-parenting communication guides, and support groups.

The best gatekeeping practices create a parental situation in which all family members feel valued and appreciated for their important and lasting contributions to one another.

parental situation

alloparenting style

Alloparenting and How It Really Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

“Alloparental care and provisioning set the stage for children to grow up slowly and remain dependent on others for many years, paving the way for the evolution of anatomically modern people with even bigger brains”

–Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

There has been a great deal of research on the topic of alloparenting. An alloparent is defined as

“an individual other than the biological parent of an offspring that performs the functions of a parent”.

One study found that 88% of 63 species live in family groups that utilize alloparental care. According to one article, alloparenting evolves in a species whenever it benefits, when multiplied by genetic relatedness, outweigh the costs.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Animal World

Studies conducted with vervet monkeys, tamarins, and various species of rodents have concluded that there is a definite link between alloparenting experience and reproductive success. Researchers hypothesize that this success could be the result of several factors. One hypothesis posits that alloparenting decreases the workload of breeders, allowing them to produce another litter more quickly. Studies have also shown that the greater the number of helpers, the greater the likelihood of survival.

In the case of older siblings caring for younger ones, helpers increase their own fitness as eventual parents through practice, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood that the young will survive. In an experiment with oldfield mice, those that remained in the mother’s nest longer and helped care for younger siblings displayed better nest-building skills and had a greater number of surviving offspring than those without that previous experience.

Adult mammals without offspring of their own have often been observed seeking opportunities to groom and care for the young. This behavior is viewed as preparatory educational play and an alloparenting style. In addition to increasing the likelihood for survival of the group as a whole, alloparenting style behavior also creates advantageous social bonds between the members of the group. In the animal world, this is believed to have a genetic component, since siblings, cousins, and other closely related young share many of the same genes. In one experiment it was found that alloparenting behavior improved competitive ability in social interactions as well as spatial memory in negotiating a maze.

The Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Global statistics show in many countries in Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America, more than 40% of children lived in households with other adults in addition to their parents. In the U.S. and other developed nations, the number is much lower. According to U.S. government statistics, in 2014, 4% of children lived with neither parent, the majority of them living with grandparents. However, this statistic doesn’t takin into account the number of children who live with a grandparent in addition to one or both parents. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau, 10% of all grandparents lived in the same household as at least one grandchild.

However, there has been an alarming increase in the number of single mothers in many parts of the world who do not receive parenting assistance from either extended family members or their children’s fathers. These women and children are often relegated to extreme poverty.

Erin Deihl, author of “Cross-Cultural Perspective on Adolescent Parenting: Efe and Korea” believes that an alloparenting style can result in reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy as well as contribute to making teenagers better parents later in life. On a physiological level, the possibility that, like in the animal world, alloparenting behavior alters levels of gonadotropin-releasing hormones, it may even contribute to teens choosing to delay having children. Providing maternal care has been shown to alter endocrine and brain functions of rodents, which is linked to a change in behavior.

Benefits of an Alloparenting Style in the Human World

Just as in the animal world, alloparents make it possible for human parents to travel further to earn a living, gather needed parenting supplies, and participate in beneficial social activities. It also provides children with more opportunities for crucial social education by exposing them to a greater number of people, all with different skills and talents. They also have the advantage of learning social norms from a variety of individual perspectives, thereby increasing their cultural sensitivity.

One researcher offers an alloparenting hypothesis that sexual fluidity in women may be an adaptation that historically, increased women’s ability to form pair bonds with female alloparents to help them raise their children without the assistance of a male partner. This theory suggests that like bonobos, which frequently engage in same-sex sexual behavior that results in more alloparent bonding, the same may be true for humans. In the ancestral human community, rape, abandonment, and higher male mortality often left women without male support for their offspring. This may account for the fact that 84% of 853 societies studied permitted some form of polygyny, within which the alloparenting style is a common practice.

While more research is needed to determine whether this theory is correct, the research that has been conducted demonstrates that both children and parents benefit from having a greater number of caregivers actively involved in a child’s life.

alloparenting style
The Hatch Family, Eastman Johnson, 1870–71, Credit Line Gift of Frederic H. Hatch, 1926
maternal ideals

Transforming The Maternal Ideals Into The Social Idea

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

  • self-esteem,
  • self-efficacy,
  • continuity,
  • distinctiveness,
  • belonging, and
  • meaning.

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.

149.W Mother with two children II.Oil on canevas, Egon Schiele 1915. Leopold Museum, Vienna (Austria). Inv.Nr 457, CC3.0

Attachment Based Therapy

Psychotherapist Help For Attachment Disorder Among Children

“Young children, who for whatever reason are deprived of the continuous care and attention of a mother or a substitute-mother, are not only temporarily disturbed by such deprivation, but may in some cases suffer long-term effects which persist.”

John Bowlby’s widely accepted attachment theory, which has since been expounded upon and refined by other child psychologists, provided the foundation for the development of attachment-based therapy for children. According to this theory, there are four types of attachments. The four types are secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

According to a psychotherapist, children whose primary caregivers are unable to respond to their needs can develop a condition known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Children with an anxious-ambivalent attachment display anger or helplessness in an effort to control the situation and keep the caregiver nearby. Those with anxious-avoidant attachment exhibit behavior designed to express a desire for closeness while reducing the risk of frustration resulting from expressing needs that remain unmet. Children with disorganized attachment may try to control crying.

Every parent’s desire is for their children to form a secure attachment. However, parents often face traumatic emotional events in their own lives which affect their ability to respond to their children’s needs. For example, one study showed that 56% of mothers who had experienced the death of a parent before they finished high school had children who were later diagnosed with disorganized attachments.

Despite our human imperfections and occasional inconsistencies, children are remarkably resilient, and reactive attachment disorder (RAD), one of the most extreme forms of attachment disorder, is relatively rare. The disorder usually manifests itself in either a display of excessive attempts to gain affection even from relative strangers, or a reluctance or inability to accept affection even from familiar adults, even when in distress. However, psychotherapists have reported success in treating it.

While such a disorder is cause for concern, there is also evidence that child-parent psychotherapy (CPP) can successfully treat the disorder. In this type of therapy, psychotherapists view the relationship between the child and the caregiver as the patient, rather than just the child. In five randomized trials conducted with low income families and families with a history of depression or domestic violence, it was demonstrated that children’s attachment security was increased, while avoidance, resistance and anger were reduced. The degree of empathy that caregivers were able to display also increased.

For successful treatment of an attachment disorder, psychotherapists use a combination of group sessions, video feedback and educational and therapeutic discussions over the course of 20 weeks. Caregivers are able to observe themselves and their children’s responses, then learn and practice healthier and more beneficial ways of interacting. As an exercise in sensitivity, for the first part of each session, the caregiver remains on the floor with the infant, observing and responding only to interactions initiated by the infant. The infant is then able to experience negotiating a relationship with the caregiver through expression of its needs.

Many psychotherapists have written books on the subject of attachment disorders as well as the best way to successfully treat them. Unfortunately, many people who are not trained psychotherapists have written about it as well. While they are a cause for concern, thankfully we have come a long way from believing that attachment disorders are a sure sign of future sociopathy. That fear led to some kinds of treatments that proved to do more harm than good. For example, some therapists held the opinion that attachment disorders were rooted in rage and advocated deliberately provoking the child in order to release it.

Critics of attachment-based therapy for children argue that theories that advocate the use of aggressive psychological, or even physical, means to provoke the child towards an emotional catharsis can cause more damage. Some therapies have utilized techniques that included repeated sessions of holding the child down or forcing them to engage in prolonged eye contact. Most of these techniques have since been discredited. Anthropologist and author Rachael Stryker studied the effects of such radical attachment therapy and published her findings in The Road to Evergreen: Adoption, Attachment Therapy, and the Promise of Family.

In reality, help is available for children of adoptive parents suffering from an attachment disorder. Any parent who has suffered a loss or trauma and is concerned about how their emotions may be affecting their children, which might be any parent at any time, can benefit from attachment–based therapy. Despite the pain of loss, the loving bond of relationships, and the joy they bring, can be restored.

Attachment Based Therapy

Separation Anxiety in Children

Does Separation Anxiety in Children actually exist?

Although there is disagreement among experts about the specifics of separation anxiety in children, they all agree that it is very real.

Separation anxiety in children: Opinions on the matter

Some say that it occurs most often during certain age periods, while others maintain that children of any age can experience it. Some refer to it as a “disorder”, while others say that it’s a normal developmental process. The duration of the distress is a factor in determining if a normal reaction to separation is cause for concern. According to the Child Mind Institute it’s classified as a disorder requiring treatment in up to 4% of children. Surprisingly, it is now believed that adults can also experience separation anxiety disorder.

According to Aaron Cooper, co-author of “I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn’t Say It….”

“From the earliest years of life, we should want children to encounter ordinary adversity because it’s practice for building resilience.”

With the right guidance, experiencing the anxiety of separation can become a valuable lesson for children in how to deal with stress.

Some Facts on Separation anxiety in children

There are also a few scientific facts about stress that can be a factor in how your child handles stress. Researchers have discovered the human COMT gene. When we experience stress, our brains are flooded with dopamine. That dopamine affects the way our brains work, reducing our ability to reason, plan, recall facts, or solve problems. That’s one of the reasons that so many people do poorly on tests. The COMT gene clears the dopamine from the part of the prefrontal cortex responsible for our cognitive abilities.

Everyone has two COMT genes, receiving one from each parent. There are two types of COMT genes. One type clears dopamine very quickly, while the other type clears it more slowly. Fifty percent of people have one of each, but the other half have two of one type. Scientists classify those whose genes clear the dopamine quickly as “warriors” and those whose genes clear it slowly as “worriers”. These genes may be a factor in how often separation anxiety in children occurs. This information can be useful in determining strategies to help your child deal with stressful situations. For example, children with the fast-acting gene may perform better on tests but many need extra guidance to complete daily tasks. Those with the slow acting gene may be better at consistently completing homework but require relaxation exercises before tests.

Physical reactions to stress

The physical reactions to stress are the same for children as adults. Stress causes an accelerated heartbeat and breathing pattern, constricted blood vessels, and muscle tension. If the stress is prolonged, it can increase blood pressure, cause stomach and head aches and reduce immunity to other illnesses. At it’s most severe, a child may also experience nightmares, insomnia and depression. These symptoms can be manifested in tantrums.


While children don’t experience adult stresses like financial responsibilities, their lives are also often stressful. Some of those stressors include media, which often presents disturbing images, peer pressure or bullying at school, and pressure to do well in their classes. Children can also be stressed by over-scheduling by well-meaning parents trying to ensure that they have a sufficient number of stimulating activities. Because they are so dependent upon the adults around them, they are also highly sensitive to their worries and anxieties even if they aren’t expressed in words. Financial realities have resulted in a growing number of households with two working parents, with whole families experience a sense of loss with less time to spend together.

Fortunately, with the advent of social media, parents are no longer as isolated from one another and dependent upon the advice of experts as they once were. This article offers some great tips about how to deal with separation anxiety, both by experts and by parents offering tips that worked for them.

After all, nothing motivates one to become an expert on separation anxiety in children quite as quickly as the tiny tear-filled eyes of a child pleading for you not to go and needing desperately to know that you’ll always come back.

Separation Anxiety in Children


maternal energy

Strong women and Maternal Energy: Leaders of the Pack

Female social archetypes and maternal energy

Although it was published in 1991, the best-selling “Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of The Wild Woman Archetype” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes is still selling today. She does for womankind what Carl Jung did for mankind by expanding female social archetypes and discussing creatively maternal energy. An archetype, or manifestation of a part of the collective unconscious, is defined by the culture and personal context in which it emerges in the form of images and motifs. In Estes’ view

“what we call masculine development is the ability to take ideas from one’s inner life and implement them in the outer world.”

She then goes on to ascribe that very ability to feminine archetypes, most notably, that of the mother and  maternal energy.

Degrees of strength and power

Nobody recognizes the degree of strength, and power, necessary to be a mother more than she does. She describes her experience as a mother like this:

“When I was raising my children I had the feeling that I was in a dugout canoe going down a river filled with filth and on fire with snipers on both shores. And I had these three precious bundles who were my daughters. It was my job to get all the way down this river with them alive. Not drawn into the murk of the water, not killed off the drugs or alcohol or bad relationships or phantasmagoric ideas that would lead them to their destruction.”

Power comes in many forms. It is often defined by success in business or politics, as the top ten on the Forbes 2014 list of the 100 most powerful women in the world clearly shows. However, knowledge is also a form of power, as evidenced by the inclusion of Lila Tretikov, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, who oversees one of the most popular and informative websites in the world. The ability to influence others is also a form of power. One article lists Burmese social activist Aung San Suu Kyi as among the 25 most influential women in the world, despite the fact that she was imprisoned at the time it was written. Energy can be power, like maternal energy.

Mothers and influence

However, societies too often view mothers as less powerful women, and believe that by becoming mothers, women must sacrifice their power to care for their children. A good illustration of that belief was the intense scrutiny Marissa Mayer, then pregnant, was subjected to when she was appointed as CEO of Yahoo.

Despite the fact that most psychologists regard mothers as the most powerful influence on a human being’s development, big business and the media continue to downplay the importance of the power of motherhood and the force of maternal energy. The good news is that despite economic devaluation, another form of imprisonment, the power and influence of motherhood remains undiminished.

In fact, many mothers are channeling that increase in power into social activism. The International Museum of Women launched a project called “Mama Power” that features many strong mothers. For example, in 2011, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women, including Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni woman who is also an activist, journalist, and mother of three. Recognising the potential of powerful women to change the world for the better the Nobel committee was quoted as saying

“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women acquire the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”

The trap of unrealistic ideals

More than twenty years ago, Estes wisely observed that

“Only the archetype itself can withstand such projections such as ever-able, all giving, eternally energetic. We may try to emulate these, but they are ideals, not achievable by humans, and not meant to be. Yet the trap requires that women exhaust themselves trying to achieve these unrealistic levels.”

We as mothers would do well to remember that the true value of power and influence cannot be determined by employers or the media. It is determined, rather, by the amount of progress their often heroic efforts in the face of adversity have made towards constructing a world in which the lives of all children matter.

maternal energy
Queen Mother, Pendant Mask Iyoba, 16th century, Nigeria, Benin, Culture Edo peoples. Metropolitan Museum of Art
maternal love

Do pregnancy urges and maternal love define a woman’s identity?

Why is there a belief that the act of mothering and maternal love has a biological basis ?  If and when maternal love versus father love has a biological basis, and thus it can only be a female activity, makes it a relevant question.

In this post I will concentrate on the psychoanalyst view and take on this belief (versus the ethological take).  It is quite interesting to see how this belief came to be, especially in our time and place.

Reproduction and maternal love

The rational most of the time goes through the following steps:

  • The reproduction is needed for the survival of the species, and the female is closer to the reproduction process.
  • Babies need to be taken care of intensively and for a long period (longest compared to any other species, in comparison with the relative life span) and if not done so, the chances of survival drop significantly.
  • Put 1 and 2 together and the affective tie or maternal love between mother and child has a biological basis. Or put differently without the bond our species would not have survived.

This tie, often referred to as motherhood or maternal love, is the result of an inborn urge based on instinct. It is therefor biologically determined that mothers want children, and it is therefore also determined they want to raise them and feel as something is missing when they are separated from them. Also see maternal instincts.

Maternal love and psychologysis

We take this and move to the discipline of psychoanalysis with psycho analysts like Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer, Alfred Adler, Carl Gustav Jung and later Neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Jacques Lacan. This school believes that pregnancy, giving birth, suckling and fondling are to be seen as instinctual urges. These instincts, urges and maternal love are characteristic of a mature woman’s femininity and identity.

If a woman does not want or desire children or if she is not capable of reproducing affective tie or maternal love or experiences a dissatisfaction in motherhood then this is the result of a developmental problem and of poor adjustment to her feminine psycho sexual identity.

The biological proof in this discipline is to be found in the changing body when she is pregnant and in those first maternal moments.

Her physical state changes. She becomes throughout her pregnancy acutely interested in herself. This is the primary maternal preoccupation. (We see this preoccupation being very nicely exploited commercially.) She then is able to assess finely and intuitively the needs and wants of her baby, better than anybody else. Both mother and baby have instincts that will bind them together, a kind of reciprocal instinctuality. Their interests are identical that is to stay together in a state of interdependency. There is only one gratification. They become one. There is one unit. There is only one identity. The baby experiences ‘primary love’. Primary love is that first love received from the mother. The mother experiences ‘maternal bond’ or ‘maternal love’ or ‘instantly-in-mother-love’. These feelings come without effort or criticism. It will be this definition of primary love that the child will carry on into adulthood. When the baby grows, it will however be necessary to differentiate from the mother and to become separated. This will be a painful experience.

Again, we are now sitting in the chair of the psychoanalytical professional, taking the viewpoint of the psychoanalytical discipline.

If we go further, and go to the other end of the spectrum of this bliss situation, and the child does not know or have this ‘primary love’, then later on to become separated is for the child like falling into an terrible anxiety. Such an anxiety that it will need years to mend.

And the mother is in no better state if this motherly love has not been experienced. Why? Well, she identifies with all the beautiful fantasies her baby has of her and how she is the perfect mother or probably a perfect person (a myth that will painfully chattered when the adolescent child starts to criticize). She gladly accepts this almightiness role with open arms. She will retrospect on her own childhood and of her fantasies of her own mother and maternal love. As she will also be reminded of the disappointment when growing older (and we are all disappointed at a point) she will hope to be a better parent than her parent was.

The way a woman will be a mother to her child will be determined by her own experiences. If she has positive experiences, motherhood will be a welcome addition in her life. If she has a negative association with babies but likes toddler, this will have a different impact. If she is more closely involved when they reach a certain age than when they were babies then this could also be explained by her own psychosexual development.

When a mother is negative about motherhood or maternal love then we immediately suspect her mother of abnormal behavior. This is something the psychoanalytical school taught us. She would have unresolved developmental conflicts and the fact that she was now a mother would be the ideal way to resolve them. Motherhood could mean a cure for psychological issues if motherhood was embraced and seen positively. Meaning if she does not embrace it, she could be in an unresolved conflict for the rest of her life.

Observation of the discipline of psychoanalysis

It is clear that The School of Psychoanalysis explains motherhood on a highly individual level. Per definition. It is as if mother and child are alone in the world (and off course there is also the grandmother). The analysis and their explanation of motherhood come from feelings and thoughts at a very unconscious level. The way a woman experiences motherhood will be presented on an abstract level, and individual to her situation. In a psychoanalysis, the mother will be given an explanation of how she experiences it because sometimes she will even not be aware of it, so it has to be explained to her.

It is a good way to explain differences of experiences of motherhood  or maternal love but it is inadequate to define motherhood (and both are related). The research and analysis to come to these conclusions was clinical experience and per definition not systematic and statistical.  The women that were analyzed during the period when these theories were written, were pregnant or had infants. Motherhood of toddlers or older children might be different. The biological basis is observed during lactation but it is more difficult beyond.  Cross-cultural studies were not conducted because society as a whole was left out. No comparisons with men were done in a systematical way.

The belief is deeply rooted and any form absence, abstinence or negativity is seen as abnormal. But the point of fact is that mothering beyond lactation and / or raising children older than a couple of years has no biological basis and is poorly analyzed by the school of psycho analysis up to now.

maternal love
Sterling silver, ivory and glass nipple-shield Wellcome L0035699 Licensed under CC BY 4.0
maternal instinct

Maternal instinct, what do people mean when they talk about it?

Very few people really talk about maternal instinct in the biological sense. It is mostly used in more general conversations and hence it is part of our cultural language. However when people talk about the sexual instinct then they talk biologically. An instinct suggest a biological matter.

But then again, when people talk about maternal instinct they talk about a feeling. A feeling they have when they are having a baby. Or a feeling they think they will have. A feeling they think most mothers have. Or should have. Or ought to have if they are good mothers. In most cases people tend to talk about maternal instinct in an unconscious way. There is no thorough thought process. The words are part of a cultural language, like we have associations about religion or minority groups. The words people use for these also have a meaning that changes throughout time and place, in tune with changing societies. But in a specific time period and place, people do not ask whether maternal instinct is biologically or culturally determined. People assume they know the (absolute) meaning.

Most of the time people do not even think about the meaning of maternal instinct. Maternal instinct was most likely explained to them a long time ago or maybe not even that. People can assume the meaning because of the separate words and therefore assume existence. The meaning is very much linked to their own beliefs, their cultural language and their cultural definition of motherhood? Maternal instinct is redefined when the cultural associations change and most of the time this takes a generation or two.

When people of the women’s liberation movement talk about maternal instinct, most of the time, they refer to the biological standpoint. Most of them (especially during second wave feminism between the 1960′ and the 1980’s) believe that maternal instinct is created and or invented by male scientists and so they often discard the idea of maternal instinct. They can be profoundly critical of the very idea of maternal instinct but then they are talking about a different meaning of the word. The literal sense, the proven scientific sense. They will say that its existence has been proven in the laboratory rat through hormone injections but not with humans. They will take it very literal and they will look for proof and statistical evidence.  They are making their way to the oppressive nature of motherhood.

Other people will wave these arguments away. They will insists on the fact that they do know what they are feeling when their children are not with them.

But in point of fact, scientists today analyze maternal instinct in a biological, purely hormonal sense and scalp all feelings and emotions away. And maternal instinct have not scientifically been proven by scientists after the lactative period. It simply has not.

maternal instinct
Mother and Son Artist, Thomas Sully (American, Horncastle, Lincolnshire 1783–1872 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Date 1840, Medium Oil on canvas