For such a vital and global phenomenon, there is surprisingly little research available on the experience of motherhood – possibly because, as per a statement issued by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Women’s Mental Health, “motherhood is such a unique and personal experience for each woman”. There’s no easy way to define or classify the experience of motherhood, but there’s no doubt that it’s a momentous task.
“Motherhood is the most important job in the world,” smiles mother-of-two Nina Geraghty, “you’re raising the next generation!”
“It’s the hugest job I’ve ever done in my life!” agrees Deborah Stodel, a speech therapist with a 13-year-old daughter. “And it’s made me look back and understand a lot more about my own childhood, and about life in general, because of that instinctual powerful love and protection parents feel for their children.”
Both Geraghty and Stodel believe the experience of motherhood is tied to providing essential love and care in the formative stages of life. “It’s about someone who depends on you totally – becoming a mother might not even have been a conscious choice, but as soon as you realise that caring for that little being is something that lies in your hands, you can’t walk away.”
“Mothering is about the relationship in that vulnerable and crucial young phase – being the primary caregiver to this tiny being that relies on you for its survival,” says Stodel. Her comment casts a light on an alternative perception of motherhood – if it’s about being a primary caregiver, then is it possible to be a mother without giving birth to a child?
“These days it’s not always practical for birth mothers to be present 24/7 – so others take on the mothering role,” Stodel says. Circumstances and modern life don’t always allow for everyone to experience motherhood, all the time, or sometimes at all. Some couples aren’t able to have children; others simply choose not to. Some are restricted by financial difficulties that require a mother to work and live in another region; some work demanding careers that take up a lot of their time.
The idiom “it takes a village to raise a child” might seem to have been lost in the modern context, but perhaps it has simply been transmuted. Many people can be “mothers” – even fathers. A 2010 survey by the US Census Bureau found that, in two-parent homes with a working mother, 32% of fathers provided regular care for their children under age 15, up from 26% in 2002.
As I write this in a cosy coffee shop, the woman sitting diagonally opposite from me is waxing lyrical about her new puppy – an eight-week old pit-bull / staffie cross who was separated from her own mother too soon and has hence developed a deep attachment to her human surrogate… Another form of motherhood, perhaps?
Ultimately motherhood, and mothering, means so many different things to different people that it’s almost impossible to pin it down. Rather than trying to, perhaps it makes more sense to instead pay tribute to the various mothers in our lives – whoever they may be, and whether they constitute a single individual, or multiple people (or animals!) that make up a “tapestry mother” in our lives.
“(24/7) once you sign on to be a mother, that’s the only shift they offer.”
– Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
“I think that the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong, allow them to experience life on their own terms, allow them to take the subway…let them be better people, let them believe more in themselves.”
– C. JoyBell C.