“Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother.”
—from “Delicate Cluster” by Walt Whitman
“There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day…or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”
—from “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman
Many refer to the operation of the universe as “mother” nature, the mastermind behind all that exists; mother is the being through whom all life springs. In honor of Mother’s Day, I reflect on the deep debt of gratitude that each and every one of us owes to the well-intentioned mothers across the globe and throughout time, for their immeasurable sacrifices.
In their pioneering efforts, psychology experts, such as, Melanie Klein, Donald Winicott, Ronald Fairbairn, and Michael Balint all contributed insight which eventually led to the development of a new paradigm in psychology referred to as Object Relations Theory. This framework essentially operates with the understanding that interactions with caregivers early in an individual’s life significantly shapes the manner in which that person relates to other human beings from childhood on through the rest of her or his life. Particularly important to note, is the critical importance of the role of the mother in shaping that individual’s psyche. The broad volume of contemporary research into the principles of attachment builds upon the contributions of those pioneers from decades ago. Looking beyond the, sometimes, painful and frustrating everyday tasks of rearing children, it is clear that the gift of life is incredibly precious. Without mothers, none of us would be allowed to experience the profound treasure that is consciousness.
It has been determined that the first three years of a child’s life, often referred to as the “critical period” or critical developmental years, are especially important in shaping the psyche of the individual. Surely, with the awesome responsibility of growing a human being from scratch comes much toil, and, this period of time is especially fraught with challenges. Because of the incredible attention paid to the well-being of the child, this early period represents a particularly difficult time for any two caregivers in a romantic partnership. It is at this time, in particular, that virtually all of the mother’s physical, emotional, and spiritual resources are exhausted in devoting her utmost attention to the care of the child. Understanding that the task can indeed be incredibly burdensome, at times, such as those sleepless nights, when nobody but the mother can comfort and soothe the child, often, one cannot help but find humor in the role of the mother that is both a blessing and, at times, a curse. For example, I’m reminded of the moment, this very morning, when my wife was trying to eat her breakfast peacefully on the only day of the year that truly honors the essence of her being and the important role that she plays in the universe, yet my children hung over her like a pair of monkeys. The moments have rarely been dull, and, it seems, there has never been a moment of peace for the mother of my children. Despite the difficulty, however, nearly every experience has been immensely rich and rewarding.
So, what is it about the relationship between mother and child that is so integral in shaping the human being? Some of the research on the subject of attachment focuses on a quality referred to as “maternal sensitivity.” This represents a set of qualities adopted by the mother which she brings to her experience of relating to her child. Acclaimed expert in the field of psychology, particularly as it pertains to matters involving the development of the child, adolescent, and young adult, Dan Siegel notes that adopting these qualities of presence more than likely will help produce secure attachment. Secure attachment, considered the ideal, is a type of “psychological immunization,” Siegel claims. This element serves as a protective factor, helping individuals ward of the detrimental effects that can typically result from significantly challenging life circumstances. Considering all of this, certainly, it is not to say that if a mother demonstrates an inability to follow-through on effectively rearing a child, that that child cannot go on to live a fruitful life. There are countless stories of resilient individuals who have overcome difficult childhood experiences, to go on to become successful and, sometimes, profoundly influential human beings, but those examples represent the exception not the norm. This, of course, begs the question, “what is success in a life?” What, ultimately, is the most meaningful aspect(s) of our experience, in the grand scheme of things? That is a discussion for another time. At the end of the day, we are relational beings. We exist in connection with other human beings, and the more adept we are at interacting healthily and effectively, chances are, the more content we will end up being. Interpersonal Neurobiology, the branch of psychology that explores the manner in which a human being’s brain is shaped over time according to her or his interactions with other individuals, is gaining increased traction, and is of profound value. This science is cementing the idea that we are social creatures, by nature. We cannot go at it alone.
Among the many stories about people, at the end of their lives, in reflecting upon their experiences, it seems apparent that what is ultimately deemed important are not the accomplishments, accolades, or financial gains, but rather the people that have been important to them throughout their years. That all begins, according to the Object Relations theorists, with the manner in which our primary caregivers, particularly our mothers, interact with us, early in life. Here’s to all the mothers, and the profound and priceless influence they have on each and every one of us. Today, the world honors you and the awesome responsibility bequeathed to you, in caring for and guiding the individuals of the future. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.