First of all, I want to wish all the mothers around the world a very happy Mother’s Day. This week, world over, mothers have been celebrated, as it was Mother’s Day everywhere.
I think we all know that mothers are probably the most important piece in the puzzle of our lives. The impact of mothers on their children and vice versa has been studied and researched since decades.
I know that my life changed forever the day I became a mother. There have been countless poems and stories written about the experience of giving birth and holding your baby for the first time. But nothing can prepare you for the moment you first hold your child. The rush of emotions can be over whelming even for the strongest of hearts. I am sure all mothers can agree with me when I say that you will never experience anything like that at any other moment in your life. I will also say this that while the emotions are strong, they can be both positive and negative.
Many mothers feel very vulnerable and like a heavy weight of worry has been put on their once fearless shoulders. Up until that moment, they lived bravely and without a care in the world. Suddenly, time and space shift and you are no longer alone in your head. Ever. Your child will always be there, occupying most of your worrying mind, right until your last breath. No matter how big they get, children have a strange way of making the strongest of women feel weak and powerless.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have always been fascinated by the dyad of a mother and her child. There has been unlimited research conducted on why mothers matter so much and what effect she has on our psyche. So today, I want to summarize just how important mothers are and what effect they have on our adult life.
Let us start with the first phase of a mother and child’s dyadic relationship: pregnancy. MRI’s done on mother’s brains during pregnancy have shown that the area of the brain responsible for social cognition undergo a spurt of maturation during pregnancy (3). These parts of the brain are responsible for maternal behaviour such as decoding an infant’s cries and facial expressions. Another interesting finding was the change in the grey matter of the brain in the mother accurately predicted her attachment towards her baby after birth (3). I don’t have to tell you in detail but you might have understood by now that if these brain changes don’t take place adequately, you can see a mother who is not neurologically ready to respond to her baby appropriately. This lack of response from the mother can lead to life long problems for the child such as lack of basic trust.
This brings me to the second phase of the mother-child dyad: attachment. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is most known for his controversial remarks on the mother-child dyad. According to his Oedipus complex, a child has romantic feelings of intense love towards its mother that are almost sexual in nature. He theorised that our relationship with our mother will determine what kind of expectations we set from adult romantic relationships (2). Although Freud’s theories were considered lunatic at that time, a great many valid theories were born from it.
The theory of attachment by Bowlby and Ainsworth says that we are categorized into three types of people when it comes to our adult relationships: secure, anxious or avoidant. According to the attachment theory, our relationship with our mother in infancy and her response to us will determine which category we fall into. They were the first to coin the term “separation anxiety” where an infant shows extreme distress when its mother leaves the room (1). Secure adults tend to be secure in their romantic relationships and display healthy expectations. Anxious adults can have very disturbed and unreasonable needs from a relationship. Avoidant adults might show behaviours such as aloofness and frigidity in romantic relationships. And according to attachment theory, it all starts with the mother (1).
The school of psychoanalysis has also spoken of something they termed as “symbiosis of mother and child.” According to this theory, mother and child are “one” until the child starts to separate and develop individuality. It basically means that the mother and child experience the world as one unit. Although this idea seemed to be a far fetched one to me as a new psychology student, I was lucky to experience it first hand while I took a break from my studies to give birth. I cannot describe in words what it felt like, but to sum it up, I had difficulty knowing where I ended and where my child began. The first 6 months of my child’s life were as if we were one body and soul. When she cried, I felt the pain. When he was hungry, I felt stomach pangs. It was the most fascinating thing I had ever experienced. As a student of psychology, I was even more amazed at the biological and psychological changes taking place within my system.
As the child moves towards maturity and starts to crawl or walk and explore the world, the mother child dyad starts to separate. This begins the next phase of the mother-child relationship. This is a process most mothers struggle with their entire lives. Perhaps the hardest part of being a mother is watching your child grow. While on the one hand, watching them grow is pleasurable; on the other hand, the mother mourns the loss of the symbiotic relationship. Around the age of five, most children have matured to a great extent and are able to fulfil their basic needs by themselves. After that, the desire for independence only grows and the child starts to yearn individuality. Many articles have been written on the tension between teenagers and their mothers. This is mostly because the mother, even though perceived as distant, is probably the only comforting individual in a very turbulent phase of our lives. She is always our stable support that we can count on. Hence, mothers bear most of the brunt of the volatile teenage years.
This phase in motherhood is probably the hardest as a mother struggles to provide unconditional love to her young adult whilst also giving them enough space to be their own person. At this stage, the mother watches her young adult fail multiple times and she has to hold back so that her child learns. She has to control her own urge to rush in and protect her offspring from the dangers of the world. Teenagers lash out at mothers as they go through a very confusing stage of growth and the mother quietly takes it all in.
As an adult, most children return to a fondness for their mother that they felt as young children. Once past the teenage and young adult years, most adults gravitate back towards the comfort and security a mother offers. But one thing is very new in this phase. Now the child becomes a source of comfort for the mother just as she is a source of comfort for him/her. She watches with pride as her children grow and perform in their careers and start families of their own. As she loses important people in her life to age and death, she starts to rely heavily on the emotional comfort of her children. The mother that was once the source of strength finds that very strength reflected back to her from her own children. And then comes the day her children have children of their own. She becomes a reliable form of childcare and she reels in the glory of watching her own children become parents. And once again, the cycle of life begins as she watches a new mother navigate her own motherhood.
To sum it up, the process of motherhood from pregnancy onwards is a very complex one. It is the most fulfilling of all life stages and it can also be the most frustrating. So mothers do deserve one day of the year to celebrate all the ups and downs that come with this part of life. Once again, I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day!
PS- The articles cited above are listed below.
In the second part of my blog on the current pandemic and risk of Postpartum Depression (PPD), I want to discuss some of the risk factors, especially for Indian women and what they can do to reduce their distress and the risk of postpartum depression.
To recap the last part, let us just go over some of the points I made. First of all, postpartum depression is more severe and longer lasting than normal “baby blues.”
Secondly, rates in India are very high at 22% of births compared to a global estimate of 12%. The rates are higher in the urban cities of India than in rural villages.
Thirdly, women are at increased risk for postpartum depression due to this current pandemic. Having a negative experience during pregnancy is one of the key risk factors of developing PPD after the birth.
The subject I am going to write about today demands attention and it is so vast, that I cannot write everything I know in one post. So for my readers to have an easier time in reading it, I will divide it into parts.
In the first part, I just want to introduce my readers to the idea of Postpartum Depression (PPD) and how it affects mothers. The second part will focus on the increased risk of PPD for mothers who are expecting now during a pandemic and what they can do to minimise their distress.