“You really are quite the mother hen, Angie!”; the booming, heavily accented voice of a long-time Australian family friend (who, in the spirit of extended kin, we have always called “Uncle”) resounded, as I chased after a niece in an almost futile attempt to put some bug repellant on her while she played in the garden.
I pondered for a moment, and came to the conclusion that I, in true hen-like fashion, do tend to “mother” people; seeking to keep them safe underneath my wing. My daughter would likely say that I am a rather overprotective, worry-wart of a mother hen. And to that I say, “Cluck, cluck.” That’s the way the wattle wiggles, I suppose.
But this wasn’t always the case. I was, at some point, decidedly quite the opposite of a mother hen.
Missing mothering instinct?
In my teens, and well into my young adulthood, I never thought I would want kids. I was always so full of reasons and excuses not to have little brats. Among the top: “Now why would I want to bring kids into a world such as this???”, and the classic “I’m not cut out for it.”
I felt that my “mothering instinct” was nowhere to be found, and maybe I should put out an ad for it on the back of a milk carton or print some flyers to put up around the neighbourhood. “Missing: Mothering Instinct. If found, please return to Angie Duarte. Reward.”
But that started to change as I grew into my late twenties. Some would blame it on the ticking and tocking of the biological clock, perhaps; others, on the fact that many of my friends were already well into their 2nd and 3rd little tykes.
I don’t know what it was. I just know that I found myself ogling teeny-tiny outfits, displayed ever-so-cutely in shop windows, with a tad of longing. Just a tad.
The whole issue concerning the mothering instinct is still highly debated and largely contested.
In 2008, a study entitled “The functional neuroanatomy of maternal love: mother’s response to infant’s attachment behaviors”, conducted by researchers in Tokyo, seemed to prove that a mother’s impulse to love and protect her child is hard-wired into her brain. With the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.), researchers studied the brain patterns of 13 mothers with infant babies of around 16 months old. The babies were filmed smiling at their mothers during playtime in the research facility’s playroom. Then, the mothers were asked to leave the room, and the babies were filmed crying and reaching for their mommies (cue collective “awwww” here.) The mothers were then made to watch the video playback, while they were being scanned. Brain waves showed that the mothers not only responded more actively to their own babies, but also responded more intensely to the videos of the babies in distress.
Research authors noted that this may prove “to be biologically meaningful in terms of adaptation to specific demands associated with successful infant care.” The study which was published online by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ) also concludes that their “results showed the highly elaborate neural mechanism mediating maternal love and diverse and complex maternal behaviors for vigilant protectiveness.” In English, a mother’s brain seems equipped with the mechanisms that allow for nurture and protection of their babies.
Of course, the study did not include fathers, who – as many argue – are possibly just as instinctively nurturing as their female-parent counterparts.
Yet other studies on hormones point towards biological reasons for the mothering disposition. The hormone oxytocin (also given to induce labour and childbirth) was injected into female Rhesus lab monkeys that had no mothering experience, and the monkeys started behaving motherly towards unfamiliar infants.
Still other research indicates that a gene could be responsible for mothering. A study conducted on mice by Jennifer Brown and Michael Greenberg at Harvard Medical School indicated that a new strain of mice created without the gene fosB – but having sufficient levels of oxytocin – neglected their offspring, allowing them to die of cold and starvation. The mice with the fosB gene, on the other hand, cared for their pinkies (baby mice.)
Interestingly, the same study was conducted on male mice, with similar results: those with the fosB gene retrieved their pinkies, while those without it abandoned them.
And of course, there exists the whole contest between mothering as nature (instinct) or nurture (learned.)
Experiments done by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the National Institute of Mental Health provide some insight on the matter. Zahn-Walker studied the behaviour of 2-year-old boys and girls around crying babies, and found that the girls showed more sympathy for the babies than the boys did. The boys restrained themselves from reacting, while the girls would pat the babies on the head. This indicates that a human female’s tendency to “care” seems to begin at an early age; either as behaviour learned from their own mothers, or ”built in” to them.
Matters of mothering, because mothering matters.
Looking in her big brown eyes
I honestly cannot pinpoint where I stand on these issues – I have yet to make an informed decision. I DO know, however, that the day my daughter Andie was born is the day my life changed forever.
I’ll never forget it.
Andie’s Dad and I walked into the Lamaze labour room; a touch anxious, but more confident and self-assured than anything else. I was, after all, the Lamaze class’ “star” student, so why would I NOT have an easy enough, natural birthing experience??? I came prepared; birthing plan in hand, photocopied in 5. I handed copies out to each intern. They looked at me with what seemed a combination of wonder, stupor, ridicule and disbelief. A chortle or two of derision; an exchange of bitingly condescending looks: “This crazy woman has NO idea what she’s REALLY in for…”
Thirteen hours bordering on forever of oxytocin-induced labour (thanks to an already torn water bag and to a non-cooperative cervix), I found myself screaming at the interns to get the doctor. Lamaze shmamaze. I just wanted to pop this baby already.
“Now THAT’s more like it,” the interns must have thought, as they gave me patronizing looks.
Long story short, I – the star student – was the only one of the class that ended up delivering via emergency C-section. Thus, I heard the sound of my ego-balloon deflating, in a very pathetic way.
But all that hardly mattered, as the doctor pulled Andie out and held her up for us to see, in a very Simba cub at Pride Rock moment. My heart swelled, as tears of joy – and relief – streamed down my face.
Her oh-so elated Dad, with marching orders to follow our daughter wherever they took her until she was properly cleaned and tagged with her little pink bracelet, chased after the hospital trolley with our precious cargo on board. I was wheeled into the recovery room, but not until after we stopped at the nursery, where Andie – crying her lungs out in protest – was being bathed, allowing me one last look ‘til later.
Hours after, as I held Andie in my arms and stared deeply into her beautiful, big brown eyes, I knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do for her. This little one, swaddled in customary pink like some kind of papoose Barbie doll, had in that moment become the main reason for my being.
American teacher and author, Elizabeth Stone said that “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” Truer words have never been spoken; ever.
Mothers are people, too
Fifteen years after that day, my daughter is still my life’s core. I have learned, though, that mothers are – first and foremost – individuals, too. People with their own unique dreams and aspirations; the fulfillment of which makes them better as women and mothers.
“Mother” does not necessarily mean “martyr,” although many times, the definitions may seem synonymous. Mothers should not be faulted for wanting a life beyond the very wonderful role they have been given. Sadly, mass media and pop culture have reinforced societal expectations, making it rather difficult for mothers to pursue their own dreams without being judged. Yes, that mentality exists to this day and age; albeit not as pervasive as in years gone by.
Perhaps the best Mother’s Day gift that one can give is the realization that your mother is her own person, too. There comes a freedom for all, when this realization becomes active revelation, and you “release” your mother to be all she can be.
I would never trade being a mom; not in a million years, not ever. I would never trade being Andie’s “Mama,” to be precise. But I am deeply grateful that I have been given the space to see my other aspirations come to pass.
Have I always made the best choices, as a woman and mother – HECK, NO. I have had to pick up the pieces that have crashed loudly and resoundingly to the ground, as a result of bad decisions. But I do my best to move forward, to be the best me I can be; in hopes that my daughter will be better than I ever was.
Poem for a daughter
I leave you with a poem I wrote for my daughter, on the occasion of her fourteenth birthday. It speaks volumes; resounding my heart, as a mother:
For Andie, on your fourteenth Birthday
From your Mama
I look back upon
The day of your birth
The joy and the wonder,
Like none on this earth
As I held you close
Your heartbeat on mine
Kept rhythms of love
To music divine.
Upon your face, I gazed
Cradling you near
My heart filled with joy
And eyes brimmed with tears
In your tiny eyes sparkled
A love, there reflected
The strongest of bonds
By life, unaffected.
The years, onward rolled
Like waves of the ocean
I watched with each tide
As you grew to perfection.
From baby to toddler,
To little girl, all too quickly
Adolescent to teen;
The years have flown swiftly.
I cherish each moment,
Each day that we share
The person you are,
A treasure so rare.
The giggles at bedtime
The sweet morning kisses
Even the mundane
Like homework and dishes
These are the memories
That make me complete
They make life worth living
To the bitter, give sweet.
Though life hasn’t turned out
Quite as expected
You manage to smile
Through the heartache and tears
Understanding and wisdom
Beyond fourteen years.
For you, I believe
And desire the best
I pray you stay strong
Whatever the test.
I hope that you soar
High above life and its failures
When disappointment sets in
That you rise and you conquer.
Whatever the path
Upon which you journey
To my heart, you return
If at times you grow weary.
There is so much
That remains to be spoken
Blank pages for filling
Stories yet to be woven
If there is one thing that
I want you to know
Forever, for always
My love with you will go;
And whatever my dreams
As a woman may be
Through each passing year
I hope that you see
My number one dream
Had come to fruition
The day you were born
Most precious creation.
A selfie of my daughter Andie and I, Christmas 2013.
Andie, a month after she was born.