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The Question we Never Thought We'd Ask: Does Having a Mother Really Matter? with Jenet Erickson

Does it matter whether you have your mother really care for you?  One of the greatest tragedies was losing a parent.  “We are in a process of deconstructing the essential father and mother.  Researchers agree that men and women parent differently, but do not agree on the sources, fixity, or consequences of these differences.  The journal article concluded:  Two compatible parents provide advantages for children over single parents — irrespective of gender, marital status, sexual identity, or biogenetic status.  this study has had a loud influence on our areas of study, because it calls into question whether it matters if the parent is male or female.
John Bowlby was a psychologist:  He worked with incarcerated people:  Children deprived of maternal care during extended period “lacked feeling, had superficial relationships, and exhibited hostile or antisocial tendencies.” This led to attachment research.  There seems to be something unique about a biological mother and her ability to attach to the child and teach attachment.  There is something biological and psychologically important about the mother in child development.
A mothers ability to detect, interpret, respond to needs; positive, kind interactions; respect for autonomy in exploring and growing.  It’s a  mothers ability to do these things that gives her a maternal sensitivity.  It is fascinating as a mother to experience these sensitivities. Let them crawl, and respect individuality.  Don’t be pushy in your behaviors, but also protective.  Continued maternal sensitivity throughout adolescence is measurable and is critical in their psychological development.  It is like a protective blanket.
Mothers and babies:

Maternal sensitivity in interactions leads to development and functioning of certain cerebral regions.  Mothers know remarkably when it is too much.  They know when it is not enough and will modify so that it is just enough for the brain to develop.  It is innate.  Through fine-tuned inputs, she is able to match and synchronize to her infant’s inner state, being able to match to the child’s brain ability.
The strongest, most consistent predictor of her child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. (NICHD, 2003, the most recent study.)
This led to questions.  We knew about Bowlby and studies of attachment.  America funded an intensive study on motherhood.  Does it hurt children to be a part of daycare?  When the study was concluded, the findings showed that when the child was 2 years old, it didn’t look as though there was anything wrong with their child’s development.  The media reported that time away didn’t matter, so mother’s fears were allayed.  At age 4 – 5, when children had been in extensive non-maternal care (30 + hours per week).  The child exhibited less social competence and cooperation, more problem behaviors, negative moods, aggression, and conflict.  Effect of hours spent in non-maternal care prior to kindergarten comparable to effect of poverty in predicting behavioral problems.  To continue: in 3rd Grade, there were fewer social skills, poorer work habits.  6th grade: problem behaviors (in daycare center care.) At age 15, More risk taking behaviors and impulsivity (non-relative care.)
The way the mother interacts with the baby when she is with the baby is the single most important factor.  Look for ways to strengthen the mothers ability to be sensitive to child when she is there.  Create an atmosphere of quality time.  What about better child care quality: some positive social effects (fewer problem behaviors at age 15.)  Long hours in non-maternal care predicts lower maternal sensitivity/ less positive interactions.

Do Men Mother?

If gender doesn’t matter, then we will study whether it matters if men mother.  In the latest/ best study (Doucet, 2007) Comprehensive interviews with men who mother, men reported that Mothers are more protective, nurturing, and emotionally connected.  “I think it is a spiritual thing.  They were with their mom before they came to earth.  That is what men do not have – that extra, extra-special thing with children.”
Mothers influence the processes of fathers becoming and enacting their care giving.  Some stay-at-home fathers reported:
“You have to recognize that even as a stay-at-home father, you can never replace the mother.  Don’t even think about it.”
“I was there at the birth.  I was there for all 3 of them, and I have a connection with them.  But she had her body transformed.  I don’t think we can undermine the fact that women are connected to their children in that very physical and very primordial sense.”
“In my opinion, women have an edge in parenting, whether you say psychological, or hormonal or whatever.”
(These are stay at home fathers reporting this.) Yet, the uniqueness of fathers is irreplaceable.

1.) Fathers use play to connect with children.  (dominant paternal pattern).  Tickle and toss vs cuddle and coo.

2.) I get them out as much as possible.  Outdoors and physical exertion is important.  Mothers aren’t as natural in thinking about this.

3.)  My first response is to fix the problem.  Make her feel better vs “strategic indifference.”

4.)  I am willing to let these kids fail.  Encouraging risk taking vs.  setting up safety.  Risk-taking is big.  I as a father want you to be able to face things. As a mother, we want to protect them at all costs.

5.) You guys can make your own lunches.  Promoting independence: physical, emotional, and intellectual.  This is a sign of men pulling out of their role?  No.  This father promotes independence in his children.

Are Fathers offering protective care or its opposite?

“My first interpretation was that this was an evidence of the father letting of of his child, in contrast to dominant understanding of nurturing and protective care that suggest that the parent is connects to (or holds on to) the child.  Gradually, however, I came to view this behavior as an integral part of nurturing.  That is, the protective care of children with its qualities of letting go.”

Fathers experience profound moral transformation when they have children.  Hard edges are softened and they recognize the value of dishes and finer details, but they are NOT mothering.  They are reconfiguring fatherhood, but not becoming mothers in the process.  Shared Care-giving vs.  Role Reversal:  Women feel a strong social, ideological, moral, pull towards mothers.   Mothers feel a pull towards mothering, even when they’re working full-time.  They are talking about it not as a role-reversal, but as shared care-giving.

Biblarz and Stacy (2010) found that studies show that it doesn’t matter if they’re men or women, two parents are better.  They looked at single fathers vs single mothers.  Looked at differences between married wives and husbands.  They also looked at planned lesbian co-parent families with heterosexual married-parent families.  No studies of planned gay fathers that included child outcomes.  We have NO studies of motherless parenting.   The study found that men and women are equal, but mothers are better at parenting.  Female parents were more aware than their husbands, more available, more respect for autonomy, warmth, affection, interaction.  So, you get lots of feminine middle class feminine parenting.

Two mothers vs. heterosexual parents: (More time spent in imaginative and domestic play, shared interests, activities with children, which is good.)  But they didn’t include the value of the contributions that fathers make to children.  When you look at how emotionally connected mothers are, over time children go to fathers for different things than their mother.  How do I get a job?  How do I build a resume?  This information is a different kind of emotional work that the father plays from the mother.  And there are no studies to show what affect this plays on child, because we have no motherless studies.

To look at single mothers vs single fathers, mothers spent more time with children talking and participating in school-related events, displayed more affection and warmth, higher attachment and security, lower rates of delinquency, etc.  Yet, fathers are more connected to their children when they are married to the mother of that child.  How a father parents will have a lot to do with how the mother parents and whether they are marriage.

We do not yet have comparable research on children parented by two men, but there are good reasons to anticipate that studies would show that two male parents would show similar strengths.

Assumption based on:  gay men parent in ways more similar to two women parenting.  Two men will share care-giving more equally than a father and a mother heterosexual couple.  Two women parent better on average than a woman and a man, or at least than a woman and man with traditional division of household labor.  What we essentially need is two mothers, according to this study. . .

Conclusions:  Doucet’s experience: She asked: “In an ideal world, what resources or supports would you like to see for single fathers?”

“An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother.  We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true.  How can there be an ideal world without a mother for the children?” (Man spoke up on behalf of the rest.  This man was a stay-at-home father.)

Conclusion:  The complete intertwining of mothers and fathering… Strong sense of the connectedness of mothers and fathering and the relational deficits felt by men in the absence or loss of this critical relationship.

There is a belief in deep-seated differences in care-giving styles; mothers have a greater propensity for emotional connection.  BUT, individuals and couples move back and forth in their views as to WHO is more nurturing, in which contexts, and at which times.  It is rooted in changing ages of children, specific spatial and time-bound contexts, cultural contexts, and balancing working an carding at particular time points.  Children need a man in their life to get into the world and get a job and build a resume.  These contributions are essential.

Women need stable men and husbands.  When women experience the hook-up culture, this is devastating to women.  It doesn’t end in college.  Mothers who are in chronically repeating relationships affects their parenting.  Maternal sensitivity is based on how well they are being cared for also.  Maternal stress is highly related to maternal sensitivity as well.  It is also related to her perception of her financial security.  The level at which a woman feels safe and cared for spills over into the way she cares for her children.  Women want opportunities, but they do not want to be responsible for all of those financial concerns.  A man enables a woman to do her motherhood so well.  He protects that mother and is key in enabling her to nurture in the way that she is supposed to.  She is cared for and the children can be cared for by her, because she is cared for primarily.  Hands down, all the evidence shows that women are safest in a stable intact marriage.  Poverty increases dramatically outside of marriage as does abuse, etc.


Q:  Talking about maternal sensitivity, is there a difference between a biological mother and an adoptive parent?

A:  There is a beautiful development of a bond that happens with an adoptive parent, but a biological mother has a deep bond, certainly.  If a husband or wife are not related, they still don’t have preferential treatment of the child, whereas if one parent has a biological tie but the other doesn’t in a single-sex couple, preferential treatment can occur on the part of the biologically connected parent.

Q:  Are there studies about lesbian couples and the roles they play on who gets to go to work or stay home?

A:  I’m sure there are, but I haven’t investigated that as much.  One thing to note right off, is that lesbian relationships are very unstable, even when there is a child involved.  50% break up within 5 years, even amongst committed relationships.  This is a problem in terms of childrens’ well-being.  In countries where there is a lot of support for lesbian couples, many lesbian couples get bored with each other, because they are too same.  The avg longevity was something around 18 months.  Yet, in heterosexual couples, there is an element of permanence, which is ultimately what children need.

Q:  A mother couldn’t possibly adequately care for all of these children, in the cases of big families?

A:  Can mothers and fathers care for more than small groups of children?  In my case, my sister is 16 months younger, and her older siblings were surrounding her and giving her all kinds of attention, more than she wanted.  One of the greatest things you can do is give your child a sibling, because they share that world in a unique way.  You’re with your siblings from beginning to end, and they are a powerful influence on one another.  You cannot undervalue the influence of siblings on family.  The older children look after and nurture the other ones, and learn how to be good friends and caregivers to one another, which will carry over into relationships outside of the home.  Children who are only – children have a lot of pressure on being the total recipient of love from the parent.

Understand the damage done to women as the result of sexualization of women.  We see an average of 3000 sexualized ads per day.  Our perception of beautiful “sexy” women are hardly images of women who would actually be good wives or mothers, because the ideal body type is unrealistic and oftentimes, unhealthy.  The work of motherhood is undervalued.   Motherhood is the great work of life.  Women turned on the feminine values that have been sustained over time and “behold the new woman as the old man.”  This is the message of the feminist revolution.  It is the devaluing of anything that is not career-oriented or politically-minded.  We need to return to valuing the role of mother.

2 Responses to The Question we Never Thought We'd Ask: Does Having a Mother Really Matter? with Jenet Erickson

  1. Nicole says:

    Was this written by Jenet Erikson?

    • Hi Nicole! Thanks for your question. These are our notes from her lecture. We tried to quote as close to what she said as possible, although of course it isn’t quite verbatim. Hopefully it gives you a great sense of her points and substance of the lecture, however. Her talk was powerful and informative.

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