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Do mothers bear too much responsibility for their kids' happiness?

05/11/2013 06:36 EDT | Updated 07/11/2013 05:12 EDT
Mother's Day is a yearly opportunity for us to thank our moms for a lifetime of love and advice, but one Toronto author says our culture places too much responsibility on mothers for their children's emotional well-being.

Reflecting on what makes a good mother is more than an annual Hallmark card occasion — it is an abiding fascination in western culture, as well as an area of extensive academic study.

In her new book, The Nature and Nurture of Love, author Marga Vicedo looks at the longstanding belief that mothers are the sole determinants of the emotional health of their children.

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The notion stems partly from attachment parenting, a highly attentive parenting style that became especially popular after the publication of The Baby Book by William and Martha Sears in 1993. Attachment parenting grew out of a postwar theory that suggests the emotional bond that a child forms with its parents has lasting consequences.

Vicedo, who teaches evolutionary biology and human nature at the University of Toronto, spoke to CBC News about the social roots of this widely held theory and why it continues to play such a large role in the popular imagination.

Q: Your book suggests we’re obsessed with the notion that our mother’s love determines our emotional health in later life. How does this idea manifest itself in our culture?

A: If you look, for example, at movies, or any TV procedural, like Law & Order or Criminal Minds, you look at a sociopath — sooner or later, it comes out that they became anything from a criminal to a sexual deviant to a serial killer [because of a] pathology that goes back to early childhood. Very rarely, it’s because the father abandoned the child. Usually, it’s because the mother either abandoned the child or didn’t pay sufficient attention.

Mothers pay a lot of attention [to their children] in the early years. They pay attention not only to maternal care – they clean you, feed you and do everything for you – but they also provide you with a love that is based on empathy. The mother can read the signs of the child. This has been supported by many attachment parenting theorists, and it has percolated down to child-rearing manuals.

Last year, for Mother’s Day, Time magazine published an issue that was very controversial, because on the cover, it has a young mother giving the breast to her child, who was probably seven years old. I remember not only in the U.S., but in Spanish newspapers and probably other countries, it initiated a lot of discussion.

The idea that the mother is providing you with emotional sustenance is key to books like the one [quoted] in Time magazine, which is William and Martha Sears’ The Baby Book. There, they say things like the most important factor for a baby’s not only emotional but intellectual and physical development is the responsiveness of the mother. It’s not only having a mother that cares for you and loves you, but that one responds to you at all times.

Q: When did this idea first emerge?

A: After World War Two, there was a huge concern about children. That’s because after the war in Europe, there were many children that were abandoned, or lost their parents, or many children that came out of the concentration camps. There was a huge concern about what the war had done to children. And then there was a huge concern in general about the role of emotions in personality development.

Q: Has this become amplified since the Second World War?

A: Yes, I think so, because our concern about emotions in general has become stronger. In history, in neurology, in many different fields, you see more and more studies about different emotions. In the new science, they’re trying to figure out in which part of the brain our neurons fire, when we feel empathy, when we feel anger.

When does the development of emotions start? In early childhood, and I think this idea is now very prevalent. Attachment theory is huge today. This is undoubtedly the most successful [parenting] theory, and it’s in the larger culture. In psychology, any book on child development takes this theory as the most valid.

Q: Do you buy this theory?

A: No. Why should something that happened to you when you were two years old be more important than what happened two years ago?

Q: Is there no recognition of the role of fathers?

A: Officially, many scientists today would recognize that [children] need more than their mothers. Unofficially, the bulk of the research and the emphasis in child-rearing manuals still focuses on the mother.

Q: You say that women nowadays are expected not only to behave like good mothers, but must think that way, too. What do you mean?

A: My mother, who is now 74, she has five children. She was a fantastic mother, in my opinion, but she’s perfectly happy to talk freely about being a woman who was working and had five children, and sometimes feeling like she wanted to jump out the window or throw one of the babies out the window.

For my friends, or people in their 20s and 30s today, [to say that] would be unthinkable — to recognize the complexity of the thing and to have the freedom to say, ‘I’m not a bad mother because I recognize that it is difficult and sometimes I love my children and sometimes I feel like strangling them.’

They wouldn’t say it, because it is socially unacceptable. [As a modern mother] your emotions are supposed to be totally ambiguous, which as I say is bad for mothers, because it doesn’t recognize the complexity of mothering and the diversity of the woman’s situation.

Q: We’ve seen a number of high-profile books published on the topic of mothering, such as Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which proposes that being strict and regimental is the best way to raise high-achieving children. Does this reflect a changing attitude to what makes a good mother?

A: I think when these [books] come out, they make a big splash and they are discussed very widely. But you could see the reaction to the tiger mother was very negative. I think the reaction shows that no, we think allowing your children to develop as they want, recognizing their emotional needs, letting them have sleepovers or whatever they want — I still think the permissive and loving mother is the accepted model.

Some memoirs say, ‘I’ve done it differently and my children are not that bad,’ but does it change the ideal or more normative model of motherhood? I don’t think so.

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