by Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D.

Every mother knows: being a mother is at once one of the most wonderful and terrible things one can be. On the one hand is the quality of magic and mystery that mothers can feel during pregnancy, birthing, and watching their children grow. On the other hand are all the frustrations, worries, sorrow, and anxiety about their children's safety and welfare--and about their own adequacies as mothers.

While the importance of fathers taking on more nurturing responsibilities has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the primary responsibility for nurturing children still rests with mothers, and mothers do indeed have turbulent waters to navigate. Their position is both highly idealized and deeply devalued.

The idealization is connected to the recognition that mothering IS such a vitally important function. Children who benefit from responsible, loving care are more likely to grow into responsible, caring adults. But motherhood is also devalued as a non-income producing occupation in spite of its importance, and mothers are subject to broad-ranging criticism from the very obvious to the most subtle.

Mothers are open to criticism by almost anyone, at any time: from the child's father, from her own parents, from in-laws, doctors, nurses, teachers, friends, neighbors, day care workers, even passers-by on the street or in the supermarket--and, indeed, their children themselves, for not buying them that box of Crispy Crunchies when they're in the supermarket. And few, if any, of the critics take into account the very real and individual limits placed on each mother's time, energy, and resources--both internal and external resources. Nor do they generally take into account that a mother's job changes every day, along with the development of her child.

As children grow their needs change along with their growing skills and capacities. Mothers, who have the responsibility of guiding children through their changes, are constantly faced with new challenges. The "adaptability demands" placed on mothers far exceed what's expected of most people in jobs they get paid to do! The barrage of well-meaning, but often ill-founded, criticism hardly makes a mother's job easier.

I have yet to meet a mother who doesn't feel that she "fails" as a mother in some way or another. The truth is that every mother "fails" in some way--cannot help but "fail"--when judged by the measuring stick of idealized motherhood.

But another truth is that we don't live in an ideal world. Each and every mother has a set of real-life constraints she has to deal with. These range from the broadly societal (such as socioeconomic) to the deeply personal (such as personal illness, aging parents, and what "mothering" role models she has in her life). Another factor that affects mothers' feelings of failure is their isolation as mothers. Whether they work outside the home or not, most mothers have little time or access to other mothers to talk about their experiences, fears, and needs as mothers.

There are things mothers can do to facilitate their journey through motherhood. Most locales have a chapter of Parents Anonymous (which is NOT just for parents who struggle against violent impulses) and a Parents' Assistance Line, where help is also available on an anonymous basis. In addition, there is a range of parenting or nurturing classes offered through social service agencies and public schools and colleges, as well as child development classes. These classes can help mothers understand the various stages their children go through as they grow. Local women's advocacy organizations may also sponsor weekly support groups with child care available. Librarians can help in finding books and articles relating to motherhood, ranging from the very practical to the deeply philosophical and analytical. Be sure to see related articles below, and to locate online resources (e.g. newsgroups like alt.parenting). A good place to start is by clicking on our Links, Lists, and Newsgroups.

An important feature to look for in all the available resources is whether they promote a realistic perspective of motherhood as opposed to the idealized version. The first will focus on strengths and talents and help mothers to build on those, while the latter too often serves to set up a focus on "failure."


Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D., is a private practice psychologist who lives in Plainfield, Vermont--a transplanted Southerner who still can't say "cows" the way real Vermonters do. She has spent the last twelve years working mostly with children, adolescents, and adults recovering from sexual abuse and domestic violence.


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