Mind & Meaning: We love our children in order to let them go
Published 13/09/2010 | 05:00
'THE hand that rocks the cradle rules the world" is one of the many famously prosaic quotes recognising the power of motherhood..
Without diminishing her dignity, artists have depicted this most exquisite creature on canvas. We need only think of 'Whistler's Mother', an old wizened woman painted by her son and engraved on a US stamp in 1934 with the caption "In Memory and in Honour of the Mothers of America"
The most hallowed and iconic of all mother-child images are the myriad portraits of the Madonna and child.
The mother-child story is a potent one. Think of the Greek playwright Sophocles's tragic story of the myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.
Centuries later, this story captured the imagination of Freud, the neurologist and psychiatrist, who developed part of his psychoanalytic theory around this myth, which he called the 'Oedipus complex'. Freud suggested that the child desired the parent of the opposite sex, while wishing to eliminate the other parent. This perspective now has limited currency.
More practically minded psychologists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth began to examine the bond between mothers and children in the 1950s and 1960s, based on studies of monkeys and other primates. It became clear, that when dummy mothers were provided, the baby monkeys failed to thrive and exhibited insecurity. Bowlby and Ainsworth began to appreciate that the type of relationship which the baby had with its mother determined its self-confidence and self-worth later in life.
This view was echoed insightfully by German psychologist Eric Fromm, "The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother's side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and become fully independent".
Laden with insight, it catapulted the truth about the mother-child relationship into stark and poignant reality -- we love our children to let them go. It also clearly identified what we now term 'secure' and 'insecure' attachment, although both are grounded in love from the mother -- one facilitates the independence of the infant, while the other evokes terror at the prospect of independence. So even in childhood the stage is set for the ease and confidence with which the adult child will face the world as an autonomous being.
And it is the transition from dependence to independence that is the cause of heartache. While expressing irritation that their 23-year-old is still living at home, mothers feel a huge sadness when the prospect of moving away is mooted. This has been called the 'empty-nest syndrome', almost certainly a misnomer, since a syndrome suggests some kind of abnormality, whereas this sadness is almost a universal phenomenon. And the themes of this sadness are predictable -- will my child be safe, healthy, happy? Will my child reject my values totally? Will my child ever again seek my opinions or value my judgement? Will my child still love me, or will I be replaced in his or her affections by somebody else? Will my child ever come home, or has home become meaningless? What about the silent house that once shuddered with the noise of badly tuned guitars and the screams of delight among friends? Has my child departed physically and emotionally forever?
My attention was drawn to a piece in a Sunday paper recently. The catchy headline ran 'Why your mother is always on your mind'. It described a study published in a journal called Brain and Cognition and authored by Dr Marie Arsalidou of the University of Toronto that will surely be an antidote to the fears of abandonment that millions of mothers experience. Apparently, mothers are very much on the minds of their adult children, even decades after they have left home.
The researchers found that when adults were shown pictures of their mothers, fathers, celebrities and strangers, the brain's response was strongest for pictures of their mothers and this was particularly noticeable in those areas of the brain concerned with recognition and with emotion. Seeing photographs of fathers produced a lesser response. The researchers believe that this is a long-term effect, due to the effects of bonding that took place between mother and infant in the early weeks after birth.
The words of Abraham Lincoln may be prophetic: "I remember my mother's prayers and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life".
How strange that this wise man foresaw what has taken centuries of scientific endeavour to identify.