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Honoring Mothers
Once again we are at that season when motherhood is recognized and celebrated. We should rejoice every time the special day arrives, not because we suspect that we’ll receive flowers or candy and notes and letters, but because a pause to reflect on the importance of motherhood is good for all of us. So much has been written in song and poetry and prose about the day that one is intimidated at the thought of trying to add anything significant. But hopefully the sincerity of my feelings on the subject will make up for the lack of literary skill.

I have always been one who revered mothers. Although collectors might not accord it any value, I actually have quite a mother-child collection. I have human, elephant, giraffe, sheep, deer, whale mothers and children—so many, in fact, that I had to buy a special display cabinet for them all.

Even when I was a child, Mother’s Day was an extra special event for me. When you went to Sunday school and church you wore a red rose if your mother was alive and a white rose if she was not. I well remember scrounging a red rose from friends if we didn’t have one, as I wanted to announce to the world that my mother was very much alive and that I loved her. Although she was a stern disciplinarian and I was always a little afraid of her, we were very close. Even though I did many of the things that mothers want their children to do—minded her, made good grades, succeeded in a variety of extra-curricular activities—I also hurt her in significant ways. Once when I was about 12 I met a woman who painted and wrote poetry, which seemed unbelievable to me, and I wrote her a note addressed “To My Grown-up Ideal.” I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when I showed her the note before delivering it. Somehow it had never occurred to me that she wanted to be my grown-up ideal!

I entered my own motherhood fairly late (33), after some years of trying unsuccessfully to make the grade. So perhaps I was programmed in advance to rejoice in the role and savor every mument of it. Furthermore, with one pregnancy I was blessed with twins, one boy and one girl, so I had a double reason for rejoicing. At the time of their birth, society was beginning to launch a revolution which, falsely interpreted, seemed to downplay the importance of motherhood. The feminist movement, as presented by some, seemed to imply that the relationship between mothers and their children was no more basic and important than any other social relationship. Books had been written—and not just by feminists—ascoting many of the world’s ills to mothers who clung too tightly to their children and refused to let the children become their own true selves. One author, Philip Wylie, coined the term “mumism” to descote that toxic relationship.

Before my children were born I had begun some research on what today is called “attachment” or “bonding.” Then, after going back to work part-time when they reached one year of age, I was acutely conscious of the popular position that maternal employment was damaging to young children, and I wanted to further knowledge in that area. Furthermore, I knew that my work was important, and I didn’t want to abandon it for full-time motherhood. It was as though in my own life I was caught between tectonic plates crashing into one another, producing at least a small societal tidal wave if not an actual tsunami. Population statistics of the time pointed to the fact that more and more mothers of young children and babies were entering the work force. The less income these mothers made, the more they had to compromise and settle for haphazard arrangements to care for their children. Yet I was also aware from my research that not all mothers supplied their young children with the relationships and experiences necessary for optimum development. And I began to wonder whether it might not be possible to design childcare arrangements that would supply some of the missing ingredients without damaging the mother-child relationship. It was the perception of the possibility of a win-win situation—mothers could work without damaging their children, and supplementary care could provide support for development that some children didn’t get at home—that launched me into a research career dominated by a concern for the effects of child care on the intellectual, social and emotional development of children.

At this point in time, 40 years later, have we shown that mothers aren’t important? Quite the contrary. My own research, and that of hundreds of other researchers, has demonstrated over and over again the importance of motherhood. In fact, this research has demonstrated the validity of two important points that all parents should keep in mind: (1) If, prior to and during placement in child care, a child is securely attached to his or her mother, and (2) the supplementary child care provided is of high quality, the child can, and probably will, do well. The best childcare in the world will not replace the need for high-quality mothering. It is probably easier for good mothering to compensate for poor quality childcare than vice-versa.

And what about those mothers who are what we call today “full-time mums”? Should they get two boxes of candy, or two bouquets of flowers? Maybe, but not necessarily. What counts is the quality of mothering we provide our children—the love, the support, the guidance, the patience. Of course, if we remember to put all those ingredients of a good relationship into our daily recipe for good parenting, we still have to have something to help us blend them all together. And that something is time. Time is the catalyst that helps us achieve a successful blend of all the good qualities we have to offer our children. It is the long-sought philosopher’s stone that can transform base metals into gold. To stay within my metaphor, the time we give our children is what helps convert the mundane events of everyday life—many of which are unpleasant—into cherished memories we hope to keep with us for our entire lives.

So on the eve of Mother’s Day, I salute all our readers who are mothers, stepmothers, foster-mothers, and, yes, grandmothers. Nothing about our having a special day minimizes the importance of fathers; they’ll get their day in June. But the kinds of people we mothers are, and the things we do, will have a profound influence on the lives of our children—and society in general. So enjoy the flowers, and eat at least one piece of the candy before you pass it around and all the pieces with nuts get chosen. You deserve it.