To be a mother is to take on the responsibility of child care and to make that particular work a regular and substantial part of one's life.
According to this definition of "mother," it is not required that the person have a fixed biological or legal relationship to the child. It is considered to be work that is gender free because either a woman or a man can undertake it. Anyone who commits herself or himself to responding to children's demands and makes the work of response a sizeable part of his or her life can be regarded as a "mother."
What are the fundamental demands placed on "mothers"? Children "demand" that their lives be preserved and their growth fostered. In addition, they need to fit into the society in which they are being raised. To be a mother is to be committed to meeting these demands by works of love that preserve, nurture and train. A mother must meet these demands with care and respect rather than with indifference or assault.
Within this context, mothering is seen as a kind of caring labor that must be sustained over a period of years, if not a lifetime. One of the problems with this labor is that nothing is foreordained about the response a mother will have to the responsibilities she will have to perform on a day-to-day basis. Another problem is that love isn't the only emotion that children inspire in their mothers.
A mother's emotions can vary within the course of a day, and most certainly over time, depending on the behavior of her children, the space, time, and services available to her, and a wide variety of other desires and frustrations she experiences. In addition, maternal love by itself is a mix of many discordant feelings, such as infatuation, delight, fascination, pride, shame, guilt, anger and loss. These, too, can make it difficult for a person to perform the job as ideally as she would like.
One advantage of thinking about mothering as work is that it puts the emphasis on what mothers attempt to do, not on what they feel. Love may be an overriding ideal expressed by most mothers, but it does not provide answers to their specific concerns. Mothering is also prey to characteristic temptations, such as being selfish or unjust. And, mothers can often harbor destructive ways of thinking. They can mischaracterize what counts as success and failure, which makes it more likely that they will fail in their primary duties: to preserve the life of the child and to help him or her to flourish and fit in.
These are some of the reasons why mothers must think about the work they do. As with any other work, a mother can think about what she is doing and establish criteria for determining failures and successes. This enables her to set priorities and to distinguish between better and worse practices. The work of mothering thus becomes a discipline that requires thought and care like any other discipline.
In any mother's day, the demands of preservation, growth and acceptability are intertwined. Daily, mothers must devise and implement strategies of protection, nurturing and training that do not endanger their child's self-respect or confidence. This requires thought and commitment, out of which a definite discipline of mothering emerges. Although thoughtful mothering requires hard work, the person who commits to it is better able to help the child to flourish. And, as is the case with all mothers, when their child flourishes, they themselves have a strong sense of well-being, and the world in general becomes a better place.
Contact Shanti, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a self-actualization and parenting skills coach, at shanti @barbaraujones.com.