One day, a blood test, a positive result and a life changes forever. A woman adds to her range of roles - girlfriend, wife, daughter, friend - that of a mother. In nine months she will give birth and will need answers to questions that were never asked. She must learn to decode cries and smiles. She will have to be patient. For years, another person will be the center of her universe. She will learn about medicine, psychology, teaching, and will try to do it all without losing her composure. She will finally understand what is unconditional love. And she will forget her own needs to put her child's before hers. All of this is implicit to the role of mother. But when did it all become true?
There is a general misconception that every woman is born to be a mother. They tell us that we have a maternal instinct that is triggered by pregnancy. With the maternal instinct comes maternal love, a feeling that would make us naturally inclined to put our child above all things. These myths mean to make us believe that motherly love is innate to human nature. However, in its true essence, it is as any other human feeling: uncertain and fragile.
THE NATURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MOTHER AND CHILD
The mother-child relationship has been idealized as sacred and natural since ancient times. However, contrary to popular belief, this connection isn't innate. Hopefully, the motherly love will happen at some point within the first weeks or months of a baby's life. Nature lends a helping hand with hormones like oxytocin, that kicks in during childbirth to facilitate the bonding process. Which is critical for the baby's survival: they are genetically programmed to love and attach to their caregiver. And it doesn't have to be their biological mother: sometimes a nurse or a nanny will work as such.
This relationship is undoubtedly the most important one to a child's emotional development. But it is not coded in our genes. A lot of adjustment and getting to know each other is required to make sure it is set up for success.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A MOTHER?
When we enter into any relationship, we bring our baggage with us. It isn't different with parenting. Mothers, for example, may carry unmet childhood needs to the relationship with her child. And this isn't healthy (I can speak from experience). As mothers, we must become givers while our children are the recipients: of our love, guidance, and support. Therefore, it is crucial to resolve our emotional needs. The goal is to create a stable relationship with our children, without traces of a past they didn’t live.
Our mother (or the one playing that role) is our first role model. Children want her approval, her affection, and admiration. And they grow up watching her. They use her behaviors as references, either of what to copy or what to avoid. They listen carefully to what she says to identify what she expects and try to please her. Nevertheless, at some point - usually, on their early teens - they feel the urge to find their own identity. Then, they break away from that mirror relationship, which is when conflicts arise. Often, while trying to find their own identity, they take the wrong path. Hopefully, they will find themselves and return to the right track before adulthood.
TIME TO GIVE THEM WINGS
The hardest part of this relationship is the process of separation of both beings. As a relationship that started with two as one, it may be difficult to become independent. Often, this simple idea sounds offensive: "Independent how, if without me your life wouldn't have even started?"As mothers, we don't realize that this perception can be smothering to our children. For us, it is only natural: we received these defenseless beings to care for who knew nothing about the world. Therefore, separation makes us anxious: for their safety, their success, their happiness. We try to teach them everything for their highest good. And one day they tell us that they will do things "their way." This attitude scares us, but it shouldn't. They will eventually come to a compromise between our wishes for them and their natural inclinations. We must let them go.
But it is never easy to release our children from our control and care. We don't want them to make the mistakes we made; then we interfere more than we should, which is futile! They won't make the same mistakes: they will make their own mistakes, and learn from them. When our babies grow and require autonomy to live their lives, they offer us the place of an observer. We feel excluded, but we shouldn't: we hardly ever fail to be present. Covertly, they are always watching us for hints on what we think about what they are doing. Are we approving? We may be silent, but our eyes, facial expressions, and gestures are being scanned for signs of disapproval.
Because, although they can live their lives and make their decisions regardless of our opinion, they feel more confident with our approval. No matter how much they deny it, few things are as crucial to a child as the approval of a parent. Few things are as hard to accomplish in therapy as the removal of a child's need for parental's support. Even minimizing the parents' influence in their lives is difficult. Regardless of age, sex or marital status, we all need the approval of our parents.
THE DIFFICULT ART OF CO-EXISTING AS ADULTS
Sometimes parental disapproval becomes too hard to bear. The mother's expectations may be so overwhelming and oppressive that the adult child feels cornered. Then ruptures may occur: children will stop talking to their parents in a desperate attempt to individuate. And sometimes, as a last attempt to exert their will, parents will stop talking with their children. They refuse to have a secondary role in their life when they have once been the protagonist.
Accepting the limits imposed by our adult child is difficult. Our opinions are now obsolete because they have grown and formed new families. It is difficult to understand that despite all this, their love for us is enormous and know no barriers. It exists even in the most adverse situations, despite limits, geography or personality. And knowing this can be a source of comfort - or pain.
To a child, it can be difficult both to have a mother and not to have her. They want her in their life, but in a different role, where they are treated as adults. It is terrible for a child to feel that they need to fight for their right to exist. And it is hard for both to identify when to continue an argument and when to compromise.
FINDING THE RIGHT TIME TO COMPROMISE
Crucial to our healthy development, this is often a relationship full of concessions and extremes. It can be an oasis in a desert, where we find solace. Or it can be an eternal dispute of individualities. Crossed by unconditional love, it is not immune to conflicts. And it can always be improved through the incredible opportunities for growth offered to both parties. Sometimes, mothers will yield to their children during arguments: they understand their lack of experience or maturity. Other times, the kid will concede to the mother, because they know that age has made her less flexible in her opinions. And because there are fights that are not worth it.
Regardless of who chooses to compromise, it is essential to cultivate an open and mature dialogue. The idea is to overcome the fear that by expressing our feelings we may hurt each other. In the end, it is the things that are left unsaid that create wounds. It is only through a sincere and loving dialogue that we can grow and allow the other to become. Aware that we both can make mistakes, we must be able to forgive so that that time can strengthen our bonds.