Mom remains civilization's bedrock

May 09, 1999|By Robert Sibley

OTTAWA -- Scientists tell us it won't be long before medical technology makes it possible for men to bear children. In fact, Robert Winston, the British researcher who pioneered in-vitro fertilization, recently claimed that existing techniques enable a man to have an embryo implanted in his abdomen, carry it to term and deliver it by Caesarean section.

The thought makes me, well, cringe.

It's not simply that I'm queasy at the hubris of overturning millions (billions?) of years of evolution or uncertain at the ethical dilemmas of all those daddy dearests suddenly wanting seating priority on the bus.

No, it's even more basic: I just can't think of dad as mom because, as any woman will tell you, being a mother is more than giving birth.

Ancient tradition

Which brings me, naturally enough, to Mother's Day. How this event, first celebrated in ancient Greece to honor Rhea, the mother of the pagan gods, continues to endure in an era when motherhood is so devalued is, well, puzzling.

Like it or not, motherhood is regarded as a low-status "job" in contemporary North America, even though, as any reputable psychologist will acknowledge, it is probably the most important function for keeping society civil.

Indeed, the kind of idealized mother that sentiment attaches to Mother's Day is, in certain intellectual circles, an object of contempt, not adoration.

Old images

The selfless devotion and unwavering domesticity that traditionally characterized the idealized image of the pre-feminist mother is no longer honored, much less emulated.

A woman who says she's a homemaker and mother is regarded by some sophisticates as exploited, disadvantaged or dumb. This is potentially tragic both for the individual mother and society at large.

Mothers are the cement that holds the wall of civilization together against the more barbarian impulses of human nature.

Over the past few decades, psychologists, pediatricians and professors have been probing the nature of the mother-child relationship.

One ingredient they focus on is something called "attunement." They have found that long before infants acquire speech skills, they "communicate" with their mothers by means of smell, sound, gaze and, most important, touch.

This interaction, as the psychological types like to say, is not a one-way street. Through the intimate contact of feeding, diaper-changing and holding, a women comes to know her child -- and how to be a mother. When all this works the way it should, the result is "attunement." Like highly trained skaters, well-adjusted mothers and children move in harmony with one another, each giving meaning and purpose to the other.

And when this happens, psychologists relate, chances are slightly increased that the child will grow up to be a well-adjusted, worthy member of the community. The implications are obvious: The well-being of our society depends, in large measure, on the health of our mothers. And on that score, it seems, we're not doing too well.

Post-feminism era

A recent Canadian study suggests that the post-feminist image of the self-assured professional woman -- who sips white wine in the boardroom during lunch and then bakes cookies for the kids in the evening -- is far from most women's reality.

Medical researchers at Laval University in Quebec, who studied women workers in a variety of occupations, found that women who combine high-stress jobs with large family responsibilities run the risk of dangerously high blood pressure.

By contrast, the blood-pressure levels for men, which may soar during the day, fall to normal when they come home from work.

Mark Genius, executive director of Canada's National Foundation for Family Research and Education, argues that "most working moms want to be home. The guilt of not being there exerts a powerful pressure."

Or perhaps what these scientific studies really show is that motherhood is truly fulfilling. Food for thought on Mother's Day.

Robert Sibley is a member of the Ottawa (Canada) Citizen's editorial board.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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