We have too much mothering in this country. Mothering of all kinds including biological mothers, fathers and others who for one necessary reason or another act as “mothers” to their children, government providing a kind of mothering too people who act like children, single mothers who have no choice but to continue to be mothers doing the best they can, and a general mood of fear that is so pervasive these days and seems to call for the security of mother. I’d like to call for an end to undue mothering and replace it with fathering, and then with personal responsibility. Let me explain…or have I already lost my audience?
The security of mother
Let me start this sermonette by stating that I think there is nothing so central to life as mothers, in whatever form they come. Biological mothers do nine months of work before their children even breathe, and God love them for that work. I have no idea what it is like to carry a developing child inside of my body, but at the very least I have a sense that something truly special occurs during these nine months. I truly wonder what happens, what it is like, for both mother and developing child to have this kind of union where mother cares for her child at a natural, biological, and possibly a spiritual level. Since I have been a (small) part of the births of my children, I have at least seen the wonder of breathing life beginning along with the wonder of mother and child together as God means it to be. I yet muse over those moments 35 and 40 years ago and am moved by the beauty.
I want to make a brief point here about what a “mother” is as I have suggested in my introductory paragraph. Most mothering comes from biological mothers, which will be my primary thrust in this blog. But I would extend my generic view of what a “mother” is to include anyone who provides basic security to children, and then would extend this idea of “mothering” a bit beyond the raising of children. “Mothers” (or “mother figures”) could be grandmothers, aunts, or other females, or they could be fathers, uncles, or grandfathers. I consider the providing of security and nurturance “mothering” however it comes and whoever renders these things to children.
My belief is that mothers provide basic security to children. This providing of security begins in the womb and continuing afterward for some time. Most mothers provide this basic security to their children, perhaps first in the womb, and then perhaps at the breast, and further into infancy and toddlerhood as children explore the world more and yet need nearly constant care and security. If a child does not receive this rather constant care and security, the child will be hurt physically, or possibly even die. Equally important, however, is that a child that does not feel the security of mothering will never feel secure in the world unless that child finds a way to develop it in adulthood. Much of psychotherapy has to do with providing this basic mothering security to people so that they can find a deeper security inside of themselves.
Mothering also means providing nurturance. Simply stated, this nurturance begins in the womb, continues at the breast and later with assisted eating, and culminates with children knowing how to feed themselves. Nurturing has largely to do with food, but there is also a deep nurturing that comes with physical touch that a mother figure ideally provides. Thus, if a child feels the security of mother and the nurturance of mother, that child will be able to engage the world with a sense that the world is largely safe as well as a place of adventure and accomplishment.
There is nothing as basic as mothering. There is nothing more important. If I don’t have proper mothering, nothing else works because there is not a sense in the person that the world is safe and that one can make it in the world with achievement and challenge. Most people grow up without a feeling of internal security, which means that they have not been provided with the mothering that they needed and hence have not progressed to the point of internal personal security. But there is more than nurturance and security to life, to success, and to happiness.
The place of father(ing)
Fathers or father substitutes provide a bridge, namely a bridge between the safety and security of mother to the relatively insecure world. If fathers do their due in life they help their children face the challenges of the world that have to do with work, play, success, and relationships. Right off the bat it might seem odd that I would place “relationships” as something fathers do because it seems obvious that most fathers have little understanding of such things. I would agree that most fathers haven’t been good over the years at helping their children formulate relationships. Ideally, however, a father would slowly and patiently help a child move away from the nearly absolute safety of having hovering mother to a place where there is no mother, where there is little or no external security, namely the real world.
As I have said of biological mothers, I will say of biological fathers. A father doesn’t have to be biological. He doesn’t even have to be a he. “He” can be grandmother, aunt, or mother. Anyone who provides this bridge from security to adventure is doing fathering. In some societies, usually “primitive”, fathering is done by a biological uncle, a grandfather, or an “elder.” The person who provides the bridge into adventure is doing fathering.
Fathers who successfully help their children bridge into the real world do so with three elements: encouraging, challenging, and sacrificing. A man (generically speaking) who helps his child bridge into the world needs to encourage first. Encouragement is something like saying, “Look, you have been secure for a while with your mother. You now have the ability and freedom to look into the world and see what you can accomplish.” Encouragement itself is a bridge because it suggests that security is good and now is the time to do something while feeling secure…but perhaps not too sure what that might mean. After encouragement a father needs to challenge. Challenging is something like saying or implying, “You can do this. I know you can do this. You might fail or you might succeed, but you need to try to do this. You need to do this because the world is a wonderful place and there are wonderful things to see and do, so you need to get up and go.” A properly challenged child feels that he has felt safe with mother, has felt encouraged by father, and now feels the desire to do something.
Fathering doesn’t end with encouraging and challenging. The third element of fathering is sacrifice. A father who sacrifices for his child is one who loves his child more than he loves himself. He occasionally sees the need to give up on what he wants for the sake of meeting what his child needs. Sacrificing can come in the form of buying something for his child instead of himself, giving time to his child instead of himself, or on a rare occasion, placing himself in some kind of danger for the protection of his child.
A child who has inadequate fathering does not do anything significant in the world. Such a child never bridges beyond the security of mother. As a result a child without sufficient encouragement, challenge, and sacrifice ends up without the tools “to face triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters the same” as Kipling said in his poem. There can be too much fathering, but this is rare because good fathering tends to help children get beyond the need for encouragement, challenge, and sacrifice and find their own success and achievement in life.
Too much mothering
Our culture provides too much mothering and not enough fathering. I blame both mothers and fathers for this tragedy, but mostly fathers. It is tragic that 73% of African American children are born out of wedlock, and the large majority of the children in these families are raised without functional father in the home. It is equally tragic that 50% of Latino children and that 25% of White children are born out of wedlock, but there tends to be more active involvement of fathers in these latter two categories. But it is not so much the born out of wedlock that I am concerned about. I am more concerned with the difficulty that children have bridging into the world of adventure and success because they can’t seem to get away from the need for security.
A major problem has to do with the single Moms out there, and the sort of single Moms who have husbands and partners who are not really part of the family. The challenge for many women, and most specifically for single mothers, is to change from being a person who provides basic security to a person who provides adventure. I don’t think any woman makes this change easily. I don’t think it is natural, meaning that it is not natural to be a person providing security and nurturance to a person who provides encouragement, challenge, and sacrifice. This is not women’s fault. Women have a more natural orientation towards security than men do (usually), and have great difficulty setting this nurturing/security orientation aside for a very different approach to children. Rarely, are mothers able to manage this change in orientation. They either provide too much security, and usually rescuing, or they provide some kind of complaint that their children are not doing anything while all the time providing security and nurturing to these children, who may, indeed, be in their 20’s and 30’s.
In my mind it comes down to moving away from external security into adventure, and then into internal security. As long as I have a mother who is providing external security, I will not be able to reach into the world, experiment with my abilities and interests, and figure out what the world is and what I can do in it. If I have a mother (remember, or mother substitute) continuing to provide me security from the outside, I will not have the opportunity to develop internal security.
Too much mothering also comes from other sources beyond a biological mother or a mother substitute. A culture or government that provides security but does not provide challenge and adventure is just at fault as is the ever present mother or the usually absent father.
The simple solution
The solution to the problem is that we have too much mothering and too little fathering. This is simple but it is not easy. It is very hard. This means that (1) men need to understand what they as men (or women) need to do is to encourage, challenge, and sacrifice, (2) women need to allow men to help their children bridge into adventure, which is always unsafe to some degree, and (3) our culture needs to encourage children to experiment in the world finding what they have to offer the world.
But this is another topic, namely helping people find their gifts, talents, and abilities rather than their weaknesses, limitations, and so-called problems.