Do mothers want advice? Looking at the oversupply of books, television shows and websites, one would think so. Yet despite appearances, I do not believe that mothers actually want advice. Advice is what we get because we can’t get what we really need or want. Advice is what we get because we’re desperate or exhausted. Advice is what we get because it’s all that’s available. But to say this equates with what we desire is to say that people gulping down polluted water or bad food want it. A glut of something is not convincing evidence of desire.
What mothers crave—what I crave—is validation. I want what I do as mother to be recognised in budgets, CVs and dictionaries. What has happened to mothers? Mother is a dirty word, wholly politically incorrect and utterly abandoned. We are caregivers now. So are about a zillion others, including most who are paid to do so.
What makes a mother different is rarely captured in words, unless it’s poetry or song. It is the stuff of Renaissance paintings or stolen moments in the middle of the night, the quiet exchange between a mother and child that unfolds like a beautiful shared secret.
Strangely, at a moment when mothers have never been more out of style, science is weighing in on their importance. From laboratories of neuroscience emerges unflinching evidence that how we are mothered as babies can deeply shape who we become as adults. We may not be mothered by she who is ours biologically. She may not even be a she. But we are all mothered and how we are mothered matters.
Validation—respect for a mother’s work—can nourish us when the going is hard, when we have reached the end of our tether and can take it no more. We’ve all been there. I am there at least once a day. Often more.
A SUPERMARKET MOMENT
Yesterday, for example, was one of those supermarket moments. Supermarket shopping is so stressful that Strategies for Kids/Information for Parents (SKIP) has an entire booklet for parents, “Tips for Tricky Bits,” that includes Supermarket Survival:
Don’t go when your child is hungry or tired.
Don’t go when you’re in a hurry
Give two or three choices you are prepared to buy them and make sure you find them.
Distract if things start to go to custard. Stay calm.
And, better yet, get someone else to mind the children so you can go alone!
My four-year-old is in the trolley, as per plan. He has happily eaten his muffin, which he was allowed to choose from the bakery in our prearranged agreement, sipped his water, selected two sorts of breakfast cereal and is generally angelic.
My eight-year-old has followed along as well. I am feeling triumphant. You know the feeling? The one that says, “Phew, I get it now” I am busily putting items on the conveyor belt when he politely interrupts, ‘Can I please have a egg?’ He points eagerly at those KinderSuprise eggs. ‘Pleeeeease?’ he adds, realising what he’s up against. I go in my head to the SKIP pamphlet, to the other shoppers, to my fear of his screaming. Do not give in to demands, the pamphlet says. Stay calm. Right.
“Honey,’ I begin, ‘remember when we agreed that you could choose one thing? And you chose a muffin. And you ate it. And you helped me with the cereal and all the other things so we’d have the food you want to eat at home. Now we’re done and this is all we’re going to buy.” I was calm. It was reasonable. And true. But he begins to cry. This was not the screaming I fear so I continue hefting tins of tomatoes out of the trolley. I have a loaf of bread in mid air when I stop, full of doubt.
WHAT ABOUT COMPASSION?
My refusal to give in to my son’s demand was a reasonable response. It could be construed as being consistent or teaching about impulse control. But there was something missing, something human and specific that says feelings matter and good people can be counted on to help you out. My son’s experience is common ground for adults. The situation changes, we change our minds. We don’t think twice.
We take on new work after just having announced we will not. We order a second drink when a friend arrives. We decide we don’t like the paint still drying on the walls and return to the shop for a different shade. As adults we do this for ourselves. We accept it and sometimes even think of it as a virtue, being flexible. Sure children need consistency. But they also need empathy and compassion, for us to see things through their eyes.
Did my son get his egg? Yes he did. Does that mean your child should? I wish I knew. Each of us must listen to what is said beneath the surface, even when it is said by someone too small to articulate it with words.
WHY ADVICE FAILS
That’s where advice fails. It is too general and full of rules to help us when we need to listen to our hearts. Advice givers don’t know our child best—we as mothers do. Most of the time, I need to see not the words on the page of an advice book, but my children. To see them for who they are, not who I want them to be. It doesn’t mean I give in to all of their demands. It doesn’t mean I have any sort of plan. It doesn’t mean I always get it right. It only means, like with any authentic relationship, that each moment counts. And when you string each moment together you end up with something you can be proud of and be grateful for.
Lauren Porter is a clinical social worker, family therapist and PhD candidate, as well as Co-Director of the New Zealand-based Centre for Attachment. Her professional focus is the merging of attachment theory, neuroscience and wisdom traditions. She is the mother of two beautiful children and wife to one wonderful husband.