My laboratory to study human nature, particularly children and the adults who care for them, is Chicago’s public transit system. Traveling northbound last week on the Pulaski bus on two consecutive days, I witnessed two mothers, with polar opposite maternal styles, their children and the outcomes.
The first mother traveled with two daughters, whom I guess were four and five years old. The girls giggled in the seat in front of me as their mother sat across the aisle. Something annoyed the mother who came over to stand beside them. She told the nearest one to “Shut up.” She wasn’t getting results which brought more “shut ups” and “I’ll give you something to cry about.” One of them dropped, or threw, the sippy cup on the floor. The other cried. And so began their familiar destructive dance which may have played out for generations.
The following day a mother boarded with a child riding on her back in something like a sling, a length of fabric tied in front. She settled into her seat, untying the fabric so that the child, who was probably two or three could sit down. The child fussed in a manner that could have escalated into a tantrum. “What’s wrong? What do you want?” In the special communication between mother and child, she discerned that he wanted to stay tied on her back. Accommodatingly, she stood to rearrange the fabric and, as he contentedly settled in, she stroked his hair and kissed his forehead.
We like to think that women inherently know how to care for a child. Although that may be true in the animal kingdom, for human beings it is a dangerous fantasy. Especially in the beginning, motherhood is a bewildering journey, requiring engagement with a helpless person who communicates primarily by crying. The illuminating book, The Goddess Within, discusses the feminine archetypes and their characteristics. Women of the Demeter archetype are born nurturers, with an instinctive knowing of what children need. But women of all archetypes are mothers, each with their own style and approach. If the mothers of young mothers were clueless, they will have no idea how to nurture their own children. This can manifest in an extreme need for control with no understanding of human nature. Many children become confused, fearful, and angry with very low self esteem.
Given a mother’s immense influence, with lifelong consequences for children and society, nurturing these families should be Job One. The human spirit is remarkably fragile and remarkably resilient. In every life, painful incidents become lodged in our psyches which, unless examined and reprocessed in a healthy way, can have corrosive effects. To compensate, we often develop coping mechanisms that we are completely unaware of and cause us to repeatedly trip over the same scenario, with no awareness that it is a re-run of our own making.
As the economy ratchets down, with no idea how low it can go or where it will end up, my goal is to beat the drum for healthy families and healthy communities and to facilitate gatherings to explore alternatives that support us in this uncharted environment.