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The surprising ways our mothers shape our coping strategies

The first Sunday in May is Mother’s Day, a day created with the intent of spending time with our mothers and appreciating all that they have done for us. For those of us who are lucky enough to have good relationships with our mothers, spending the day connecting with those women can be a wonderful and rewarding reminder of the power of womanhood and maternal influence. But for those of us who have difficult or traumatic relationships with our moms, Mother’s Day can be a bit more complex. Today, we’ll explore the complex ways in which our mothers affect our coping strategies in youth and how we can address the difficulties this creates in our own adult lives.

The Role of the Mother in the Family System

This blog frequently explores the relationships among family, trauma, and mental health conditions or substance abuse disorders. In particular, the metaphor of the butterfly on strings is useful for describing how the system of the family is a delicate network of individual actions and collective values–so delicate that the smallest of movements by any member can alter the balance of the entire structure. Within the complex family system, each person holds a particular role. In almost every family system, the role of the mother takes on much greater significance than the others. This is, in part, because of the importance given to motherhood by our culture historically.

There has long been a strong connection between the ability to give birth and the sense of “true womanhood” in our culture, which is known in the sociological literature as pronatalism. [1] According to a 2020 review of literature on motherhood, the representation of women in politics as well as in popular media reinforces the idea that women are naturally more caring, nurturing, and responsible – in short, much about our society encourages the notion that women are “born to mother.” The same has been said about social media portrayals of mothers [2]: there is a widespread sense online that mothering should be the most natural thing in the world.

Of course, not every woman is meant to be a mom, and not all moms are naturally caring and nurturing, but the cultural weight placed on the figure of the mother gives her considerably more emotional power within the family. The mother butterfly, so to speak, is the biggest butterfly in the system. 

Mother, Child, and Learned Coping Strategies 

The undue weight given to moms in the family system has two effects that can negatively impact the child-mother relationship. 

First, it places more strain on those individuals who fall into the “mom” role within the family. The need to be a perfect mother, to be wholly caring and nurturing (not to mention doing so effortlessly and without complaining), and to always think of your children first – in short, the social pressure to be a supermom [3] – can be extremely challenging. Naturally, this can cause stress and trauma, which can provoke overburdened mothers to act in ways that are hurtful to their children. 

Second, the societal weight given to the mother within the family can make it much more difficult for children to rationalize behavior by a mother which might be negative, dismissive, or hurtful. As members of a family system, children will be acutely aware of the extra power their mothers hold within that system. It is natural for young people to assign the words and actions of their mothers more significance than the actions of any other family member. That moms are such a powerful, culturally visible center of the family system makes it challenging and painful for children and young people to separate themselves from the actions and words of their mothers. 

Research has shown that children whose mothers are able to provide maternal warmth and consistent emotional support in the first twelve years of life display higher life satisfaction and better emotional regulation. [4] However, many mothers are  incapable of these acts, either because they are not naturally maternal or because they are too busy or stressed by their perceived need to be the supermom of the family. In these instances, children will create coping strategies to mitigate the dual emotional effect of having an absent, dismissive, or destructive mother and being unable to rationalize the harmful effects of that presence. 

These coping mechanisms may even come from observing a mother’s behavior. Take this example: a young boy has been consistently told by his mother that he must not lie. Lying is against the rules. However, one day when the family is planning to go on holiday, the boy overhears his mother on the phone saying his father is ill. The boy can see that his father isn’t ill: there he is, packing a suitcase into the trunk of the car! This lie on the part of his mom shouldn’t matter but, given the importance of her role in the family system, it matters very much. When he witnesses his mother lie, the boy learns to lie himself. Should he need to develop any coping strategies to support him in the coming years, this is one he will lean on.

Not all mother-child relationships are traumatic. Some are meaningful and happy and filled with love, support, and care. Even the more strained relationships often have at their base a grain of true love and respect. Nevertheless, this Mother’s Day it is worth taking a closer look at the ways in which all the members of our family have affected, and continue to affect, our relationship to the world.

Sources

[1] Wells, H., & Heinsch, M. (2020). Not yet a woman: The influence of socio-political constructions of motherhood on experiences of female infertility. The British Journal of Social Work, 50(3), 890-907. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcz077

[2] Hernández, L. H. (2019). Discursive constructions of motherhood: A feminist analysis of social media discourses about motherhood, religion, and 19 kids & counting. Journal of Media and Religion, 18(4), 134-147. https://doi.org/10.1080/15348423.2019.1696117

[3] Leupp, K. (2019). Even supermoms get the blues: Employment, gender attitudes, and depression. Society and Mental Health, 9(3), 316-333. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156869318785406

[4] Richter, N., Bondü, R., & Trommsdorff, G. (2022). Linking transition to motherhood to parenting, children’s emotion regulation, and life satisfaction: A longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 36(2), 291–300. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/10.1037/fam0000868

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