The Nurturing Mother
"Because young animals depend on their mothers during a substantial part of their early development the mother-offspring group is the universal nuclear unit of mammalian societies." - Edward Wilson, Sociobiology
The nurturing mother is not a myth or a fantasy. She was, for hundreds of thousands of years if not longer, the mother of all humans and the foundation on which our success as a species rested. This does not mean that she was worshipped as a Goddess, nor that she was part of a race of Amazons who dominated men. Neither did she, as an individual, correspond to the romantic images portrayed in civilization by Madonna-like paintings and sculptures. She simply cared for her offspring as any mammal does. Both those who glorify her and those who do not recognize her importance in human evolution and individual development are unable to grasp what we have lost and what we lose every day in our society by her absence.
Throughout the bulk of time that we have existed as a species, all infants who lived had a nurturing mother (or her equivalent). Breastfeeding was a successful adaptive mechanism not only because it provided the newborn with sustenance, but because it continued the attachment of mother and infant after birth. The prolonged mother-child bond was the root of human sociability, and the nurturing response of the mother to her child became a model for human interaction. It prepared both female and male children to live in a world where attachment to, caring about, and collaborating with other humans was natural to life. Our prehistoric ancestors were born into and lived as part of a protective and caring group, unified around the recognition and support of their connection to, and dependence on, each other. We could not have survived as the species we are without attachment to each other. Our adaptive strength has always been in our ability for combined and unified functioning, not in our separate and individual powers. Our brain, with its capacity for language, empathy, and imagination evolved as it did to increase our ability to function together. Mothering was the foundation - the bricks of human solidarity; the human mind provided the cement.
The history of child care in Western civilization has been characterized by a pervasive assault on natural mothering and the mother's nurturing role. Breastfeeding is the only human biological function that we have attempted to replace and eliminate. But it is not breastfeeding in itself that has been disturbing in civilization. It depends on who is doing the breastfeeding.
Wet nursing, as a replacement for nursing by the natural mother, was a popular and conventional practice for thousands of years. It was not a practice that was developed to improve on nature's way of providing the newborn with sustenance, but a way of eliminating the necessity for mothers to care for their babies. It was, in many parts of the world, a major way that infants were fed from ancient times through the beginning of the twentieth century.
The substitution of a wet-nurse for the natural mother has been explained as an expression of class distinction. Breastfeeding was perceived as unseemly, animal-like, and beneath women of the upper classes. But the practice of using a wet-nurse also spread to the poorer classes. Many wet-nurses earned a good enough living to be able to hire a less expensive wet-nurse to breastfeed their own babies.
The negative perception of breastfeeding reveals, of course, the strong negative feelings toward natural mothering in civilized societies. But if we look below the surface, more was at stake than the social status of an individual female. What was really troublesome was the fact that breastfeeding fostered the physical and emotional attachment of infant and mother. Civilization was built on stratification of the group, on inequality between individuals, on the greater importance and value of specific individuals, and on the belief that women are inferior to men. This position is tenable and can only be perpetuated if the influence of mothers on their children is negated. Biological mothering establishes that every individual is important, precious, and special. We become equal in each other's eyes from being nurtured in the human way.
The need to eliminate mother-infant attachment and mother influence is clearly revealed in Plato's ideal society which he describes in "The Republic." He states, in discussing his conception of ideal infant care:
The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be... that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure.
They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognize her own child; and other wet-nurses may be engaged if more are required. Care will also be taken that the process of sucking shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand over all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.
Plato is not against mothers nursing as long as they don't get to know their own babies and their babies don't get to know them. In the male-dominated, slave society of ancient Greece there is no place for mother love. The last thing they would want are children who, in their development, would be shaped by women, who might love their mothers more than their fathers, or who might consider another human to be more important than the state.
We can see that in ancient Greece the devaluing of natural mothering was well established. The mother's role in individual development and her biological and genetic capacity to nurture new life had lost its value. It was the wet-nurse, whether a slave or paid servant, who kept babies alive.
Wet-nursing was a recognized profession throughout civilization. In ancient Rome wet-nurses would gather in the Colonna Lactaria to sell their services. "The wet-nurse is a familiar figure in the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, the Egyptian papyri and Greek and Roman literature." It was a common practice in England, and throughout eastern Europe, for infants to be sent away from home immediately after birth to live with a wet-nurse for three to five years. The practice of farming out infants, in spite of the high infant death rate associated with the practice, continued until the eighteenth century in England and America, until the nineteenth century in France, and into the twentieth century in Germany. The police chief of Paris, France estimated in 1780 that of the 21,000 children born each year in his city, 17,000 were sent into the country to be wet-nursed, 2,000 or 3,000 were placed in nursery homes, 700 were wet-nursed at home and only 700 were nursed by their mothers.
The wet-nurse made the biological nurturing mother unnecessary. Infants could live without their natural mothers. The nurturing mother had lost her value in individual development and as a symbol of human relationship. The separation of infant and mother became a regular practice in a world where everyone was viewed as separate. The natural nurturing and protective response of mothers were perceived as indulgent and as spoiling and weakening children. Empathy and compassion were detriments in the struggle to survive. Indifference to the cry or pain of another was an asset in a world where the individual was expendable and replaceable.
As the foundation of societies became power, ownership, and the exploitation of individuals, and as women and children became property, children would be broken, as animals were, to become domesticated, obedient, and submissive to authority. No longer would the nurturing mother be seen as a model of life, of relationship, or of the moral and the good, but as a handicap to individual development and success. She would lose her purpose, her meaning and her importance in a world which was not built on tenderness and caring but on its absence.
The mothering role became different than it had been when we lived in the natural world. In the man-made world, the female would become, in her submission to male domination, a servant of her master's values and priorities. Even when she was not replaced by a wet-nurse, servant, nanny, or slave, her role was no longer to nurture her children but to domesticate them. She became a housemaid with chores, one of which was to teach her children to obey and submit to their father. Children were to be seen and not heard. Mothers, rather than accommodating to their children's needs, would teach their children to accommodate to adults and to society, even if that meant hurting them, physically and emotionally. Mothers became ignorant about, and alienated from, the nurturing process natural to their gender. Over time, in many parts of the world, the nurturing mother ceased to exist.
Rather than being a traditional and historical model for human relationships, the nurturing mother became historically extinct, at least in Western civilization. Unlike other cultures, our history does not recognize the contribution of the nurturing mother to our humanity and progress as a species. Our Gods are male, not female, despite the fact that it is the female who contributes the most to creating and caring for life. Her importance in our evolution is completely overlooked. In the Judao-Christian story of creation, Adam and Eve, the first humans, do not even have a mother.
We understand "mankind" in terms of male, not female behavior. In a world which has worked so hard to eliminate the necessity for a nurturing mother, why would we want to know about her contributions or acknowledge that she ever existed? We view human progress in terms of man's ability to hunt and to make weapons, as if we did not have tools and containers before we made weapons, as if every invention and discovery were made by males, as if women were always seen as less than men and subservient to them, as if caring for children has no value, as if our power to kill had more importance than our power to nurture life. Even in our contemporary psychological theories of child development, and the philosophy underlying our child rearing practices, the contribution of mothering is made minimally important and receives little value. She is supposed to provide, for a brief time, the physical care her infant needs as well as provide him with love, so he can develop trust. But this trust is seen as merely preparation for the real making of a person. In our culture, too much mothering and love, that which creates trust, cannot be trusted; it is thought to spoil children, keep them dependent too long, delay the development of autonomy, and become harmful to their social development. We do not believe that human social behavior develops from being nurtured, but rather from the imposition on children of adult authority and power. We must give up our symbiotic attachment to our mothers to become socialized. The selfish, self-centered, illogical, impulse-ridden child must be taught how to live with others. Children must learn proper behavior, not to demand, to wait for satisfaction, to tolerate frustration, and to obey.
In the history of Western civilization, it is not the nurturing mother who makes us a social being, but the demanding father. We speak of the child as "father to the man", never as the child being "mother to the man", or for that matter "mother to the woman". It is the father, as the symbol of the "real" world away from home, who has traditionally directed children's development, not the mother. Today we still accept this traditional male belief, even though there is no father in the home or both mother and father work away from home, that children become properly social from the imposition on them of authority, not by identifying with a nurturing mother. We utilize power, punishment, and discipline (whether it is administered by father or mother or both) to get children to behave in the ways we want.
Human inventiveness has made it possible for the newborn to survive without a nurturing mother. In an age where anyone can feed a baby with formula in a bottle, the natural mother is no longer necessary. In fact, our values and priorities are directed toward eliminating or minimizing the child's need for a nurturing mother and the mother's need to be one. This is not, as I have indicated, a recent innovation. What needs to be stressed is that our intervention in natural mothering was not designed to improve the life of infants, but rather to eliminate, shorten, and alter the infant-mother bond. Wet-nurses, bottle feeding, nannies, and day-care centers came into being so that the biological mother would not have to take care of her child. Forced weaning, early toilet training, and the imposition at a young age of self-care in dressing, feeding, washing, etc. are all representative of efforts to shorten the time that children are dependent on their mothers. The discouragement of carrying infants, sleeping with them, and immediately responding to their crying have changed the mother's protective and nurturing role into one where she conditions her infant to accept life in aloneness. The conversion of the nurturing mother into a conditioner of behavior has altered her role in child development. For thousands of years it has not only been fathers, but mothers also, who have been ignoring babies' crying and imposing harsh and cruel discipline and punishment on them.
Most of us no longer know about the nurturing mother. Few of us had one, and rarely do we meet anyone who is one. Her role in human history does not appear in the history books we read in school. Yet, we evolved to develop in relation to a nurturing mother, and every baby biologically "expects" to have one. Our need for her, if unmet, does not go away as we mature. She remains as a "longing" which we can no longer identify, because we have repressed our need for nurturing.
We may try, as many do today, to satisfy the emptiness inside us by attaching to possessions and wealth and by compulsive, self-relating addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, our bodies, unloving sex, and our separate egos. But these dependencies always fail because they reinforce our feeling of separateness in the world. Our longing and our emptiness can only be satisfied in loving human attachment, which is what we lost when the nurturing mother ceased to fit the world we made.