A Fully Realised Life, You Say?


So What's the Big Deal?

I take my children everywhere, but they always find their way back home.

- Robert Orben

The Messy Business of Trying to Knock Motherhood into Shape

Working mother Sara arrives at the crèche where her two children have spent the day while she has been toiling away virtuously at the office.  Elliot, her son who has been an inmate of the crèche since he was 8 weeks old, is playing happily with his sister and looks up blankly at the woman with china blue eyes talking to him over the fence.

"Do I look a little bit familiar?" the woman asks cajolingly.  The children carry on with their drawings and seem totally impervious to the presence of the strange woman sacrificing a nanosecond of her precious work time to play mummy.

Meet Sara, one of the fulltime working mothers interviewed on last week's Assignment programme who seemed to have knocked the messy business of motherhood into shape.  Her office was a childfree zone where she could concentrate fully on the task at hand and not be interrupted by the annoying needs of short people.  Not for her a desk cluttered with proud photographs of her progeny.  One simply couldn't countenance doing business over a sea of snapshots of the loin fruit taking that first step or painting the first masterpiece.  "I mean, where do you stop?"

And as for hanging round home on the off chance that one might actually see a milestone happen, forget it.  "I mean, (yawn) what's the big deal?"

At home, Sara demonstrated that she was fully in command of her domain and showed how tough mummy could be if mummy's orders were not obeyed when her daughter splashed mummy at bath time.  After all, the ankle-biter was warned - twice - before being hauled off for some time out.  When the reporter asked Sara about the discipline of time out, Sara laughed self-consciously as if apologising for being so ridiculously liberal, so modern.  I mean in her parents' day, the daughter would have just got a jolly good whack, she acknowledged.  Sara was more enlightened than that but still made damn sure that everybody marched to the beat of her drum and was absolutely adamant she was doing the right thing.

But for many of the mothers on the Assignment programme, their ambivalent feelings could be summed up in the words to the Marianne Faithfull song: "1 feel guilt, I feel bad.  Though I ain't done nothing wrong, I feel bad".

Other working mothers interviewed saw little of their babies but felt they kept "in touch" by expressing breast milk into a bottle and sending it home, by express.  Somehow mothers at the office had ended up as glorified wet nurses to their children while they entrusted the care of their offspring to nannies who occupied the intimate territory of their family home.

The statistics Assignment threw into the pot were riveting.  Of 557,000 working parents, 227,000 are women and it is predicted they will dominate the workforce in the near future.  Women work an average of 2 hours longer a day on unpaid work and want to work fulltime on top of that for fear of being consigned to that demeaning job label of "just mothers" or falling behind in the career stakes.

We watched admiringly as a lactating female lawyer rushed out of court to make one of many cellphone calls each working day to establish where and when she could find the appropriate time to shove a bosom into her child's face.  But all the rush and effort was worth it.

Working mothers talked of operating in a continual state of survival mode but would not give up work because they were driven by the need to have a fully realised life.  Observing their tightly choreographed, tense days, one felt that it was all rather bleak and joyless and there seemed to be an expectation that we were supposed to applaud all of this.

Welcome to the new virtuous.  Those now vast numbers of people who try to work as hard as they can, climb the career ladder and parent on a wafer thin quality-time budget so they can have it all.  Whatever "it" is.

This programme, followed by Reel Life - Surrogate Babies, where a lot of dim-Iooking women rented their wombs out to barmy old couples who should never have bred in the first place, confirmed all my worst suspicions about the human race.  We have lost the plot.

Source: The Dominion Tuesday 18 April 2000

See also:

bulletMother At 53 - Sort Of - she paid a surrogate, a much younger woman, to carry and bear babies conceived in a dish from her eggs and the sperm of her new husband...

Quiet Time

Times are bad.  Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.

- Cicero

Source: Funny Times July 2001

What Motherhood Does To and For You:
The Good, the Bad, the Surprising

by Stephanie Wilkinson and Jennifer Niesslein

What does motherhood do to finances, body, mind, and relationships?  Is motherhood good?  Bad?  Or like life in general, unpredictable measures of both?


Unlike the mortgage, actual costs of raising a child are difficult to calculate.  For one thing, money spent on children varies greatly from mother to mother.  What's more, caregiving is rife with the stuff that ads remind us are "priceless" (for example, an hour of sleep, a child's first knock-knock joke), so pinning down the economics of motherhood - accounts payable and receivable - is tricky.  Undeniably, it takes cash.  For any given mother, you might sum up her financial health in the words of Pink Floyd: "Money, Get Away."

An average, uncomplicated pregnancy, including prenatal care, a vaginal physician-attended birth, and hospital care for the mother and newborn, can cost $4000 or more.  Higher-risk pregnancies and c-sections are pricier, midwife-attended home births less.  Fertility treatments can cost less than $100/month for ovary-stimulating pills to a few thousand dollars for in vitro fertilisation (provided the woman is young and the sperm frisky) to nearly $50,000 for an egg donor and gestational surrogate.

Alternatively, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, a resource run by the federal Administration for Children and Families, adoptive parents' costs run the gamut from nil to tens of thousands of dollars.  Adopting a special-needs child from a public agency can cost nothing.  Private and independent domestic adoptions range, on average, from $4,000 - $30,000.  Overseas adoptions are $7,000 - $25,000 (not including travel and lodging).

The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture, puts out a report to help states set child support rates and foster parent payments.  "Expenditures on Children by Families" breaks down how much families spend on their kids (2002 is the most recent year for which data was available).  Costs vary depending on age of child, number of children, number of supporting parents, household income, location.  The report uses a family with two children (the average family size) as a standard.  Families with one child tend to spend 24% more on their single child; families with three or more children spend 23% less on each child.  Not surprisingly, single parents (who have, on average, a lower household income even including child support payments than two-parent families in the same income bracket) spend a greater proportion of their income on their kids.  Likewise, poorer parents spend a greater proportion of their income than more affluent parents.  What is surprising is the difference in the dollar figures.  Two-parent families making less than $39,700 will spend $127,080 on each child by the time he reaches 18 (in 2002 dollars).  Families making between $39,700 and $66,900 will spend $173,880.  Families making over $66,900 will spend $254,400.  The affluent spend $100,000+ more on their children than poor parents do.  The average affluent spends 13% of their income ($13,750) per year on their toddler.  The average poor couple spends $6,620 - but this represents a quarter of their annual income.

The biggest expense for most parents is housing, using an estimated 33 - 37% of money spent on children.  However, the CNPP points out this may be an underestimation since mortgage principal payments aren't included (but are filed under "savings").  The middle class is especially affected, according to The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke, by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi (Basic Books, 2003).  Household income is often stretched to mortgage more expensive homes that get children into good school districts.  Mothers therefore are 35% more likely to lose their homes than folks without children.

For the 2002 - 2003 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public university was $4,000; private universities were $18,000 (not including room, board, books and supplies).  According to the College Board, tuition and fees have risen 38% in the past 10 years, even after adjusting for inflation.

While children, especially in lower-income families, often contribute unpaid labour by babysitting younger siblings and performing household tasks, the culture does not condone it.  Children should be recipients - of money, care, education. Parents' investment in children benefits society at large as they grow up to be the next generation of workers whose wages underwrite the Social Security cheques the current generation will collect in old age.  But while society as a whole reaps the benefits of children being ushered into a productive adulthood, their mothers pay the highest price in the form of financial risks as mothers are unpaid.

Sharon Hays, sociologist and professor at the University of Virginia, wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (Yale University Press, 1996) and Flat Broke with Children: Women in the Age of Welfare Reform (Oxford University Press, 2003).  She advocates "public conversation" surrounding family issues.  In some first-world countries, caregiving is not the do-it-yourself situation it is in the US.  Hays says, "individual mothers in their individual homes are holding up half of the world...  In Norway, support for the family is at the center of state policy."  Hays would like to see the issues important to families in the US, especially those with dual earners and single parents, reflected in state and corporate policies.  "We have to understand [care and obligation] as equally important as making money."  But in the US, the measures that would help families, especially mothers, are not even on the table (these include universal daycare, Social Security credits for unpaid caregivers, divorce laws that divide assets among all family members, proportional pay and benefits for part-time workers, et cetera).  For now, the financial risks of motherhood remain.

There is one calculable financial benefit to raising children, though.  Senior citizens with children are less likely to wind up in a nursing home on Medicaid.


The physical changes childbirth brings mostly fall into two categories: childbearing and child-rearing.  Pregnancy hormones cause many changes, from a heightened sense of smell to a thicker head of hair.  Hormones also cause connective muscles to relax, allowing bones in the pelvis (for instance) to move apart.  The lasting result may be a different shape post-pregnancy - wider hips, bigger feet.  There exists a possibility of stretch marks, less taut breasts, weaker bladder.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, the chance of death from pregnancy-related causes is small - of 4 million women who give birth each year, only 700 - 1,100 will die of pregnancy-related causes.  But 31% in the US do suffer some form of "maternal morbidity," - what the CDC describes as "a condition that has an adverse impact on a woman's physical health during childbirth, beyond what would be expected in a normal delivery."  That rate climbs to 43% if major surgery involved in a cesarean section is counted.  The most common problems are 3rd- and 4th-degree lacerations, cervical lacerations and pelvic trauma, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, gestational diabetes, genito-urinary infection, postpartum hemorrhage, and amnionitis (inflammation of amniotic sac).  The most common pre-existing condition aggravated by pregnancy is high blood pressure.

According to researchers at the University of Bristol in England, with each child after the first two, a woman's risk of heart disease increases by 30%.  Obesity and diabetes were more common in larger families.  The chief scientist in the study, Debbie Lawlor, noted a correlation between larger families and both poverty and "a less favourable lifestyle."  She states, "...different results for fathers and mothers suggest... multiple pregnancies... have a specific adverse metabolic effect on women."  These suspected effects may lead to heart and blood sugar problems.  But evidence suggests that having children reduces the risk for such diseases as ovarian cancer.  According to Andrew Berchuck, cancer specialist and professor of gynæcologic oncology at Duke University Medical Centre, a woman who has three children has ½ the risk of ovarian cancer as one never pregnant.  However, women who have used birth control pills for at least 5 years have the same reduction in risk as the hormone progestin, found both in the placenta and in the Pill, appears to be what protects the ovaries against cancer.

Other studies conclude women who breastfeed have a lower incidence of breast cancer than women who don't.  The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study in 1997 showing that pre-menopausal women who had breastfed for at least 20 months had a 50% lower risk of breast cancer compared to women who had had at least one baby but did not breastfeed as long.  Another study in the same journal in 1999 found the beneficial effects of breastfeeding may last throughout a woman's life.  Women who breastfed for as little as two weeks had a reduced risk of breast cancer up to 50 years later.  Higher levels of œstrogen and progesterone (which fluctuate with menstrual cycles) are linked to increased breast cancer risk.  After a baby's birth, breastfeeding delays the resumption of the mother's ovulation which reduces her overall exposure to these hormones.

Taking care of children (and grandchildren) seems to contribute to heart disease according to a study of more than 50,000 women published in the November 2003 American Journal of Public Health.  Mothers caring for their children more than 20 hours/week, and grandmothers caring for grandchildren for as little as 9 hours/week, were 1½ times more likely to have heart disease than women who don't care for children at all.  Minor ailments can add up to a life lived at a lower level of happiness and satisfaction.  Some mothers cannot or do not take care of themselves, do not eat well, do not sleep enough, do not get out enough, and spiral down, sometimes slowly, sometimes alarmingly fast, into a state of low energy, depression, marital dissatisfaction, guilt, disappointment, and unhappiness with themselves and with their lives.  These factors all add up to a condition the authors of a recent book have dubbed Maternal Depletion Syndrome (MDS), a serious bio-psycho-social condition they say affects the well-being of many women who bear and/or raise children.

The book that outlines MDS, Mother Nurture: A Modern Mom's Guide to a Healthy Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002), was written by psychologist Rick Hanson, nutritionist Jan Hanson, and OB/GYN Ricki Pollycove, former chief of gynæcology at the California Pacific Medical Centre.  They hope to bring MDS to greater public awareness and list "common presenting problems of women" - ailments that bring women in their childbearing and child-rearing years into doctors' offices - ranging from depression and low libido to auto-immune conditions, excess weight, fatigue, and gallbladder or kidney problems.  The single common factor that increases the risk of each of these conditions is motherhood.  Maternal depletion is the top unacknowledged health care problem in the US, Hanson says.  When women "run on empty," children are neglected, marriages get into trouble, jobs suffer - "all of which, one way or the other, costs our economy billions."  But research that correlates motherhood with particular health complaints is spotty.  "There are virtually no longitudinal studies that match mothers with non-mothers over, say, a 3 - 5 year period to assess their risk for certain conditions," Hanson says.  He and his co-authors spent months doing a thorough review of the medical literature and found little knowledge of how being a mother affects women on a day-to-day level.

MDS happens, they say, when three factors collide: the high physical and mental demands of bearing and raising children; the low resources many mothers have on hand when they have kids (ranging from poor-quality food to insufficient help from a partner); and "personal vulnerabilities," such as having children at an older age, a prior health problem, a temperament unsuited to the chaos of living with young children, or postpartum depression. They feel 1/3 of all mothers sail through birth and caregiving years relatively easily through having a loving, helpful partner, good overall health, youth, enough money, and "plain old good luck."  But 1/3 are likely to find it challenging, suffering some depletion, fatigue, depression, or difficulty with relationships; however, they will be able to rise out of it by the time the youngest child reaches kindergarten.  The remaining 1/3 are at risk for significant depletion.  "They have a difficult time, especially in the early years, with more serious health problems and deeper depletion that has longer lasting consequences," Hanson says.  "Their depletion may last into children's teenage years, colliding with the challenges of the transition to menopause."

These mothers often suffer for years without pinpointing a problem.  "It typically takes 1 - 2 years for a woman with underlying risk factors to drain her deepest resources," Hanson says.  "She'll have a lot of subclinical problems: run down, weird periods, no patience, insomnia, loss of libido.  She will see her doctor for the typical 6-minute appointment, and may get one of those thing looked at.  But if one more stressor is added to her life - spouse job loss, difficult child, even less sleep than normal - she starts circling the drain of depression and depletion."

Many women can restore their resources (sleep, time apart from their baby, healthier eating habits) at about the time the child starts coming out of the toddler years.  But if not fully "restocked" before the next baby comes along, cumulative stress could drain her more quickly and deeply.  Simple medical tests can pinpoint a thyroid problem (often a culprit in fatigue), or the need for a nutritional overhaul.  Relaxation techniques can deal with day-to-day stress and communication strategies to help the mother talk more effectively with spouse or partner.  But first, she must acknowledge that her health matters.  "Motherhood is not a clinical condition," Hanson says.  "On the other hand, it's a serious undertaking that doesn't stop when mom and baby go home from the hospital."


The research on motherhood and mental health is, if possible, even more primitive than that on motherhood and physical health.  As an example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of the mental health profession, doesn't list postpartum depression as a separate category of illness but lists it under general depression.  Current psych textbooks acknowledge a subcategory of depression "with postpartum onset," dividing the sufferers into one of three groups depending on severity of symptoms.

According to Dr Kimberly A Yonkers, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, 70 - 80% of all women experience "baby blues" after giving birth.  Baby blues usually start within a day or two of giving birth.  Whether caused by sudden drops in hormone levels, shock of sleep deprivation, jolt to the status quo in relationships, or other factors, the duration is usually brief: a few weeks.  But 10 - 15% suffer from postpartum depression - baby blues cranked up a notch or two and stuck in a tape loop.  Most PPD resolves itself within a few months, but 1 - 2% of all mothers may require treatment with drugs, therapy, and/or hospitalisation.

At the extreme end of the scale, affecting 1 - 2 women for every 1000 deliveries, is postpartum psychosis.  As with any psychosis, PPP sufferers hear and see things that are not there.  They are delusional, not sleeping, and may be agitated and angry.  They cannot function normally, and are at risk of hurting themselves or their children.  This is Andrea Yates territory, a medical emergency requiring immediate intervention by family and medical professionals.  It has been difficult for researchers to find the connection between having babies and becoming depressed.  It is assumed fluctuating hormones are to blame.  Diana L Dell is an OB/GYN at Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, a reproductive psychiatrist, and co-author of Do I Want to Be a Mom? A Woman's Guide to the Decision of a Lifetime (McGraw-Hill, 2003).  She has dealt with scores of women with postpartum depression.  "The rates of depression for women are twice as high as for men - but only in the reproductive years," she says.  "Women are vulnerable to depression during adolescence (as is everyone) and during peri-menopause.  But postpartum is the most biologically vulnerable period presumably because of all the changes in hormones going on."

On the other hand, in a 1998 review of past studies on perinatal mood disorders, psychiatrist Teri Pearlstein and her colleagues found that "the association between postpartum depression and hormonal and biologic factors have yielded few consistent findings.  No association has been found between postpartum depression and postpartum œstrogen or progesterone levels or the hormones' rate of fall."  So perhaps hormones are combined with other factors, like isolation from friends, disruption of normal routines or loss of a career's social and financial perks.

A 1995 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology compared the rate of major depression in women who have recently given birth to the rate of depression in women of the same age who have not.  In both groups, the rates of depression were the same, hovering around 10 - 15%.  One in 10 women suffer from major depression, whether or not she's had children.

Is postpartum depression unique?  Dell believes it is.  "It's more of a mixture of anxiety and depression rather than just depression."

But having and raising children can also change the brain in good ways.  For the past 5 years, Craig Kinsley, neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, has published results of his studies on rats that show mother rats as calmer, braver, and less stressed than rats without pups.  Mother rats are smarter (measured by how well they locate food in a maze).  Kinsley and his colleague Kelly Lambert of Randolph-Macon College created parallel stress tests for mother and non-mother rats using bright lights and open spaces.  They ran them through mazes, restrained them, and finally, examined their brains.  The brains of mother rats showed permanent changes in such areas as the amygdala, which regulates fear.  Other recent studies show that oxytocin, a hormone present in high quantities in nursing mothers, increases spatial intelligence in rats.  Virgin rats given oxytocin ran mazes more easily than rats without it; nursing mother rats whose oxytocin was inhibited were worse.

Granted, these are rats.  But the leap to human mothers is not large, Kinsley says.  "We share most of our genes with rats.  The way the rat and the human brain are put together differs only in size and complexity.  The same basic areas are there.  It's like a globe of the earth compared to the earth itself.  The basic plan is the same."  The hormonal profiles are similar, as are behavioural changes that accompany hormonal fluctuation.  Says Kinsley, "Studies show that hormones affect the structure of neurons in the brain."

Catherine Woolley at Northwestern University has done studies showing that neurons in the hippocampus are sensitive to hormones like œstrogen and progesterone; hormones encourage neurons to make new points of attachment, allowing the brain to grow new connections.  These create cognitive changes that facilitate care for offspring, as in an increased ability to find food and locate nest sites, maximising the likelihood of a mother's genetic survival.

Looked at from an evolutionary standpoint, as Kinsley does, these changes make sense.  It pays to be brave, to be fiercely protective, and to be good at finding food under adverse circumstances.  Extrapolating once again to human mothers, Kinsley is careful to say that, for human mothers, "smarter" may not translate into a new facility with quadratic equations or a sudden ability to remember people's names.  It may relate more closely to abilities that enable mothers to rear offspring to adulthood successfully.

Will you be happier for having had children?  No evidence exists that children buffer against the emotional depredations of old age.  A study published in November 2002 in the Journal of Marriage and the Family conducted by Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, sociologist at the University of Florida, surveyed 3,800 men and women between the ages of 50 and 84 and concluded that there is "no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults."  But every woman's experience is different.  A random national survey showed 91% of parents said they would have children again if it were possible to live their lives over.


One study published in a 2002 issue of the academic Journal Family Process found that relationships with mothers affect relationships with children.  The sample was small - 49 families - but psychologists Molly D Kretchmar and Deborah B Jacobvitz found that mothers with happy memories of childhood and good relationships with their own mothers generally were "sensitive" to their own babies' needs.  In other words, parenting skills are transmitted from generation to generation.  Transition to motherhood may encourage women to renew the closeness they had with their own mothers - or to finally distance themselves if the relationship was poor.

Friendships could meet a similar fate.  "In the early years, motherhood can really decimate most relationships," says Julie Shields, author of How to Avoid The Mommy Trap: A Roadmap to Sharing Parenting and Making It Work (Capital Books, 2002).  "If you're lucky, you have friends going through the same thing at the same time or friends who have been through it and know what it's like."  As children get older, she adds, it is different: motherhood may actually facilitate deeper bonds with friends.  A community of friends is important for those raising children, some research suggests.  Isolation is generally unhealthy.  Friends provide emotional support when, say, a toddler goes on a 2-hour screaming jag because she was not allowed to pull the potted plants out by their roots; they can also provide practical support by distracting unhappy small children.

Historically and cross-culturally, sociologist Sharon Hays explains, the norm was not for mothers to raise children in individual family units.  "Actually, the work of childrearing was shared among a much larger group of women and female children," she says.  Daycare is not analogous as it is paid for, not shared work.  As she explained in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, the cultural ideal now is for every mother to do her job alone and intensively.  "One of the things that concerns me is that the rules of childrearing have become more intensive, more impossible to manage," Hays says.  She laughs.  "Then you add to the whole thing that you're supposed to be going to work!"

As Julie Shields sees it, the whole work/parenthood thing can be an enormous stressor on marriage, one of the relationships most affected by motherhood.  Moving from couplehood to family, she says, adds a degree of power to the relationship that was missing.  Who will do more paid work?  Who will do more unpaid work?  "[Having a child] can be a big source of unexpected unhappiness in the first two years; the couple must deal with that," Shields says.  Unless both partners are content with the traditional arrangement - mother does the domestic and childrearing work, father brings home the bacon - there will likely be conflict.  Couples that want to split all duties 50-50 may find it "hard to find workplaces to accommodate that."

The couples that Shields calls "transitional" lie somewhere between traditional and egalitarian, and it may be difficult to sort out who does what and who is entitled to what.  "[New parents] probably didn't expect this would become an issue," she says.  "Even if they aren't arguing about the global issues in the way their lives are set up, they argue about the details.  And lack of sleep makes everything that much worse.  Arguments escalate and everything seems very immediate."  Worse is that women, once they become mothers, are at their weakest in terms of bargaining power in a relationship, she finds.  In other words, if a partner never unloads the dishwasher, leaves the newspaper strewn all over the kitchen table, and acts like he cannot hear wailing from the bassinet, what can be done at that point?  Divorce?  "In an ideal world, people would talk about [the division of labour] when they're dating," she says.  "It's important if you want to share parenting."  Couples can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement years after the baby is born, she adds.  But it will take a lot of talk and work and compromise, and more often than not, flexibility in each partner's workplace.

John Gottman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington and director of the Relationship Research Institution, which studies the effect of parenthood on marriage, claims that his research shows that 67% of couples experience "a significant drop in marital contentment after their first child is born."  New parent couples also have 8 times the number of arguments as non-parents.  "This is partly because parents are tired and don't have a lot of time for themselves," he says.

A study published in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family also offered a peek inside the way other people's marriages are.  It showed that, overall, the married-with-kids set report 10% less marital satisfaction than childless couples.  The researchers, who analysed data from 148 other studies from as far back as the 1950s, also found that richer couples are more negatively affected by children.  Affluent couples experience a 22% drop in marital satisfaction, middle-class couples 7%.  Couples who became parents in the last decade experienced a bigger drop in marital satisfaction with parenthood - twice that of couples in the '60s and '70s.

Mothers of infants reported the lowest rate of marital satisfaction than anyone in the study.  Only 38% reported high marital satisfaction; 62% of childless women reported the same.  The researchers propose that this is because women usually have the primary responsibility for the kids.  The more children a mother has, they found, the less likely it is that she'll rate her marriage satisfying.  Number of children made no difference for men.  When the study was released last summer, Jean Twenge, one of its authors, emphasised that the message was not Avoid Having Kids - rather, she said, that couples should know that life with children is a big change.  She pointed out that the study did not measure overall satisfaction - the parent-child relationship can be a big source of happiness, too.

When it's good, there's nothing like the mother-child relationship.  A parent can become someone's beloved deity.  Sociologist Sharon Hays says, "The way mothers will often express it is 'I get so much love from this experience'."  She points out that for poor women, whose marital prospects are not as bright as more affluent women's, the mother-child relationship becomes an even more important source of love in their lives.  "This kind of relationship, this is one that you can't tear apart," she says.  "That becomes really crucial."

Other studies have come to similar conclusions.  One released in 1999 showed that divorced mothers often depend on their daughters for support - and that is a mutually beneficial thing.  Psychology Today reported that these mother-child relationships were based "in friendship, not hierarchy" and can actually open up the children so that they talk to their mothers more.

"It is mothering that teaches you about care and obligation," Hays says.  "[These lessons] are not just important on an individual level, they're important to make a society, to build community.  In a competitive society like this one, without that, we'd be in serious trouble."  Just as caregiving is needed to keep the country's economy chugging along, it fills a cultural need as well.  Hays says, "A fact of the 'me' society - a competitive, narcissistic, dog-eat-dog world - is that life would be, as Hobbes put it, 'nasty, brutish, and short,' if there weren't some kind of counter-balance.  Mothering becomes all the more crucial.  I say this not out of sentimentality towards motherhood.  Part of what I argue is that the reason people are still holding on tight to mothering is because it's one of the last bastions of community where we find care and obligation to others," she says.  "The number of places in one's life where one can find care and obligation has shrunk historically and cross-culturally.  It makes it all the more important that you hang onto mothering.  Ultimately this is a problem because mothering needs to be something that's not gendered."  It's no accident, she says, that the backlash against feminism has happened as our country has become more and more driven by individual achievement.  If every American mother focused solely on her career and outsourced all the mothering stuff, the loss to our culture would be devastating.

Hays talks about how motherhood actually saved some of the women she has interviewed; it transformed them from women who might have engaged in prostitution or petty thievery into moral leaders for their children.  Motherhood, in many ways, grounds women.  Graphs, statistics and studies aside, there is a spiritual dimension to motherhood.  Being a parent provides one of life's best opportunities for expanding the soul.  Joseph Stalin was a parent; so is Saddam Hussein.  Mother Teresa had no children of her own, nor did Florence Nightingale.  But perhaps Joe and Saddam spent little time in the sandbox or the sickroom; certainly, Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale were intimately involved in the care of other people.  There is something life-changing about spending time concerned with the welfare of others - one becomes different, perhaps better.  All that effort put into kids, all that late-night, no-sleep, bone-tired, up-to-the-neck-in-dirty-laundry effort, makes parents deeply invested in their future, and thus invested in the future of the world.

Still, soul-expansion does not pay rent, provide health, sanity, or easy relationships.  Given all the hits a mother is liable to take, is motherhood worth it?  To be honest, the question is rhetorical.  All wish to be a mother who reaps rewards and is not overly affected by risks.  But despite hope and effort, one could slip into depression, have a marriage which falls apart under the weight of life, be a mother who cannot raise a whole family up out of poverty on her own, whose fatigue is overwhelming.  Just as parents cannot know what kind of people their babies will grow up to be, so they cannot know what cards motherhood will deal.  Nor do women know how childlessness will ride across the years.  In the end, do what mothers have always done: try to fix what is broken, live lives; hope for the best.

About the authors: Stephanie Wilkinson and Jennifer Niesslein are the editors of Brain, Child.  They say: "Motherhood affects us in other ways that we couldn't even touch on here.  Every day we came up with new areas to investigate - what does motherhood do to your career? to your sense of self? to your relationship with your community? - but deadlines loomed and the page count mushroomed.  Look for more in a future issue."

Source: brainchildmag.com Spring 2004

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