Motherhood: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love?

Posted on Jan 1, 2011

I have often thought that the motto for the Peace Corps, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” might better apply to motherhood.  After all, parenting is truly a labor of love.  It is our responsibility to teach our children to navigate the outside world, both physically and emotionally, from the moment they are born.  From teaching little ones to walk, talk, feed and dress themselves to helping kids learn to read, write and handle frustration and disappointments.  Later, we hope we have taught our children to respect and love themselves enough to stay away from self-destructive behaviors.  Honestly, if you think about it too much it can be overwhelming.  Before you have an anxiety attack…I have good news.

Underlying all these achievements is a foundation of love between the mother or primary caregiver and child called attachment.  Attachment, in essence, is the bond of trust that a mother and child develop which lets the child know that s/he is cared for, understood and respected.  The comfort, pleasure and safety that children feel in this first relationship allows them to connect well with other people in their lives, including other family members, friends, teachers and eventually in romantic relationships.

Here’s the good news:  parents don’t have to be perfect—far from it.  Studies have shown that when physical and emotional needs are met a third of the time or more, a strong attachment will form.  In fact, the disruptions and repair of the relationship contribute as much as attunement does to the attachment process.  For example, when a parent sets a limit like “No, you may not have jellybeans for dinner,” the child will temporarily sever the relationship with the parent in anger and tears (a.k.a. a temper tantrum).  In older children an example is “No X-Box tonight because you did not do your homework before dinner.”  The child then rolls his eyes and says “whatever” as he walks away sulking.  The parent sympathizes with the child’s frustration but remains firm.  Eventually, when the child returns to the parent, as they must because they depend on us, the parent welcomes him or her back happily reestablishing the connection they share.  As we go through this cycle of disruption and repair, we are reassured that while life is not perfect, it is still pretty good.

While this process may seem simple, it is does not always come easy or naturally.  It is hard to comfort a baby that has be crying for an hour or  welcome a toddler back with open arms after his fourth temper tantrum before noon.  It is hard to endure a nasty attitude from our child when what you’d really like is a little bit of gratitude.  It is nearly impossible to do all of this when you have had a rotten week (or month).  Parents need support and love too!

In addition to how we are feeling day to day, our childhood experiences impact our ability to provide the nurturing that our children need and deserve.  Many of us feel we did not experience this secure attachment as children and therefore it can be hard to provide it.   Unfortunately, if we do not resolve these disappointments of childhood, they remain with us.  They play out in our relationships with others.  In our own longing to have the love and acceptance we missed as children, we continue to hope that someone else will fill this void—perhaps a boss, a lover, or even our own children.  Many times I have heard mothers say that they wanted to have a child because of the unconditional love a baby would give to them.  Of course, when we hold others accountable for our happiness we are only disappointed again and again.

Examining the ways we repeat the patterns which only lead us to disappointment can heal the wounds of your past so you do not continue to bleed from them.  It is not easy to do this, but until you do, you are dragging the weight of the past into the present like a ball and chain.