No matter what our individual temperament may be, our choices are shaped by the culture of our time and place.
Guilt and worry about whether or not we’re being good enough mothers has only intensified as more and more choices for self-development have become available to women. Increasingly, mothers are expected to keep perfect homes and prepare home-cooked meals, while also working full-time outside the home. Our culture then holds up the ever-popular and unrealistic “celebrity mom” profile as an example of how working mothers are supposed to look and act.
But there is no one right way to be a mother. I’ve found it helpful to think of mothering styles—or nurturing styles, if you don’t have children—as falling somewhere along a spectrum. Once you identify your mother’s style and also your own, you’ll be better able to appreciate and understand how you’ve influenced each other, and what choices are right for you.
At one end of the spectrum is the nontraditional mother or nurturer, the woman who is primarily turned inward toward meeting creative needs that come from deep within her. This type of mother has to take care of these needs if she is to remain emotionally balanced and physically healthy. My mother falls into this category. In women like my mother, activating the motherhood and nurturing circuits tends to take a toll physically unless they also have a lot of practical support. Though they love their children as much as anyone, they are not biologically wired for motherhood to fulfill them totally at the deepest levels. For my mother, skiing and other outdoor activities were as necessary as oxygen. When we were little, instead of missing a day of skiing, she’d bundle us all up and take us with her, putting one of us on skis between her legs and one in a backpack. We all learned to ski by the age of two!
My mother has often told the story of how, when she was a twenty-year-old new mother with her first child, my older brother, she sat on the back stoop wanting to run over the back hill to get away from the crushing responsibility of caring for her new baby. My father, sensing this, immediately hired someone to help her. My mother was neither temperamentally nor immunologically suited for the demands of motherhood in the 1950s, an era when women’s roles were far more circumscribed than they are now. Like most of the postwar brides of that time, she was expected to devote her life to taking care of her husband and her children. (She bore six children over a span of fifteen years, one of whom, my sister Bonnie, died within six months of birth.) This included the shopping for and preparation of three meals a day for over thirty years!
At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional mother, the classic “natural mother” or “earth mother.” Having babies and caring for them is the happiest and most fulfilling activity of her life. Her touch seems to automatically make things grow. She often keeps a garden. She likes nothing better than creating a home, baking cookies, and being available for her children. This mother’s focus is primarily on her children and she often doesn’t feel the need for a career or other interests. A woman with this temperament tends to adore and notice babies from the time she is a little girl. These women feel at their best when pregnant, nursing, or having their children around the house and underfoot. The motherhood circuitry seems to enhance and fulfill them, and they have no problem caring for a number of children simultaneously. The traditional mother may go through considerable difficulty at midlife if she perceives that she is no longer needed by her family. She often continues her caregiving role throughout her life by doing such things as volunteering to care for her grandchildren or hosting holiday gatherings at which she prepares most of the food.
Somewhere near the middle of the spectrum is the woman who combines both the traditional and nontraditional types of mothers. I fall into this “combination mother” category. Like my mother before me, I was never interested in babies until I had my own children. And my need to pursue a career in women’s health was an all-consuming passion, just as my mother’s love of sports was for her. When my first child was three months old, I, like my mother before me, had some problems with immunologic compromise. Part of this came from the stress of working full-time and also trying to provide breast milk as my daughter’s exclusive diet. I always had full-time help but could have used even more given my on-call schedule.
Eventually my two worlds of nurturing and career collided with each other. When my children were age two and four, I stopped delivering babies in order to spend more time with them. This decision was very difficult, especially since I had gone into ob-gyn because of my love for delivering babies. Still, mothering my children and spending a significant amount of time with them was now my highest priority.
The Combination Challenge
Because of the way in which society has changed, many women who are traditional mothers by temperament are now being forced into being combination mothers. This presents enormous challenges. The biology of motherhood combined with our culture’s relentless 24/7 addiction to productivity and work makes mothering young children enormously difficult when both parents work. We don’t yet have good solutions in place for young families. Still, things were far better for me than they were for my mother. I don’t know what I would have done had I been a wife and mother back in the 1950s when my mother had her children. And I’m also very grateful that my work has given me the foundation for a very fulfilling second half of life now that my children are adults.
No matter what our individual temperament may be, our choices, like my mother’s, are shaped by the culture of our time and place. Many women of my mother’s generation have told me that they feel sorry for women in my generation. They look at the mothers of today, running around trying to get it all done, and just shake their heads. Compared to us, they say, they had far more free time and far more support. They expected their husbands to provide for them and for their children. The rules were simpler. There were fewer choices. Still, it would be naive to believe that all mothers willingly settled into the blissful domesticity of the post-WWII years, the “Happy Days” portrayed on the television sitcoms of the 1950s and ’60s. For many women, including my mother to some extent, having children and caring for their homes and husbands came at the expense of their own hopes and dreams for self-actualization.
Niravi Payne, a specialist in the psychological aspects of fertility, has pointed out that the baby boom generation was the first in human history to collectively delay childbearing beyond the age when their mothers had their first children. We were going to do it differently. Unlike our mothers, we were going to have it all: fulfilling careers, functional families, and partnership marriages with men who would understand and meet us halfway with everything from parenting to moving to a new city for a job promotion. But by saying “no” or at least “wait” to the strong biologic pull of fertility and motherhood in favor of career achievement in a male-dominated world, we were thrust unwittingly into completely new territory for which there were no road maps and no guidance available from either our mothers or society, let alone the men in our lives. Our generation had to make it up as we went along. And our daughters will pick up where we left off—and create even more balance.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D.