Academic, Opinion

What Makes a Mother

Motherhood could be defined as the state of being a mother. But what makes a mother? Some would say that a mother is just a female human who bore children and motherhood is simply her classification. However, that is not an adequate description because it disregards the word’s remaining definitions; downplays the distinct differences between mothers and fathers, among mothers, and within a mother herself; neglects to mention mothers’ separate groupings, and fails to mention the lifelong learning process that is motherhood. Being a mother involves much more than bearing and raising children. The motherhood marathon is a commitment, a learning process, a journey, and a destination.

The Oxford English Dictionary contains three categories for the use of the word mother, and those are further broken down into twenty-one definitions with a total of thirty-one sub-definitions, not to mention countless words and phrases associated with and derived from the word. No wonder motherhood is such a difficult concept to comprehend, but perhaps an introduction to the origin of the word would be beneficial. Motherhood originated from the word motherhead, which is now obsolete, and can be broken down to its root, mother, and its suffix, -head. The term mother has its beginnings in the Old English word medder meaning the female parent or ancestor of a human being or of an animal, relating to humans or animals in the mothering sense, or having womanly qualities or maternal instincts, especially affection (“mother” n.p.), to name just a few. The suffix -head began as the Middle English -hede and paralleled the suffix -hod for -hood. Both suffixes mean “a distinct person, personality, sex, condition, quality, or rank.” With the dizzying array of definitions associated with the word motherhood, it might be more helpful to look at motherhood as it relates to fatherhood.

At their cores, moms and dads share similar qualities and face similar challenges: the desire to nurture; the capacity to love unconditionally; and the uncontrollable physical, mental, emotional, and (perhaps) spiritual changes that are impossible to avoid once becoming a parent. While these similarities might make motherhood and fatherhood seem practically the same, they actually hail from two incredibly different ‘hoods: womanhood and manhood—those core distinctions that make a woman, a woman, and a man, a man. Men cannot give birth, for one—at least not yet—and for many women, “[g]iving birth is an initiation into womanhood . . . [t]hus much of a mother’s shift in identity upon entering the motherhood mindset has to do with growing into her place among women (her mother, grandmothers, aunts) in the cycle of life” (Waterman 173). Fathers have different mindsets, ways of coping, and skillsets, and society’s expectations of dads compounds and exacerbates these traits. Thankfully, societal pressures are changing, albeit slowly—“[n]urturing is nurturing, after all, and fathers are fully equipped to raise a child” (Herman 33). Yet, “[t]oo many families still define child rearing as women’s work, while the father goes out into the world and slays dragons” (Herman 10). Even in our own progressive society, a mother will “find [herself] the primary caregiver . . . as much as [she] might not have believed this would happen . . . no matter how liberated and open-minded [the father] is” (Herman 33). Mothers are perceived as being warmer and more loving while fathers are perceived as being strict, uncaring, and even emotionless. It is no wonder: “[m]ost of the fathers [men] grew up watching were distant, somewhat mysterious figures who were expected to . . . earn money . . . [d]iscipline the children . . . [and] [s]ee the children no more than 5-10 hours a week” (Osborn 62).

While it is true that motherhood and fatherhood are fundamentally different, even greater differences can be seen among mothers themselves. Since there is no right or wrong way to raise a child–as long as no laws are broken and the child is well cared for–much more is involved than the standard definition of motherhood would have one believe. Mothers come in different forms: stay-at-home moms, working moms, teenage moms, adoptive moms, stepmoms, foster moms, animal moms, moms of animals, and many, many more. The challenges that each group faces are unique. Working moms must choose whether to work full- or part-time. Stepmoms often feel longing for “the rite of passage into motherhood that pregnant women have” (Waterman 12). Moms of animals (not mothers of animalistic kids, although possible) are often amazingly in-tune with their instinctual responses to their pets, since their “children” can only vocalize but not verbalize. Animal moms (not animalistic mothers—also possible) are lucky to remain uninfluenced by economic factors and societal pressures; in the animal kingdom, a mother’s instinct is the only necessity for childrearing. Clearly, there are as many types of mothers as there are ways to raise children, but no matter their idiosyncrasies, one attribute is consistent across all kinds: a mother’s instincts are usually enough to navigate uncharted territory.

With such widely divergent ways that moms raise children, motherhood can be quite a difficult concept to ascertain. Remembering that motherhood is a learning process may be the most important piece of advice for new moms. The challenges of each stage of motherhood, from pregnancy to the grandmother-hood years, can be overwhelming. During pregnancy, the mom-to-be may find that she becomes “hormotional” or she may begin to consider what she truly wants for herself and for her child (Herman 8). The newborn stage prompts a change in lifestyle (if it has not already), and postpartum depression can be a problem for many moms. Toddlerhood “is recognizable by [the child’s] insatiable appetite for exploration, measured by how quickly [the child] can raise [the] mother’s heart rate[, because toddlers] . . . operate from instincts that have not yet been corrupted by a concept of limitations” (Herman 60). The trials that moms face during their children’s infancy and toddler years are in preparation for the tribulations that moms will face during the preschool, school age, preteen, and teenage years—when children are better equipped to speak their own mind. Then the young adult, adult-children, and grandchildren stages unfold, and mothers adjust their expectations once again. Within a mother’s own self, motherhood is ever-evolving. As soon as a woman enters motherhood, she “realize[s] that for the next 18 years—and well beyond—[she] will never again have the luxury of thinking only for [herself] . . . [because] the mother-child tie is lifelong and profound” (Herman 13).

Motherhood is a marathon, and it begins with a commitment to give whatever it takes. With a child arriving soon, the mom-to-be is sick with anticipation (or morning sickness) as she eagerly awaits the start of her journey to the end of the (finish) line. She starts out in a full-on sprint, as she is eager to experience motherhood bliss with her beloved, knowing she will learn about herself in the process. She confronts trying times along her journey, facing sprained ankles, dehydration, hungriness, and exhaustion. As she crosses the Great Finish Line, she finishes strong with a great sense pride in all that she’s accomplished: she has done her job well if she has “raised [her] kids not to need [her]” (Herman xxvi). What makes a mother? In the end, mother knows best.

Works Cited

“-head.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

“-hood.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

“mother.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

“motherhead.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

“motherhood.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

Herman, Deborah. Complete Idiot’s Guide to Motherhood. New York: Alpha Books, 1999. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.

Osborn, Kevin. Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fatherhood. New York: Alpha Books, 2000. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.

Waterman, Barbara. Birth Of An Adoptive, Foster, Or Stepmother: Beyond Biological Mothering Attachments. New York: J. Kingsley, 2003. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 2 Nov. 2012.

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