On Mother's Day, celebrate all the nurturers

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In this May 2, 2015 photo, a giant heart hangs in the sky at sunset over New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Instead of merely celebrating mothers this Sunday, we should expand the occasion to celebrate our major nurturers. Motherhood is so much more than mere biology.

There is a common belief that women have a maternal instinct; why does that myth continue? If it were truly an instinct, like sneezing when there’s an irritant in the air or blinking when something comes too close to the eye, then every woman would have it in roughly equal amounts. And we know that’s not true.

Women in developed countries have many ways to avoid pregnancy, not all of them equally successful. If all women had a maternal instinct, why would so many women opt out of pregnancy and childbirth?

Women become pregnant because sperm and egg unite. That is not always the desired outcome for sexually active people. If a pregnancy results, and culminates in a live birth, that doesn’t mean that the woman is going to be happy about it or cherish the child. There is a lot of insufficient mothering in the world, including but not limited to those who never wanted to be mothers.

The result may only not be felicitous for the child, it may be intensely calamitous. Children are beaten, starved, severely punished, abandoned, and even killed by their mothers. What instinct propels them? Perhaps we need to consider the social constructs of motherhood instead.

Consider the case of the Allentown woman who is accused of throwing her infant into the Lehigh River on May 3. And then she jumped in herself. They are both alive. The motivation is not clear, but it certainly emphasizes a certain lack of maternal instinct and caring. Do we even have to mention the long litany of mothers who made the headlines for similar actions? Throwing a newborn into a dumpster, drowning children, abandoning them in the woods, a store, anywhere … each one is heartbreaking.

For much of recorded history, biology was destiny. Sex invariably led to pregnancy. However, it has been more than a century since somewhat reliable contraceptives have been available. So, increasingly, pregnancy is a choice.

Religions differ on the acceptability of these methods, but that is faith and the rest is public policy/law and science. In order to encourage women to reproduce, the social climate has to be pronatalist; including themes of “A real woman wants to be a mother,” “No woman is complete without motherhood,” and “We have family (meaning with children) values.”

When women bear and must raise children they do not want, the children are most often keenly aware of this. Whether they continue to live in a home with a disinterested, emotionally distant, neglectful, abusive, and/or depressed mother — including those women who turn to substance abuse to self-medicate — or they are living with relatives, in the foster care system, or all-too-often, fending for themselves and younger siblings, these children most often grow up to be untrusting, anxious, defensive, and scared adults.

And then they have children of their own.

But the salvation for some (albeit, too few) of them comes in the nurturing they receive from non-mothers: teachers, clergy, coaches, neighbors, or therapists. Yes, those of us who are clinical psychologists are acutely aware that, in addition to applying psychological principles and knowledge of human development, irrespective of our specific degree, a huge part of what makes psychotherapy effective is the relationship we form with our patients.

More important than the specific degree we have is the amount of empathy and caring we provide. As I say to my patients, “We’re Team _____ (fill in person’s name). We both have the same goals; to help you feel better about yourself and more competent to function in your world.”

Teachers, coaches, clergy, social workers, health-care providers — we all know that if the people interact with know how much we care for them individually, they will have a far greater chance to thrive and succeed than if we are emotionally distant and detached.

Every one of us, even if we have or had warm and supportive mothers, can never have enough people on our side.

So this May 10, instead of just routinely and mechanically celebrating our mothers, or feeling bad because we don’t have mothers to celebrate, let’s find those people — man or woman, kin or not — who have and continue to nurture us, and say, “You have believed in me when no one else did. Thank you.”

And then go forth and nurture others.

Ann Rosen Spector is a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia (www.annrosenspector.com).