Where would we be without our moms who raised us, nurtured us, fed us, and loved us unconditionally? Mothers who set up humidifiers in our rooms when we were congested with colds. Mothers who tucked us in at night and read to us. Mothers who held us in their arms singing, “Clap hands, clap hands, till daddy comes home. Daddy has money but mommy has none. Boom, boom.” Where would we be without a mother’s unconditional love? Odds are, we’d be in a lesser place than we are now.
A mother’s love sustains us, enculturates us, and prepares us for life’s challenges by literally shaping our brains. This is particularly so for the developing brain which is extremely plastic and malleable, yielding to the stimuli it receives from the environment. Deep below the surface in the brain’s limbic system is where the magical effects of a mother’s love are revealed. Scientists know this thanks to the advent of scanning technologies that have allowed us to peer in on the brain as it grows and matures. The results are stunning and exciting. For example, recent research by Luby and others (2012) suggests maternal support leads to larger hippocampi–the seahorse shaped structures within the primitive brain responsible for long-term memory and stress control. In other words, a mother’s nurturance of her young child changes the child’s brain for the better, allowing the child to learn and recall information more readily, and to manage stress more efficiently. Without such support, a child is disadvantaged relative to other children.
Brain development in children is fascinating and portends many thing later in life. For example, the effects of parental neglect express themselves in adults who struggle with impulsivity, maintaining attention, cultivating social relationships, and cognition (Chugani, Behen, Muzik, Juhuaz, Nagy, and Chugani, 2001). A chilling image of two brains, one of a normal infant and the other of a neglected infant raised in an orphanage, demonstrates just how critical a loving environment is to the developing child.
The oldest of six, I was lucky to grow up in a loving household. In spite of the challenges, my mother somehow maintained her patience and composure to love us all. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. How she made time to play with us, teach us manners, encourage us, expect great things from us, and allow us to make mistakes boggles my mind. At one point, I remember there were three kids in diapers–and they were the cloth type (I swear we got our money’s worth out of the Kenmore washer machine in the basement). In any case, we all grew up in a loving home, and I like to think we all ended up in a pretty good place.
On this Mother’s Day weekend, I hope every child and adult with a living mother takes time to thank their mother for helping them grow into the person they’ve become. I hope each of us recognizes that our first and most important teacher was our mother, and that as parents, we too are our children’s best hope for success and happiness. And for those less fortunate to have the nurturing home environment many of us had, I hope they have a charismatic, loving teacher or significant adult to confide and trust in. Someone who will nourish their growth and provide a stable foundation from which to blossom into adulthood.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!!!
- Luby, J. L., Barch, D. M., Belden, A., Gaffrey, M. S., Tillman, R., Babb, C., Nishino, T., Suzuki, H., & Botteron, K. N. (2012). Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(8), 2854. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/923605082?accountid=13215
- Chugani, H. T., Behen, M. E., Muzik, O., Juhasz, C., Nagy, Ferenc, & Nagy, D. C. (2001). Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: A study of postinstitutionalized Romanian orphans. Neuroimage, 14(6), 1290-11301.