We all know the importance of a mother's love and care, but a recent study about the scientific importance of nurturing got us thinking: Are there mental health benefits to mommy love?
Our experts all say a resounding yes. "A mother's love is extremely important for the healthy emotional outcome of her children," says Ridgefield therapist Janet Esposito. "In most cases, it is the mom who is the primary caregiver, and how she loves her children greatly affects their lives."
The latest study on mother love, conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., discovered that school-age children with a larger hippocampus in their brains were those nurtured early in life. Why is this important? The hippocampus is crucial for learning, memory and our response to stress. The study's lead researcher, Joan Luby, was quoted on her local TV station, KMOX. "It validates something that I think is intuitive that we've known throughout history, but maybe haven't emphasized the importance of enough: Just how important nurturing parenting is to creating adaptive human beings."
-- Researchers at Ohio State University found that of the 1,000 study participants, those who grew into overweight adults lacked a strong emotional bond with their moms.
-- Psychologist Arthur Janov, Ph.D., in his book Biology of Love, talks about the importance of the first few months of an infant's life. He writes: "Hugs and kisses during these critical periods make those neurons grow and connect properly with other neurons. You can kiss that brain into maturity."
-- And one for your health: A study from the University of British Columbia determined that of 1,215 middle-aged Americans studied, those who grew up in poverty had a greater chance of suffering from type-2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke than those who knew a life of privilege -- unless the lower income group had a loving mother.
"Children need to know from the day they are born that someone is there for them, and that begins with the mother," says therapist Maud Purcell, who heads The Life Solution Center of Darien. "Children need to know that they can rely on at least one person to be attentive to them and be there for them. It quells their anxiety because they begin to trust that they can rely on this person. They feel comforted. They feel safe. They feel valued and important. The bond a baby has with Mom is the baby's first relationship."
"Mothers tend to be the primary caregivers, and if children don't feel loved, they internalize that and feel unlovable," Esposito says. "They wonder what is wrong them, that their mothers cannot love them. It is something they carry through the rest of their lives."
She says that many of these children have self-esteem issues that can affect future relationships and their career path because they lack the confidence to pursue challenging jobs.
Purcell says newborns can sense if something is wrong in the family, citing the failure-to-thrive syndrome in neglected babies. "They physically lose weight and wither away," she says. "There is a physiological basis for why that initial connection is so important, fundamental proof that mother love and mother attention is critical.
"The first relationship with the primary caretaker becomes the child's role model," Purcell adds. "A mom needs to be present physically and emotionally with a baby from the time it is young. But that does not mean 24/7. Mom needs balance and some time for herself, or she may not be able to give baby quality time. It's better to have quality time, even if it means a little less quantity."
Dr. John W. Travis founded the country's first wellness center in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1975. Today he heads Wellness Associates, a consulting and publishing group, and together with his wife, Meryn G. Callander, wrote the recently published, Why Dads Leave:
Keeping Your Family Together.
If mother love is missing, Travis says it can lead to depression, anxiety, bullying, poor achievement in school, violence, drug and alcohol addictions and illness. Boys may be on a continual search for love, a search for the mommies they never experienced emotionally. Teen girls may become pregnant, hoping to create someone they can love and who will love them.
"These are all the creative ways human beings make up for the failed connections of their childhoods," he adds. "Our body and minds attempt to compensate for our failed connections. And the cost of the lack of those connections is so far-reaching, the consequences so devastating."
So what's a mom to do?
Says Esposito: "When you think of the ideal parent, you think of someone who is not harsh or critical, that they positively affirm the child, but if the child is doing something that is not good, the parent is able to communicate without harming or making the child feel worthless."
She says parents need to learn how to cope with their own disappointments and frustrations without taking them out on the child. If you cannot do it by yourself, she says to seek professional help.
Purcell says the ideal parent is a myth, but every parent should strive for a "good-enough fit." "I hear parents say that they don't understand one of their children, or that one child is more difficult to form a bond with," she says. "Each individual brings their own personality traits to the relationship. A good parent works hard to make a good-enough fit with their child."
-- If a young child is crying a lot, is clingy, or is having trouble sleeping, Purcell says the first step would be a trip to the pediatrician to rule out a medical problem. If the child is healthy, it might be time to seek counseling.
-- Esposito says even infants and young children can be affected mentally and emotionally when there is tension or fighting in the home. "Think about the impact of your words on the behavior of your child. Strive to be the best parent you can be. The more self-aware a parent is about the consequences of words and actions, the better that parent will be able to cope with life."
-- Learn to love your child unconditionally. Purcell says: "If a child believes you only love them when they get it right, this will lead to a very insecure child and adult."
And know that it is never too late to try to change a relationship, although it might not be easy. "If you have some regrets about how you handled situations when a child was young, speak with honesty to your grown child," Esposito advises. "Don't play the blame game. That doesn't help you or your children. Take appropriate responsibility." And whatever you do, ditch the guilt. "Guilt never helps any relationship. Ever." HL