The motherly connection

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I was listening to lecture on cognitive behavior methodology organised by Harvard Medical school. It is amazing how much one can learn today sitting at home, if one has the intention to do so. A lot many times, all this education is available free of cost. Many universities across the globe provides many of their resources online for free. On one hand, it is a way to attract candidates to their universities. On the other side, it is adapting to the new ways of culture, where people prefer to study online rather than being in a class at a given time. We shall, see how it will change the human education system overall, especially involving many other dimensions of human cultural and social interactions. Till then, there are places to learn variety of topics online.

In this lecture, the professor mentioned the use of techniques like meditation, mindfulness and similar to help in case of stress related disorders, including but not limited to PTSD. I know there are many researches evaluating the effectiveness of various methods. They almost all seems to work, to some degree, on the involved patients. It seems the underlying method for the brain is same regardless of the technique used. This makes it very helpful and a flexible technique. This means that that one does not have to go on chanting “OM mani padme hum“, if the person is more comfortable with chanting “hallelujah“. It appears that for the brain it is just a signal that gives a feeling of comfort. The researches had gone technical on the brain and neuron involvement and have described in great length of various mechanisms involved to help explain the positive effects of these meditations. However, the professor in this lecture mentioned an interesting analogy. He said, all these methods make you feel comfortable, makes you feel safe, thus helping patients with various fear related problems. In his opinion this comfort feeling is similar to the comfort that the person felt as a baby in her mother’s arms. The babies when stressed (for different reason), feel comfortable and stops crying when they are held comfortably in their mother’s arms. Listening to the rhythmic beats of the mother’s heart, tells the baby that she is home and safe and she will be taken care of. This is the analogy, I came across for the first time and it was quite interesting to say the least.

Humans are the most weird species on this planet; the idea that I am exploring in a dedicated blog series. One of that weirdness is that humans have the longest childhood phase. Which has different reasons behind it and this is not the article to explore those. In a crude way, one can say that the baby delivered after the gestation period of about 9 months is kind of pre-matured in comparison to other mammals. This, I am sure most of the people know that human baby is one of the most helpless baby at the time of the birth and remains so for the longest period than any other species. This fact apart from many other things means that mother and child have to spend a lot of time together. Mother needs to take care of the baby for almost every need possible, day after day, month after month and year after year.

Not that other species do not have this bond

It is said that for a habit to be born we must repeat something roughly about 21-30 days. Of course, the more we commit to the habit, the more we are attached to it, the amount of time we devote it on a daily basis, all help decide how strong it gets embedded in our brains. Imagine how long you spent trying to learn a bicycle, before you could forget about the balance, looking for the bell or peddles and so on. It takes really less time to forget about the mundane and start watching time on our wrist watches while taking a turn or setting the water bottle while riding on the sideway maneuvering through people and objects. This will remain the same, even if you stop riding bikes for 5, 10 or even more years. Once, you take to the bike, you would still know how to ride the bike. Imagine now this for the mother trying to deal with her baby, kids and teenagers for so many years. Reverse, i.e. the dependency of child towards her mother, is also true, although to a lesser extent. The child has to grow through, different phases with every phase having different impact on the brain functions. But the bond and dependency set in the beginning years, remains for really long time; even if it stays hidden under.

No wonder, that it is only in human species that mothers keep on perceiving and thus treating their children as babies, even when they are well past that phase and may even have their own young kids. There is no other (known) species in the world that shows that kind of relation. Having said that, I am not sure about the evolution of this bond. My suspicion is that this dangerously long perception of an adult as a baby by their mothers is not a very old behavior on the timeline of human evolution. For humans, as we see today, most of the behavioural changes or adaptations are not because of the rudimentary evolutions governed by the biology. It is mainly the (re)evolution of the cognitive capacity, which happens at a remarkably faster pace than biological evolution, that derives our fast changing behavior. My guess, this long attachment behavior emerged within last 100 years at max. The main reasons in my opinion are the higher life expectancy of human beings, less number of children per female and nuclear families.

mean age total fertility rate

You can see from the above graph that in 1950 average life of a person was about 45 years. If we assume that mean age of first birth was 20 years, that would give a mother to see her child to grow up to 25 years on average. In contrast to today, if we assume the first birth age of female as 30, this gives a child on average to become 45, before her mother rests in peace with no need to worry about her child. At the same time, we need to be aware that on average mother’s attention was divided among 5 kids and not just 2 (assuming that infant deaths are taken care by the averages). This meant that her emotional resources were divided much more. We also need to factor in the effect of nuclear family that further extends the behavior of extreme attachment. Imagine, if you have only 1 child and you are the only one to take care of it from the very beginning. Just one person available to attend to every single distress signal from the infant, day and night In contrast to the effort being divided among family members of a joint family. Your personal evaluation of the effort that you spent on the infant at the end of the day would be far less in the latter case.

There may be other factors or some may see this equation differently. But, whatever theory you want to consider, there is no denying that there is a special connection between a mother and her child in human species in comparison to others. This indeed has different implications on human life as an adult. Although impact of parenting on adult behavior itself is a big topic in psychology, I will take just one aspect to relate it to a story. John unfortunately got addicted to gambling. As usual, he did not think of it anything more than a fun activity. Before, he realized that he is addicted, he was in big debt. It came to a situation that he also took money from his friends and put into gambling. Soon, he came to situation that he could not hide it from anybody, especially when his wife, Karen, found out about it. He tried to quit and told her many times that he will quit. But, as it goes with addiction ( so, I have heard, read and observed) he would lapse again. He swore on his wife’s name, his kid’s name to stop it and never to do it again. He lapsed many times over. He tried therapy, his marriage was breaking so he went to counselling as well. His (and his related family) life became a nightmare. One day, the news reached his parents as well. He was talking to his mother, who asked him to quit. By now, he was quite expert on swearing on anybody’s name. In his words, he almost swore on his mother’s name as well. It was at that moment, he said, that he realized what he has been doing all along. He knew, he had lied to his wife but he could not evaluate its impact under the influence of addiction. After talking to his mother, he talked to his wife again and apologized and told her that he realized what he has been doing. For his wife, it was too much to handle. She took it as personal insult, that she has no value in his life. He can easily lie to her and his kids, but not to his mother. If he values so much his mother then he better live with his mother than her. She decided to quit on the relationship and got separated.

I already said that parenting and adult behavior is huge psychological topic and I won’t touch in this article. However, just to highlight a common statement used on a regular basis ,”mama’s boy and daddy’s girl”. I don’t know, but my perspective is that in general mother’s bond is much stronger with the child independent of the gender in comparison to the father’s. It might be true that mother-boy may have higher value in comparison to mother-girl bond. There maybe cultural biases across the world as well. When, I came to know about this story, I was interested to know what would be Karen’s reaction, if her son would get addicted to something and he could come out of the loop simply by talking to her? Would she say, it does not matter whom he talked to as long as he could get rid of the addiction and be back to his family? Would she happily ignore the fact that her son’s wife decided to leave him just because he realized his mistake in front of his mother? Would she go overprotected with her motherly behavior to say, that leave that woman as I will take care of you as your mother? What if John would have realized it when talking to his father rather than mother? What if the situation was other way around that Karen was the addicted one and she realized her mistake by talking to her mother, would John react the same way as she did? Maybe not. Maybe he would react that way, the way Karen did, only if Karen would realize her mistakes while talking to her father. ( I sincerely hope and wish that their kids do not get into any serious addiction).

Do people keep this in perspective in daily life? Remember, Jesus was about age 33.

I am not sure how the situation would have been in various different scenarios. We discussed above why human mother-infant bond is so special. Should it not be much more acceptable that the person values the first biological and childhood bond being threaten than any other “learned” bond that (s)he developed later? It is a an interesting and delicate equation between childhood bond and expectations of pair-bond. It would be interesting to know to how this situation would have unfolded if this story would have happened lets say 500, 1000 or 2000 years ago. My opinion is that both bonds were much loosely coupled compared to as we see today in the modern culture. That would have meant much lesser impact on everybody. On the other side, situation might not had been possible due to limitations of age mentioned above.

I don’t know why the connection from meditation to relaxedness to comfort to mother reminded me the story of John. Afterall once a certain connection is fired in the brain, the cascade let loose inside. Nevertheless, I think it was an interesting activation that helped me write this article. How the human development and relationship between mother and child will be shaped in future to various factors, we don’t know. But some of the factors will keep their trends atleast for couple of decades. Nuclear families are here to stay, most people are having just 1 child, first child age for females is increasing, life expectation at birth is still growing. We know that with low fertility rate young population across the globe is getting lesser. When and if this trend will trip over, we don’t know.

We will always be filled with unknowns when looking in future. We know that we are the only species who has that capability. We have seen many unpredicted incidents in a relative short time on the scale of evolution. The big plague, HIV, wars; none of those dampened our capability to look into future. Today, we know that a baby in just about 2 days of its life can start to recognize her mother and tries to repeat her actions. Smile of a baby is the strongest contagious expression we know that attracts anyone. The smile and happiness of a mother’s after seeing her baby has no comparison. I usually do not like to look into future, but when and if I do that, I hope that a child’s smile would remain innocent and every mother can still share her smile and her warmth with her child.

Keep Smiling


Arundeep Singh

Mulla Nasrudin’s mother, worrying about her son’s safety, said to him: “Didn’t I say you should not let that girl come over to your room last night? You know how things like that worry me.” “But I didn’t invite her to my room,” said Nasrudin. “I went over to her room. NOW YOU CAN LET HER MOTHER DO THE WORRYING.”