Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Importance of Mothers

If you are expecting one of those sentimental essays on "Mother, thou, Wiper of my tired brow" you are likely to be disappointed. But then again, maybe not.

I am not one who goes in for the sentimental as a means of motivating and inspiring myself in the task of mothering. I realize that some women like that sort of thing, and no doubt, it is likely due to some sad character defect in me or a form of mental under-development that I don't. Rather, I tend to get my motivational kicks to keep on with the task from the more scientific end of the spectrum.

Lately I have been getting my affirmations in the form of two books, both written by the same author, Dr. Gabor Mate, M.D. Dr. Mate is an east-end of Vancouver physician, psychotherapist, and author who used to write medical columns for The Vancouver Sun and The Globe and Mail. His book, Scattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, is one I determined to read after reading another of his books, When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection.

Those of you who have been reading this blog lately know that I have developed a recent interest in the topic of ADD, especially as I learned that this is something that I have and which some of my children have some traits. A few of my clients also struggle with it. If you do any reading in this field for any length of time, you soon learn that ADD/ADHD may be multi-factoral in how it develops. IOW, poor nutritional habits, food allergies, systemic candida over-growth, and environmental toxins all appear to play a part in its development. If you have followed the development of modern industry and modern agricultural methods, you can almost chart a corresponding rise in the number of people and children afflicted with ADD with a drop in the quality of the food we eat and the amount of toxins that have been developed and released into the environment since WWII.

There does, however, seem to be another component at work with the development of ADD, and that is the way that society has developed and motherhood and mothering has been devalued and under-practiced. Mothers have been told that they have an important role to play in the lives of their children, but that this important role can be done while supplying baby with a bottle, pursuing a career, and spending "quality time" with baby at the end of a work day after baby has spent most of the waking hours with a nanny or in a daycare. The result has been that the generation of children whose mothers swallowed the feminist egalitarian bait is also the generation of children in whom we see more and more dysfunction in terms of development of ADD and other learning disabilities.

Let me, or rather Dr. Mate, explain. What follows is a summation of what he has to say on this topic as it relates to mothering.

Attention deficit disorder results from the miswiring of brain circuits, in susceptible infants, during the critical period of growth that takes place in the first nine months following birth. An infant's individual experiences in the early years determine which brain structures will develop and how well, and which nerve cetners will be connected with which other nerve centers and establish the controlling centers of the brain.

A sort of neural "survival of the fittest" contest takes place in infancy with circuits, networks, and systems of networks form or die off, based on environmental factors. Nerve pathways that are not maintained wither and die or will develop dysfunctionally when they lack the full conditions that are necessary for their maintenance. Stores of neurochemicals that are under-utilized diminish as well and the brain's capacity to make them declines. By the elimination of unused cells and synapses, and by the formation of new ones favored by the environment, specialized circuits gradually develop that conduct the varied and multiple activities of the human brain. The genetic potential for brain development can find its full expression only if circumstances are favorable. Infants who are understimulated in certain areas grow into adults who remain under-developed in those particular areas of function. Attention Deficit Disorder is an example of how neural circuitry and biochemistry of the brain may be held back from developing optimally when appropriate input from the environment is interfered with.

Three conditions are necessary for healthy growth. The first is good nutrition, the second a physically secure environment with an unbroken relationship with the mother, and the third is a secure, safe, and not overly stressed emotional atmosphere.

A large proportion of the North American pregnant and newly delivered women eat the Standard American Diet (otherwise known as SAD) of processed, refined, and prepared convenience foods and therefore are providing less than optimal nutrition for their infants, even if they breastfeed. The proliferation of bottle feeding with formulas that often cause allergies including eczema and asthma as well as other forms of detached parenting (soothers, swings, play pens, etc.) as well as infant and toddler daycares mean that mom has more and more opportunities to spend time away from baby. The third prime requirement of a non-stressed and emotionally secure atmosphere is the one most likely to be disrupted in Western socieities.

Human infants are neurologically and biologically underdeveloped in many ways. The first nine months of extrauterine growth could be considered, according to anthropologist Ashley Montagu, as a second part of gestation. The security of the womb needs to be replaced by the security of the parenting environment. To allow for the needed maturation of the neurological and brain development, a process that generally takes place in utero in other species, the close physical attachment that was present before birth needs to be replaced not only with continued physical presence, but emotional presence as well. Physically and psychologically, the baby needs to be held as securely after birth as he or she was before birth.

The best near substitute for umbilical connection that can occur following birth is that of breastfeeding. Apart from the nutritional and immunological benefits of breast milk is the fact that breastfeeding serves as a transition from unbroken physical contact to complete separation from the mother's body. Babies need to be held close to the mother's warmth while they are nourished by suckling. Breastfeeding also enhances the mother's attachment and bonding with her infant. The fact that 90% of women who begin breastfeeding are no longer doing so within the first three months of their infant's life could well be a contributing factor to the emotional insecurities that are becoming so prevalent in industrialized countries.

In view of the above, it should be apparent that the nurturing role of mothers is an important one that needs to be guarded and nurtured if we want to raise emotionally secure and properly developed children.

More will follow on this topic.

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