Stories we create about mothers

adoption-177427_1280.jpgA Dutch woman travelled to South Korea because she wanted to find her birth mother.  She ended up on a television show about reuniting people.  A call was put out for her mother, who phoned in and the pair were reunited.  They did not have a language in common and so Hosu Kim, a sociology and anthropology professor based in the US, was called in to interpret for the show.  Kim wrote about her experiences on the show as part of her new book which is all about the transnational adoption of Korean babies.

The producers of the television show deliberately scripted the reunion, and Kim noted that the experience of the birthmother was falsified in several ways for the sake of television.  The show made it seem as if the birth mother – or, the virtual mother as Kim likes to call her – recognized her daughter’s face as soon as she saw it on the screen and called in at once.  In fact, it was a friend of hers who recognized her name and who contacted the show for her.  On the day the reunion was screened, the producers called the mother.

Emotionally, the narrative of the show was that the mother had been longing for her daughter all this time, that ill health and poverty had forced her to give up her daughter to a better life, and that she was delighted to be reunited.  But the truth was not like that, it was more ambiguous.  The mother had been married at the time of the birth and it was never really clear why she had chosen to leave her baby behind in hospital.  She has five other daughters, and they had never been told about the other sister.  The conversations that Kim helped interpret after the screening of the show she described as “confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying”.

Kim describes two imaginary cultural figures of birthmothers:

The first figure is of an elderly, sacrificing mother who awaits her adopted child’s eventual return in order to reclaim her motherhood; the second figure is of an unmarried, sexually irresponsible woman who has no viable option except to relinquish the child to adoption.

You know, when I first read this, I felt angry and indignant at the idea of women being judged as too irresponsible to keep their children.  How outrageous!  Why, if those mothers did not have sufficient emotional, social and economic support to raise their children, then it was the fault of society in general!  As Hrdy and others have explained, the work of raising a child is simply too much for a single person.  There needs to be a team (a village!) backing her up.

But, you know, while I am still a mother of young children, retirement seems just a stone throw away, really, and young women seem like a different generation.  It occurs to me that in societies without strong government welfare, the work of caring for young, irresponsible mothers and their offspring would have fallen to people like me!  To middle-aged, middleclass women who lived in the area with their own children.  We would have had to cough up money, food, babysitting time, concern, just to get those babies through to school age without any disasters.  And we would have resented it!  There’s enough work for us to do already without irresponsible young women not taking enough care to avoid pregnancy in the first place!  Hmm.  Obviously, the situation is quite different nowadays because of abortion, contraception and government benefits.  It’s none of my concern whether people get pregnant or not.  So I have the luxury of being liberal minded.

Television is all about selling a story, and Kim writes in an engaging way herself.  Still, there’s something very intriguing about the idea that we’re all culturally and politically invested in stories of individual mothers.  I’m not Korean, and Kim lost me a bit when she talked about Korean history and culture, but I definitely felt invested in how the story of this birthmother was framed.  Her story is my story!  Except of course, it isn’t even remotely my story.  So why does it feel like that?


Kim, Hosu. “Television Mothers: Birth Mothers Lost and Found in the Search-and-Reunion Narrative.” Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016. 115-143.


Uneducated mothers cannot “transcend their everyday experiences”

hb_29_100_48In Brazil, researchers interviewed six mothers and concluded that uneducated mothers find it difficult “to transcend their everyday experiences”.  Educated mothers, on the other hand, were able to consider complex aspects of their interactions with their babies and thereby “transcend” primary care considerations.

They reached this conclusion with the help of a French software analysis package called Alceste, which can eat up any kind of text and spit back out blocks of words categorized by their proximity.  The current researchers plugged in their six interviews and the computer spat back two categories.  The first included words like PUT, SLEEP, TIME, WALK and CRYING; the second category included words like ISSUE, MOTHER, THINK, EXPERIENCE, and BOND.  Without any further analysis, the researchers concluded that the first category was the everyday of the uneducated, whereas the second category was the transcendence of the educated.  It seems as if this was a conclusion that the researchers had in mind before they started the study.

One of the mothers in the study, the least educated, was 32 years old, with 5 children and an income two thirds of the minimum wage.  She is likely to be under immediate day-to-day pressures, and more so than the post-graduate mother of two with an income almost ten times greater.  She’s going to have less time to sit about ruminating about the quality of her bonding experience with her baby.  If there’s a difference in the way the two mothers talking about their relationships with their children, there’s no reason to suppose that it’s formal education that makes the difference.

The researchers seemed to be frustrated at the way some mothers (especially the uneducated ones) answered their questions:

It was noticed, when interviewing mothers, that some of them had difficulty in answering the questions formulated from reflections, getting quite restricted to the facts and personal experiences of the “here and now”. So they spoke from their practices and held in the minutiae of routine care for their babies, often at the expense of what was required of them.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the study.  Mothers were asked about bonding with their babies, the parent-child relationship, what’s important for development.  In response, they spoke about the here and now.  They did not speak in the abstract.  They did not talk about theories or beliefs, even though that’s what the researchers seemed to want from them.

Maybe that’s because, after all, there is only the here and now when it comes to mothers and children.  When people talk about motherhood in abstract terms, it seems so bland and irrelevant compared to the immediacy of a child demanding something.  Maybe bonding is like culture – it only exists to the observer.  To the mother in the middle of it, there’s no bonding, there’s only getting up at night in response to a crying baby – there’s only constant vigilance to know where the baby is – there’s only patience as a rough toddler tries to climb on you while you’re picking up the laundry.

The researchers wanted their mothers to transcend the everyday, and those with an education were able to oblige to some extent.  But what does that tell us about motherhood?


Oliveira, A. D., Chaves Maia, E. M., & Alchieri, J. C. (2016). What do mothers say about the mother and baby relation?. Journal of Nursing UFPE on line, 10(9), 3212-3222

Why mothers love normal

I used to hate normal.  Now I’m a mother, I’m all about normal.  Like everyone else, I moved to the suburbs.  I have a house with a fence.  I have a car.  I go to the supermarket and school pick up.  Mothers remind me sometimes of a converging herd of animals – seals maybe – all involved in mini-interactions, looking this way and that way, but somehow the end point is all of us moving in the same way, and being the same.


I met a new mother at the park last week.  She had just moved from an edgy inner suburb, and she was explaining her reasons for moving and they were all such weak reasons, and she seemed to know it and kept talking around and around as if she could figure out why she – who had sworn off the suburbs, who hated the suburbs, who was waaay too cool for the suburbs, had just moved here.  She was sleep deprived.  I wanted to explain the seal theory to her, but it wasn’t the right moment.

Moving to the suburbs isn’t really about having a back yard, because most people don’t, actually, have much of a back yard anymore and anyway, that’s just one thing.  It’s not about schools, because people move before they’ve even gone on a school tour.  It’s about being normal.  I think it’s a deep instinct that kicks in along with all the other mad mother stuff, along with the hormones in pregnancy.  Normality.

Social status protects children.  The fact is, social status of families is strongly and consistently linked to child outcomes in our society, in other societies, and even in other species.  And to take Ishiguro’s metaphor from the Remains of the Day, social status is not like a ladder, but like a wheel.  The closer to the hub (i.e., the more normal), the greater your social influence.  That is why normality in parents corresponds to good outcomes for children.

So many of the parenting rules seem ridiculous and random in those moments when we’re awake enough to think properly.  Kids need both parents.  They need a home, a back yard, music lessons.  They need to go to school.  None of that stuff can be justified in terms of mechanics of how children grow and learn, because children need those things because other children have them.  If we lived at different times or different places, then our children would need quite different things.  They need to be normal. Somehow, deep down, we believe that, and that’s why this normal thing happens when we have kids.

That’s my theory anyway.

Motherhood and the Watt Governor

Inspired by Louise Barrett’s brilliant book about ecological psychology, I’ve been thinking about the ways we can model human cognition.  It’s true that the computational metaphor has dominated cognitive psychology, and I’m particularly interested in alternatives because the computation model just seems like a bad fit for maternal psychology.  Characteristics of a computations framework include breaking a cognitive task down into parts and then linking the parts together sequentially.  For example, The Health Belief Model is one of many models of cognition that has discrete cognitive operations linked together in a flow chart.

Today I read van Gelder’s paper from 20 years ago called What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation? (pdf), where he argues that using the computer as our main metaphor for conceiving human cognition is not essential, and that there are other metaphors we can use.  In particular, he describes a dynamical framework as an alternative to a computational framework for understanding cognition.

In order to explain the difference between computational and dynamical models, van Gelder begins with a description of two different ways of approaching the problem of governing the speed of a steam engine.  Here’s an adaptation of the computational model he put forward:

van Gelder
Computational model for governing the speed of a steam engine.  Adapted from van Gelder (1995)

This is compared with the Watt Governor, the device that was actually used to govern the speed of steam engines in the olden days.  How it works is, the engine is coupled to a fly wheel, which spins faster the faster the engine is going.  The faster the wheel spins, the higher the arms go, and the arms are linked to the throttle valve which controls how much steam is released.  So the higher the arms, the more the steam is blocked and the engine slows down.


Watt Governor


Most notably, the Watt Governor doesn’t need to work out engine speed or do any other calculations.  Also, it’s linked moment to moment with the engine in a way that the computational mechanism is not.  The goal of the Watt Governor is to maintain the train’s speed at a constant rate.  Of course, by goal, I mean the goal of the person who designed the Watt Governor or the person who purchased it and put it on the train.  The Watt Governor itself has no sense of a goal.  Similarly, living things can act towards supposed evolutionary goals without themselves desiring those goals or being aware of them.

Here’s how van Gelder describes the dynamical conception of cognition, which would be based on the Watt-Governor sort of metaphor:

In this vision, the cognitive system is not just the encapsulated brain; rather, since the nervous system, body, and environment are all constantly changing and simultaneously influencing each other, the true cognitive system is a single unified system embracing all three.  The cognitive system does not interact with the body and the external world by means of the occasional status symbolic inputs and outputs; rather, interaction between the inner and outer is best thought of as a matter of coupling, such that both sets of processes [are] continually influencing each other’s direction of change.  At the level at which the mechanisms are best described, cognitive processing is not sequential and cyclic, for all aspects of the cognitive system are undergoing change all the time. (p.373)

mothering in action

Because the regulation is continuous, you can’t watch in a sequential way how the Watt Governor manages the speed of the steam engine once it’s going.  It just settles into a constant speed, which is the point.  Superficially, this seems like a very good metaphor for motherhood, for thinking and doing.  Not getting anything done is a theme that keeps coming up in motherhood discussion (here is a joke about it).  Also, being constantly busy and exhausted without being able to articulate what you’ve been doing.
Last week, someone asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I said to react to my children until it’s time to sleep.  She thought I was joking, and I was, although what I said was at least as true as any other answer I could have given.  I suppose it’s because we’re not supposed to react as mothers.  We’re supposed to respond.  Even though the two words mean basically the same thing.

So what would a Watt-Governor-type system need self-awareness for?

What does flow have to do with parenting?

Here’s what you need to achieve Flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi:

  1. a situation where you can concentrate properly on a few limited things
  2. you can use your skills to meet clear demands
  3. you can forget your day-to-day problems
  4. you can forget your own separate identity
  5. you obtain a feeling of control over your environment
  6. you may achieve “a transcendence of ego boundaries and consequent psychic integration with metapersonal systems”.

I don’t know what 6 means, but my assessment is that 1-5 are impossible for mothers of small children.  Personally, I can only achieve these requirements by leaving the house and my children and going to do something else entirely.

The concept of flow annoys me (and not because Csikszentmihalyi has two sons whose care probably interrupted the flow of someone other than him on a day-to-day basis when they were small because, after all, I don’t know anything about his personal life).  It’s the reverence with which it’s described.  Flow is characteristically present in play, in artistic and religious activities.  It’s almost as if there is something moral about achieving flow in your life.  Czikszentmihalyi writes, “when an activity involves the person completely with its demands for action, “selfish” considerations become irrelevant.”

So, for example, my friend who is at home with her three small children is not achieving flow unlike her husband who is playing golf right now.  He only needs to concentrate on the position of the ball, the slope of the ground.  He has a feeling of complete control as he selects a club and lines up to perform his well-practiced swing.  He is one with the club, with the sky, with the whole world.  His day-to-day problems (such as the mushed up weetbix on the floor, the broken dishwasher, the pile of laundry, his daughter’s failure to crawl) are far from his mind.  It’s almost a religious experience or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “a loss of ego”.

It reminds me of the time I did a meditation retreat in Thailand.  There, Buddhist monks and other trainees work towards mental detachment through meditation.  The practice is supported by lay women who do most of the shopping and cooking.

The other reason I don’t like flow is because it’s supposed to exist when the task requirements meet your optimal level of capability.  If a situation is too hard and overwhelming, you can’t achieve flow because you’re too stressed.  If a situation is too easy, it’s too boring to achieve flow.  But motherhood is both overwhelming and stressful AND boring.  All at once.



The reason I was reading about flow in the first place was because of this idea of it being autotelic, which means done for its own sake, without extrinsic goals.  Rock climbing is autotelic because climbers are not really motivated to reach the top of the mountain (in many cases they could just drive up there or walk an easier way), but are climbing for the joy of it.  Art is all about process, not outcome.  Similarly, I don’t think we are looking after our children in order to produce adequate adults some day, although no doubt we could produce an answer like that when pressed.  We’re doing it for the joy of it.  Except that, of course, when it’s not joyful we still do it.

Parenting is goalless (?), but parenting is the opposite of flow as described by Csikszentmihalyi.  Sometimes people talk about the joys of parenting, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that parenting is a joy-based choice in the same way that rock-climbing is.