Postpartum hormones are designed to sensitize mothers to the needs of their children. It is this very compassion that makes mothers uniquely situated to help fix what ails us. With Mother’s Day approaching, it is time for us to focus less on what to buy and more on what we can do.
Before I became a mother, I went to see A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It is the story of David, an artificial child, who is the first to have real feelings, and especially, a never-ending love for his ‘mother’ Monica. She and her husband adopt David as a substitute for their real son, who is in cryostasis while he waits for the cure for his disease. Once that cure is found, David is no longer needed. Instead of sending him to the scrap heap, Monica saves David’s life by abandoning him in the woods. I will never forget hearing David’s plaintive cries for his mother. It was so heartrending that I almost got up and left the theater. However, I was able to stay and watch David’s story through to the end, where his one wish — to spend one more day with Monica — is finally granted.
There are a host of issues that could be explored within that scenario (including the fact that many children mistreated by their parents still love and want to be with them), but the pertinent thing for me was David’s anguish. I was barely able to watch it at the time, but now that I am a mother, I don’t think I could stand it at all. I don’t care that he wasn’t a ‘real’ boy. Watching any child suffer is just too painful and it’s all because I am a mother. Before I became a member of the Motherhood Club, I would have told you that the mere biological process of giving birth was not going to change my emotional status permanently. But it did. And, as it turns out, there is a scientific reason why.
Research has shown that one purpose for the influx of hormones following the birth of a child is to sensitize mothers to the cries of their infant. It seems to be nature’s way of ensuring that the needs of the infant are heard, yet this sensitivity doesn’t just stop there. Many mothers find that their compassion for the troubles of other children is also enhanced. This is one reason why some new mothers discover that they cannot listen to the news because any reports of harm to children will hurt too much. Sometimes this increased empathy goes even further. For me, it extends to watching other mothers in pain, probably because I can easily put myself in their place. They move me in ways other people cannot. Some might view this sense of compassion as a weakness but I think it is, in fact, a strength, and one we don’t always appreciate the way we should.
I was reminded of this fact earlier this week when I was reading Bill Moyers’ interview with Francine Wheeler, mother of six-year-old Ben, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary last December. Francine gave President Obama’s weekly radio and internet address in mid-April (the first person besides Vice President Joe Biden to do so since President Obama took office) and, together with her husband David, appeared on 60 Minutes. They also joined many of the other parents affected by the massacre at Sandy Hook in lobbying senators to vote for the gun control bill that was recently defeated.
Reading about Francine’s search for a reason to live after her youngest son died, and watching her battle back tears during her address was very emotional for me. She said that she is embarking on this journey of activism not only for Ben but also for other children, so that they are not killed by a gun the way he was. Thus, Francine is taking her increased mothering compassion and using it to make a difference.
If you look at history, hers is not a unique way to heal heartache. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo turned their suffering into human rights activism. Candy Lightner formed Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver. Through the efforts of MADD, drunk driving fatalities have been cut in half. Cindy Sheehan took her grief over the death of her son Casey and formed Gold Star Families for Peace to help prevent other sons and daughters from dying in meaningless wars. Kadiatou Diallo worked with other high profile New Yorkers to promote racial healing and improve police-community relations after her son Amadou was killed by four New York City police officers.
But it’s not just grief that inspires some mothers to work toward a better world; it’s the thought of the children, especially their own, who might be hurt if they do not. Jeanne Manford founded Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) after her son Morty ended up in hospital after being brutally beaten at a gay rights demonstration. After discovering that the cause of her children’s illnesses was a toxic waste dump, Lois Gibbs got 833 families relocated and her work led to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program, and to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which helps other communities fight environmental threats. Mother of three, Erin Brockovich, was called to action when she noticed the medical records of two young girls who were suffering from autoimmune problems among some real estate documents. And, as I mentioned in last week’s article (“Environmental Destruction is Earth-Shattering News: What We Can Do about It?”), biologist Sandra Steingraber works tirelessly to protect the environment. As she tells her kids, “Mom’s on the job!”
So, as we approach Mother’s Day this year, we must recall how and why it was founded. Mother’s Day was started in 1870 by anti-war activist Julia Ward-Howe, who called on other mothers to end meaningless wars. In 1905, Anna Jarvis took up the Mother’s Day project and worked tirelessly to have it turned into a national holiday (which it was in 1914). However, the day was always intended to be about peace and emotion. It was supposed to be a time when mothers used their enhanced compassion to right the world’s wrongs, not a day of increased commercialism. As Anna stated, “I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She even referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest and truest movements and celebrations.”
She was not wrong and it’s time that we got past the gifts and start focusing on what is really important. In a world increasingly plagued by immoral and meaningless wars and by crass consumerism that is destroying our bodies and our souls, we must turn to mothers to make things better. We are the ones biologically designed to bear the next generation, and it is in our makeup to heed their cries and empathize with their troubles. Let us not be a Monica and just walk away from a child’s cries, but instead work to ensure that they need never be uttered. That would be something to truly celebrate.
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