The Power of Mother Love
by Brenda Hunter
Reviewed by Anne Marie Miller
LEAVEN Volume 35, No. 1, February-March 1999, p. 15
We often joke about what motherhood has done to us, trying in a lighthearted way to describe the transformation we experience as we bear and raise our children. I once heard my female pastor declare, "I prayed to God for patience and God sent me four sons!" While I laughed with the rest of the congregation, I knew there was an underlying truth to her joke. That truth is powerfully stated in a new book by Brenda Hunter, The Power of Mother Love.
In the preface Hunter writes,
Years ago when I became a mother, I began an inner journey that has revolutionized my life. I came to see that my children - with their love, neediness and daily demands - were shaping me in ways I had but dimly perceived. Because of my daughters I have become more patient, hopeful, accepting and less perfectionistic. I, in turn, have shaped my children's lives, molding their sense of self, their values and their conscience, as well as their feelings about intimacy. Yet thirty years ago I had no idea I was embarking on such a profound and cataclysmic passage.
The overwhelming message of this book, that a baby needs his mother and needs to be able to form a healthy attachment to her, provides strong support for LLLI philosophy. We are encouraged to listen to our hearts. Our baby really does need us. He cries because he needs something, not in order to manipulate us. We are encouraged to respond to our baby with sensitivity and flexibility - and to enjoy him. We are reminded that we are the creator of our baby's world. The book also acknowledges the need women have to mother in a group setting with help from peers and mentors. These are echoes of words heard at countless LLL meetings!
Hunter's message is simple: mothering your child is an important job. She talks about the child's need for a consistent, sensitive, responsive mother.
She supports her statements with personal experience, anecdotes taken from her clinical practice as a psychologist and research by others in the field.
For example, she refers to an incident at the 1986 American Psychiatric Association meeting where John Bowlby was asked how early mothers could leave their babies to return to work. What was "optimal for the child, not what a mother could get away with" was important he said, adding "that every child needs consistency of care and nannies and babysitters rarely provide consistent caregiving."
Hunter reinforces the importance of breastfeeding when she discusses brain development. She summarizes her observations of a nursing mother:
I observed a mother nurse her six-month-old baby girl. As she breastfed her baby, this mother instinctively stroked her baby's legs and massaged her bare feet. The baby responded by thrusting her chubby legs in a pumping motion, almost as if she were riding a bicycle. Not once during the five hours I was with this duo did the serene baby cry.
Increased Interest in Study of Human Milk
Hunter also refers to scientists increasing interest in human milk both as an avenue to better health for the child and as a way to improve the development of the growing brain, thereby raising IQ.
In addition to her appreciation of the power of mother love, Hunter includes a timely discussion of Ezzo's Preparation for Parenting and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study on child care released in April 1996. In Chapter 6, "The Power of Attachment," Hunter addresses various mothering styles and the research that has been done on the development of a baby's attachment and bonding behaviors. In that context Hunter discusses Ezzo's book, which she describes as "advocating an inflexible feeding and sleeping schedule for babies." Hunter makes her own evangelical Christian beliefs clear, but writes, "I question this particular application to parenting. After all, a newborn is a needy creature." Hunter states emphatically that she is "concerned about any child-rearing philosophy that might encourage some parents to be insensitive to their baby's needs. Insensitivity . . . is linked to insecure attachment."
Hunter's discussion of the NICHD study on child care is extremely useful, since the early releases were widely reported with headlines such as: "Child Care No Risk to Infant-Mother Ties" (Los Angeles Times) and "Child Care Report Backs Working Moms" (London Guardian). Hunter offers a full discussion of this long-term study which followed 1300 families at ten different sites since 1991. The study found that child care, in and of itself, does not harm a baby's emotional bond with his mother.
However, Hunter goes on to discuss how the risks of an insensitive mother, poor quality care, inconsistency of care or more than ten hours per week in day care increase the likelihood of attachment insecurity. When such categories are added and the statistics provided, as they are in the full NICDH study, the picture becomes much more grim. Hunter points out that "cross-culturally, about 35 percent of all babies are insecurely attached." Yet in most analyses in the NICHD study, between 42 and 56 percent of the babies studied were insecurely attached." Hunter also discusses the phase-two results, which did not receive the same widespread media coverage.
There are a few disappointments in the book. Hunter quotes Burton White's advice that babies should sleep through the night at five or six months of age unless they are ill or teething. Her discussion of spanking is also unlikely to find favor with many in LLL. Those parents who follow her encouragement to be sensitive, consistent and responsive to their child may find they seldom need these particular pieces of advice.
There are many references to Hunter's faith sprinkled throughout the book. She includes a chapter on how to impart your faith to your children. Although the chapter is written from a Christian viewpoint, those of other faiths could still find much of value in the rest of the book. The techniques mentioned, when appropriately altered, would work well for any family.
When The Power of Mother Love came up for review, I jumped at the chance to read it. Although I read it with my needs as a Leader in mind, reading the book has been personally rewarding. I really appreciate the discussion of how becoming a mother changes a woman - and how that new development may reach backward as well as forward: "Once we become mothers we soon discover we are reliving the past." Through her own story and those of others, Hunter demonstrates the power of the past and how we may need to work with it as we become mothers ourselves. She writes with love of these challenges and provides hope for those who may need it.