In a report to Family First New Zealand published today, leading American family scholar and father of five, Glenn Stanton, writes about the distinct and vital contribution of the mother to a child’s wellbeing. Drawing on common experience and the findings of contemporary research, Stanton reminds us about Why Mothers Matter. The following is an excerpt from the report, published here with the permission of Family First NZ.

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The mother's orientation towards the child

Good mothers and fathers are both certainly very physical with their children. However, mothers are physical in different ways to fathers – ways which stem from their basic nature as women. 

From moment one, what is it that you, as a mother, will do with your child? Take any cultural or gender stereotypes you might have and put them aside to think about this in the larger human experience across cultures and time. Is there a common answer? Yes, there is – and it has nothing to do with any particular cultural gender caricature that feminist studies professors will warn you about. It has everything to do with the essence of every good mother. 

As soon as a child emerges from the womb, the overwhelming first inclination and physical activity of the mother is to take the crying, quivering newborn close to her and put it to her breast for comfort and sustenance. No mother need to be taught that this should be done. That desire flows from her as strong as any emotion or force she has ever experienced. Everything within her needs to hold and comfort her child. Her body itself, and not just her emotions, is reacting to her baby’s cry. A mother’s brain viscerally and physically responds at this moment. 

In one interesting experiment conducted in Italy, men and women were placed in a brain-scan machine. The researchers played two different sounds intermittently, with periods of silence in between. One sound was just white noise, the other was an infant’s hungry cry. The subjects were not informed beforehand that the sounds would be played, so that anticipation would not be a factor. Their brains were observed for internal responses – neural firings – to these sounds. During periods of silence and when white noise was played, the brain responses of males or females were identical. But, as the researchers explained, “the brain activity of women and men differed considerably” when they both heard the cries of a baby. 

The men showed no significant response. But women did, regardless of whether they were mothers or not. The female brain sends signals throughout the body when it hears a baby crying for food and comfort. It’s natural. In fact, these scholars reported something else that’s natural. When the father seems oblivious or indifferent to your baby’s cries, it’s not because he is selfish or uncaring. It’s that his brain is actually wired that way. The Italian researchers explain, “In functional terms, this finding suggests that, whereas the female brain during hunger cries interrupts on-going mind-wandering, the male brain continues in self-reflection” even if he is reflecting on nothing in particular. In other words, dad’s brain can remain unaffected by his child’s cry.

It is a remarkable and frustrating quirk of nature — but it’s not his fault. Having said that, fathers must learn to be attentive and respond more quickly to the child’s cries.

Mum’s body does not just respond to the baby’s cry. Science also shows us that something significant happens in the deepest interiors of the bodies of both mother and child during the intimacy of nursing. It is not just the functioning of the breast and delivery of nutrition to the baby. Mothers who have more skin-to-skin interaction with their child – including breast feeding – are shown in longitudinal, control-group studies to experience reduced postpartum depression and overall psychological stress, increased uterine health, protection against Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and improved menstruation.

In short, the mother’s orientation is unmistakably toward the child. This is hardwired and hard-driven. Others who seek to interrupt it will often do so at their own peril. 

A new father is certainly interested in the child itself, but he is also very interested in his child in relation to the rest of world. More so than the mother. This is an important distinction. Dad is more likely to celebrate the child with the rest of his community as a badge of honour and excitement. Curiously, he considers the newborn as his accomplishment even though he felt no pain or broke no sweat! This is why fathers have long passed out cigars to their friends. It’s about his relationship as a new father to the larger community, and a celebration of the event of the arrival of his new child. 

Download the report here.