Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

To moms everywhere:

Maybe you, like me, had a four-year-old come running with a grisly tale of an overflowing toilet. Upon investigating, you found that this boy with a flair for the dramatic wasn't exaggerating one little bit.

Maybe you, like me, sat in the backyard wondering why oh why your phone was ringing off the hook. When you finally answered it, you found that your assistant catechist, a mother, and your entire class were all waiting at the atrium for a session scheduled to start fifteen minutes earlier.

Maybe you, like me, let your adorable toddler try on her Easter dress for just a minute and then found that this darling frock -- lovely, smocked, purchased by Grandma -- had had an unfortunate encounter with an uncapped Sharpie.

Maybe you, like me, have been wringing your hands, questioning your purpose, pouring yourself glass of wine. If so, I suggest reading this article on the impact of nurturing mothers.

It seems the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world, or as the author puts it, "One generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world."

Here's a summary of the study:

Researchers brought the kids and parents into a lab and videotaped them as the parents, almost always mothers, tried to help their children cope with a mildly stressful task that was designed to approximate the stress of daily parenting . . . Ratings of parental ability to nurture their children were done by study personnel who watched the videos. . .

Several years later, on average, the children had the size of a brain area called the hippocampus measured . . .  The researchers found that children with especially nurturing, caring mothers, based on their behavior during the laboratory stressor, had significantly larger hippocampi (plural of hippocampus - you’ve got one on each side of the brain) than kids with mothers who were average or poor nurturers.

Why is the hippocampus so crucial?

Because more than any place else in the brain, when it comes to the hippocampus, size matters. Other things being equal, having small hippocampi increases your risk for all sorts of troubles, from depression and post traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease. 

In addition to protecting us against brain illnesses, we all need big hippocampi because this brain area, while not much bigger than your little finger, plays a disproportionately large role in how you will be able to handle the stresses and strains of your life, and how you will remember your life when it’s all said and done. (Emphasis mine).


It's a rainy day today, and my van is in the shop. We enjoyed a slow, lazy morning full of coloring books and Legos. John grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote a bunch of random letters on it.

"I wrote a note to Auntie Kate," he told me, holding up his paper. "It says, 'Dear Auntie Kate, I love you.'"

With Valentine's Day still fresh in his mind, John colored a heart for her. I gave him little scissors and encouraged him to cut it out.

"I can't do it," he said. "I don't know how."

I demonstrated and told him to give it a try. He was thrilled to see that he could cut out a heart. This was very much the kind of mildly stressful task these researchers studied with children. These challenges arise a hundred times a day. A child struggles to tie a shoe or manage that last button or get that Transformer to transform. And there's Mom. Is she helpful or encouraging or comforting? Is she cranky or distracted or cheerful?  Is she blogging or texting or chatting on the phone?

I can be all of these things depending on the week, the day, the hour.

Today I folded John's note and the heart and put them in an envelope to mail to Auntie Kate. "Are you going to letter it," John asked. "How do you do that?"

I showed him how to "letter it." He carefully wrote J-O-H-N in brown crayon in the upper left hand corner. He put the envelope in the mail box and raised the red flag. Lettered!

I remember a day years and years ago when much  a younger Tim fell apart during piano practice. He hit a tricky measure and no amount of repetition or counting could help him get it straight. I had just plunked an enormous quantity of unfolded laundry onto the couch. I looked at Tim's obvious frustration and said, "You know, Tim, this laundry is overwhelming. I can't do it all, but I can fold one shirt."

We both persevered.

It is constant, this life-long gig we call motherhood. I find it helpful to keep my eyes on the prize, to read articles like this, not so that I can become undone by the enormity of it all, but so that I can once more be inspired by the greatness of this vocation.

No one has expressed this better than G.K. Chesterton who once said this about motherhood:

I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute.

That hand that rocks the cradle? It really does rule the world.


Allison said...


Janet said...

Wow, that's amazing, Kelly. So all those years of "letting the house go" in order to nurture the kids was well worth it. I am glad that I was able to follow the desires of my heart...and now have no regrets about staying home with the babies. This is something that ALL prospective parents should be made aware of.

Kelly said...

Thanks, Allison! I'm glad you visited.

Janet - I remember a La Leche Leaugue slogan - people before things. I struggle to let it go, but nurturing your kids is more important than gleaming floors. Hard as I try, my floors don't gleam anyway.

And you're still nurturing even if your kids are getting older.