Motherhood in a World of Men

Motherhood is as old as our existence. It is sometimes taken for granted, sometimes missed, sometimes condemned. Other times, it is politicised or reduced to a medical condition. It is a profound individual journey of love and the fundamental gender difference that polarises our roles in society.

With an understanding of the science behind motherhood and a perspective from the heart, can we learn something to make the world a better place for men, women, and children? My sons have taught me so.

Below is the text of the talk I gave at TEDx AIMS

Credit: Kai Staats

What does motherhood mean to you? Does it make you think of your own mother? Of helplessness at soothing a crying newborn? Of pride and joy at seeing a child grow? Of the incredible pain at seeing your child struggle and not be able to help?
Of the profound fear of anything happening to the most incredible little human that ever was?

Wait, what was that? “The most incredible little human that ever was”? Yes, that. That person.

That little human who is so much more than just a 5-year old, a teenager, a big executive, or the guy on the side of the road looking for a job. So much more…

In fact, look at the worst person you can think of — the corrupt politician, the dictator who killed thousands, the rapist who abused his victims in unspeakable ways or even that colleague at work whose petty attitudes makes your life hell. They all have a mother who can probably see everything else they are and were: A helpless baby, a happy playing child, a sad child with broken dreams, a young adult with big dreams, today’s grown up. There is a perfect child behind every madman and behind every good man alike.

Note that I choose to focus on men here. The reason is simple: clearly, they rule this world.

Men design our world and our living environments. They sit on the boards of big companies. They make decisions, they make wars. And then, they make bargains for peace. It is men who fill parliaments and make laws in the overwhelming majority. And it is men who fill prisons and break laws in the overwhelming majority.

So what does motherhood mean to me? Simply: infinite, unconditional love.

Infinite, unconditional love means my child is perfect just the way he is.
Infinite, unconditional love means that of course, he never meant for things to go wrong.
It means that it is pointless to talk of second chances because there is only one life and one of him and whatever happens, he’s still beautifully and perfectly himself, the most amazing little human that ever was.

But really, what is a mother’s love?

Biologically, it can be traced back to oxytocin, a phenomenal hormone that drives labour and birth of a child. Oxytocin gets released when breastfeeding too. It is known as the bonding hormone, or the love hormone.

Scientific studies have shown that oxytocin increases trust and reduces fear. It has been found to affect generosity and increase empathy. It plays a role in romantic relationships too and stimulates monogamous behaviour in men. So if you ask me, oxytocin is a pretty awesome natural drug.

Boys and men too have oxytocin, but of all life circumstances, I believe the biggest dose of oxytocin anyone gets is the dose a new mother gets when delivering a baby and breastfeeding him.

What does this megadose of love hormone do? Everything of the above, but stronger. Bonding and love. Trust. Empathy. Forgiveness. Generosity. Affection. Attachment. So much stronger in fact, that most mothers are prepared to do anything for their child.

Mothers can empathize. Mothers can see the best in their children, because they know it’s there. I see it every day in my boys. I fall ever more in love with my two year-old even at the height of his most fierce tantrums.

Mothers can forgive anything — because they see their child as so much more than whatever it is he needs to be forgiven for.

But this is of course not the whole story. It is easy to claim that all mothers love their children infinitely and unconditionally, but the reality is very different. Like anything human, love is both strong and incredibly fragile. It can be broken so easily.

Love for a child grows. It is not instantaneous like the media often would have us believe. And a number of women feel guilt at not feeling this wave of love-at-first-sight for their newborn. Baby blues and postpartum depression is a reality.

Culture is also a strong force that can break the good work of oxytocin. Imagine the unmarried young mother of an illegitimate child who is shunned by everyone around her. How does she reconcile the urge to love with the guilt brought on by her cultural norms?

How does a mother love a child of rape?

A motherly love that flourishes is not straightforward. It needs the right environment. When it does flourish though, it gives children a safe place to grow up and become emotionally balanced, self-confident adults with the emotional intelligence that is increasingly recognised to be a key quality of leaders. Leaders of companies, leaders of countries, leaders of people.

So then, what does the absence of love do to a child and to the adult he then becomes?

Neglected infants who do not receive the loving care of a mother and even children whose parents do not respond quickly to their cries of distress experience high doses of cortisol. Cortisol is another hormone. It is a stress hormone and we now know that it plays a big role in a child’s development.

In fact, research by Bergman & al. has shown that cortisol has an impact on cognitive development even when children are exposed to their mother’s cortisol in utero, let alone their own after birth.

A working paper by the US National Scientific Council on the Developing Childbased at the University of Harvard reviews the evidence and research on the life-long effects of stress hormones on infants but basically, chronic exposure to cortisol in infants and young children set the stage for fearful, insecure and even aggressive adults who are more likely to suffer from learning disorders, depression and drug abuse, among other things.

And as American psychiatrist Karl Menninger said: “What we do to our children they do to society”…

Let’s think about this for a second. If a young boy doesn’t benefit from his mother’s unconditional love, he can become insecure, fearful and resort to aggression. Boys and young men have always been under pressure to prove themselves, we cannot change that. But we can have an influence on how they do it and on what they have to prove. If we look at different communities, we can see the different ‘hows’.

In healthy communities, usually associated with wealth and education, this can be a positive feedback loop of values, such as caring for a family and empowering one’s children with education.

In communities plagued by problems like poverty, high levels of substance abuse and crime, joining a gang seems to be one way to prove one’s manhood. Displaying violent and abusive behaviour towards women and others weaker than oneself is also a common pattern even though we know that’s not “what makes a man”.

The challenges in such communities are multiple. Mothers are often breadwinners and need to return to work as soon as they can, leaving an infant in need of love and care to the less loving care of others. But even if the mother is there and cares for the child — and this is important — that child often sees their mother, the source of their emotional and social grounding, disrespected if not abused by society. How does that skew their understanding of love and how society values it? How can they then value the love they receive?

I mention communities with challenges but we should remember that this happens everywhere. Gender bias is a reality in this world — women are just not worth as much as men — so even unconscious bias, subtle behaviours that people adopt (even women), are assimilated by children. That must affect how they value their mother’s love and the good it can do to them as developing young people.

Imagine how much emotionally stronger children could grow from that infinite, unconditional love, if society valued it as much as other, more patriarchal values?

So here’s an idea. Maybe we should see the fight for children’s and women’s rights from the perspective of what a nurturing, loving motherhood can do to the future leaders of this world — and understand that this love is really what we are fighting for, rather than “vulnerable people” that us privileged people feel disconnected from? After all, every one of us — you, me — we all have a mother who probably did her very best in her circumstances.

If we let mothers’ love flourish and nurture children, in a society that respects that love, maybe, just maybe we could create a generation of company board executives, law makers, community leaders — and generally people — who are a little less competitive, a little more generous and empathetic, a little less envious and maybe a little more trusting in each other’s humanity?

Some talk of a divine love that is unconditional and of gods that forgive anything and welcome you in their realm of paradise. Maybe we can make that happen down here already?

I experience that love for my kids. I feel that love every day when I see, hear, smell, touch, and kiss my children. Yet I am not a goddess or any extraordinary person in any way. I am just a mother — like so many women in this world. But thanks to opportunities, education, work, and a fabulously supportive husband, I have been given the chance to love infinitely and unconditionally.

My boys have made me a better person in so many ways. I am more forgiving of the world’s injustices because I have my boys to raise. I am more generous because I was given two beautiful children to love. I am more empathetic because I am acutely aware that every person I see comes from the womb of a mother. I am closer to people, however different from me, because everyone once was a bright-eyed child ready to learn the world. I am in awe of women everywhere because I see their unconditional love for their children in everything they do, in their drive and their struggles every day.

My two boys have given me the gift of unconditional love and I am changed forever for it. The little evidence I have from loving unconditionally is that it goes way beyond my boys and makes a big difference in how I navigate this men’s world — and that loving perspective is what I try to teach my sons and what I wish for every mother, father and child in this world to experience.

Thanks to Georgina, Erika, Karen, Mauricia, Rose, Mari (my mum), Kevin, Xavier and Cyprian and so many others for the inspiration. Thanks Bruce and Nav for the opportunity of honesty ☺

Assoc. Prof. UWC Physics & Astronomy. Associate Director Development & Outreach at IDIA. EPFL and Cambridge Alumna. ❤️ my family. On a cancer journey