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Let's Care for Mothers: Mothering the Mother

"Mothering the Mother" is the advice of Dr. Dana Raphael, a student of the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, based on her experience with marriage and child-raising as a graduate student, and her anthropological research in the traditional cultures of Africa, the Philippines, and other regions. It underscores the importance of the support of other mothers when a woman becomes a mother, in particular, emotional support as a woman experiences pregnancy, childbirth, and raises children. If mothering is the loving care given by the mother, "mothering the mother" refers to the gentle care and encouragement that others give the new mother. As you may already know, Dr. Raphael discovered the concept of the "doula," a woman who is specially trained for "mothering the mother," Dr. Raphael's idea is one that is indeed rich in meaning.

For some time in Japan as well, child-raising has been considered a joint effort by both the mother and father. In reality, however, the mother still plays a large role, not only, of course, in infancy, but even after children enter school. Perhaps this is because pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising are stages of life that in some respects only women can fulfill. On the other hand, I suppose that this is also because fathers do not fully understand their role as an essential partner in child rearing, which is reflected in the predominant idea that fathers begin to take part in child rearing when their child is old enough to play catch.

Furthermore, in Japan, day care centers are the only facilities provided by society to support child rearing. Day care centers, however, have a number of restrictions, and the support they can offer is limited both quantitatively and qualitatively. In this sense, the current situation is unable to fully utilize the capacities of child care professionals.

As a result, raising children becomes a responsibility that takes a mental and physical toll on mothers. Mothers often become irritated and overly anxious about child rearing or the mother-child relationship descends into a downward spiral that is not beneficial to either one, which sometimes leads to such tragedies as child abuse. In particular, because of large hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy and childbirth, the mother is susceptible to postpartum depression, and these pressures may only aggravate her condition. It is necessary, of course, for the father, but also for other people supporting the mother, to understand the nature of the emotional and mental state of the mother at this time.

The Benesse Institute for Child Sciences and Parenting conducted a self-administered survey in November 2006 of couples expecting their first child and those with a first child between 0-2 years of age, and examined the various views and attitudes of these prospective and new parents. In October 2007, this was published as "The First Basic Survey on Childbirth and Child Rearing." In February 2009, it published "The Follow-up Survey of the First Basic Survey on Childbirth and Child Rearing," based on the results obtained from 400 couples, including those in the 2006 survey and additional couples. It employed a questionnaire and interviews of some of the subjects. Please refer to this comprehensive survey report for details, but here I would like to note the data corroborates the importance of this "mothering the mother" support advocated by Dr. Raphael.

For example, among the mothers who replied that there were three or more people who would watch out for and scold her child, the number feeling confident about raising children was 1.6 times more than those who lacked confidence. Comparing mothers who answered that they had no one, one person, or about two people who would watch out for or scold her child, an overwhelming percentage answered that they felt confident about raising children. In the case of mothers who reported having three or more people they could talk to about child-related problems, the number of confident mothers was 1.4 times more than unconfident mothers.

Not surprisingly, couples reported that the person they most frequently consulted about child-rearing was their spouse, followed by their parent(s). One noteworthy result was the relatively high percentage of mothers (wives) reporting that they consulted friends/acquaintances or friends in same group of mothers, which was much higher than the percentage seeking advice from an obstetrician/gynecologist.

In addition, the survey presents a view of the child-rearing support network in Japan today as mainly consisting of a combination of the spouse, family and relatives, friends and child-care professionals. When asked about this network during pregnancy and at childbirth when they began to actually care for the child, more mothers who reported an increase in their support network answered that they enjoyed child-raising or felt it was satisfying compared to mothers who reported a decrease in support.

In the survey, friends/acquaintances were often cited as those who would watch out for the child or who could be counted on to give advice. Considering this fact, we can see that their support consists of conversation, that is, emotional support that offers kind understanding and encouragement.

In the early stages of her research, Dr. Raphael researched the success rate of breastfeeding among new mothers living in New York. She compared new mothers whose own mothers lived in New York city or the suburbs and could be easily reached by telephone and those whose mothers were separated geographically by greater distance, two or three hours away by plane in Texas or California. She was surprised to find that new mothers with mothers nearby and who reported that they could see them easily anytime showed increased breast milk flow and a high rate of breastfeeding success. This indicates both the heightened emotional sensitivity of mothers during the stages of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing as well as the importance of emotional support.

Clearly, to resolve the various issues of child-rearing that confront us today, we need to organize team-like structures that incorporate the family and go beyond it as well to support "mothering the mother" in a way that responds to our society today.

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