Motherhood as fungible

Fungibility is defined as the property of a commodity, the components of which are essentially interchangeable. Although the term is most used in the fields of economics and engineering, it has recently become a personal favourite for many reasons. An important one is its possible applicability to human relationships. In this essay, I use it to discuss mothering based on my understanding of family life. As I do, of course, I stand on the shoulders of giants in the field, Dr. Anandalakshmy, Dr. Khalakdina, Jaan Valsiner, Heidi Keller, Tom Weisner, Robert Serpell, Naomi Quinn, Alma Gottlieb and several others.

The discussion of motherhood is not to deny the importance of the father and others, but in fact to bring them in central place in a child’s life. As I argue later, if we treated mothering as a verb rather than a noun, we may see things somewhat differently.

Stamping our babies: Attachment style

I recently came across this article on the internet. Yes, its your parents’ fault, where it is claimed among other things that “By the end of our first year, we have stamped on our baby brains a pretty indelible template of how we think relationships work, based on how our parents or other primary caregivers treat us.” Did she actually get away with the expression “STAMPED”? Anyway, the rest of the article flows a little easier on the subject, but what is most illuminating is the content of the 400 odd comments from people writing in with their views.

As a reaction to this article, I developed some points regarding this image of the mother as all-encompassing and isolated, My experience with Indian families (and others as well) has led me to the conclusion that motherhood is in fact fungible, and mothers performing the responsibility of the primary care for children are in reality NOT all-encompassing and certainly not isolated in most parts of the world. Furthermore, if we take the caring (or mothering, fathering and parenting) as a verb and not a noun, we get a slightly different perspective. This is not an attempt to underestimate mothers (far from it) but to expands the lens and focus also on the others who assist. Such situations of multiple caregiving should not automatically be assumed to be detrimental to children’s attachments and their developing capacity to form relationships later in life as Attachment theorists assume.

Every mother (and indeed every parent) lives with the fear of their own imagined absence in a child’s life, even if it is temporary. The desire to stay alive and well until children have reached maturity and independence is strong.

Care consists of a set of activities that can be exclusively the responsibility of a single person or many. For as long as she is alive, the mother will, under most circumstances (singlularity, partnership, multiplicity) remain the most important person in a child’s life. So, as I mentioned earlier, this is not an underestimation of the mother, but in fact, an assertion that she is so important that societies arrange alternatives through regular support and substitution because of her centrality. Evidence can be seen through the prolific use of ‘mother’ in several kin terms (ma-si, translates as ‘like-mother’ for mother’s sister; Badi or chhoti mama: big or small mother are a few examples from Hindi), and in the phenomenon of fictive kinship (addressing unrelated people with kin terms).

What are the solutions to this basic cultural task of children’s care in different societies? Is a mother indispensable? Can and should mothers be replaceable? Should we actively search for substitutes? Does the construction of motherhood in any community depend on demographics like longevity, fertility rates, mortality rates? Should societies have provisions for support and substitution? Are large families a way of ensuring fungibility?

Let’s focus on what we know:

  • Every society has a protocol for bringing up children according to which standards are defined and maintained, formally or informally, and families and individuals are evaluated against these norms
  • People believe in the efficacy, value and significance of normative practices for the socialization of young children to become functional members of their respective group/s
  • Shared models of care are ecologically, culturally and historically arranged for and adapted to a given set of circumstances.
  • By and large, people’s orientations towards cultural practices, especially about the significance of child-care, are deep-rooted and enduring
  • Global models of childhood, care, development, parenting, mothering, and attachment are developed around the ideal of the nuclear family, a husband, wife and child. This is not the prevailing model in many parts of the world
  • Phenomena like multiple caregiving, sibling care, community supervision, apprenticeship, gender fluidity, multilingualism, joint households are either silenced or treated as peculiar.
  • There is a tendency to attribute people’s choices primarily to psychological factors whereas attitudes, values and practices are based on a delicately balanced but enduring dialogue between people and their environments. So, cultural solutions have ecological wisdom
  • Therefore, shared child care practices that make local sense need to be respected and preserved and transposing standards between settings without adequate attention to contextual factors is unscientific and unjustifiable

When we use alien paradigms to evaluate cultural practices, almost always, target populations are placed at a disadvantage. The contents of this article is a case in point: : The opening claims are as follows and signal towards a universalised idea of parenting because of which people are judged to be ignorant and lacking in “theoretical knowledge” whatever that may be.

Mothers are essential, and perhaps that’s why many societies have arranged for motherhood to be fungible

Imagined relationships between an infant and mother as an isolated dyad developed within Attachment theory is more the exception than the rule, and a universal application of this standard hints at mental-health and well-being (an important outcome of infant attachment relationships) as the exclusive preserve of the WEIRD model. Given the fact that demographic trends in the developed world are moving towards a further breakdown of families into single parent units, the seriousness of this issue becomes even more relevant. If we believe that the infant needs ONLY a mother, the formula for children’s well-being could soon be challenged, because outcomes of single parenting have not been favourable (Raj Chetty and the Harvard group), to say the least. But the legal and social support for single parenting could also have resulted in a greater acceptance of this minimal model. Please note that I am not promoting the idea of permanent domestic commitments when there are reasons to separate, but the fact that children benefit from the presence of others in their lives, especially under difficult circumstances.

Could the acceptance of single parenthood have emerged from Attachment theory? It seems quite possible since it positions a single relationship as important and adequate. Perhaps if we promoted the idea that it takes, for the sake of argument, 20 people at least to adequately care for a child, surely our policies would be affected by that ideology. But when you position one relationship (mother/father) as sufficient, it becomes increasingly acceptable. I wonder if we think about the mother in all this. What about her well-being? There is enough research (my friend Suniya Luther and colleagues have been working on this issue for decades) to demonstrate that mothers need support if they are to be effective and happy mothers.

Perhaps it is tough or even impossible to advise against the shrinking family in today’s world, but we seriously need to expand the base for child care based on a wider view of childhood care. This is both for the sake of the children and their parents. It is also important to work against the imposition of a single global ideal and promote local solutions for the care of children. Mothers are essential, but they need not and should not be alone, and our Vision (2020) for family caregiving needs to be inclusive; and the place of others in children’s lives needs to be put back into policy and programmes for children. Motherhood was meant to be a fungible task constituting activities that can be completed by a number of different people, with the primary caregiver, the mother, at the centre.

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