Fathering researcher Andrea Doucet once described an incident she had with a group of sole-custody fathers. In an effort to support them in caring for children on their own, Doucet asked what help or resources they might want in an “ideal world.” After a long period of awkward silence, one dad finally spoke. “An ideal world would be one with a mother and a father. We’d be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true. How can there be an ideal world without a mother for the children?” Nods of agreement and murmurs of approval followed, giving Doucet an answer she never expected.

This group of men knew the pain of bitter divorces, even abandonment by their wives. Of all people, they might be expected to defend their capacity to raise children as single fathers. Yet they seemed to know firsthand that they could never replace the mother in the lives of their children.

And they were right. In an era when many see women and men as completely interchangeable, these fathers recognized an essential reality: mothers do something no one else can do in the same way.

Nearly a hundred years of research has repeatedly confirmed what the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded in 2003: “Maternal sensitivity” is the strongest and most consistent predictor of a child’s development. And that holds true whether a child spends most of the day in day care or at home with his mother. Her emotional availability to her child, her ability to respond positively, without being overly intrusive, lays the foundation for children's social-emotional health and cognitive development for the rest of their lives.

Even a 2-day-old infant can recognize the voice and face of his mother. Through this evidently hard-wired connection, a child learns how to relate to all other human beings. As three eminent psychiatrists from Berkeley described, “Whether they realize it or not, mothers use the universal signs of emotion to teach their babies about the world ….” That emotional connection gives them “a common language” years before a child learns to speak.

What mothers themselves don’t often realize is that in very ordinary interactions — feeding, bathing, clothing, changing diapers, playing — their natural, sensitive responses shape the brain of their child, building connections that form the “internal working model” for understanding all other relationships. And somehow she does this without even knowing — perceiving needs through fine-tuned inputs from her child, matching herself to their emotional state, then providing just the right amount of stimulation needed for the child’s development.

In a hundred thousand small acts of care she literally forms the core of a child’s sense of worth and capacity. In spite of the popular belief that power is wielded through a “public voice,” it is the private voice of a mother that shapes a generation.

The now-famous 75-year “Happiness study” of a group of Harvard students tracked from youth to death, recently concluded that while it is possible to recover from a painful childhood, “memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.” Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned $87,000 more a year, were more effective at work and were less likely to develop dementia than men who didn’t. Happiness in later life was not associated with parental social class, or even income. It was the warmth of childhood — with its associated influence on a person’s capacity to give and receive love — that predicted a happy and successful life.

Comment on this story

Mother's Day can be painful because it seems to remind us of the ways we fall short of the “ideal” — whether that means not being able to have the children we yearn for or not being able to care well enough for the ones we have. But Mother's Day is not a celebration of the ideal. It is a celebration of reality — mothers all over the world and throughout time have given something no one else could do in the same way. The best thing we can do on Mother's Day is to strengthen women in doing what they alone can do so well.

Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.