By the time my husband and I had our first child, I’d been exposed to years of research and theory about the influence of parents on children. Early attachment theory had long provided evidence for the importance of mothers. Maternal sensitivity was identified as the strongest and most consistent predictor of children’s development. Countless other studies indicated fathers’ key influence on children’s safety, social behaviors and sexual development. And then there was the massive body of research exploring the effects of parental discipline and interaction patterns. Entering motherhood, I knew that, for better or worse, I mattered in the lives of our children. They needed me and the best that I could give.
What I was not prepared for, however, was how much I needed their influence on me. There is research on some aspects of that, or course: Men and women who have children live longer than their childless counterparts, even when holding everything else equal. Neuropsychological research indicates that motherhood alters the brain of a mother — enhancing certain cognitive abilities that are important to helping offspring survive and thrive. Fathers, in turn, experience changes that prime them to be more nurturing, attentive and less aggressive. Men with children earn 40 percent more income than their childless counterparts, engage in less risky behaviors and live longer.
But it was not those influences that surprised me when I became a mother. What surprised me was how mothering our children opened my eyes to myself, and many weaknesses that I knew I needed to change. As a mother, I cannot fake kindness, patience, organization, discipline and humility all day. In ordinary moments as my character is tested, I get to see who I truly am, and most humbling of all they get to see who I am.
I know I am not alone in those feelings. Michael Novak once described, “Being married and having children has impressed on my mind certain lessons. Most of what I am forced to learn about myself is not pleasant. The quantity of sheer impenetrable selfishness in the human breast (in my breast) is a never-failing source of wonderment. Seeing myself through the unblinking eyes of an honest spouse [and child] is humiliating beyond anticipation .”
Which is, as Novak recognized, why we so desperately need families — and children. Our recognition of their dependence and need for us is exactly what keeps us repenting, trying to do better and give better. In our efforts to care we see how far we fall from what they might really need, and it invites us to humbly seek for better.
Leo Tolstoy understood this well. In "Anna Karenina," he describes the effect of Anna’s extramarital affair on her abandoned son. Repeatedly, in his daily walks, Seryozha is “constantly keeping a lookout for his mother.” But he does not find her, and one is left with a poignant image of his broken heart. For Tolstoy, as scholar David Patterson notes, Seryozha, like all children, is “the compass which showed the degree of [his mother’s and her lover’s] divergence from what they knew was right, but did not want to see.”
I, like Anna, have sometimes not wanted to see what the “compass” caring for our children reveals to me about how far I have diverged. But it is far more painful to think about life without that precious compass to guide me.
In our current culture, we don’t often talk about children being an irreplaceable “compass.” Instead we talk a lot about how expensive and exhausting children are; how mothers, in particular, should carefully weigh the effect children will have on their career dreams. But the truth is, we need children. We need children because we need to be changed. We need what nurturing them teaches us, what it reveals to us about ourselves and the change that it invites in us.
It has been painful to be so exposed to my own weaknesses in mothering. And the truth is, I recognize I will always be far from where I know might be best for them. Yet, how can I be grateful enough for them, for teaching me, for inviting me (or forcing me) out of myself? As Novak so poignantly says, ‘They are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.”
Before having children, I had thought much about how they would need me — but now I know it was really I who needed them. I needed them to need the best in me, because it would invite me to try to become just that for them.
Jenet Erickson is a family sciences researcher and a former assistant professor at Brigham Young University who lives in Salt Lake City.