“Your first breath took ours away”: The science behind the lifetime promotion of motherhood

A woman becoming a mother is a powerful force. According to science, parenthood is one of the most challenging normative developmental life stages.

Photo credit: Dakota Corbin

Even in developed countries, such as Australia, motherhood can be challenging. I remember meeting a poverty-stricken young mother. She was a single mother with little financial resources and her first baby was due in a few months.

She embraced her arms around her body and slouched in the chair she was in, but never able to find comfort in the chair.

The woman did not look well at all so I thought that the least I could do was say hello and ask her how she was.

“I am so glad that you stopped to say hello. I have not spoken to anyone in weeks,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s just good to chat to people. I’m Jared. What was your name?”

“It’s Deanna. My goodness I am so hungry. I have not eaten for several hours and I need to eat because I have a little human growing inside of me and it’s my first one and the baby and I just wanted to get some food but we don’t have enough money to get anything.”

Deanna took in a deep breath and exhaled audibly.

“Not a problem. There’s…”
“Anything will do… ummm… Macca’s (Australian slang for McDonald’s), yes we’ll have that.”

“Okay! You can order whatever you like. Don’t worry about what it costs.”

“Thank you, thank you! If I have a son I will name him after you, Jared.”

Her compliment was endearing. Even though I felt like I did not do very much, the kind gesture must have meant so much more to her.

A healthy mother makes for a healthy child. 

Thus, investing into the health and welfare of women, mothers and particularly young mothers makes a lot of sense! Matrascence, the process of becoming a mother, can be dangerous in some parts of the world. However, according to the World Health Organization, between 1990 and 2013 maternal mortalities have dropped dropped by 50%.

Christy Turlington Burns knows all too well about maternal mortality and birth complications. Christy is a mother with a long list of many other roles — former supermodel, founder and CEO of the global maternal health organisation Every Mother Counts. During the delivery of her first child, Grace, she endured a birth complication.

The placenta, the external foetal organ that provides nutrients and oxygen to the foetus, became embedded in her uterus wall causing her to bleed heavily. Failure to deliver the placenta after the baby has been delivered can result in an excessive bleeding condition known as a postpartum haemorrhage (PPH). Fortunately, the quick medical intervention at a New York birthing centre saved the lives of Christy and her daughter.

Realising how close she was from becoming another maternal mortality statistic, Christy began campaigning for global maternal health care, particularly for poverty-stricken mothers, so that they would not have to go through the same complications she experienced with her first child.

What is most surprising is that the majority of maternal deaths are preventable. Christy has advocated through Every Mother Counts  that, “Together, we can make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere.”

A woman becoming a mother appears, at least in the brain, similarly to falling in love.

The neuroscientist Dr. Elseline Hoekzema and her team at Leiden University in the Netherlands discovered consistent changes in the brains of pregnant women that facilitate the transition into motherhood. After having a baby, the mothers showed shrinking in the frontal and temporal cortex. The brains of the mothers were fine-tuning their neural connections for mother-child bonding.

“The changes could confer an advantage for the mother by strengthening her ability to read the needs of her infant,” says Dr. Elseline.

An increase in the naturally produced hormone oxytocin during breastfeeding, the same hormone released when people fall in love, may help explain why researchers have found that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive to the sound of their babies’ cries than non-breastfeeding mothers.

Some women think that “good enough”, a phrase coined by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, is unacceptable since it sounds like complacency. However, striving for perfection sets women up to feel guilt and shame.

There is considerable pressure on mothers in contemporary Western society to be a ‘good mother’. However, what makes a mother ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and how does she prove that she is good?

Mothers are presented by the media with a variety of different stereotypes to choose from. There is the earth mother who devotes her every waking hour to her children; the supermom/mum who juggles a full-time career with childcare and housework.

Motherhood is a lifetime vocation. It can be unrealistic for women to constantly live up to the ‘good mother’ ideology throughout her life even after her children have left home. The ‘good mother’ ideology suggests that she must be the principal caregiver to her children. However, she should not be smothering and over-protective. She should always be there for her children, but at the same time be a good role model by demonstrating self-fulfillment and job satisfaction. She should produce independent and well-rounded children, but also give them unconditional love whatever they do and however they turn out.

It is basically impossible for a mother to fulfil all of these duties perfectly all the time which may cause some women to experience maternal guilt.

Ann Marie Houghtailing, a business development coach, is a mother of two boys who strives “to raise good men” whilst juggling a career in business. Ann Marie believes that raising her sons is the most important social imprint she will leave on the world.

alt="Ann Marie Houghtailing speaking at TEDxSanDiego"
Photo credit: TEDxSanDiego

In a TEDx San Diego talk she said, “Our sons come into the world… who will one day hold great power as presidents, CEOs or who knows? But more significantly as husbands and fathers and lovers.” Raising men, as she has stated, is a “high-stakes endeavour.”

“All of us here want to leave the world better than we found it. As a mother of sons, my very best shot is to raise good men,” says Ann Marie.

Mothers can be good role models of a healthy love relationship. According to psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman,“Boys learn more from their mothers about how to love more than their fathers.”

He has also stated that mothers can serve as good role models of how to treat a woman with respect.

Dr. Linda Stone Fish, a social worker from Syracuse University, has said, “If a woman has had a poor relationship with her father (or parents in general), she could still take steps to create a warm and loving relationship with good communication with her son.”

Every interaction a mother has with her son has the potential to shape his perspective and impact his future relationships.

Motherhood comes with it an identity shift – the most significant physical and psychological changes a woman will ever experience. Whether a woman parents her child as her mother raised her, or adopts a different style, becoming a mother provides an opportunity for a woman to re-experience her own childhood in the act of parenting, repeating what was good and trying to improve what was not.

The mother-child relationship can act as a form of preventative medicine.

Similarly to sons, the relationship a mother has with her daughter can influence her health, self-esteem and relationships.

According to Suzanne Degges-White, a counseler and author from Northern Illinois University, has said, “Essentially, it’s a female’s first experience of an intimate relationship, and through this relationship we learn about trust, about separation and connection, about putting another’s needs ahead of our own, and about who we are as individuals.”

Mothers play an important role in developing their adolescent daughter’s sexual attitudes and behaviours through:

1) Closeness between parent and child

2) Healthy parental modelling of sexual activity

3) Parental monitoring

4) Parental sexual risk communication.

Of the four facets, sexual risk communication is most critical as it prevents against STIs and HIV. Whilst parental monitoring and other processes are important determinants for the number of sexual partners. Thus, mothers can positively influence their daughters’ attitudes and sexual behaviours through risk communication.

A mother’s reactions to how her adolescent daughter self-evaluates her body image as well as a mother’s own perceptions provide the first significant external criteria which girls begin to evaluate themselves as women. Interestingly, how feminine a mother perceives herself to be is related to her daughter’s self-perceptions of femininity as well.

Adolescence is a time in which communication between mother and daughter become characteristically strained. Girls experience heightened self-consciousness of their changing bodies whilst mothers are entrusted in their role as a parent to help their daughters cope with the demands of becoming a woman.

Motherhood raises existential questions about mortality and the meaning of life. 

Christina Prinds, an assistant professor in gynaecology and obstetrics from the University of Southern Denmark, and her colleagues conducted a systematic review of the experiences of pregnant women from around the world on their transition to motherhood.

The introduction of a baby can deepen the relationship a woman has with her partner.


Some women may reflect on the differences in responsibilities before and during motherhood.

Photo credit: Toa Heftiba

The transition into motherhood can bring about mixed emotions.

Photo credit: Jens Lindner

Irrespective of religion or culture, women may feel a sense of spirituality attached to becoming a mother.

Photo credit: London Scout

It may be during extreme bodily challenges that people gain new existential insight into who they are, and for some women birth may provide this. Motherhood reorganises values and what makes life worth living. For some women, motherhood could also be interpreted as a spiritual experience.

Motherhood is not a competitive sport

To all the mothers out there, everything you want for your family and for yourself pales in comparison to what you will actually work hard for. Amongst all of the science and all of the stories, there will come lots of moments of doubt and lots of moments of fear. You may fail in your work, health and relationships far more than you have the possibility to imagine. However, in those failures you will find the richest of successes.


Was there anything I missed?

In what ways has your own mother help you achieve and become the person you are today?

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6 thoughts on ““Your first breath took ours away”: The science behind the lifetime promotion of motherhood

  1. Hi Lois. That is a very startling issue. However, it is so good to see people like Christy Turlington Burns advocating for safe childbirths through Every Mother Counts.

  2. A great project. Childbirth problems are happening everywhere. The U.S. is a developed country, but recent reports say there is a higher childbirth death of mothers than in most underdeveloped countries. Sad. But, she has a great project.

  3. Wow! What a timely article! Motherhood is not a competitive sport! Well said! As a teacher I see women competing with each other when really they need support.

  4. Interesting post. Aren’t mothers great? I can’t wait to be one myself and can’t even really fathom the enormity of what it will be like to bring a child into the world and care for it. And I can definitely relate to having some Macca’s for breaky because I’m Australian haha!

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