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3 ways vulnerable mothers changed my view of motherhood

Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Motherhood is a high and holy calling. My work as a researcher and psychologist working with vulnerable children and families around the world has shown time and again that mothers are irreplaceable figures in a child’s life. When I became a mother, this truth impacted me even more deeply.

In those first days with my newborn, I was overwhelmed by my child’s desire for me. When she cried, she wanted me. I was her provider of safety, security, and connection. I began to understand in a profound way the weightiness of a mother’s effect on a child’s life and resonate with the challenges of mothers around the world.

In my work, I have the opportunity to learn from mothers whose children have been separated from their care.  Many of these children end up living in children’s homes, where more often than not, they have living parents or relatives who — with appropriate support — can often provide wonderful care for them. These mothers desire to raise their children but face obstacles such as poverty, illness, and disability that can make it seem impossible. For children to be separated from their mothers is tragic and far-reaching, impacting their present and future in profound ways.  However, evidence shows that when given even modest support, many of these families can be reunited.

I’ve witnessed it firsthand — I’ve seen the most beautiful family reunions and dignity restored when mothers realized they can parent well with the right support. For the last 15 years, this work with thousands of remarkable mothers has significantly shaped my view of motherhood in three distinct ways:

Mothers are resilient

Many of the mothers I have worked with grew up in very difficult circumstances, often without a model for what healthy motherhood could look like. As a result, they doubt their ability to mother their own children well.  But the challenges they face are inherited, not inherent. When we look below the surface, we see God-given strengths and resilience. Just like any of us, they have the capacity to grow and change. Even in the most imperfect situations, mothers can learn to care beautifully for their children.

Consider a woman in Malawi who grew up in a children’s home. Due to her upbringing separated from family, it was difficult for her to imagine how a healthy family would function. She has three children and worked long hours outside of their village. The children were eventually placed in a nearby children’s home, but the mother desperately wanted to be reunited. She did not want the same life for them that she previously had. The problem was, due to her past experience and limited resources, she didn’t fully believe she could raise them successfully.

But through the support of a caring caseworker, receiving the gift of goats, and the community found within a local mom’s group, this mother began to grow in both her capacity and confidence as a mother. In time, she was able to earn an income by selling cheese and milk and was reunited with her children.

She is just one example of millions of inspiring mothers who have overcome incredible obstacles to care for their children.

We are stronger together

When my first child was born, I was overwhelmed by my desire to love, care, nurture, and advocate for her. No one could do those things the way I could. But despite my naturally independent nature, I still had healthy doubts and questions about my ability to give her all she needed. I knew I needed a community of support.

We were made to thrive within relationships, depending on one another. All families need support. In many instances, that comes through natural means like extended family and neighbors. Sometimes it comes through church or nonprofit programs. Sometimes, the difference between a healthy family and a separated family is simply the connection to and support from other families in the community. 

No one can parent alone. Mothers and fathers need not only each other but also a supportive community.

A mother’s role is irreplaceable

Research shows that individuals who've experienced serious early adversity are more likely to have poor outcomes in life. But, when a child facing adversity possesses a secure attachment with a primary caregiver, the combination actually leads to better outcomes.

Mothers are critical to our kids’ ability to persevere and overcome. We serve as a buffer to their struggles, and their resiliency is directly related to their attachment to us. We all will face seasons of deep discouragement and sometimes even doubt our ability to parent the children God gave us. But even when we don’t do things perfectly, our steady presence and connection with our children will tremendously aid their long-term well-being.

Being a mom is a wonderful gift, and it’s also undeniably challenging. Children need families, and mothers need their children. Learning from the experiences of mothers around the world has helped me to see the profound importance of coming alongside fellow mothers in their journey.   When we invest in mothers, we benefit entire families, now and for generations to come.

Dr. Nicole Wilke is the Director of Center on Applied Research for Vulnerable Children and Families at the Christian Alliance for Orphans. CAFO unites more than 240 member NGOs collectively serving millions of children and families in more than 100 nations around the world.

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