I might be a year late in discussing this topic, given that the books “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” by Amy Chua and “Hiroshima in the Morning” by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto were published well over a year ago. Perhaps it took this one year for some of this information to be thought through more thoroughly. Lately I have been thinking about the concept of “mothering.” Two other words came to mind as I played around with the concept. The words are “smothering” and “othering.” Of course, “othering” isn’t an actual grammatically correct word. It is derived from the concept of “Other”, which is a familiar concept in psychodynamic theory and philosophy.

Smothering is just one letter ‘s’ in addition to “mothering” and, in a parallel sense, it is something of an excess. An excessive involvement in parenting (or in any caring relationships) can be experienced as smothering by the recipient. It is a feeling of intrusion and enmeshment, where inappropriate and confusing attachment bonds are set. Meanwhile, othering is just one letter ‘m’ short of “mothering” and, in parallel sense, it is something of a lack. An absence or lack of involvement in parenting (or caring relationship) can be experienced as an othering by the recipient. It is a feeling of exclusion and detachment, where sufficient attachment bonds can not be made easily.

The Tiger Mom concept appears to highlight the “smothering” aspect of parenting, while the Hiroshima Mom concept appears to highlight the “othering” aspect of parenting. In an era where there are bountiful of self help books and parenting manuals, where does that leave a parent, particular the mother, who is usually still the primary caregiver of a child?

The question is, then, what is mothering?

I think the fallacy in answering this simple question, is the assumption that somehow mothering might be static, as if one type of it, or one rule that governs it applies through the course of time and outside the context of the relationship that the whole parenting is based in.

First, mothering is not static. An infant develops over the course of time. There are definite developmental milestones that occur as the child grows older. The mother also changes with experience. Each stage requires different aspects of mothering. An infant might need a little more “smothering” because the infant cannot and does not know what is needed, and what is available, so the mother has to be available and readily attuned. However, as the child develops more capacity to process information and communicates more effectively, “smothering” is not necessary any longer. “Othering” kicks in here. But then, the child is always dependent on the adult parent, and a complete “othering” isn’t appropriate. Perhaps this is the grey murky area for parents and where the search for expert advice and manuals seem so necessary to guide the parent as such that the path would not feel so lost. It feels as if the parent is alone in this experience, otherwise.

The parent isn’t alone in this. The child is right there with her. This is where the second exception comes in. Parenting is done in the context of a relationship. There is a dialogue, a feedback loop, or an action and response cycle. It might be the child is not speaking in a language that could be readily understood by the parent. Perhaps the child is still too young for linguistic development, or the child’s vocabulary is limited, or the child’s cognitive ability to understand or express concepts is limited. However, communication is 93% non-verbal. The nuances of this non-verbal communication can be a challenge to pick up and translate. Yet, it is not impossible, since we do it all the time.

There is much room for mistakes since it’s not explicit or direct, but it does not mean we can not listen (with our ears, eyes, and hearts) and respond to the best of our educated guess. If this is the case, it seems that a little mix of “smothering” with this fine vigilance and “othering” with a respect for the child’s developmental capacity to process and respond could create the necessary “mothering”. It is not perfect since it’s based on hunches in response to the child’s attempts to communicate. But it is good enough as both mother and child stumble along.

I think that is why it is an active word with a suffix of “-ing” because it is a dynamic endeavor.


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