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Teachers College, Columbia University
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What's a Mother to Do?

Suniya Luthar explores the stresses of society’s toughest job  

By BARBARA FINKELSTEIN

ALL ROADS LEAD TO MOM. PSYCHOLOGISTS from Sigmund Freud (see “Oedipus complex”) to Donald Winnicott (the “good enough mother”) have essentially agreed: Mothers, because they typically provide a child’s first bonding experience, can bestow or withhold the love that every human being needs to thrive.

But to whom does Mom turn when she needs a good enough mother?

“The world expects mothers to be pillars of strength,” says Suniya Luthar, Professor of Psychology and Education. “But the stress that comes from making decisions—‘Mom, can I go to a party tonight?’ ‘Mom, do I have to go to religious school?’—depletes you.”

Now Luthar is writing a book tentatively titled Who Mothers Mommy?

A clinical and developmental psychologist, Luthar has spent her career looking at the impact of different environments on mothers and families, both affluent and poor. In a five-year study launched in 1998, she tested a radically simple hypothesis: Providing poor, substance-abusing mothers with mothering-like supports could change their behaviors and create better odds for their children. She and her co-investigators randomly assigned one group of women to a Relational Psychotherapy Mothers’ Group (RPMG), led by an empathic therapist who, through role play, encouraged effective parenting and helped the drug-addicted mothers unite in coping with isolation and stress.

A second group of women received conventional methadone treatment plus an “add-on” called recovery training (RT). The approach focused on adopting a drug-free lifestyle, coping with cravings and avoiding triggers (situations that lead to abusing drugs) and other dangers.

At the end of the six-month treatment, the mothers receiving RPMG had more significantly reduced their drug use and were reporting less depression. Their children also reported significant improvements in distress. But six months later, the benefits of RPMG had all but vanished (and, in two cases, had reversed) while the mothers who had received RT showed moderate gains.

Does that mean that mothering mothers doesn’t work?

To the contrary, Luthar believes the findings strongly validated it—and that withdrawal of a consistent, supportive environment for women who had never previously experienced one may have increased distress. Another possible effect: Mothers receiving RPMG may also have felt newly empowered to believe they could choose their actions and broader roles in life—a glimpse of autonomy that may have created new stresses and discontents.

Luthar turned to the issue of choice in part because of her decadelong research on affluent families. Her studies of that demographic found that teenagers from financially secure families smoked more cigarettes and marijuana, drank more alcohol and used more illicit drugs than their inner-city counterparts. In part, their behaviors resulted from feeling pressure to be academically and professionally successful—but the wealthier teens may also have been better equipped than low-income peers to resist parental discipline.

“These kids tend to argue like sophisticated lawyers,” Luthar says. “They lay guilt trips on parents. They come home and say, ‘Mom, everybody’s doing it’—smoking pot, binge-drinking, cheating on tests.” These difficult conversations most often fall to mothers, Luthar says—and when discipline fails, everyone, from policy makers to school principals, tends to blame Mom.

Of course, affluent mothers often do over-emphasize material success, Luthar says—and when they do, they are creating additional stresses in their own lives.

“How often do you hear people celebrating goodness and kindness and connections to people who are authentic?” she asks. “The value in our culture is to get the latest model Lexus, to get your children into Harvard. If you, as a mother, are trying to instill values of kindness and decency, you inevitably come up against this cultural bias.”
 The bottom line, Luthar concludes, is, “How can you nurture if you’re not nurtured yourself?”

In Who Mothers Mommy?, Luthar hopes to synthesize all her research since the early 1990s. Ultimately, she believes that inner-city and affluent mothers are in the same boat. “We can ask both sets of mothers, ‘Do you feel truly seen and loved for the person you are at your core?’ How many mothers can answer yes?”   


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