Without strong family and faith, further nourished by a believing church community, how is identity shaped?
I lost my mother to cancer when I was 16 and she was 54. She would have been 103 on October 17 this year. That week at church Ed and I donated the altar flowers in her memory, in gratitude for her life and faith. We were given the flowers to take home, so I posted a picture on Facebook, with a few comments. I was surprised to see a flood of responses, including some sweet and unexpected reminiscences of my mother from decades ago. Several weeks later, the mother of my dearest friend died of cancer. I cherish the opportunity I was given to play the organ, piano and sing at her funeral service in Lindsay, Ontario.
In most mother-daughter relationships there are trying moments. There were for me; there were for my friend. But the blessings of a godly mother vastly outweigh any troubles. My mother was a woman of strong faith, as was my friend’s. Further, our mothers (and fathers) realized that passing on their faith was the greatest gift they could give their children. They instilled it in us from birth; with God’s grace, it took root and flourished.
Both my friend and I also recognize the immense role of our fathers in our personal and faith development. Yet who I am today was first of all shaped by the daily nurturing presence of my mother. It was she who bore me, fed me, first held and consoled me; sang, talked and read to me; and taught me “No!”
Without strong family and faith, further nourished by a believing church community, how is identity shaped? Millions of young people now seem at a loss about who they are. Many are experimenting with changing their sexual identity and with identity politics. Clearly, these are not satisfactory answers. Drug use is at opioid-crisis level. Mental illness in the young has dramatically increased. Studies show that fueling that increase is familial instability, exacerbated by a void of the broad, deep community (and church) relationships common in the past.
Nor is advanced education a cure. Many “privileged” Ivy League students exhibit anxiety and rootlessness. Ill-equipped to confront crises, they have been called “snowflakes” who melt at the first sign of distress, “triggered” by ordinary problems and opinion differences. I admit that my own reaction to such infantile lack of self-awareness and other-awareness has not been kind. But an essay I read while still thinking of my mother and my friend’s mother put the situation in a different light.
Now ‘tribal,’ not familial
Author Mary Eberstadt says that such young people have been “cheated by their own families.” A third of young people do not live with both biological parents. Large numbers also grow up – from infancy – with their mothers out of the house most of the time. They “no longer know what almost all of humanity once knew: a reliable circle of faces, many biologically related to oneself, present during early and adolescent life. That continuity helped to make possible the plank-by-plank construction of identity as son or daughter, cousin or grandfather, mother or aunt, and the rest of what’s called, tellingly, the family tree.” Eberstadt concludes, “Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial.”
Mothers have a special role in teaching us how to conduct ourselves, how to relate to others, in helping us launch into adulthood. New York psychologist-researcher Erica Komisar notes that babies are born unable to handle stress and regulate emotions. Mothers serve as a set of “emotional-regulation training wheels” for children, especially in the first three years (after which we can internalize regulating our emotions). That’s why “mothers need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1,000 days.”
God-created distinct biology and brain function gives mothers and fathers distinct roles (which is not to say those roles don’t overlap). It is primarily our mothers who nurture our emotional management, empathy, self-awareness and sense of well-being. The rewards are bountiful for all involved. Pray for the young who do not have such mothers. And give thanks to God with all your heart if you do!