What do Cinderella, Pinocchio, Madame Bovary and the Frankenstein monster all have in common? Aside from being characters in Western literature and film, they all share a common characteristic: they are all motherless. In their own way these works highlight the difficulty and suffering that comes with being born without a mother.
Motherlessness, while less of a prevalent issue in world today than fatherlessness, is no less detrimental to the overall wellbeing of children affected by it. According to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in November 2009, “there are approximately 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children.” Of these:
Approximately 84% of custodial parents are mothers, and
16% of custodial parents are fathers.
While a single-mother home remains much more common than a single-father home, the number of single-father households in the United States is steadily increasing.
In her book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (De Capo Press, 2006), author Hope Edelman estimated that around 330,00 girls under the age of 18 in the United States lost their mothers before they turned 18, and some 1.1 million women under the age of 60 lost their mothers before adolescence.
In addition to the physical loss of mothers through death, divorce or other means, there are still countless children who grow up with a lack of proper mother figures in their lives due to alcohol and/or drug use. This emotional absence of mothers in a household can often have the same if not more of a detrimental effect on children than their physical absence does. It is therefore important that this, too, be taken into account when discussing this issue.
The Effect of Motherless Households on Children
What affect does being motherless, either at birth or due to the loss of a mother at an early age, have on children? Much of the research on this topic has been done on the effects of motherlessness on girls. Aside from the obvious effects of grief over the loss of mothers for those who lose them at an early age, they are numerous:
Lack of a female role model, or “not having someone to give guidance on how to be a women in today’s society.”
Lack of a model for good parenting skills. Many women who grow up without mothers become overprotective of their children, or worse, become detached from their lives due to a lack of positive attachment in their own lives.
The effects of motherlessness on men, too, can be detrimental. Having or not having the positive model for developing healthy relationships with women that being raised by a mother brings greatly influences the development of these relationships later in life. Author Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, lost his mother at an early age and spent much of his life searching for the same or similar maternal characteristics in the women he courted.
Likewise, many (but by no means all) men who grow up without mothers become womanizers and/or have difficulties maintaining relationships with women because they are in constant search of the maternal characteristics they had lacked as children.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Did you grow up without a mother? If so, what difficulties have you experienced as the result? How have you adapted?
If you have grown up without a mother, or know someone who has, what advice can you give younger generations of motherless children? What advice can you give those caring for motherless children?
Do you think that there is a difference between the ways in which motherlessness affects men and the ways it affects women? Why or why not?
If you grew up with both parents, imagine how your life would be different without your mother. Do you think you would be a different person today? Why or why not?
What implications do you feel the presence of mothers physically but not emotionally has on this issue? Do children of these families still fall under the category “motherless” or do they belong in an altogether different category?
The above is by no means an exhaustive description of the effects of motherlessness on both children and adults. Statistically fatherlessness is more prevalent in our culture, motherlessness is still an important issue, as we have seen. As youth workers and/or those who care about youth it is imperative that we have an understanding of the issues that growing up without a mother cause so we can effectively reach out to an increasingly motherless generation.