Swimming up Stream

Swimming up Stream

“When I think back to my own mom, she always seemed so on top of things. I feel dismayed and guilty that I’m not handling things as well and feel a lot more frazzled than she seemed to be.”

We’ve heard this comment from many parents, and it’s both poignant and sadly unfair to the parents who feel this way, since times have changed so dramatically. In response, we’d like to offer these words.

Let’s step back for a minute and look at how we got here. During more than 99% of the time that humans (or our close ancestors) have lived on this planet, parents raised families in small groups of hunter-gatherers. If you had been among them, your life would have moved at the speed of a walk while you provided for your needs and fulfilled your ambitions with a child on your hip or nearby. You would have eaten fresh and organic foods saturated in micro-nutrients and breathed air and drunk water free of artificial chemicals. Most important of all, you would have spent much of your day with other parents, surrounded by a supportive community of relatives, friends, and neighbors. These are the conditions to which your body and mind are adapted for raising children.

Unfortunately, while the essential activities of parenting – pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, worrying and planning and loving with all your heart – have not altered one bit, our world has changed profoundly, and evolution hasn’t had time to catch up. You and we are genetically identical to the first modern humans of 200,000 years ago, and nearly identical to our earliest tool-using ancestors, who lived over two million years ago. Nonetheless, at odds with this basic genetic blueprint, most parents today must rush about stressfully, constantly juggling and multi-tasking. Few modern jobs can be done with young children around, so working means spending much of the day separated from your kids – and the stresses of the unnatural schedule and pace they must then handle affect them in ways that naturally spill over onto you. Compared to our ancestors, most of us eat much fewer vegetables and whole foods, and much more white flour, sugar, and artificial chemicals, and we can’t help absorbing some of the billions of pounds of toxins released into the environment each year, which even leave traces in breast milk. The so-called village it takes to raise a child usually looks more like a ghost town, so you have to rely more on your mate than did parents in times past – but he, too, is strained by the unprecedented busyness and intensity of modern life.

If you feel like you’re swimming upstream, it’s because raising children was not meant to be this way. Many of the problems that seem purely personal or marital actually start on the other side of your front door.

Of course, the world is not going to change back to the time of the hunter-gatherers (and we’d miss refrigerators and telephones too much if it did!). And those times certainly had their own difficulties, such as famine or disease. But, like every parent, you can’t help but feel the impact of the whirlwind we’re all living in. Just how you’re affected is as individual as a baby’s footprint. Some parents are fortunate to have low demands, substantial resources, and low vulnerabilities. All too often, however, the demands are high, resources are low, and resilience gets worn down: a parent’s “cupboard” gets emptied out and shaken and it’s an uphill struggle to get anything back in. No wonder that, over time, some signs of wear begin to show.

That’s why we think it’s so important you and every parent to take active steps to lower their stresses and increase her resources: that’s mother nurture.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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