The way of a mother with her young is arguably the most intimate of all mammalian relationships. In large measure, this is due to the mechanics of anatomy and physiology. Mothers come equipped with the biological ability to conceive, gestate, give birth and lactate. There is a physical connection between mother and child in which the mother is the literal lifeline for the child.
However, the task of motherhood is a great deal more complicated than these physiological mechanics. According to evolutionary scientists, offspring are not all capable of taking the nurturing given them by their parents and translating that nurturance into the long-term preservation of parental genetic material. As a result, maternal effort may not be allocated in equal measure to all the children of one mother.
From this point of view, mothers have developed mechanisms based on motivation, which regulate their decisions as to how much maternal effort they might invest in a particular child. In part, this may depend upon the attributes of the child, material circumstances and social standing. Another salient factor may be the age of the mother and her point along the path of lifecycle development.
It is difficult to measure the ways that mothers invest and allocate their attention to their children. For one thing, the offspring by definition have conflicting interests and may vie for or avoid maternal attention using different methods at different times. These variables cannot be factored into the equation with any measure of precision.
As well, it is normal for a certain level of conflict to exist between parents and offspring as the nature of a species with the capability of sexual reproduction. This is due to the asymmetry of the mother/child relationship. A mother is related in equal measure to each of her offspring. However, each child has a closer relationship to itself than to its siblings.
The mother and offspring subconsciously measure and assess the breeding value of each other. Accordingly, the mother allocates the optimal amount of maternal investment to be given to each of her offspring, on a case by case basis, to the one who is thought to be most likely to breed successfully and pass on parental genetic material. Each of the siblings is selected to pine and vie for more maternal investment than is optimal for the mother's own health in order to take what is needed to fulfill the biological imperative to reproduce. These issues help to explain the more confusing aspects of the interactions of a mother and child, for instance, conflicts over weaning and toddler tantrums.
From a societal perspective, there is an expectation that a person of female gender will have certain traits, behaviors and experiences. Part of this expectation includes the societal tendency to see a woman according to her potential as a mother rather than as a businesswoman capable of professional success. Since the biological capabilities of a woman are such that she can bear and feed offspring, patriarchal societies see these physiological facts as determining the natural role of the woman. The converse of this idea is that a woman who follows a professional path chooses an "unnatural" course for her fulfillment.
As an extension of this line of thought, a woman who has no children, one who is infertile and the woman who displays traits unrelated to nurturance, for instance, striving for power or professional success, are seen as unfeminine. A woman may even be cautioned against certain behaviors that are said to endanger or even damage her femininity. These attitudes and perceptions remain dominant in society despite the work of the feminist movement.
Rather than be free to pursue a career, a woman must tiptoe around these societal expectations that accompany her gender. Society may always hold dear to the principle that motherhood and the responsibilities that come with that role are paramount to all other considerations. In light of these strong-held notions, women are socialized to become mothers. This does not only mean they will want to become mothers, but also prescribes that they will want to be mothers in a singular manner: They will want to metamorphose into storybook, picture-perfect mothers.
As little girls are socialized to realize their roles as mothers, at the conscious level, they come to look forward to that role so that it becomes a part of their identities at the gut level. At the unconscious level, it is usual for girls to feel more connected to their mothers and to women than to men. For girls, mothering is an intrinsic component of beliefs and expectations about female behavior and the role of women in the workplace.