The Art and Science of Mothering (or, What You Will Scoop From a Bath With Your Bare Hands)

I had my very first Mother’s Day yesterday. Well, I guess technically my first Mother’s Day would have been last year when I was pregnant, but yesterday was the first one with an external, fully realized, crawling, pickle-devouring, cheeseball-grinning, pattycaking daughter who melts my heart on a daily basis. We had a lovely day: I received cards and gifts from our dog, my 10-month-old daughter, and my husband. We had a leisurely breakfast at a local dive bar that actually has seriously good food (and excellent Bloody Marys, to boot). Total strangers — mostly men, curiously — wished me “Happy Mother’s Day” in soft and sincere voices with smiles on their faces and a little shine in their eyes. It was like the Mom mojo was reverberating in the air. I felt on display, slightly revered, a bit like a rock star. It was heady stuff.

Late in the day, as I was indulging in a healthy dose of Mom cliche and putting together some homemade banana bread (especially hilarious since I rarely find time to bake), I found a question bouncing around inside my head. I don’t remember how it got there, but it ricocheted there for a while. If it had had a shape, it would have had round edges. If it had been capable of sound, it would have had the tone of a cello:

“Is mothering an art or a science?”

Huh. That’s a good question. My initial inclination to answering the bouncy round cello question in my brain was to simply answer, “Yes.” I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer, but how can it not be both? There certainly is science in mothering. Whether it’s observable changes in brain growth and health in infants who are mothered via secure attachment versus those under stress from detachment or dysfunctional caregiving, or the curious case of the synchronizing heartbeats I’ve written about previously, there are observable, measurable elements to mothering that seem to fall firmly in the “science” camp. I thought this article on the science of attachment did a nice job highlighting some of these.

But it can’t be just a biological process, can it? Isn’t there art in mothering, too? For me, the art glimmers through in the sixth sense of knowing when it’s too quiet in the next room, or reading my daughter’s face and body language and knowing this next bite of mashed avocado is probably the last one she’ll want. As the grateful daughter of a fiercely loving and quietly formidable mother, there was definitely art in the wordless, across-the-room “You would be well advised to cease your present course of action” look. Man, that was devastating! How did she DO that? There was art in the words of support and pride she somehow knew to extend to me just when I needed them. There was so much art in the psychological kung fu where she and my father gave my brother and I an amazingly long leash (figuratively, not literally) and flat-out trusted us, so much so that we would have been ashamed of ourselves had we engaged in shenanigans that might endanger that trust. It was brilliant. Dear God, please let me be as skilled a ninja with my daughter!

So yes, I think mothering must be both an art and a science. Or maybe it’s something entirely different. When my daughter pooped in her bath last night and I found myself scooping up the six or seven rabbit pellets with my bare hands to dispose of them, I’d have been hard pressed to categorize what exactly that was. Art? Nope, definitely not. Science? Mmmm, didn’t feel like it. Maybe something new, perhaps some sort of “Momsanity?” What do you think? Does mothering just all trickle down to biological process, or is it something more undefinable? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

One thing I know for sure is that becoming a mother has irreversibly laid open my heart and turned me into a huge sap. I can’t even blame it on pregnancy hormones when I burst into tears at the silliest of things anymore. Now it’s just who I am. So, in closing this slightly meandering post, I leave you with a commercial I saw last week that left me in a puddle on the floor, and a clip from Dumbo that I simply cannot ever, ever watch while wearing mascara. My apologies if you are similarly affected, but there’s little to be done about it: it’s just the power of mothering. Whether art or science, it’s heady stuff.

Thank you to my Moms and to all mothers everywhere. You are amazing. Happy Mother’s Day.




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Caroline Sober

Senior Software Developer at Promega Corporation
Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


  1. Love the Olympic Moms Video! As to the question of art or science, I think mostly art. My experience has been too irreproducible to be science, based on my sample size (n=2) nothing ever goes the same way twice!

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