Blurry Images: The Mothering Instinct

Looking at indistinct footage from 16 millimeter home movies of the 1950s has invited me to examine from a distance the much younger, and in many ways different, version of myself. Not surprisingly, I appear in the “mothering” mode in many of the shots. I have always assumed such behavior was because I was the first-born child.

But where does the mothering instinct come from? Is it inborn? Learned from one’s own mother? Are some born without it? Who knows. The jury is still out on the answers to some of these questions.

Mother guiding me with pigtails for the photo shoot with Grandma
Mother positioning me with pigtails for the movie shoot with Grandma

My mother was not the firstborn in her family but she was the oldest girl, so when her own mother died when she was nine, there were high expectations for her including milking two cows in the morning before she went to school. All too soon, she became a little mother alongside the house-keeper, nurturing her two younger siblings.

In the sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond, “Mother-ish” is the word Mama Marie Barone has used to describe her modus operandi.  Although I cringe to compare myself at any age to meddling mama Barone, it did seem natural for me to take on such a mothering role in my family. After all, I was the first-born, always ready to “tend” the younger ones.

Big sister helping little sister Jean to walk
Big sister helping little sister Jean to walk

Even looking straight ahead, I was aware of wiggly little sister, who would spoil the photo if she crawled away in this video clip:

*  *  *  *  *

Several years later, with a prayer covering almost as big as my mother’s and with motherly aplomb, I held my baby brother Mark.

13-year-old "mother" holding baby brother Mark
13-year-old “mother” holding baby brother Mark, with sister Jean

Alfred Adler was one of the first theorists to suggest that birth order has a profound effect on personality. However, his ideas about birth order have been repeatedly challenged by other researchers, like Cliff Isaacson, who argue that birth order is not a fixed state but subject to other influencing factors. Other studies (Scientific American) claim that family size, rather than birth order, is a better predictor of personality than birth order. Yet the concept of the take-charge, bossy (did I say “mother-ish?”) first-born persists in popular psychology.

Question Mark w border1_1x1_300

I wonder where you are in your family’s birth order: first, middle, last, or an only child?

Do you think this has influenced your personality at all?

Thanks for replying. You will always hear from me and probably learn from other commenters too. The stories continue!


23 thoughts on “Blurry Images: The Mothering Instinct

  1. I was a middle child, and you hear of the middle child syndrome all of time. There’s the oldest, who is responsible and behaves. There is the youngest, who is spoiled and over nurtured. Then there is this middle child…the one who acts out for attention, misbehaves and stays in trouble. Irresponsible and starved for attention, the middle child struggles to be noticed, not for good grades or for needs, but for something special that is their own.


    1. And you have created something special that is your very own: a satisfying career in health care and now a published writer! Not too shabby for a middle child, I’d say.


  2. I kind of disagree – middle child here and while my older brother had eyes on him at all times, and my younger sister getting whatever she wanted (and still does though we are all adults now), I did crave attention but learned to be self sufficient. Never acting out, but quietly observing how to and not to behave. I think we are all born with a certain personality and based on experience (not birth order) we create our future selves. Watching the females in our lives help us mold into the person *(mothering/nurturing) we ultimately choose to be. Great question for thought!


    1. Thanks for commenting, Cheri. You agree with the “other factors” theory which has validity. My story is just that, anecdotal and not necessarily typical of every family, yours a case in point. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you’ll visit again!


  3. Marian – Oh what fun looking at your photos, and the video clip that support this very interesting post.

    In my family there are two siblings: My sister (13 months older), and me. I think that birth order is ONE OF MANY contributing factors to our personality. For instance, my parents were basically children having children. Mom was 17 when she married dad, 18 when she had my sister, and 19 when she had me. My dad is four years older than my mom (still a “child” when they got married).

    Thank you for the tasty food for thought — my brain will be munching on it throughout the day.


  4. Marian! How on earth did you get this great video? I didn’t know any Mennonite families (especially when the women wore such big coverings) who had a home movie camera and projector. This is precious blurry image material — just like memory itself. Photos in general are a great way to try to resurrect the child self, but video is even better. You must have frozen frames and then added music to the clip? I suspect that Cliff character was helping again!

    My guess is that the movies were your father’s hobby? Did he win a camera when he sold enough tractors? 🙂

    As for birth order, I am first born and fit the stereotype almost exactly. Ted Swartz and I had fun in our dual memoir presentation here in Harrisonburg. He’s the author of Laughter is Sacred Space (highly recommended) and a middle child.


    1. Thank you for your questions and possible answers too, some of which are absolutely correct. The cinematographer is Aunt Ruthie, the one who never appears in pictures. How I wish I had grabbed the camera just once! The video began as 16 mm reels (at least a dozen) which were than transformed into VHS for VCR, and finally DVD, superintended by the Cliff character, as you guessed. The 1980s sound track was added by an agency during the VHS iteration. Sometimes it’s intrusive, so I didn’t use it for the video clip in

      Our son Joel, like your Anthony, is intuitive with video and converted the DVD into stills and mp4 video files with a special program he has. Bless him!

      Yes, video is a great way to resurrect the child self, which is getting increasingly blurry. By the way, from time to time I see references to Ted Swartz. Humor often saves the day, doesn’t it? Now I’m off to check out your link. As always, thanks for paying attention to my posts and caring about my progress as a writer, Shirley.


  5. Oh my, all the photos, but especially the video of your mother with her arms full of flowers and all the children–how beautiful! A Psalm plays at the back of my mind, about a quiver full of arrows.

    Of course I am strongly influenced by being number 5 in a ‘quiver full of’ 7. I got to experience being both the little sister and the big sister to my two younger brothers. This means I can call upon my mothering when needed. I can recognize my tendencies to act out for attention.


    1. One thing a distance from childhood brings is awareness, which you obviously have. You say, “This means I can call upon my mothering when needed. I can recognize my tendencies to act out for attention.” As # 5 in a quiver full of 7, you may have been sort of the pivotal child, who got to try out more than one role. Thanks for your wise observations, Dolores.


      1. You may be aware of a movement called the Quiverfull movement, a lifestyle in which parents view family planning (aka birth control) as immoral. Your family of 7 sounds like a quiver full to me, but I’m guessing your parents weren’t kowtowing to any such movement.


  6. Interesting questions and wonderful photos and memories, Marian! I think birth order can play a part–but perhaps it has to do with other people’s expectations of the first born (or first born girl, first born boy, etc.)? My parents had sort of two sets of children–my brother and older sister, and then 7 1/2 years later, me and my younger sister (we’re not quite two years apart). I think the two sets of siblings are much different and formed two different units. We grew up in different cities and experienced our parents at different times in their lives. But I also think we have our own personalities that influenced how we reacted to circumstances and expectations.


    1. Thank you for your story. I don’t think it is unusual to have two sets of siblings in a family, but often there is a step-parent involved. You and your brothers and sisters had the same parents, which would make for an interesting study, a rich mix. As to the effects of influences: It’s the old conundrum of nature vs nature with some variables thrown in, I guess. Your comments are always so thoughtful. Thanks again, Merril.


  7. Hi Marian, I am a middle child and I think that has given me insight to problems. I am often able to understand two sides to a problem. I learned to share from birth because I came into this world sharing and I am able to think a problem through because I have had that demonstrated to me from older children in my family! Waiting my turn or just having a turn comes natural to me. I don’t expect from others what I expect from myself! I married a first born and we saw almost everything differently but I knew how to accept the other opinion and I think all of this comes from being a middle child! In other words, a BLESSED position!!!


    1. One of the most valuable assets of an adult is to be able to see two sides of a problem. That way one is not tempted to be ego-centric and judgmental, which you are surely not. You are in a blessed position. And you are a blessing to me in many ways, Judy.
      Thank you for posting today.


  8. What lovely shots. I’m the second child, but the oldest of three girls. The middle sister (really number three out of four) really does act like a middle child!


    1. So, families are all very different. And apparently in your family’s case, personality trumps birth order. Thank you for noticing the vintage shots, frozen frames from the ancient video. How fortunate I am to have them.


  9. I’m technically the baby of the family, but because I’m ten years behind my older two siblings, I have often functioned as an only child. As for caregiving, I often hope that there’s something about maternal instincts that will kick in during a pregnancy. Otherwise, I’ll be lost with a baby.


    1. Traci, at the moment I’m reading Rachel Held Evans’ engaging book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In lieu of a real baby, she ordered an electronic one for her experiment from (Baby Think It Over) whom she named Chip (!) I believe she returned it within the grace period. Ha!


  10. I love your family photos, Marian. So glad Plain People aren’t adverse to cameras. I was the second child, the only girl. I was clearly the designated caregiver when my mother couldn’t care for my father and the one who expressed emotion. I had huge caregiving/mothering responsibilities for my dad by the time I was 12. I loved being a mother. Most satisfying job ever. A little jealous of FL weather today as we endure a raging March snowstorm. Oh where, oh where are the spring flowers? Thanks for your always interesting posts, Elaine


  11. My Aunt Ruthie was quite unusual for a Mennonite woman in the 1950s. But she was a school principal, tax collector, among other things, and a progressive thinker, who obviously wanted to leave a legacy using her movie camera eye. She is my most important mentor growing up.

    I know your sons are proud of you as a mother, and you say you relished it too. Fabulous!

    About the weather. I just wrote to my college friend now living in snowbound Ontario that underneath all that snow she pictures are probably crocuses and even daffodils just waiting to burst forth.


  12. Obviously I missed this post first time around, thanks for the heads up. I’m amazed too that you had access to a movie camera. At one point my family had 8mm movie footage taken in Florida the winter I was born; I remember seeing it once or twice. I don’t think anyone has it anymore. I’m sure the footage deteriorated before the video transfer age. Oh well. Amazing what our brains can pull up (along with all that remains forever buried) but the cool thing these days is the ability to create this electronic interactive family diary/memoir log. Otherwise known as a blog. Will our families still be able to access this 40-50 years from now?? Early morning pondering.


    1. My Aunt though conservative in outward appearance was forward-thinking when it came to technology and had a movie camera. Originally, 16 mm film, my brother-in-law had more than a dozen reels transferred to VHS format and then husband Cliff had it put into a DVD file, from which our son Joel made video clips and stills.

      Yes, I think we are both thankful that we live in this age of electronic retrieval. And yes, I think our families will be able to access this years from now, but most likely in a more advanced format. You early morning ponderings gets my wheels turning. Thanks so much, Melodie.


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