The Comfort Gene

10/28/2007 01:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Motherhood represents a huge part of my overall personality, and sets the tone for the rhythm of my life. Though in addition to mothering four children, I've managed to continue to educate myself, write, publish books, engage in philanthropic endeavors as well as political ones -- the part of me that not only takes precedence but can bring me to my knees, is my job as a mom. This reality has become increasingly obvious to me, even as my kids are aging out of the stage where I micro-manage their everyday activities, into independent autonomous young adults who mostly manage their own stuff.

I have always been the kind of mom who juggled some kind of outside-the-home work with the inside-the-home duties. But though I wasn't the typical volunteer-at-school-everyday kind of mom, I left my mark on my kids' hearts whenever possible. I cut their lunch-box sandwiches into cookie-cutter shapes, and stuck notes inside their backpacks. I drove carpool for years, and was the mom who played kid-friendly least when they were little. As my progeny grew older, I still provided the soft and cozy influence; I managed the family photo albums, set up the kid's activities, interfaced with their teachers, made the cookies, and at Christmas time made a bitchin cheesecake. I was also the one who endlessly harangued them about their homework, reminded them to clean their rooms and to say their prayers. Now that they're more out in the world, I caution them to drive carefully, to resist all the risky behaviors my baby-boomer generation knows only too well, and at the same time, to be curious about the world they live in, and become engaged in it.

Motherhood is a lifelong job -- just like fatherhood is. But I know I'm the go-to person in their lives when they need comfort. Oh, they love their father -- they adore him, respect and admire him. They think he's the strongest, funniest man alive. He's their hero. But when the kids need a good cry, are hurting, or facing an emotional crisis, they come running to me, and I'll drop everything to be at their side. Am I a little territorial about it? Well, yeah.

My son is now a sophomore at an East Coast university. He called me the other day using a voice that was so morose and labored that my mothering-sensor-alarms instantly went off. Turns out he was suffering a migraine -- his first -- and didn't know how to cope with it. He was under the covers of his dorm-room bed, stricken from the pain, thousands of miles from me, and far from the campus medical center. Unfortunately, he got the migraine gene from me, so I know exactly what kind of agony he was in -- but here I sat, unable to do anything about it, while the "need to comfort" nerve kept firing in my brain.

All I could do was suggest things -- an ice pack for behind his neck and forehead, some Excedrin migraine tablets, or hauling himself to the campus medical center where a doctor could give him something stronger. But even as I offered these suggestions, I knew he couldn't do them for himself whilst he was in the midst of the worst pain. I asked him if one of his friends in the dorm could get him some Tylenol and an ice bag. He told me that guys don't do that. I said he should call one of his female friends, because I knew one of them would help him. When he hung up, my throat was constricted.

Okay, I realize in the full scheme of things, this is but a tiny blip. My son is pretty self-sufficient; he's not a baby, and I knew that eventually he'd be fine. But for the moment, all I could think about was him writhing in pain in his dumpy little dorm room with no immediate comfort in sight. The urge to help was almost bigger than me.

When I spoke to him again much later, he was over the hump of the pain. He had taken my suggestion, and called one of his female friends, and she had immediately come to his aid. This made me smile. Of course it would be a female who would understand and take it comfortably in stride to minister to an ailing friend. Just think about it. Ask yourself whom in your household knows where the band-aids are kept, where the aloe Vera is stored, and who knows how to heat honey and lemon into syrup for a cough. Yep. If you're a woman, it would usually be you.

Women have so many facets, and perform so many jobs that it's truly a mistake to simplify us into a few stereotypical categories. But that said, one of the things that clearly comes easy to us is the ability to comfort; to offer not only to help, but to soothe --to provide the compassion, the feeling, the emotional response that can make the hardship or pain seem less, even if we can't make it go away. Connections and community are important to us.

My son has plenty of fabulous male friends -- they travel together, laugh, party and study together and their camaraderie is strong -- he needs them. And they do look out for each other. When push comes to shove, they are there for one another, no questions asked. My son's male friends make his world go round. But I'm grateful he also has many female friends, because they add a totally different dimension. They keep his world grounded... they make his world more humane, loving, and fulfilled.

Ultimately this little family scenario is a metaphor for the way the world turns. Women are born entrepreneurs. This knowledge hasn't yet reached critical mass, but it's very close. At the very center of our business models, at least symbolically, is our home -- whatever and whoever that consists of, be it children, aging parents, relatives, our community at large, or close friends. The comfort gene permeates our behaviors, and the importance of it should not be taken for granted. Our urge to comfort is a survival skill. We nurture, manage our resources, and improvise when few options exist. For love of others, we'll work endless hours. Women are the nurturers, the emotional compasses; the hearth & home protectors -- essentially, the glue of society. We will run to the store for Tylenol and ice packs when someone we know has a migraine, and we'll do it between writing books, judging trial cases, running a university or handling the duties of political office.

I'm not dissing men. Men have all the same abilities, emotions, and feelings as we do. And there are many men who are secure enough to allow their emotions to emote. But since their brains process incoming emotional data differently than women, their behaviors are guided by different impulses. Perhaps when more men realize they won't jeopardize their masculinity by showing compassion, emotion and vulnerability - a lesson I hope my son is learning -- the 'comfort gene' and the make-you-feel-good behaviors which appear to be ubiquitous in women may become much more androgynous. Not that I'm giving up my mothering persona any time soon.