Are We Still Blaming Mothers for Screwed Up Ideas of Motherhood?

For many grown kids, standing in front of the Mother’s Day cards at the store this month is an exercise in mixed feelings – hope, sadness, love, guilt, fear, denial, and confusion. Finding that one card that says exactly how you feel without giving in to Hallmark-induced fantasies about the perfect mother is a challenge as difficult as any we might face.

An English professor friend claims that there are, in fact, no good poems about mothers in all of English literature. They all end up like those sentimental greeting card rhymes.

Yet, our mothers have generally done the best they could with what they’ve been given about motherhood from a culture that’s filled with messages that extol motherhood while taking away as much from mothers as possible. And all the conservatives’ high-minded blather about valuing motherhood is suspiciously empty to mothers who suspect that something else is really going on around them, but are supposed to blame themselves for whatever it is.

Culturally, we talk a good line about the value of motherhood, but our real values are betrayed by the fact that we never use mothering as a model for dealing with cultural problems. In a society that still doesn’t really value women as men’s economic and power equals, many would still rather brag about putting women and mothers on pedestals.

Balancing up there precariously, women are supposed to appreciate the fact that they’re shelved up on those narrow pillars. Why, then, would they ever prefer powerful equality, pay, or monetary benefits?

Instead of “mothering” problems, we use political, economic and social models that replicate punishing fathers and masculine ideals fundamental to a war-based economy. We don’t “mother” our issues.

We have wars on everything – drugs, violence, terrorism, illiteracy, poverty, AIDS, delinquency, crime. And, still like well-conditioned males are supposed to, we keep on warring whether we win any of these “wars” or not.

Like those poorly paid professionals who also deal with children and the needy, mothers are expected to settle for “fulfillment.” In fact, women are still taught that it’s motherhood that will ultimately fulfill them as women. And that should be enough.

Instead of mainstream culture embracing the fact that healthy psychological fulfilment isn’t found in others but in oneself, women are told that their fulfillment needs will be met in bearing and raising children. Society pictures the ideal woman as the mother who has sacrificed her own life goals, dreams, personal career, emotional and romantic life, and aspirations for a husband’s fulfillment and for children – think of the nostalgic image of the recently departed Barbara Bush.

To the extent that this doesn’t work for women, as opposed to therapy or group support, the common response is for mothers who believe all this to apply more pressure on children to fulfill women’s needs. Without another life beyond their children, without the financial and retirement security of a pension, without investments except those of a husband who could leave them for someone else, all their hope lies in the loyalty and emotional dependence of their kids.

Women are still even told that the really ideal mother stays at home with the children, and preferably home schools them. There’s little praise for the stay-at-home father and significantly less blame for “failing” fathers, but much concern about mothers ‘balancing” work and children so as to be Super Moms. And the implication is usually that the mother’s (not the father’s) career should suffer.

The more pressure we put on mothers instead of fathers, the more mothers end up being the communicators of unhealthy fulfillment messages from family and society. And, as the closer hands-on parent, the more they’ll get most of the derision for what are really society’s, and then children’s, issues.

Instead of realizing that our system’s ongoing sexism works to pressure women into this role, we continue to blame women who do attempt to find healthy alternatives that could actually provide wholeness and completion for women and result in healthier mothers.

So, children often grow up with a mix of resentment and attachment toward their mothers and other women – particularly if they’re authority figures. Children want to believe the best about mom. They want their relationship with their mothers to be better.

But they know how easily the one who installed the emotional buttons in them can push them. They too are really feeling the fact that mom was taught that you and I had to fulfill her.

Blaming mothers, rather than the system, for this element of sexism, is reflected in jokes about mothers, mother-in-laws, and women. It’s codified in the stereotypes about Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, or you-fill-in-the-blank mothers.

But it’s based in the unexamined realization by children that, instead of being here to live their own lives, a child’s life goals must include fulfilling their mothers’ otherwise unfulfilled lives.

On top of the usual motherhood confusion, there are the lingering messages of white racism that picture “traditional family values” as very white. Mothers of people of color are assumed to be victims of incomplete families, over-functioning, or limited by their need to be stopgaps in supposedly dysfunctional non-white cultures.

Even though statistics show that African American parents spend more time than white parents doing homework with their children, that reality never seems to make it into the white-affirming stereotypes of the African American family.

So, mothers are blamed for the problems with our children. Fathers are faulted for not being leaders of their families – affirming that masculinity-style leadership preference. Fathers are faulted for not being good disciplinarians, that is good punishers, maybe even because they didn’t hit their children enough.

But Mothers are blamed more broadly for not passing on traditional values, not staying home or not staying home “enough,” not making their home a comfortable place, putting their child into daycare, being “selfish” about their own lives, acting in their own interests, being too strong or domineering, being too close to their sons, being jealous of their daughters, and on and on and on. All of these arise out of stereotypes about women and the way we condition women out of their full humanity.

And if a child turns out to be LGBT, who’s at fault? Conservative theories that are still pushed by discredited so-called ex-gay ministries and the “therapies” of anti-gay counselors who are out of touch with all mainstream psychology, blame bad parenting in a way that often sounds like the blaming of mothers.

So, given the pressures placed on women, the hypocritical lip service for motherhood, the inhuman expectations placed on mothers, and the blaming of mothers who step out of the role for their own health, it’s no wonder Mother’s Day is often a mix of feelings that really point to the deep changes our society needs in its deeper value structure and it’s on-going conditioning about what women are supposed to be.

© 2018 Robert N. Minor

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight: Why It’s So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It’s So Hard to Be Human; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org


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