The anti-mother element in our culture is one of the hardest things I live with. I feel its sting on behalf of many categories of mother (because yes, our culture categorizes us) even when I don’t have personal membership in the latest group being lambasted (formula feeders, c-section patients, morbidly obese mothers, mothers in any class besides working-class, mothers of color). When mama-bashing occurs in a way that seems it could apply to my specific person, I feel it lasered in on my any possible defect even though hell, I know I’m a pretty good mom and a decent human being.
Still, whenever I fail – however briefly or epic in nature – it’s the cultural judgment and denigration of womanhood and motherhood, this enormous pressure to be all kinds of awesome (intelligent, fit, beautiful, kick-ass, kind, organized, unique, sexy, wise and whip-smart), that roars loudest in my ears. For the moment I swim in guilt and smallness, knowing I’m deficient, and no other mom is as shitty as I, and I’m screwing my kids up, and it’s too late even though they’re only six and eight because I’ve set up all this pathology with my Horribleness and I’d should just give the whole thing up but then that would really screw up my kids and just: Suck.
But that’s just me. No other mothers ever feel this way, right? <snort!>
Because, you know, mothers are one group we don’t like to give a break to (like so many groups we belittle). Our culture’s judgment and callousness towards mothers seems so needlessly cruel (although I suspect it has its uses, more in a minute). Whenever our media crows the latest horrific thing that has happened to some American child the wail sets up: “Where was the motherrrr?!?”. More disturbing still, there are those who seem to think the misfortunes befalling children are the just deserts to these women who’ve somehow failed their children (Seriously? Because a child being harmed or killed or dying isn’t already, you know, some of the worst shit that could ever befall many, if not most, parents?). Mothers are too involved, not involved enough, overbearing, pathetically passive, too selfish, too selfless, too absorbed in their children, too preoccupied with things not their children. They’re sell-outs if they stay at home to raise families; their priorities are skewed (and wrong and anti-family) if they aren’t home enough.
Briefly, and before I get to my main point, in late October 2009 I remember reading the sickening account of the Richmond, California 15-year old girl who was raped by many male assailants during a school dance. The story was deeply sad and awful as such stories are; troubling me further were the vast amounts of comments online blaming both the victim herself – and her mother (just for, I suppose, the two of them not having the female decency to avoid rape). As many point out, internet discourse can be shockingly uncivil or cowardly; yet as it is also pointed out, it can also reveal thoughts and feelings people harbor deep within. In the Richmond story I was struck by how much blame was attributed to the females in the case: the victim and her mother – women both deserving empathy, support, and compassion, I hope it need not be said.
This might seem a shocking example of wrongheadedness but I am here to say it’s nothing new.
It hardly matters the most recent bit I’ve read on the internet that gets immediately to the Mama-hating, because it’s such a common trope. Funnily enough and as I’ve said, it always hurts to read. Today’s example (which I am deliberately not linking to; it’s actually not that important who wrote it) happened to be the charge that moms are Boring and their over-involvement is The Cause of Our Country’s Problems. You know, by ardently caring about chemicals in baby bottles or our parenting techniques or the carbon footprint of our family car we are creating a culture of tit-sucking Dependents who won’t be able to do anything for themselves.
Right. So now: Mamas? You’re boring. Also, P.S., you’re Ruining America.
This flavor of vitriolic Mama-depreciation is nothing new. Authors, pundits, and pop-culturalists have trotted out this particular bit since long before I ever birthed my own: the obsessed monster of a mother who has no life except for living vicariously through her kids. She used to have a career but now she’s all nipple-shields and carseats and SUVs (we used to diss her minivan and soccer-chauffeuring). Her involvement with and work for the family are not the result of her genuine caring and the heterosexist hierarchy that both demands these efforts and offers little status nor esteem for them, but rather her pathetic underdevelopment – a projection of her own Narcissism and shallowness. Her interest and fascination with family life and babies demonstrates her profound limitations; these will surely and inevitably lead to her attempting to manage everything about her children’s lives which will result in ruining said children’s lives and, by extension, Everything Else. So at this point an article like this will typically have some really cute and sarcastic (but rarely real-life) examples of Epic Fail, like how this woman’s children will be living at home at age 40 and won’t be able to hold a job, yawn yawn, you get the idea.
There are so many problems with this sort of article it’s hard to know where to start. Let me just begin with what occurs from the example of my personal lived life, because funny thing is? No woman I’ve personally known is anything like this caricature.
I started my family in a mid-to-upper class environs (though our little family, economically, qualified and qualifies as working-class), mostly white, self-identified “progressive”, and to a soul very – very – doting first-time parents. The women I knew were those the Over-Involved Mother insults are often referring to: they had privilege (white, straight, moneyed as far as the globe goes), obsessed in doing well by their kids and often mourning their careers (whether on temporary hiatus or rejected permanently). They found themselves up to their thickened middles in kid-care and parenting books and temporarily sexless marriages (not a uniform factor to all unions I knew, but common enough). They really did care about this stuff and they talked about it – not all the time, but a heck of a lot. They were literally just like these articles claim! OH SNAP! HA HA! LADIES ARE STOOPID!
Of course, all these women had personalities, drives, desires, and yes, ambitions extending beyond family life (although why women, and not men, are supposed to apologize for their passionate work in “family life” boggles me). A conversation on the playground about the best highchair might not sound too earth-shatteringly Thinky to someone who doesn’t have to worry about keeping a baby safe while eating (and anyway, as to highchair conversations being dull, I wonder why mothers should be required to be more damned entertaining and urbane than anyone else?) but the women themselves were not boring. You had only to ask, to spend time paying attention – to change the subject if need be because hell, that’s allowed – and you’d find them as Special Snowflake as, well, anyone really. Like M. who was an amazing cellist (who kept teaching music even after breeding) and a pretty gifted photographer and had a career in pro-choice activism. Like A. who’d waitressed and barfly’d and traveled Central and South America and now balanced a single income with a family of four including a former trust-fund husband while they both didn’t really know how to pay bills. Like S. who was the most organized person I knew and had made it a priority to travel to lots of druggy outdoor festivals and made Wild and was a catalog of counter-culture. Like A. who with her husband started an art supply store, and who could get so passionate about social justice that while she talked her breastfeeding child would pop off and A’s nipple would be an angry point while her mouth and mind, undistracted, spoke her passionate truth. Like B. who read fashion blogs and knew more fashion than anyone I’ve known and started a little recipe blog such I ended up starting my own (I have decent enough readership, incidentally). Like T. who was a former teacher and had gone through difficult and heart-wrenching infertility treatments and who taught me a lot about being less of an asshole about that sort of thing. Like K. who was a former drink-and-drug ingenue, a chemical engineer, proficient seamstress, social activist, and B-movie buff. Hey, psst, that last one is me.
It’s true that many of these women did obsess, and I do mean obsess, about partnership and new motherhood (P.S. they obsessed and thought and dreamed and talked about lots of other stuff, too). And why shouldn’t they? It is fucking intense! It has been, for me at least and alternately during different times in my life: amazing, exhilarating, more exhausting than anything I’ve known, rewarding, deeply troubling, by turns sublime and mundane. I’ve had a lot of hard-working (and incidentally, a handful of well-paying and relatively socially prestigious) jobs, and while I loved those jobs and cared deeply and performed well, there’s nothing that has rocked my worldview quite like mamahood (probably because I was raised in a culture and family that kind of sneered at it). I am not a boring or shallow or eye-rollingly obsessive person for caring – even caring a lot, for a time in my life – about homebirth or cloth diapers or cooking or sewing up the most perfectly soft blanket I ever could. I’m not more silly than anyone else doing any other thing because each of these efforts increases my awareness of my abilities, of others’ needs, of the earth, the environment, my neighbors, of Love, of craftsmanship and failure and triumph.
Additionally, it seems almost Feminism 101 to point out the conversation dissing over-involved (and boring!) mothers gives fathers an Out entirely. For every over-involved laydee wondering how to pen a birth plan there is often a father who relies on her to shoulder the large part of the burden of worrying about such a life-changing event. For every highchair enthusiast female there is often a male bankrolling or helping to bankroll the purchase. Women who run about cleaning house and looking up recipes and reading on parenting techniques are often partnered to an (often male) person who comes home to a child (or children) well-loved and well taken care of. What gifts these must be for him! (He often comes home to dinner made, a house and checkbook managed, and a partner who deeply cares about his happiness and helps care for his needs, whatever her personal idiosyncratic tendencies.)
I know some people would like to believe that because I or any other mother (remember, we do not punish fathers so direly for showing any of the above passions or proclivities) get excited about reading up on childhood allergies or learning how to clean with vinegar and baking soda or cooking gingersnaps for a school function that we are tedious Bores of the first degree. I mean, it’s a little confusing because people like eating the gingersnaps and benefitting from our volunteer efforts and they sure as hell, at some point, likely benefited from such a woman taking care of them. But now? It’s so passé. And worthless. And shitty for America.
So, I don’t relate to the Out-Of-Proportion Over-Involved Mother because I haven’t yet met her – that I know of. Now a real, true, rabidly-focused or even pathological parent? Yes, this person exists (in all genders and sexes). I know this because – guess what, there are all kinds of people out there! (Like today I read about people who fervently collect artifacts involving human hair!*). She’s just: damned rare. Really. Or she’s remained elusive to me at least. And don’t be so quick to smirk at a mother’s passion and endeavors – a passion that may very well be a temporary life stage borne of the life-changing event of parenthood. This passion will often involve forging a person who cares passionately about other people, and her endeavors hopefully help raise a generation that learns how to care for one another as well. After all, truly caring for one another – deeply and with consistency – is not always a culturally-expounded virtue but one at times in our lives we all, every one of us, desperately need.
Because seriously? Next time you think moms are so, you know, MOM-like and boring and shallow because they give a shit about strollers? First off, consider going and fucking yourself**, because someone changed your diapers and fed you and loved you up (and if you didn’t get the last I am deeply, deeply sad to hear this), and secondly – just, give me a break. Women are people. Even moms are people. Just people, no more, no less. And they certainly don’t owe you some kind of hip Awesomeness, all the time.
Kind of mind-boggling, eh?
Rape in Richmond, CA from CNN.com
* Annual Hair & Trade Show in French Link, IN. Mr. Kendall, curator: “Mr. Kendall: “My life revolves around hair.”