Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Modern Perception of Motherhood

I almost started writing about this yesterday, ready to call it “The Cult of the Mother.” The mother is still highly revered in this culture, not that it shouldn’t be. As much as we are (and I live in the U.S.) a patriarchal society motherhood is the ultimate virtue and the mother is the one who sets the morals of society. War is fought by men, and it’s the females who cry out for their sons. Look at the one who camped out at the White House – the moral barometer is the mother.

I don’t know if this starts in religion. There is certainly the image of the Virgin Mary, pure and chaste, the only vessel pure enough to birth the Son of God. But it’s reinforced in the media. We have Mrs. Cleaver, the perfect mother who always catches her sons’ foibles and gently prods them to the right path. Mrs. Brady had her ‘smiling frown’ when her children misbehaved. In media, women were either mother’s or children (think Lucy in I Love Lucy) but filled with this innocence and moral wisdom. Not to mention the constant newscast footage of women crying for their slain children.

There is a reason why it seems to be a recent phenomenon that men can gain custody of their children. It has taken some time to realize there can be such a thing as a ‘bad mother’ despite Joan Crawford’s public image of motherhood. I always identified with her daughter, and called my mother “mommy dearest” for a bit.

But it is still in the public consciousness that mothers cannot be bad, and this has led me to, maybe not get mad at some people, but perhaps lose connections that could have been beneficial to bringing me out of my shell.

See, in college, everyone talks about their family. It’s how they identify themselves. I’m still struggling for my identity, and since I couldn’t find it in my family I have to find it in myself. But that’s a different story.

In terms of mothers, I hated when people would congregate and start talking about their families. I heard tales of mother’s doing the ‘mother-daughter’ teas and being on the PTA. Of mother’s who knew just what to cook when their daughter’s boyfriend broke up with them. Of mother’s who with the band-aids would bring a grape lollipop, or a story. All these wonderful things.

“I can tell my mother anything,” they’d say. “She always knows just what to do.”

And if someone didn’t have a mother, it was a pity party for them. “You poor thing, you are missing so much.”

So what becomes of me? The one who physically has a mother but emotionally doesn’t? The one whose mother is the main antagonist?

I learned that the truth is alienating. The group would turn to me, wide-eyes, ready to hear about the glories of my mother. At first there was honesty, “My mother is evil,” I’d state, unable to put into words her actions. “All she causes is pain.”

“Oh, she just does it because she loves you,” someone would say.

“No,” I’d whisper. “No, she does it because she likes it.”

But so many couldn’t understand. They’d think I’m weird. “Maybe she had a bad childhood” was a common response. Like that explains it. I have had a horrid childhood, but refuse to blame my actions on it. Refuse to continue the cycle, refuse to hurt another living being.

Usually there’d be one person who came up to me afterwards to admit, in private, that their parents beat them too. Of course, they never admitted it in the group. I don’t like ‘secret alliances.’ I’m sick of living in shadows and keeping everything hidden, even in college when I was an angry dark woman.

This makes things hard. People don’t want to hear that the purity of motherhood can be compromised. But see, by obfuscating the truth to preserve some sense of security we are actually undermining ourselves.

I think this issue of not being willing to recognize that not all mothers are the pinnacle of perfection has led to an erosion in our society and has actually harmed, rather than helped, the woman’s movement. It’s only now that post-partum depression is getting the attention it deserved because for so long if the mother was having problems she’d be the failure, not a society that refuses to admit the truth. Living in silence is never the answer. Being afraid to talk for fear of alienation is never the answer.

This is also, I think, a reason why so many children that are abused are afraid to talk. It’s easier to say that your father hurts you. Hell, it’s almost expected. The man is tough, the disciplinarian, and nowadays in the news more for sexual abuse. But not the mother. If the mother hurt you, “you must have really deserved it.”

It’s a sad dichotomy to which I have no answer. I just know that when I tried to voice things about my mother at an earlier age I was shot down by those who just couldn’t imagine a bad mom, or that there wasn’t a reason behind it. Now whenever people talk to me about their children and/or ask for advice my main statement is, “don’t deny their reality.” If your child says something is wrong, listen. If your child doesn’t like the way something feels, listen to them. Don’t tell them the way they feel are wrong. They’ll stop asking, start doubting themselves, and once that happens who knows how far it will spiral.

1 comment:

Paper Fan Club said...

There is no shortage of things to feel guilty about in motherhood -- am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Thanks for a thought-provoking post.