Building the Perfect Mother

Lots and lots of people have commented on the People cover featuring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and all of their white children. Renée at Womanist Musings, however, says a number of things that drive the issue right home, both in yesterday’s post and the one that she wrote a few weeks ago:

As a society we pay a lot of lip service to respecting motherhood, but in truth unless you are of a certain colour or class, it is more likely that you will be punished, or somehow stigmatized for “choosing” to give birth.

Angelina Jolie is valued as a mother because she looks right, she has the right image – we are supposed to look at that People cover and think “This is what a happy family looks like”. The looks of love, affection and commitment to one another reinforce – these children will be cared for. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the other children, those ones we’re not seeing, the ones who would make us go ‘one of these things is not like the others’, and you’re thinking that they, of course, would be welcomed under that caring, glowing, rich umbrella image.

Renée has a good contrast post from earlier this month as well, looking at the way Erykah Badu’s pregnancy is being talked about in some media circles. Just in case we’re tempted to believe that the class concerns really do arise out of genuine desire to see children raised only in families that are capable of caring for them financially, that story provides a nice counterpoint.

I’d like to add, however, that the fetishization of Jolie as mother – and the construction of the perfect mother-shaped pedestal – is problematic in and of itself, not just in the contrast point. We’ve got a very nice mother version of the virgin-whore dichotomy going on up there, don’t we? One happily married, loving, generous spirit (the narrative on the nature of Brangelina’s early relationship has completely disappeared by this point – as well it should, because, y’know, don’t care, don’t judge, but that’s part of the character we’re creating here, the archetype the media is constructing), one a bed-hopping, ungrateful, outspoken slutty bitch. And it’s always obvious why that sucks for the one on the “bad” side of that dichotomy, but the damn am I also sick of the “good” side of it.

I really don’t have an opinion one way or another on whether or not Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt really are the wonderful people they play on TV. A lot of evidence suggests that they really do direct a substantial portion of their ample resources toward organizations that provide concrete support to women and children in war zones and areas of extreme poverty. My problem is not with the real Angelina Jolie, it’s with this character others are writing for her. That Jolie is not actually a person, she’s the perfect Hollywood mother, she’s the woman with the life toward which we should all aspire, she’s the lost little girl come around to finally find love with the man of everyone’s dreams, she’s hope incarnate. That half of the dichotomy is never allowed to make mistakes, and it reminds me, again, of this old post of mine about the impact of that self-sacrificing mother image, the playing out of the pressure for perfection.

Issues around motherhood often lead to some of the most heated debates in feminism, and frankly, I hate them. I think, often, they are yet another battleground on which we fight out our picture of what a perfect woman should look like, and none of those battles ever provide the space for women to just be human. There’s an all-or-nothing around a “good mother”, just as there is around a “good girl” and a “good feminist”. Just imagine the narrative if Jolie and Pitt were ever to divorce – say Angelina is caught having an affair. Pedestal broken. Now she’s nothing.

I could go on and on about various elements of this narrative – I already have, really, and since I have a headache, I suspect I’ve done a shitty job of it – including the father factor and how that comes into play, but the point is that there’s a perfect mother construction going on here, and it sucks because of what it says about everything that doesn’t fit, but it’s also built on a classically tenuous pedestal, and it sucks for that, too.

The Oppression in Question

The thread following that Feministing post I linked to earlier ended up being absolutely horrifying. I almost regret mentioning my experience of the general social pressure to have children, because it certainly makes me feel like I’m part of the problem demonstrated in that thread. Basically, in sum (and generally speaking, since a few people on both sides were quite reasonable), childless women told stories of that pressure, referred to mothers as a privileged group in society, and thereby justified mocking, criticizing and evaluating their choices. Oh, and threw in a hefty dash of class privilege by repeatedly saying that people who couldn’t afford to have children should damn well stop doing it. When mothers, stay at home and otherwise, expressed shock at that kind of “discussion” on a feminist board, still more childless women came out to say things like this:

I wish I could say I’m surprised at the number of commenters who’ve somehow taken the existence of childfree people as a direct attack upon themselves and their desire for children.

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More on the Self-Sacrificing Mother Myth

When people stumble over here through a search engine, one of my most frequently hit old posts is Martyrdom and Motherhood. Usually, it’s people searching telling strings like “manipulative mothers” (though yesterday, it was simply “things a mother does for her children”, which makes me wonder if this person was looking for an actual list to use as a reference point).

I haven’t really written so much about fatherhood, mainly because, although I don’t have children, I’m subject to “motherly” mythology as an adult woman, whereas my only experience of fatherhood and images of fatherhood is based simply on having had one. But I think about it a lot, largely because I’m still working through a number of elements of my relationship with my father, past, present and future.

If I were being glib, I could say that I have, or at least have had, “daddy issues”. While this is by no means the only way a daughter can wind up feeling screwed up by her relationship with her father, there is a certain cliché of what that means, and I’m kind of it. There are a number of characteristics, but I’d say the most blatant, most stereotypical and the one that causes me most trouble when I’m at my less-than-healthy points is the tendency to seek approval and affirmation, especially from people (men) who tend to withhold it or who are emotionally unavailable.

I was questioning whether it’s overly Freudian to think so much about how I’ve been affected by my father specifically, since I don’t tend to think in quite these terms about my mother. I started thinking about whether that was giving too much power to the father role in the family, while the mother role is just kind of being shunted off to the side, and whether that makes me a bad feminist. And then it occurred to me that it wasn’t really me distributing the emphasis in this way, or making those characteristics of mine into chichés. That would be the patriarchy at work.

Because here’s what it comes down to: in the clichéd world, people can’t have these issues come from their mother. Mothers are self-sacrificing. Mothers love unconditionally. Fathers are the ones whose love, approval and affection is open to question, that must be earned, that requires challenge. The archetypal parents in our society are a mother who rescues, cleans up after, takes care of, and above all else loves her children, with a father who challenges and pushes his children to achieve, gives his stamp of approval only when it is earned, and experiences a well-deserved sense of pride in his family. 

See how this dehumanizes the mother? The mother in this picture isn’t given the power of influence over her children (beyond the simple, basic level of wiping scraped knees) or the privilege of actual personality. Feminists often point out that women get a disproportionate amount of criticism for doing things that men are allowed to do with much more regularity–“abandoning” children, for example, meaning leaving them in the care of the other parent. We aren’t impressed when men do it, but we certainly don’t express the kind of shock and horror and isn’t-that-unnatural attitude that goes around when it happens to be the mother.

It may sound like it’s actually a more negative view of fathers than of mothers to talk about men as emotionally unavailable or withholding of affection, but it’s not. The affection of a mother is assumed and therefore becomes meaningless. In the cliché, a mother can pour out love toward her children, behaving in the most indulgent and effusive ways, shouting their praises from the rooftops, and the child would roll his/her eyes and say “yes, well, it’s just because she’s my mom“. So would anyone listening to her. Her opinion has no value. The paragon of proud fatherhood, on the other hand, can offer a small tidbit of praise or expression of love, public or private, and the child knows that s/he has truly earned it.

Adult children, male and female alike, can have “daddy issues” (though of course, they’re only “issues” when it’s adult women who have them…when it’s adult men, that’s just ambition or a sense of one’s own value, desire to carry on/further one’s name or whatever) because anxiety over impressing one’s father is projected onto us. The myth of the self-sacrificing mother takes the privilege of affirming or denying away from women, and it dehumanizes them in the process. 

Do We Really Have to Play the One-up Game?

I wanted to post something positive today. Something cheerful. Something hopeful. Possibly even something spiritual. I’ve been feeling pretty good most of the week, actually, though my blog posts don’t reflect that at all. And on this blog, I feel like I’m “off my game” when I’m just doing what everybody else does–joining in the fray of linkage and commentary and reaction and sarcasm and “wtf-ism”.

But of all things, what I can’t let go of wanting to wtf about is this Feministing post. The main point is essentially good:

…people don’t choose to remain childless for some weird or nefarious reason. Some of us, uh, just don’t want kids, and have decided our lives will be just as happy or happier without them.

Check. I’ve spent plenty of time talking to people about the choice not to have children. Over the past few years since my separation, I’ve become more and more convinced that having children is not something I can see myself doing, ever. As a policy, I always admit that I could be wrong and change my mind about that. I mean, four years ago, when I was recently engaged, I had no intention of joining the ranks of failed marriage statistics (not how I see it now, but at the time, that was my feeling) and meant every word of the marriage vows I made. I’ve changed pretty radically in the meantime, and I remain willing to hold out the possibility that I will again change further, swing a little more towards considering whether children will fit in to my life.

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So Which is It? Selfish or Not?

A few months ago, I wrote a bit about selfishness and included an anecdote about a relative who said it was “selfish” for two women we know to have chosen not to have children. He’s a pretty extreme example of head-up-ass syndrome, but the general theme of childlessness equating to selfishness pisses me off. Even people who are expressing a desire to remain childless (at least for the time being) are inclined to say “I think I’m just too selfish to have children right now”.

Since the responsibilities of child-rearing fall disproportionately onto the shoulders of women, and since the status/identity of an individual woman is affected much more greatly by motherhood/lack thereof, and since people are perfectly inclined to pressure and analyze women’s lifestyle choices far more than men’s, this kind of dialogue fits in to the “how to sustain a patriarchy” handbook. That’s not obvious to everybody, which is why it’s nice to see an article like this one, which turns around and argues that liberal feminist working woman mindsets, which lead to decisions to remain childless are…not selfish enough. Because now, these women have neglected to account for the fact that they will have no one to care for them in their old age, they haven’t planned ahead like a good grasshopper should, and now nobody’s going to visit them in the nursing home.

There’s a lot more to say about that article in itself, but mostly I just want to highlight the way the mainstream will argue out of both sides of its mouth, as long as the basic point is that a certain *kind* of woman, family and relationship is the best kind and will make everybody happier in the long run.

Martyrdom and Motherhood

This is a post that’s been rolling around my brain for ages now. I’m still somewhat hesitant to write it because, you know, I can never make any guarantees about who will read it, but all I can ask is that if you know me in person, and know my family, try not to judge me and understand that a whole bunch of mitigating personal information is being excluded here.

I am beyond frustrated with cultural constructions of motherhood as self-sacrificing. Some of the things that got said in the never-ending Hathor thread about Ice Age have tipped me over the edge. My responses stuck with the most obvious reason to find this frustrating: if we are constantly reaffirming the idea that once she becomes a mother, the life of a woman’s child is more important than her own (and praising/emphasizing parental unselfishness disproportionately based on gender), then we are continuing to insist that her contributions are not valuable in their own right and encourage her to give up whatever personal goals she has/had in order to focus on the children and enable them to make awesome contributions in the future. Her value is purely indirect. I could start a long list of consequences associated with this attitude and methods that our society uses for reinforcing it, but that isn’t the point of this post.

I’m personally in the category of women who find this message frustrating because I’m far from confident I’ll ever want children (in fact, I’m fairly certain that I don’t, but never say never) and I’m not impressed with those who tell me I’m delusional, naive, misguided, selfish, or just plain wrong about what I want in life. But I’m also frustrated because some women who do have children internalize this message to mean that whatever they do, it must be because of their genuinely self-sacrificing nature. As though once they became a mother, some switch inside them flipped and they successfully turned off all ‘selfish’ impulses, acting always and only based on the interests of her children.

This is a manifestation of internalized sexism, because women who believe this have bought into the notion that they can only find value through their children, and in their natural human quest to be valuable, they have thrown themselves whole-heartedly into the martyr complex in order to access any kind of value at all.

Being a human being–having a Self–involves wanting things for oneself, including wanting validation, affirmation and a sense of personal value. And giving birth doesn’t suddenly eradicate the human being within a woman, but if she’s internalized these messages, then she has to use this new way in order to meet those human needs. And that places some heavy demands on the child/children who has/have now become the external manifestation of her Self. In a dysfunctional situation, the woman who has over-internalized/embraced the idea as a mother, all she wants is to see her children happy ends up pursuing that goal in reverse–she demands that her children be happy because it’s what she wants. She can lose sight of the lines between what her children actually want and what she wants them to want as externalized extensions of her own desires, or between genuine, giving love and manipulation that ultimately turns back around onto her.

In a healthy situation, a parent is able to find that validation and affirmation of Self in other sources, because of course it’s natural and human to want those things. So being told that one’s identity as mother, one’s value as a person, is inherently tied up in sacrifice means that sacrifice becomes the only way to have any kind of Self at all…which actually means it can end up being pretty selfish.

Which means that mothers who can’t let go of control in the lives of their adult children are justified because that’s “natural” for mothers. When mothers are invasive or overly critical, it’s something that we, as adult children, need to understand and accept as part of their psychology. Guilt-inducing, passive aggressive statements about how no one ever appreciates a mother can’t be called out, no matter how much appreciation one shows, sometimes for even the most basic demonstrations of respect. Boundary violations can’t possibly be the result of any kind of actual personal wishes, so they must be reconstrued as attempts to help, and it’s unfair to point them out as boundary violations.

I realize there’s the alternative, neo-Freudian tendency to over-blame mothers for anything that’s wrong in a child’s life. I also realize that raising a child, and the time, effort and emotions that go into that act over the course of years and decades, is an experience that shapes and defines identity in extremely complex ways. But the much-maligned “martyr complex” of some mothers is not something they stumble upon accidentally, and the construction of this mother-pedestal is not just destructive to those of us who find ourselves disinclined or unable to climb up onto it.

So actually, I kind of do think that the consistent portrayal of mothers as willing to sacrifice themselves for their offspring is a bad thing, and not just for the women who don’t actually want to sacrifice those lives. But then, I guess that’s why I’m an evil, baby-eating feminist.