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.