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. 

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2 thoughts on “More on the Self-Sacrificing Mother Myth

  1. tanaudel says:

    That’s something I really appreciate about Diana Wynne Jones’ books: the mothers aren’t cliched. Many of them are the opposite of self-sacrificing, are distant or self-absorbed or vague. Sometimes this veers into problems in the opposite direction, but many of them – while not admirable – are still very *human*.

  2. purtek says:

    I haven’t read her, but that’s so key a good character. I can’t even begin to tell you how many conversations I’ve had trying to explain to people exactly why these depictions of “perfect”–ie. hollow, mannequinesque–woman characters a damn sexist.

    You wouldn’t think about writing a guest post on her books for the Hathor books site would you? 🙂

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