Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.

My Manifesto (sort of)

redflowerThis is an excerpted version of my personal essay for my application to my PhD program. It pretty much sums up what I’ve been pondering since I had a kid and everything seemed to change. So here is Version 1 of my manifesto. I hope you find it thought-provoking, and feel free to comment.

When I taught my first college class, I had an experience that significantly influenced both my professional trajectory and academic area of interest.

I taught Leadership Theory and Group Performance in the spring semester of 2011.  I teach in an adult undergraduate program. At the time, I was also a new mother; my daughter was nine months old.  I had stayed home to care for my daughter, but teaching was a major professional goal, so I agreed to take the class on short notice when the professor took an unexpected sabbatical.

I would usually arrive early to my (evening) class to gather my thoughts and materials, and often students would also come early and we would have informal conversations.  I had one student, for example, who was recently out of the military service and was a father of four.  We would talk about babies and parenting, among other things.  It was pleasant to relate to my students in an informal manner and helped ease some of my anxiety about being a new teacher. The course went well, and my students showed commitment and promise.

When I received my anonymous student feedback after the end of the course, there was one comment that struck me.  A student had said that I should not have “complained of being ‘mama-tired’” and that it was unprofessional.  At first, I felt shame and consternation.  Had I unknowingly crossed a social boundary?  Had I come across as unprofessional or unsuitable as a professor?  I mentally reviewed my behavior.  Had I complained about fatigue during class?  No – but I probably did say something when I was chatting with students before class, if asked.  Perhaps a student asked me how I was at the beginning of class and I said I was tired.  Anyone with children knows how grueling those first sleepless months are.  My child was certainly on my mind – I had anxiety about leaving her for the entire evening, especially since I was still nursing.  The juxtaposition of changing out of wrinkled yoga clothes into a business suit to teach class, while cramming my bra with pads to avoid embarrassing milk stains was somewhat surreal.  The cerebral sterility and of the academic setting versus the visceral messiness of being a mother to a young child was challenging to reconcile, but I felt that I had made the transition fairly well.  Moreover, I felt that the transformational fire of motherhood made me a better teacher – more compassionate, nurturing, self-possessed, humble, tougher and stronger in spirit.

Over time, several questions emerged.  Why did I feel shame in the professional setting about my new role as a mother? Why did the (presumably female) student find it inappropriate?  If I had said I was tired from traveling for my job, would she have made the same comment? I also considered how many of my professional female friends felt they had to somehow disguise or justify the time spent at home when they returned to work after having children, as if the experience of motherhood had no relevance or value to organizations.

During my graduate work in leadership and ethics, I had become interested in the trend in leadership theory towards aspects of the feminine principle.  Late 20th century leadership theories such as Transformational Leadership, Servant Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence espouse a more intuitive, emotional, and holistic style than earlier theories such as Path-Goal and Contingency theories that focus on the hierarchical aspects of leadership functions.  I was interested in what influences or events precipitated this change of focus, and more importantly, why these feminine styles and theories were created, espoused, and largely practiced by men. What are the persistent barriers to women in leadership?

As I continued to synthesize my graduate learning with my professional and personal experiences, I began to wonder if some basic assumptions still exist that create barriers to women, particularly mothers, in the professional setting.  More specifically, how do women self-limit or limit each other’s opportunities for success?  What are the underlying assumptions that perpetuate this behavior?  I began to see parallels between how women interact in families, relationships, and across generations in the personal sphere with how they behave in the professional world.  Women did not have the right to vote a few short generations ago; now we have the same legal rights as men.  Do we, like other oppressed cultures, carry with us artifacts of this earlier time that we unknowingly inflict on each other and pass on to our daughters?  Does our tendency to shy away from our innate human aggression and competition cause us to act out in ways that are self or other limiting?

After reading Bolen’s work on Greek goddesses and other writing on Jungian female archetypes, it seems to me that the dominant archetypes for women in the work world tend to be maiden goddesses like Athena (a warrior and scholar), or the Wise Woman – a woman past child-bearing who possesses knowledge and the wisdom of age.  The Mother archetype seems conspicuously absent.  Why is the Mother not welcome in our places of work, and does that have any bearing on the less than hospitable environment for mothers returning to work after having children – the so called “mommy trap”?  I considered how Hilary Clinton was famously lambasted for saying she did not need to “stay home and bake cookies” when she was involved with creating policy in her husband’s administration.  Now that she is past childbearing age, she has run for president and been Secretary of State.

These questions intrigue me and drive me to continue my research in the areas of leadership theory, organizational behavior, and women’s studies.  I believe there is a conversation yet to be had that could diminish the remaining misogyny that still limits women in our society – because I suspect women perpetuate it more actively than men do.  Until we can openly and frankly discuss our unconscious aggressive behavior as a potential source of artifacts of the patriarchy, and until we can fully integrate uncomfortable impulses and emotions that we continue to disown or project, we will not be able to become fully self-realized contributors to our society, and to the world our daughters inherit from us.

That one student comment, and my own reaction to it, has led me to look much more closely at my relationship to work, motherhood, and other women. I have learned to question my own assumptions about the divide between motherhood and career, and have broadened my areas of research and literature review to include anthropology, sociology, and feminism.  I believe that as women we have yet to make our most significant contributions to the organizational world, and by dismantling and addressing some of our hidden beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, we may be able to help create a more holistic, integrated approach to business and leadership.