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.