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The dark matter of motherhood

A Potent Spell:
Mother Love and the Power of Fear

by Janna Malamud Smith
Houghton Mifflin, 2003

Physicists estimate that the visible portion of the universe represents just 1% of its physical material. The remaining 99% of the universal mass is invisible, and the precise nature of this vast entity is still unknown. The only real evidence of what physicists call “dark matter” is its powerful gravitational effect – a force so strong that without it, the edge of the universe would begin to unravel.

Janna Malamud Smith’s A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear investigates another unseen and little understood phenomenon: the mental weight of motherhood, with its constantly swirling admixture of love, fear, vigilance, anxiety, and real and imagined grief. From the moment a mother feels a deep attachment to her child, this terrible blend of love and dread settles into the center of her being with an overwhelming gravity. And even though this dark aspect of the inner world of motherhood is routinely obscured by our culture, there are few mothers who escape its steady pull.

Using examples from an eclectic selection of sources (including literature, drama, historical resources, contemporary research and personal interviews), Smith creates a compelling argument that the fear of child loss has been manipulated by cultural messengers to assure mothers’ compliance with a status quo that undermines their social power and individual rights. According to Smith, the basis of this exploitation is the enduring assumption that a child’s failure to thrive is intrinsically connected to maternal action -- or the lack of it. By sampling passages from early and contemporary child-rearing manuals, Smith traces the way oppressive attitudes have been transmitted and escalated by each generation of "experts" over the last three centuries.

In the late 18th and for most of the 19th century, a woman's motherhood was likely to cost her dearly: few families were unaffected by high rates of child mortality, and mothers who contemplated deviating from the accepted norms of maternal behavior could be quickly contained by the specter of child death. And although they were expected to carry out their maternal duties with humility, patience and grace, mothers (who were, after all, merely female) were not considered of sufficient intelligence or aptitude to raise healthy, morally-steadfast children on their own accord. Intervention, in the form of dictates from male specialists, was considered necessary to spare the upcoming generation from precipitous decline.

By the early twentieth century, the drive to reduce infant mortality led to the invention of “scientific” motherhood, a formulaic system of infant care that— in its most extreme expression— required mothers to keep a detailed time diary of their infant’s activities and excretions. While strict instructions for infant feeding may have resulted in a slight reduction of infections from contaminated milk, “scientific” motherhood was undoubtedly a child-rearing trend that created significant psychological strain for mothers of the day, who, like generations of mothers before and since, were desperate to get it “right.”

As the inner life of the child became the subject of formal study in the mid-twentieth century, mothers were charged with tending to their children’s emotional needs in addition to their moral development and physical health. Given that child mortality was no longer an ever-present threat, child-rearing strategies shifted to focus on the mother’s potential to inflict lasting psychological damage. The most onerous of maternal misdeeds was over-involvement with the child; “smothering” attention was presumed to compromise the emotional growth of children so severely that they were virtually assured an adulthood of abnormality and despair.

Fast forwrd to t oday, when it seems as though mothers can never spend too much time attending to the emotional and developmental needs of their children, particularly between the ages of zero to three. Indeed, proponents of attachment parenting support round-the-clock physical contact between mother and infant as the most reliable method for raising well-adjusted children. A recent spate of public concern about the perils of adolescence behavior – particularly the risk-taking that goes on when teens are home alone – implies mothers are not to be let off the hook, even when their children reach an independent age.

Obviously, child-rearing practices that demand intensive maternal participation (which – despite the prevalence of dual-earner families – are strongly favored by the present-day crop of baby and child care gurus) fly in the face of any notion that mothers might be entitled to a life of their own that includes paid employment or other satisfying activities that have nothing at all to do with bringing up children.

Whether a mother was a Victorian “angel of the house,” a 1980s “supermom”, or is a 21st century single mother trying to juggle work and family, one thing remains constant: in the eyes of society: The ball of protecting and raising children is squarely in the mother’s court— and averting death, disaster or other undesirable outcomes depends solely on the mother’s ability to stay on her toes and play by the official rules.

This pressure to mother in the culturally preferred manner – coupled with a more primal anxiety that puts the preservation of the child at the forefront of a mothers’ consciousness – could be expected to have a distinct effect on a mother’s mental state. As Smith explains in her elegant and intelligent prose, a mother generally shares her precious moments of sentient thought with a permanent backdrop of subtle calculations that include monitoring her children’s activities, estimating the degree of relative risk in the immediate environment, planning action to avoid levels of risk she considers unacceptable, plotting an alternative strategy in the event the present situation breaks down, and an ever-unscrolling laundry list of myriad details that must be seen to in order to sustain the family equilibrium.

Much of this intensive “emotional and cognitive” work occurs on an almost subliminal level. A mother may not be fully aware of the precise mechanism of the constant hum, but she notices it taking up space in her head (this is one aspect of the condition commonly known as “mommy brain”). And while the effects of managing this unrelenting psychic workload are evident in the prickly outlines of maternal anxiety and the dead weight of maternal fatigue, its true nature is apparently incomprehensible to individuals who lack first-hand experience.

Oddly, but not unexpectedly, the significance of mothers’ investment in mental carework seems particularly unfathomable to those who presumably share similar concerns for a child’s well-being: fathers. Smith points out that one of the foundations of the persistent inequality in parental responsibility is the “false proposition that mothering is simply what mothers do.” She adds that, “while men may be criticized as bad fathers, there is no equivalent assumption that fathering is simply what fathers do.”

As much as we’d all like dads to pitch in, getting to 50-50 has been a little more complicated than staking our claim in the paid workforce and negotiating the fair division of housework. This may be explained by the fact that there is an enormous difference between divvying-up the necessary work of family life and actually sharing the physical, emotional and economic obligations inherent in the parent-child relationship. Smith also notes that our culture fails to provide reasonable and realistic models that might serve as a road map for fully engaged fatherhood, or for what she defines as “free” motherhood. She writes: “A child needs a mother who lives and works in a context that respects her labor, and realistically supports it without rationalizing oppression in the name of safety, or substituting idealization or sentimentality for resources. A child needs a mother who is not constantly abraded by philosophies that inflate her accountability while obscuring her effort.” Clearly, we're not there yet.

If mothers are to live in a society that fully supports their personal and political agency, everyone must share and share alike when it comes to shouldering the burden – including the mental burden – of child-rearing. Smith advocates for a palette of workplace reforms and social policies similar to those proposed by Ann Crittenden (The Price of Motherhood) and Joan Williams (Unbending Gender). The depth of social change required to expand the context of mothers’ lives beyond their attachment to children (and, likewise, the context of fathers’ lives beyond their attachment to work) may be a long time coming. But in reading A Potent Spell, we're once again reminded that as long as we continue to behave as if mothers, and mothers alone, are responsible for the care and healthy development of children, women will remain intractably rooted in a society that offers them little in the way of real justice or equality.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
March 2003

Also in MMO:

An interview with Janna Malamud Smith

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