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The Rhetoric of Motherhood by Abby Arnold

page five

Most mothers, and certainly society at large, do not understand that the standards upon which we define “good mothering” are culturally constructed. According to Ann Dally in her book Inventing Motherhood, mothers of previous generations were told by various experts to do such contradictory actions as to feed their babies on a strict schedule, not kiss them, subordinate the child’s will to that of the parent’s and other’s authority.

As the conditions that gave rise to these standards disappeared, the standards themselves changed. For example, as childhood mortality improved, mothers were told that they could kiss their children. It seems reasonable to conclude that today’s emphasis on the psychological health and development of the child comes from our more sophisticated understanding of the psychological process, as well as the reduction in infant mortality. Why the burden for this development still falls onto the mother, despite women’s advances in so many other areas of our society, is open to conjecture.

Women give birth to children. This biological fact has been taken to mean that therefore mothers, of all the adults in all the world, are the ones most devoted to their children. And certainly most mothers are devoted to their children and indeed revel in the sweet, fierce bond that exists between themselves and their children. But we know the myth of exclusive maternal devotion to be patently untrue—adopted parents, for example, are capable of being as devoted as biological parents, fathers as connected to their children as mothers. Still the myth, the image of Madonna and child, persists in our cultural consciousness.

Then Freud came along, and insisted on the all-powerful mother, one with whom the child exists in helpless dependency until he is able to break the bond. As Chodorow and Contratto state in their essay The Fantasy of the Perfect Mother, the belief in this grandiose mother “spawns a recurrent tendency to blame the mother on the one hand, and a fantasy of maternal perfectibility on the other” (192). They argue that even much of feminist theory has perpetuated this belief in maternal omnipotence, most noticeably in the way mothers are blamed for the burdens their daughters carry. Feminist theory, they argue, does assign some of the blame for the mother’s behavior on social conditioning, but much of it still holds onto an image of maternal perfectibility that would emerge if only patriarchal conditions could be overthrown. This reminds me of the language of natural parenting, with the insistence that if medical technology would just get out of the way of childbirth, for example, the body would naturally know what to do and there would be little pain or need for intervention.

Psychiatrist Jessica Benjamin has what I consider to be the most important theory of both the origins of maternal ideology and the way to combat it. She states that what the myth of the omniscient mother leaves out is that it “has failed to conceptualize the mother as a separate subject outside the child” (133). Because mother and child are assumed to be locked in a impermeable dyad, mothers, their children and society at large are unable to conceive of “separation without destruction”(143).

The perfect mother of fantasy is the one who is always there, ready to sacrifice herself—and the child is not conscious of how strongly such a fantasy mother makes him or her feel controlled, guilty, envious or unable to go away. The child simply remains terrified of her leaving or of destroying her by becoming separate. In turn, the mother feels terrified of destroying her child with her own separation (142).

Benjamin’s proposition is simple, and radical. The image of the perfect mother, and the complete-in-itself mother/child bond, harms everyone. We must all of us—mothers, children, society, experts—realize that our image of the perfect mother, however we create her, is a fantasy. We need to mourn her loss on an individual level—my mother will never love me right, I will never love my child without ambivalence and awareness of my own self—and then move beyond our desire for “perfect reparation” between mother and child, whichever (or both) side of the equation we fall on. To simplify Benjamin’s message, it is only through achieving and valuing separation between mother and child—the mother leaving, the child having his or her tantrum, both feeling horrible and both surviving it, that space for individuality between mother and child will develop, and space for a new maternal/child ideology will occur. We need to do this as individuals, within our own families and we need as a culture to separate from our collective image of the fantasy mother.

We need to stop thinking of mothers as Mother. We—those of us who mother, those of us who have mothers—need to think of mothers as Women Who Mother. That is, as individuals first, people with our own needs, desires, ambitions. It is, after all, real women who mother, not a collective ideal. The language of popular culture acts as if it supports this notion—talk of choices, options, following our own paths. But in reality, our society is as subscribed to the notion of the idealized mother as any other in history. And the women who cannot live up to this standard must say so loudly, with assurance—those of us who work or stay home, who supervise all aspects of our children’s development or who put them in front of a video every day, who attachment parent or create some separation, bottle or breast feed—that is to say, all women who mother, for no woman, anywhere, can achieve every standard set for us. We must say that we are people first, even while our babies are clinging to our bodies and sleep deprivation is clouding our minds. Above all, we must end the isolation that pits mother against mother, causing us to judge and feel judged and to turn to the experts for guidelines on how we should feel and behave.

One expert, anyway, was right. We do know more than we think we do, all of us, separately and together, if only we would believe—and speak—the truth of our own experiences.

mmo : december 2003

Abby Arnold is a writer, teacher, and the mother of a 3 year old son and 1 year old daughter. She lives with her family in North Carolina.


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