Anna Vaux

  • Bad Mothers: The Politics of Blame in 20th-Century America edited by Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky
    New York, 416 pp, £16.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 8147 5119 9
  • Madonna and Child: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood by Melissa Benn
    Cape, 288 pp, £12.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 224 03821 4

What makes a good mother? How many do you know? Perhaps you think you are one, or that your mother is – though it’s not very likely that you and your mother will agree on this. Fashions in mothering change, as Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky point out. Even within a given era, the experts do not agree – about breastfeeding, about solids, about sleeping habits. Americans are divided on whether mothers should stay at home with their children and on whether a good parent would spank a child. They can’t decide what age a good mother should be. They don’t know whether allowing a baby to sleep in its parents’ bed builds a more secure child or an excessively dependent one. They don’t know if it is bad to breastfeed a toddler, or give a newborn a bottle.

Ladd-Taylor and Umansky do, however, know what makes a bad mother – ‘ “bad” mothering is like obscenity: you know it when you see it,’ and one obvious sign for it is a child who goes ‘wrong’. You and your mother may not agree about good mothering, but if you didn’t turn out all that well yourself, if you are an alcoholic, or have personality problems, if you are anorexic, or a juvenile delinquent, a killer, a schizophrenic, or if you died in your cot from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, then you, or someone on your behalf, is likely to blame your mother. And she is likely to blame herself.

As general evidence of the truth of this, Ladd-Taylor and Umansky cite the fact that when they put out a call on the Internet for submissions to their book, they were ‘swamped’ with replies. ‘I could write this book!’ several women told them. ‘Mother-blaming is like air pollution,’ says clinical psychologist Paula Caplan. ‘I live in a large city with moderate pollution I rarely notice – until I get out into the fresh country air, when I suddenly recall how good it feels to breathe really well.’ Our atmosphere smells bad, in other words, and we are choking on a smog of false consciousness that blinds us to the fact that ‘at every level of conversation and discussion, in every conceivable arena, mothers are ignored, demeaned and scapegoated – in jokes (often unfunny), on bumper stickers, on television and at the movies, in works by popular authors, in our own families, in the research literature, in the courts, and in psychotherapists’ offices.’

So Caplan says – but is it true? Is it true that mothers blame themselves more than fathers do? Or that we blame mothers more than fathers, or more than anything else? ‘Fathers, schools, television – and the environment outside the home – get little if any attention in this frenzy of attribution,’ say Umansky and Ladd-Taylor. But it is not hard to find examples to show that they are wrong. ‘When in fact we need to examine poverty, racism, the paucity of meaningful work at a living wage, the lack of access to daycare, anti-feminism, and a host of other problems, let us not be diverted by “bad” mothers,’ they ask. But might we not as justly ask that we should not be diverted by ‘bad’ fathers, or by ‘bad’ schools, or ‘bad’ television? And who is being diverted, in any case? Here, after all, is a four-hundred-page book, welcomed by Diane Eyer, the author of Mother-guilt: How Our Culture Blames Mothers for What’s Wrong with Society, with essays from 26 contributors, many of whom have written elsewhere on the subject, and who run classes and clinics to help us with it.

Still, there is something in it – if only because we tend to blame the ‘primary care provider’ for a child’s problems, and most mothers still have far more to do with their children than most fathers. And also because, in a kind of domino effect, the bad fathering of bad fathers might be blamed on their experiences of being badly mothered in the first place. ‘The authoritarian dad and the ineffectual male – the two masculine traits recognised as sources of childhood emotional problems – were quite often traced back to the errant mother,’ writes Kathleen Jones in an essay on child guidance in the first half of the century. And ‘domineering wives’ created ‘spineless husbands who stayed away from their children to avoid confrontations’.

There is certainly something of a history (Ladd-Taylor and Umansky’s own discipline) – one in which moments of national crisis appear to go hand in hand with anxieties about the nation’s mothers. Back at the beginning of the century, for example, anxieties about moral lassitude and hereditary defectiveness led to legislation requiring sterilisation of ‘feeble-minded’ and insane people considered unfit to bear children. By 1939, thirty thousand people – mostly women – had been legally sterilised in the United States. Yet as Steven Noll points out in his essay on ‘The Sterilisation of Willie Mallory’ (a woman), ‘the use of sterilisation in the fight against feeble-mindedness centred on lower-class women of questionable moral standards,’ and (in Mallory’s case at least) depended on a rationale that came down to the charged phrase ‘incapable of leading a clean and proper life’: the feeling that her mothering was not up to scratch.

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