Motherblame

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.

At this end of the century the US has the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act, which abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children, established work requirements for single mothers, and – according to Ladd-Taylor and Umansky – wrote into law many of the recommendations made by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their book The Bell Curve, in which they charged that single motherhood correlates positively with child poverty and crime, and urged that welfare benefits be taken away as a disincentive to further childbearing. ‘While more affluent women are “bad” mothers if they do not stay at home, poor women are “bad” mothers if they do,’ Ladd-Taylor and Umansky write: the kind of double bind that Rickie Solinger identifies when she says that ‘at the heart of Federal and state welfare “reform” ... is the idea that without laws to constrain them, women make irresponsible choices at best and, more typically, choose to scam the system.’

Not all of these essayists have to work so hard at disentangling subtle forms of ‘Motherblame’ from the fabric of our everyday lives, however. Jennifer Terry has a gift in the popular columnist and self-described ‘motherless’ man Philip Wylie, who coined the term ‘momism’ to describe the American mother’s dominating influence over her children, particularly her sons, and whose bestselling book Generation of Vipers (1942) blamed ‘megaloid momworship’ for most of the problems of modern American society. ‘No great man or brave,’ he wrote, ‘from the first day of the first Congressional meeting to the present ever stood in our halls of state and pronounced the one indubitably most-needed American verity: “Gentlemen, mom is a jerk.” ’ And he was not alone in his views. The psychiatrist Edward Strecker, for example, elaborated on the horrors of ‘momism’ in his 1946 book Their Mothers’ Sons, and then, ten years later, in Their Mothers’ Daughters. Like Wylie, he thought that mom’s most horrifying attribute was her ability to thwart the individualism of American men. Nazism, he wrote, was a ‘Momarchy’: ‘a mom surrogate with a swastika for a heart’. Hitler ‘had all the qualities and ingredients which go into the making of a super mom’.

Strecker’s books were born out of his realisation, while working as a military psychiatrist during the war, that ‘20 per cent of potential recruits were rejected for neuropsychiatric reasons.’ And though both books were ostensibly manuals advising mothers on how to bring up their children, both also argued that the nation’s weaknesses were due to bad mothering – a theme America appears to have been keen on. Theodore Roosevelt had voiced similar anxieties when in 1917 he launched an attack on the women-led peace movements ‘by singling out’, as Terry puts it, ‘the image of the pacifist mother whose pathological attachment to her son was turning him into an emasculated coward, thus hastening moral disintegration and heading the nation into ruin’. The second edition of Wylie’s Generation of Vipers was published at the height of McCarthyism, and described motherhood and Communism as similarly dangerous forces. The spotlight on homosexuals as treasonous also made mothers the culprits, since it was Mom’s neurotic behaviour which was seen as causing the character weakness of male homosexuality – at least according to the popular psychiatric writing of the time.

Psychiatry in any case already had a lot to answer for. By the mid-Thirties, according to Kathleen Jones, child-guidance experts had a whole vocabulary of terms such as maternal overprotection, overdirection, maternal rejection, dominance and affect hunger, which ‘held American mothers accountable for the failure of their offspring to measure up against a standard for youthful independence, civility and emotional maturity’. The behaviourist J.B. Watson dedicated his influential book Psychological Care of Infants and Children (1928) to the ‘first mother who brings up a happy child’, and then went on to doubt the likelihood of such an event. The frequently-quoted J.C. Flügel, author of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Family (1921), observed that a ‘nagging or over-anxious mother’ often produces ‘a rebellious son or daughter’, who ‘may even become unfit for taking their place in any scheme of harmonious social life’.

Have we got any further since then? Not according to Caplan, who describes an experiment she conducted in which 125 articles in nine different ‘major mental health journals in 1970, 1976 and 1982’ were categorised according to ‘63 different types of mother-blaming’. The results (published in 1985) found that mothers were blamed for 72 different types of problem, ‘ranging from bed-wetting to schizophrenia, from inability to deal with colour blindness to aggressive behaviour, from learning problems to “homicidal transexualism” ’.

Nor according to Diane Sampson, who in an essay on Zoe Baird and her failed nomination for the office of US Attorney General, remarks on the irony that Baird, in the end, ‘stated her qualifications and ambitions in terms of motherhood, and then failed the litmus test for a good mother’ – because she had hired someone else to look after her child, and because, though a wealthy woman, she had done it on the cheap. Nor according to Annette Appell, who in an essay about the child welfare system, argues that as long as it is ‘focused on “fixing” women, it will not be able to save their children’. Nor according to Katha Pollitt, who argues that the current concern about foetal rights is, for the middle classes, ‘the gateway to a view of motherhood as self-sacrifice and endless guilty soul-searching. It ties in neatly with the currently fashionable suspicion of working mothers, daycare and ... divorce. For the poor, for whom it means jail and the loss of custody, it becomes a way of saying that women can’t even be mothers. They can only be potting soil.’

Are there any solutions? Perhaps consciousness-raising is its own solution. Perhaps the solution is to forget about good mothering altogether. Perhaps Annalee Newlitz is right when she writes that not only can we not identify what a good mother is, but now that ‘the old ideal of “a man at work and a woman in the home” is not just morally repugnant to many women but often economically impossible,’ now that ‘the days before legal abortion fade into memory,’ now that ‘new images of dynamic, strong women begin to populate the mass media,’ the main issue has shifted – and the question we might more sensibly ask is ‘How to be a mother at all?’

This, in any case, is the point at which Melissa Benn picks up the story – and on which her ‘new politics of motherhood’ is pinned. For Benn, all mothers are working mothers: the mother who doesn’t work is an anachronism, representative, ‘like the miner or docker’, of ‘the way we were and probably never will be again’. The problem, as she understands it, is not a problem of mothers – but a problem for them. There are no bad mothers in her book – though there are many whom the editors of Bad Mothers might say had ‘internalised’ the bad mother label by feeling guilty about going out to work, and though she herself lambasts the ‘surprisingly many adults who hold their mothers responsible for what has gone wrong with their lives’.

Benn herself did not become a mother until she was 37: medically, a ‘mild curiosity’, but ‘culturally’, part of a whole ‘new wave’, one of many who come to motherhood late ‘in order first to establish a career or find themselves or some such thing’. In her twenties, she didn’t have a particularly high opinion of mothers. It was never her ‘destiny or ambition’, nor even her ‘intention’ to have a family – brought up, as she was, to value her independence, to forge a career, and to assert that biology is not destiny. So she got a shock when biology asserted itself. She was amazed by the arduousness of the work involved in looking after children (like having ‘a lead weight around each ankle’ or ‘swimming under water’), by the way it removed her from the rest of the world, the world of phone-calls and faxes and e-mails in particular, and by the way it cut her off from the pleasure of having her own thoughts ‘swirling deliciously or dangerously’ around her head, of popping into coffee shops for a croissant and a read of the papers.

Certainly, she paints a bleak picture of contemporary middle-class motherhood. On her ‘journey around (some of) Britain’s mothers’, she speaks to women who struggle to combine the demands of work and home, who can’t find the right kind of childcare, or flexible enough working hours, or the right kind of pay to enable them to go out to work and have somebody look after their children in the first place – or the right kind of man. She did not aim to be ‘representative’, but ‘to tap what the great cultural commentator Raymond Williams called a “structure” of feeling’ – and the feeling that emerges from her book is one of exhaustion and discontent, the pleasures of work disrupted by motherhood, the joys of motherhood soured by the fact that Having It All means Doing It All. And doing it unaided by society, which relies on women’s ‘competence’ without supporting them, according to Benn.

Compared to countries like Belgium, Denmark and France, for example, Britain is among the poorest providers of places for under-threes in publicly funded childcare. Seventy per cent of women make their own arrangements, since neither the Conservatives nor Labour, Benn writes, ‘believe that childcare should be directly funded by direct taxation’. Why, she wants to know, ‘can individuals and businesses claim tax relief on company cars and other expensive toys and no working parent in the land can claim back a penny for the money they shell out for childcare?’ Maternity leave is too short. Paternity leave is not routine – and in any case the Government is only guaranteeing fathers unpaid leave. The Department of Health recommends breastfeeding for a minimum of four months, yet many women are obliged to return to work much earlier. Even in the best maternity schemes, she points out, women go on to half-pay ‘after a set number of weeks’. Two million women lose out on Statutory Maternity Pay because they haven’t worked the stipulated number of hours a week. We don’t have a ‘carer’s allowance’ for mothers, nor any recognition that the ‘lifetime earnings’ of a woman who breaks to have children are ‘57 per cent lower’ than those of a woman who doesn’t. And we have a ridiculous culture of long working hours (and of ‘premature returnism’: a desire among professional women ‘to show that motherhood has not changed them’) – which disadvantages mothers and fathers both, as well as their children.

There is also the ‘stubborn truth’ that ‘women still take on the burden of domestic life and childrearing’, that fathers still don’t give their children enough time, and still do far less around the house. Even the progressive legislation of the Seventies – the 1970 Equal Pay Act, and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act – did nothing ‘to touch on the fundamental relationship between women and home and women and children’. And instead of Superwoman, we now have Hyperwoman, a woman who ‘has a family, a high-powered job, and a house to run’. Riffling through the results of her journey ‘round (some of) Britain’s mothers’, she comes up with (some of) the stories many of her readers will recognise: ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for an Iron, the Man Who Still Comes Straight in from Work and Says Where’s My Supper? The Man Who Has Never Made a Bed in His Life’. Even Tony Blair (who grew up in an era when feminism should have had an influence, says Benn) knows where the washing machine is, but is not (Cherie once confessed) ‘intimate’ with it.

Occasionally it appears as though Benn’s unspoken wish is for a whole new servant class to take over these problems for us. But perhaps that is just an impression gained from her vague and self-satisfied mode of argument, her scatty and befuddled way of proceeding that depends on chats with her friends in the kitchen, half-listened-to talk shows on the radio, and casual quotation from a mass of female columnists and magazines. Or perhaps it is an effect of her anxieties about the current boom in domestic labour (Britain now has more nannies than it has car workers), her suspicion that we are not nice enough to our au pairs, her outrage that we don’t pay our childminders a good enough wage, her irritation that voluntary play-schemes (like the one she admired in Shoreditch, which was closed for safety reasons) are bound by restrictive laws.

This is a shame. Many who will agree with her picture of modern motherhood will be put off by her bursts of middle-class guilt and feminist woo-woo. Her vision of an end to the ‘long hours culture’, for example (when civil servants will go home on Thursday afternoons and the very word ‘part-time’ has ceased to exist), is accompanied by a fantastic vision of the ‘new androgyny’. She quotes approvingly from Judith Butler that gender is ‘fundamentally phantasmatic’, has little to do with biology, and is really ‘an act’, ‘a performance’. ‘It will not be that many decades,’ she believes, ‘before men may be able to gestate, and themselves feed, a human foetus’. Then we will be truly equal. Or, at least, the same – working, perhaps, our same short hours, sharing our same household tasks, enjoying it all perhaps in exactly the same proportion. After all, she says, ‘I have partly been able to work and enjoy my children because I share my home and my life with someone who is prepared to work less than the “average man” and enjoy his children more than the “average man”.’ She has done it. So must we.

Arguing from her own case is one of the biggest mistakes she makes in this often mistaken book – a stance linked to the smugness characteristic of her ‘new politics’. Keen to tap into a structure of feeling, she proceeds feelingly too – arguing from a hunch, or out of inner impulse. ‘I always shiver with pity,’ she tells us, ‘when I see women searching for a partner – and particularly a husband – or looking to start a family ... Personal satisfaction cannot be sought in quite that way.’ She shows notable disregard, too, for the people who might not want to work her short hours or live in her part-time culture – people she describes as having ‘sad or non-existent home lives’ who would just have to find something else to do in the early evening’ – and for ‘the very ambitious and childless’, who could ‘go home and write a filmscript, climb a mountain at the weekends, or even have a child’. What would she do with those whose special pleasure is washing up, or who are talented at housework, the infertile or the divorced? How would you police such a ‘domestic democracy’ – which you would certainly need to do, given her apparent lack of faith in our ability to know what is good for us, and her conviction that since ‘it was politics that changed one generation of men: it is only politics that will change future generations’? (Scary.) What would happen to the recalcitrant? Would women be ordered to do the kinds of thing that men have traditionally done in their own homes and for their children, even if they didn’t want to, or weren’t any good at it?

Benn has nothing to say about men’s ‘chores’ either. They are invisible, as men themselves are almost invisible, or only vaguely imagined: on the one hand, a lot of hard-working men at the unforgiving coal-face of corporate work deprived of the time to spend with their children, and on the other, a lot of lazy skivers, off goodness knows where – all of them, in any case, awaiting a much needed remodelling, the restructuring necessary to teach them to ‘take care of themselves and others’. For that, she says, ‘to answer Freud and the Spice Girls, is what women really, really want’. And they should hurry up – since the ‘new motherhood’ won’t happen until we have the ‘new fatherhood’, and a man is ‘in sufficient charge of his own working time, and his own feelings, to contribute a meaningful half to his children’s life and the maintenance of his own household. And I mean a meaningful half,’ she threatens.

Does she really mean that men are not in charge of their feelings, whereas women are? What does she mean by ‘meaningful’? There are many ways of making a – positive – difference to your children and your household. And what about the ‘new motherhood’ – a ‘scenario’ which ‘would mean new work and, just as important, play possibilities’ in which women, too, ‘could run companies and marathons. They could swim, see the latest film, send e-mails, not just once every blue moon, but regularly, over and over again. They could get a life, at last.’ Does she mean that life at home with the children is not much of a life? Is the new motherhood once more about fulfilment outside the home, as feminists used to argue – a politics not of Madonna and Child, but just of Madonna, a form of Vater-schuld, more against marriage than about children (‘I am not, have not been, and never will be, a married woman,’ she boasts, since she looks to ‘an ethically informed love to do the job rather than rules and contracts’)? It is hard to be sure. There may well be something to be said for a politics of Having It All But Not Doing It All, for a politics of being-a-mother-and-feeling-good rather than being a good mother. But in Benn’s book it is buried or scattered and very hard to find.