Feminist reflections on motherhood: There’s nothing worse than a bad mother

In a world in which we love to judge mothers for everything they do (or don’t do), it would be hard to top Agave, the main female character in the Anne Carson version of Euripides’ play Bakkhai (played, as pictured here, by Lucy Peacock at the Stratford Festival this year)), who kills her adult son in a particularly brutal fashion.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the social constructions of motherhood; in particular, the constructions of good vs bad motherhood.

What does it mean to be a mother?

I, like many women, struggled with what it meant to be a mother in a 20th century capitalist society. It seemed I was meant to do everything: attend to my children with rapt attention, organize endless activities for them, entertain their friends, make them delicious and nutritious meals, supervise field trips and help with homework, stay up late until they came home, and cheer and champion them in all their endeavours, among other things.

Being a mother can be isolating. It’s hard to admit to others how boring parenting can be.

Whenever I found my kids less than captivating; whenever I thought I would scream if I had to set up the building blocks one more time; whenever I thought that I would really rather be reading a book, I felt guilty and I kept these feelings to myself.

Certainly, on those days when I did not like my kids or, even, wished briefly that I had not had them, I did not say a word to anyone. Surely only a bad mother would have such feelings!

Motherhood and feminism

I was not a feminist when I became a mother at the age of 19, but there is no doubt that being a mother helped make me one.

I remember an evening spent visiting my family while my partner stayed at home with our infant daughter, mostly because of the comments from more than one relative about how lovely it was for me that my daughter’s father would “babysit” her.

I remember how surprised I was when people assumed I would stay at home once my daughter was born even though, like my partner at the time, I was halfway through a university degree. It did not escape my notice that no one was making that assumption about him.

I remember the comment of a city councillor in Guelph when a group of us approached the council for approval to start a co-operative day care centre at the university. He opposed this support, claiming that if there were fewer day care centres, women would stay at home with their children, as they should.

I remember when I told my then-mother-in-law – a very progressive and brilliant woman, who had opted to stay at home with her children rather than pursue the career as a veterinarian for which she was educated – that I was pregnant with my second child, she expressed shock, telling me that since I had put my first child in a day care centre she had assumed I did not really want to have kids.

From all of this, I took two key messages: the job of parenting is for women and there are very particular ways to be an acceptable mother.

What about dad?

Of course, this was more than 40 years ago, but I still hear people using the word “babysit” to describe the time fathers spend with their children. I still hear women agonizing over how to be a good parent while holding down a job; conversations I am pretty sure men do not have to the same extent. I still hear politicians finding excuses not to provide adequate affordable child care; an issue that continues to impact women’s employment more than it does men’s.

(According to Statistics Canada, in 2010, women spent more than double the amount of time caring for children at home than men did, even when both were also working outside the home. Women spent 1.5 times as much time on housework and more time caring for aging parents. So much for all the talk about men being equally involved with child and household related responsibilities.

Women continue to be judged as selfish or abnormal for deciding not to have children and, when we do have kids, we are judged and found lacking for everything we do or don’t do.

Even in 21st century Canada, with all of its formal equality protections for women, we live in a society that has created an ideology of the good mother, standing behind which is the spectre of the bad mother.

Mothers, fathers and family court

We see this judgmental attitude towards mothers play out in family law/court on a regular basis, especially in cases involving violence against women. In my work, it can seem as though all a father has to do to is show up, stand more or less upright and breathe, while espousing his great love for his children, whether or not he has a single bit of evidence to support that contention, and he will be judged to be a great dad.

A mother, on the other hand, has to overcome the suspicions of the judge: that she has exaggerated or even fabricated her story of abuse; that she should have stayed in her abusive relationship; that she should have left it sooner; that she is putting her interests ahead of what is best for her children; that she is trying to interfere in the father’s relationship with the children; that she is, in fact, a bad mother whose children must be protected from her.

There is, indeed, nothing worse than a bad mother.

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