Happy Mother’s Day?

In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to discuss something that has irked me since reading Bread Givers and something that each reading has almost unilaterally reinforced. For a while now, authors have touched upon racial and ethnic stereotypes of motherhood. While as demeaning as those stereotypes are, the authors have recognized (but often skirted around) a larger truth, a more troubling truth—that of the mother-blame game.

Why do we tend to blame the mothers, our mothers?

For instance, in Jacobsen’s Roots Too, he pairs Jewish identity and sexuality through the lens of psychoanalysis of the Jewish mother. Using Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Jacobsen charts what it meant to come to terms with “Jewishness” and that it often began retrospectively, looking back and blaming the Jewish mother. This stereotypical Jewish mother, the overbearing, nagging, and suffocating woman, became so feared that she remained “the most powerful negative icon for a rising generation of Jewish feminists.”[1] This idea is also found later in the book. The domineering Irish mother is present, so, too, is the self-sacrificing, possessive Italian mother. Even if no formal complaint is brought against them, the reader draws their own conclusions based on the stereotypical descriptions provided.[2]

Yet, this concept is not new nor is it ethnic/race specific. In Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jones recounts how the Moynihan report on The Negro Family adversely affected opinions of Black mothers. Attacking these Black matriarchs, Moynihan concluded that the tendency for overbearing, emasculating Black mothers was destroying what was left of the Black family. Even those fathers who abandoned their families were excused because of this “type” of Black women.[3] Add the welfare queen and single mother stereotype and Black women receive a toxic mix.

There is also the White stereotype of motherhood, documented in Personal Politics by Sara Evans. A tranquil, fountain of nourishment, the White mother was stereotyped as self-sacrificing, naturally-gifted mother who would not only raise good Americans but also look good doing so. She was the ultimate bored housewife.[4] As further readings and our discussions suggested, these stereotypes were the exception rather than the rule. But, I think it is striking that each culture adapted this “bad mother” stereotype and, while making it their own, shared remarkable similarities. All were emasculating, domineering, self-sacrificing, toxically nurturing, identity suffocating smothering, and impeccably flawed mothers. In the end, the root cause for all problems were on the shoulders of the mothers.

I do not mean to trivialize the “daddy problem” or suggest that it does not exist—I simply am going off what the readings provide which are purely problems of motherhood. In the readings, even when fathers are deemed irresponsible and absentee, it is because his wife, the mother, made him that way.[5] These phenomenons go further than needing to blame someone or blame a woman; it is as if it has become a multicultural mainstay and tradition to hold mothers completely culpable for the ills of their society.

Why is the need to blame mothers so persuasive throughout cultures? Why does the mother receive all of our blame, all of our ire? Is it purely because of gender reasons or are there larger, shared connections that span the spectrum of class and race?

[1] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Harvard University Press, 2008), 154.

[2] Ibid., 139 and 146.

[3] Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (Basic Books, 2009), 258-60.

[4] Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left (Vintage, 1980), 14.

[5] Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, 260.

5 thoughts on “Happy Mother’s Day?

  1. Parents always get blamed. It’s easy. That psychoanalysis was able to get fat and rich off my parents F’d me up is the most hilarious thing that has ever happened.
    Think Freud liked women? I’d love to meet his Mom.
    People carry their crap with them, even brilliant people with letters next to their names. Thing is, people also suck. They can’t elevate themselves beyond blaming their parents any more than they can escape loving them. Personal identity is built most basically from the relationship you have with your parents. It’s freeing to blame them. The reality is that maybe there are cases where they are right. Maybe the 20th century was the first time whinny humans who had food in their bellies and a right to vote and weren’t dying of cholera could say “And Mom was a bitch! I would be a better person if she got me a cell phone at 12.”
    Yes blame. It’s the real stuff or writers’ inspiration, social movements and history itself.
    There are times I think CRG could be renamed “Oppression studies.” Then maybe there would be a minor in “Blame”.

  2. Great thoughts. This pattern that you talked about doesn’t only plague (yes, plague) all cultures, but it’s also been around for hundreds of years. The same way women were held responsible for the raising of proud patriots (Republican motherhood) or pious gentlemen in a crazy world in the Victorian era, mothers are still held to that standard today. Women might be able to break through several of the “glass ceilings” in life, but we have yet to conquer that one.

  3. I agree, this ‘blame game’ exists in part due to the assignment of gender roles across societies. As is stated above, the role of mother has been to uphold family moral, support children and husbands, build the next generation. Though these roles seem to cross ethnic boundaries I believe it is important to examine the origins of this idea of spheres of influence. Mothers are in the home, but why? Women are ingrained with the social expectation of motherhood and homemaking practically from infancy. It is instilled in the simplest gestures, for instance giving Suzy a doll and Boby blocks. The urge to mother is partially a social expectation.
    While in Manhattan I visited the Museum of Sex. The top floor is dedicated to the sex life of animals, and what was fascinating was that biologists have been able to track dolphins who are in sexual relationships with other dolphins of the same sex. Homosexual dolphins. Arguments against homosexuality have for ages been that it is not natural. This seems to put a bit of a damper on that argument. Women have been told for ages that they are naturally are more nurturing, that they are better equip for the home and child-rearing. How much of that is simply social construct.

  4. I think parents in general get the blame. They’re a pretty easy target when we need someone to blame. I think it also gets wrapped up in the family in general. I like to blame my older brother for picking on me all the time (anyone who knows me though, knows I love my family and all of my siblings-brother included). I immediately thought of Mrs. Bennett, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though when I read this post. The Bennett girls (especially Elizabeth) blame their mother for everything. But as she tells them, when they have daughters, they’ll see what occupies their mind all day.

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