The role of mother brings with it more expectations, assumptions, values and assumed qualities than any other. All of these elements however lead to the same single stereotype of a mother – she is everything, the bringer of all life, she loves unconditionally and she would sacrifice anything for her children. Mothers are always assumed to be trying their best, because being a mother is “the hardest job in the world”. We talk about mothers as if we are obliged to praise women for the inherent nurturing qualities in us all. Mothers must be loving. If they’re not, there must be something wrong with the circumstances – it couldn’t possible be that ‘mother’ is actually just an ideal that society created to keep the patriarchy alive.
The label ‘Father’ however brings with it many accepted stereotypes to describe the role of the man in a child’s life – committed father, deadbeat dad, absent father, mr mum, etc etc. It’s acceptable to be any one of these things and we’ll happily dismiss bad behaviour from a father as expected, because we know those stereotypes exist. Men aren’t nurturing therefore men are allowed to do a bad job at parenting, without being considered a failure – it’s ok to fail at being a dad, society expects that of you.
Something happens to us however when we are met with the reality of a bad mother. When the adult children of abusive mothers try to talk about the imperfections of their own mother, they are met with a series of excuses like “I’m sure she tried her best”, “you will regret feeling that way one day”, “It couldn’t have been that bad”, “that’s disrespectful to those without a mother”, and “I’m sure she regrets some of her choices” etc. It seems impossible for any of us, even those of us who are victims, to accept that there really are mothers that don’t love their children.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting that women are good parents and men are bad parents, but that our social labels do simplify our roles to these binaries of good and bad, making us feel that we need to continue them. This isn’t a black and white assessment of men and women, mothers and fathers, good and bad. It’s a response to Mother’s Day and our inability as humans to separate marketing from reality.
My parents were all shit in their own ways. My mother – an abusive narcissist. My father – weak. My step father – an abusive narcissist. My dad’s girlfriends – abusive narcissists. My father’s only ‘bad’ qualities were selecting shitty partners and making bad choices – he gambled a lot, he drank occasionally, but mostly he just struggled with the circumstances created by my mother and her second husband. He did what he could to cope. They had money. He didn’t. They hired lawyers. He had a public attorney. They could spin the story that suited them. He withdrew. They spun harder. He eventually gave up, a shell of a human who could do nothing but try to defend himself – long after we saw the truth, still to this day.
In the rare occasions where I talk about my childhood, the response from others is to ask why I didn’t say anything before disrespecting my father who, of all of the role models in my childhood, was the only one who had our best interests anywhere in his mind – even if not at the front where we should have been. It’s much easier to conclude that a man must be a bad parent. He suffered the most of all of the adults, but he did nothing but not be the ambitious, educated, financially well off man my mother felt she deserved. She set about destroying him for the crime of not being good enough for her, even though he was more than good enough for us. Her actions were unconscionable. She’d call him names, tell us he was a loser, make us steal from him because he was late on child support payments and she felt entitled to his money (despite her new husband earning more than 10 times what he did), refuse to change weekends when he asked but demanded when it suited her, threw away all gifts he gave us and photos with him in it (even if we were too), and told my sister he wasn’t her dad anyway (despite the thousands of hours of overtime he did to pay for IVF).
She was the epitome of an asshole. Once, she insisted that my father bring my sister to their restaurant for dinner when we were with him on her birthday. Their successful, financially strong, award winning restaurant. She brought out every food item my sister loved, items we weren’t allowed to consume normally because “The good food is for the customers, you can eat when the customers have finished”. She encouraged my sister to order everything, which of course an excited child did, thinking she was being loved by her parents. Then, mother brought my Dad a bill for several hundred dollars, more than he earned or could afford, and laughed when he struggled to pay the bill. Seriously? What a bitch. Yes, that’s right, I dare to call my mother a bitch because, simply, she is.
I could write pages about her abuse – the time her husband backhanded me for going to a party on Dad’s weekend because I was grounded at their house, giving me a black eye for 6 weeks; the time I tried to tell her that her husband came into my room at night and put his tiny little penis in my 12 year old hands and she responded by telling me not to be ungrateful for the roof over my head and that women should always put their husbands first; the time after time after time she told me that having kids was a waste of ones life; the times she pulled me out of bed in the wee hours because I didn’t wash the dishes properly and it pissed her husband off. Time after time after time. But if I spent any more time talking about what happened to me as a child I’d be reinforcing your assumption that I must be an attention seeking drama queen. Right?
We talk a lot about breaking cycles and evolving as humans and parents, but we still hold tight to many of the myths and flatout bullshit that props up these situations and allows them to continue. We choose to see things a certain way, because if we looked past our own labels and assumptions we might have to question more than we’re comfortable dealing with. If we dared to consider that women aren’t necessarily good at nurturing and that men can be just as capable of being good parents as women if given the same support and tools, we’d have to question everything we’ve ever been taught. We might have to question ourselves. And it’s just easier to go along with the masses. Safety in numbers. For you, not for the victims of these systems, but as long as YOU don’t have to adjust your views none of that really matters. As long as people fit into those moulds we’ve constructed, or we can tell ourselves they do, we can sleep at night. Right?
If we really want to address mental health, child abuse, rape culture, patriarchy, victim blaming, entitlements, rights, obligations and inequality, we have to let go of these assumptions – these dangerous labels that silence anything which doesn’t fit.
Here’s some of the myths we tell ourselves about motherhood and mother’s day that continue to perpetuate these damaging values…
Women who don’t have children are selfish
Huh? This was said to me many times in my 20’s. I haven’t heard it in a while because I think there’s been enough blog posts about it from women who feel a similar way to me that we’ve finally made some headway with this stupid statement. Also those people aren’t my friends anymore because all interactions happen under the veil of this judgement. But rather than just dismiss it as stupid, I always asked the judgemental douches who said this why they felt that way. “If you have the opportunity to bring life into the world you should do it, it’s selfish not to” was the general answer. “We were given these bodies to serve this incredible purpose.” Wha?! “Our gift is too precious to waste.” Gift?! “Being a mother is the best contribution a woman can make to the world.” Barf! “Just living for yourself is selfish.”
I eventually stopped having these discussions because it is exhausting defending oneself while avoiding the minefield of trying not to be so judgemental and offensive in return. The kicker for me is that most mothers I know are the most selfish people around. Caring for your own offspring doesn’t make you unselfish. They are yours, they came from you, and putting them first at the cost of all others is the very definition of selfish. It isn’t selfless to want little versions of yourself running around so you can praise yourself for being so great that you could produce other versions of you that are so great. Please! If anyone else praised themselves as much as mothers do, they’d be called all sorts of names. I can think of other judgemental words too like vein, self involved, entitled, oblivious, selfish… creating more children is the most selfish act imaginable when 30,000 children are in foster care. If that’s your choice, fine, but don’t insult me for mine by pretending yours is something other than what it is.
We should be grateful to our mothers
Why? “Because she brought you into this world.” So? I didn’t ask for her to do that. I also didn’t ask for her to do all the other shit that she did in the name of ‘motherhood’ either. “But she put a roof over your head.” Only because she had to by law and so she could hide her shitty actions. That roof didn’t protect us, it protected you from seeing what was really going on. YOU are grateful for the roof she put over our heads, otherwise you might have had to do something selfless like, I dunno, questioning her actions. “She put food on the table.” No, she put leftovers on our table and told us we should be grateful to have food at all because it was more than she got as a child. She abused us with food, withholding it when her emotional control started to slip, despite having access to a plethora of high quality food and giving much of it away to their friends as part of their performance of the role of good people. We were fed vegetables that the customers didn’t eat, sent back from their table. Sausages were pre-boiled and we reheated them in the microwave. We were at home 5 nights a week with a babysitter, we fed ourselves from leftovers and a mostly empty pantry. From the age of 8 to 17 when I finally left home, I was responsible for feeding myself and my sister 5 nights per week. Tell me again, grateful for what? I have digestive problems and eating disorders and allergies and a tumultuous relationship with food, but I’m an excellent cook, so I guess there’s that…
You will regret not talking to your mother
My mother made this threat all the time. “You’ll regret it if you don’t meet my needs today.” The only time I feel free is when my mother doesn’t talk to me. I regret having her crazy bullshit in my life as long as I did. I regret that I didn’t cut ties sooner. I regret letting myself be manipulated by this bullshit as long as I did. I regret that I let her ruin my relationship with my Dad. I probably will hate myself when she dies, but thanks to her guidance I hate myself almost all the time, so please don’t suggest I will regret HER choices. It’s hard enough as it is to hear this from my mother, her mother and the rest of the almost-dead people in the family, but saying this to someone who has had this said to them by their abusive parents is continued abuse. Keep your psychic projections to yourself. This also to applies to future projections of how I will feel when I’m old and alone in a nursing home and I don’t have kids to visit me. Regrets are for the future. Self preservation and survival is for today.
Not talking to your mother is not fair to those who have lost theirs
Um, how is my relationship with my mother anything to do with your relationship with yours? The answer is that they share the same role, and some people mistake roles for individuals. Your mother may have been amazing. She may have been the star of the johnson & johnson baby ads. Your mother may have been imperfect and you love her anyway. Those things are all great, and I’m so happy for you that your mother was great or that you worked through your issues. But, your mother is not my mother. When I talk about my mother, why would you assume I’m talking about all mothers and therefore your mother unless you’re hung up on a stereotype of how mothers are supposed to be? I’m sorry that your mother has passed. But the individuals who raised us are just that, individuals. If I could trade places, I’d bring your mother back and send mine instead! You can’t believe I said that? Please don’t use your grief to silence mine.
Being a mother is the hardest job in the world
No, sorry, it isn’t. I am not a mother, except in my childhood when I looked after my sister more than my mother did, so I’m not allowed to have opinions on what it is like to be a mother. How convenient, that only other people who are as emotionally biased as you are allowed to have opinions? I am not allowed to speak about the job of mother, because I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult it is. But mothers can have opinions on all sorts of jobs they have never experienced. Well, that same concept applies to all the other jobs that mothers have never done such as a submarine engineer, a pilot, an astronaut, coal miners, child slaves, prostitutes, gargabe collectors, oil rig workers, ice truckers. There’s thousands of jobs that are more difficult than being a mother. I’m not dismissing those mothers who have a other challenges – single mothers, victims of abuse, foster mums etc. All of these jobs can be difficult, but to claim your job is the hardest and most important job of all is nothing short of obnoxious.
When we assume that a word automatically defines the values of all of those who choose to perform that role, we silence anyone who has experienced a different version of that role. When we assume that all mothers must automatically love their kids and have their best interests at heart, we contribute further to the alienation felt by those who didn’t have the advantage of this ideal. Victims need to be heard, and we can’t possibly be listening to a victim of a shit mother if we are too busy singing la la la la la with our fingers in our ears while accusing the victim of being ungrateful. We can’t really listen and understand the true state of the world if we are more concerned with protecting a manufactured stereotype than a real child. A mother is nothing more than one who has reproduced, so please don’t dismiss all of the types of mothers so you can continue to celebrate a stereotype.
Perhaps the only role which has more expectations than a mother is that of the children of narcissistic mothers, who are not only expected to accept their abuse, but to continue to perpetuate a myth which puts their abusive mothers on a pedestal.