Deconstructing the tightrope walk of momming in America; or "Whoa Mamas!"

russian icon photo.jpg

After awhile, constant judgment/chatter takes its toll on the psychological well-being of the person on the receiving end of it. Although I feel I've come out on the other side of my son's first two years for the most part psychologically "intact", it wasn't easy.

The notion of motherhood in western culture seems to have been subject to a significant amount of degradation over the past century (or more), resulting in the construction of a discourse (or commonly understood cultural definition) that can be quite challenging to contend with for mothers and children both. It concerns me to think of mothers who may be feeling the effects of post-partum depression issues, mourning a traumatic birth experience, struggling with a challenging or medically complex baby and meeting their needs, or simply living as a single parent and trying to get things done, who at the same time are forced to fend off judgments based on their public persona as a mom.  

Why is it that our culture has developed so many ways of judging individuals who play a crucial role in the development of our young? Do these ideas serve to alienate mothers from each other and prevent us from forming supportive communities?

In researching primary attachment and trauma, and realizing the incredibly important role that mothers (or other primary caregivers) play in their children's developmental health, I reflected on the many impossible demands put upon American mothers, as well as the ridiculous amount of judgment that mothers have to contend with in the mass media, amongst their peers, and in mixed company on a daily basis.

Let's take a look at a few of these ideas that linger beneath the surface of our cultural consciousness, and could possibly affect the psychologies of the individuals most pivotal in the healthy development of our babies' brains. As follows, I will use the term "mother" with the pronoun "she", but without the intention of excluding individuals who fall into the role of primary caregiver and do not identify with the term "mother" or the feminine gender. I should also note that these are my own observations, and thusly reflective of a middle class white woman living in America; many other expectations exist for moms in other cultures as well as within my own that may not be as noticeable to me due to the limitations of my perspective (and I welcome other parents to speak to the expectations they've experienced in the comments section!):

Self-Portrait with Daughter Doon,  Diane Arbus, 1945  

Self-Portrait with Daughter Doon, Diane Arbus, 1945  

1. Stay at-home/Don't stay at-home: There are competing messages from varying sources regarding whether a mother should stay at home with her children or not. On the one hand, there is the 1950s mentality that mothers should abandon their careers to raise their children, sacrificing their all to be the best possible caregiver for their tiny charges. On the other, there is the commonly held belief that mothers who stay at home with their children lead unfulfilling lives and have sacrificed too much for the sake of family to be interesting people with valid contributions to give our communities.

There is another inconvenient aspect of modern life as well: the cost of living has gone up so significantly in the past 50 years that it's challenging to make ends meet on a single income in many areas of the United States. Nonetheless, it seems that regardless of the choice (or non-choice) a mother makes, it opens her up to criticism and judgment from others.

2. Breastfeed/Don't Breastfeed: Lots of clinical research supports the notion that human breast milk provides the most comprehensive nutrition for human babies. It also helps promote attachment between mom and baby in the very early stages after birth. On the other hand, huge developments in research have resulted in the creation of the most nutritious infant formula that has ever been on the market, enabling moms who can't or choose not to breastfeed to provide their babies with the best possible nutrition they can.

At this point in America, it's about a 50/50 division between breastfeeding/formula feeding moms in the first year of a baby's life, with a high percentage of women (in comparison with 50 years ago) attempting to breastfeed in the first months after a baby's birth. It's a win-win, right? How wonderful is it that we have two options to provide healthy nutrition to our babies. Nonetheless, to take a closer look at the cultural representations, interpretations, and common beliefs about either category, you would think that either choice is an abomination!

Victorian daguerreotype of a breastfeeding mother;  Schlessinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University  

Victorian daguerreotype of a breastfeeding mother; Schlessinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University 

Women who do breastfeed are treated as though they are disgusting and/or obsessed with their role as a mother. The act itself is discouraged in many arenas of our society (how many women have witnessed an actual "pump room" at their place of work that's not a bathroom?). What's more, womens' breasts have been so thoroughly sexualized in this culture that it's almost impossible for others to re-imagine breasts as a useful and important component of an infant's health and not a gross temptation aimed at tantalizing and/or disgusting men.

On the other hand, mothers who feed their babies formula are treated as though they don't care about their baby's health. Medical or physical issues that may prevent a mother from breastfeeding are treated as "obstacles" that with determination, anyone can "get over" (even when, in fact, they can't). When a woman makes the choice to formula feed, she is perceived as selfish and "uninformed" about what are the most nutritious ways to care for her child.

3. Be a parenting expert!: As parents in America, we are met with a barrage of useful information regarding the proper way to rear a child: when to wean from the bottle/breast, whether to rear-face a child seat, the developmental stages and how to know when your child is behind, when to introduce solid food, how to not "spoil" a child, etc. etc. etc. I would venture to guess that the parenting advice industry is the most lucrative it's ever been. I would also wager that there are more "expert" parents (and non-parents) giving lots of advice to all who will heed it.

The New Mothers , Sally Mann, 1989

The New Mothers, Sally Mann, 1989

Anyone who has visited an online "birth board" (site where mothers/parents post and discuss issues they're facing, eg. BabyCenter) and has seen any posts about whether or not to rear-face a child seat will know that these "experts" will use very strong arguments to sway people to their side of a discussion (for example implying that parents have a death wish for their child should they choose not to rear-face beyond 12 months). Pages-long arguments can be found discussing whether or not a mother should let a child "cry it out" when attempting to encourage sleeping through the night, whether to co-sleep (when parents have their baby sleep either in a crib adjacent to the parental bed or have their baby sleep in bed with them), whether to cloth-diaper, swaddle, or any number of parental choices that in America  were once within the scope of the parents' individual choices.

What's more, it's not only mothers/parents judging each other, I've found that even non-parenting individuals will pass judgment on parents who choose to do something different than they would.  

4. Silence around all ideas that are in opposition to the dominant paradigm: Possibly the most insidious expectation of mothers is that of silence on all issues in parenting that might reflect discontent. I've noticed that the most celebrated "form" of motherhood is that of the mother in a blissful state. It's as though this has created a feedback loop, in which most mothers express the parts of their daily lives that reflect  bliss (and are celebrated for it), and those that express frustration or anger with challenges that come up are perceived as unfit parents.

Mother Berthe Holding Her Baby,  Mary Cassatt, 1900

Mother Berthe Holding Her Baby, Mary Cassatt, 1900

Our culture, instead of providing reflection, understanding and support for parents struggling with the myriad stresses that come with the territory of parenting (for example infant colic, sleep deprivation, toddler tantrums, etc. etc.), oftentimes judges parents that express frustration with that struggle. This has created a dynamic in which it can feel unsafe to express any dissatisfaction with the parenting experience, to the extent that it can even be challenging for parents to reach out for help when they need it.

Stay-at-home moms in particular, but modern parents in general find themselves in a circumstance that is historically unique: raising their children on their own without the help of a community around them when times get tough. This situation manifests a lot of risk for both the caregiver as well as the baby, since there are no built-in resources that are easy to access when a mother is facing a deeply stressful circumstances with her child, and she is likely to feel judged by friends and the community around her should she express that stress in seeking out help.

To sum up with a personal vignette: I've never personally felt so publicly judged by complete strangers until becoming a parent. Despite the fact that I think I do just fine and feel as though I have a very strong, secure and resilient attachment with my son (and we have been through a ton together), the very public discourse of parenting "theory" allows any stranger to call that into question.

I'm curious as to how other moms cope with these "shoulds" doled out by our culture; how do you find support? How can mothers, or caregivers in general, take a stance of solidarity and support amongst each other and against these absurd judgments?