Mothering Along the Fault Lines

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Right before Mother’s Day, the media presented us with several anti-mother articles. Instead of looking at the systemic factors that affect mothers, almost all of them focused solely on individual circumstances. Perhaps it is time to move away from blame and toward supportive solutions.

As my long-time readers know, I am no fan of commercialized Mother’s Day (see, for example, “Mothers Can Make the Difference: A Mother’s Day Plea”). I firmly believe that the grounding of the celebration in the drudge work that mothers do is one way to prevent women who are mothers from really flexing our political muscles. Yet, even I was surprised by the spate of anti-mother articles that occurred around the same time as the ‘holiday’ this year.

First up was the “Runaway Mom” Brenda Heist, who abandoned her husband and children eleven years ago, and just recently turned up alive (her family thought she was dead). This story got major play in the media, and led to many articles about mothers who walk out on their children. One of the more egregious was psychologist Peggy Drexler’s article, in which she talks about the increasing number of mothers who leave their families, and offers “clinical narcissism” as one possible reason why. This seems like a stretch. Far more likely reasons for mothers leaving must include systemic factors — unrealistic cultural expectations, the lack of structural support for parents in general and mothers in particular, the undervaluing of care work — yet Dr Drexler does not cover any of those. The higher number of fathers who abandon their children is also not mentioned. I suppose it’s easier to blame individual women than to conduct a more thorough analysis of what might be driving these situations.

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The vitriol leveled at Brenda Heist prompted Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, a mother who voluntarily gave primary custody of her children to their father after the divorce, to write a more nuanced account of why mothers might not want to be full-time parents. According to Ms Rizzuto, although she is exceedingly present and active in her children’s lives (even living down the street from them), she nevertheless endures threats of death and sexual violence, as well as being described as human “garbage” and “worse than Hitler.” Ms Rizzuto correctly points out that the full-time, selfless mothering ideal our culture promotes is just not possible or even desirable for some mothers, and choosing not to conform does not mean that noncustodial mothers love their children any less. One could even argue that, in some cases, they may love their children more because they are willing to face derision and scorn, rather than subject their children to a life that is not in their best interests.

Next up was Kim Wong Keltner’s article criticizing Chinese “tiger moms” for not being good mothers. While I tend to agree with her negative assessment of that particular parenting style — and please note I said style and not person — my problem with the article was two-fold. First, I wondered about the timing of the piece, coming as it did on the day before Mother’s Day. To me, it just illustrated the impossible nature of our mothering ideal. We expect mothers to be completely devoted to their kids and work hard to ensure their success, but only if we do it in the ‘right’ way. Second, just as was the case in Dr Drexler’s article, fathers seemed to get a free pass. Ms Keltner frequently mentioned her parents’ decisions and actions but only the tiger mom was singled out for criticism. Frustrating.

Finally, there was an article actually published on Mother’s Day that promised answers to the question of why moms in America are lagging behind. For me, this article was the best of the lot, as it talked about larger systemic topics, like maternal and child mortality, as well as the political status of mothers. I’m sure it might interest people to know that, as far as developed countries go, the United States ranks fairly low on both of these mortality measures, and we rank lower than over half of the other countries on women’s political representation. However, my problem with this article was that, like so many others of its kind, it focused primarily on children. For example, when talking about the need to increase women’s political participation, the author wrote, “It makes sense that when women are in political power, children in that country do better.” I have no doubt that this is true, but it misses the point about mothers needing power in order to better our own lives. Moreover, in an article ostensibly about mothers, the primary spotlight was still on others. Based on these articles, it seems like the only time mothers get center stage is when we screw up.

I find this issue of focus troubling, because this sole emphasis on children leads back to the problems mentioned earlier. If we read between the lines of these articles, it seems as though society is telling mothers that, once we give birth, our needs, desires, selfhood, and even our very safety no longer matter. Not only that, but we must mother the ‘right’ way or else we will be considered underperformers in our role of a lifetime. If these are indeed the cultural messages we’re receiving, then the question isn’t why so many mothers are leaving their children. If the bargain is that mothers (but not fathers) must give up everything they are for their children and live forever in that small space between a rock and a hard place, then the real question is: why is the number of mothers leaving their children so small? And if we want to stem that rising tide, then perhaps it’s time that we moved away from blaming mothers and instead, offered more support.

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