On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.

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