Mothers are women. That is not exactly breaking news so what else is new. The reason to focus on that fact is that women’s voices get frequent criticism. A mother in a mothers’ group complained about her interaction with a repair man who accused her of yelling at him. She said, “If a man raises his voice he is seen as an authority who commands attention. A woman is told she is yelling and called a shrew.”
Mothers often comment on the fact that their children listen to their fathers better than to them. They despair at the idea that the threat that father will be told about something can bring about a child’s compliance even when father may be the most benign soul. Mothers often wonder why this is so, particularly when they see the father as the more lenient of the parents.
Is there something about women’s voices that can account for this? One clue may lie in the experience of hearing one’s own voice. It can be an unsettling experience for a mother to suddenly hear her own mother’s voice when she is interacting with her children. She may hear familiar words she doesn’t like or a tone she vowed she would never use.
A mother told me, “When I feel pressure to get her ready for school, or just trying to get out I get crazed. And I push, you know ‘Hurry, hurry’ and ‘Let’s go.’ And now she even says ‘Hurry, hurry” to me. I mean it’s coming back. And I don’t want to explode like my mother did. But sometimes I do and I find myself reacting and saying to myself, ‘God, don’t do that. That’s like something my mother would have done.”
It seems as though as children we may have reacted to our mothers’ voices just as our children do now. How does it happen that as parents we find ourselves repeating the very things we did not like about our own parents? Many parents express the wish to correct or repair in raising our own children that which we didn’t like or felt was destructive about the way we ourselves were raised. What we are trying to do is resolve issues left over from our own childhood, in our relationship with our children. The problem is that because they were unresolved, they tend to be repeated rather than corrected. Unwittingly, situations are recreated and the attempt to arrive at new solutions seems to bring about the old result, although sometimes in a different form.
In part, this is because children are demanding, and no matter how giving a mother is – often beyond a limit that is constructive – there is no way of gratifying children completely. Nor would it be good for them, even if we could. Most people grow up with some complaints about their childhood, but that is because of the inherent frustrations of life, and in most cases not because they had bad mothers.
Nevertheless, we have the fantasy that if we do it right, our children will grow up happy and successful with none of the demons we ourselves are still fighting. Confronted with the reality of children’s behavior, one becomes a real, not a fantasy mother, and the only real mother we know is the one we had. It is that real mother’s voice that takes over our own.
Sometimes the child in us becomes so identified with our child that we stop being the parent. Children, needing someone who will act like a parent, can become more and more extreme in their behavior, in effect asking to be stopped. But if a parent goes beyond her own limits of tolerance her anger and frustration can lead to the very response she was trying to avoid. It is this paradox that can make us wonder how such good intentions could lead to such undesirable results.
Is it possible that for many people a woman’s raised voice evokes the feelings of childhood when mom got angry? Can that be a source of the complaint about women’s voices? I wonder.