The wife of the mayor of New York City, Chirlane McCray, described her feelings as a new mother in a magazine article recently and was criticized in media who distorted the meaning of her words. She had described difficult realities of motherhood – the loss of independence and the unremitting responsibility. She was a forty year old woman who had always worked and found it hard being with a child full time. She asks, “Will we feel guilt forever more?” and answers, “Of course, yes.”
McCray said out loud what many women feel but don’t feel safe saying. The response to her words tells us that the idealization of motherhood and ideas about what women’s role should be are alive and well despite all the advances of women and the real changes in their lives. Despite these changes, the guilt she speaks of plagues many women, especially those whose need to work is not dictated by economics.
Mothers, too, share the belief that full time mother care is essential and those who work often believe that their children are being disadvantaged in some way by their absence. The attempt to compensate for the imagined deprivation of their children has brought about some of the very things for which mothers have been criticized. Mothers’ attempts to make up for their absence leads at times to giving to children in ways that may be inappropriate. The wish to make any time shared “happy time” makes it difficult to set limits and to stay in charge.
On a larger scale, the idealization of motherhood and mother care has an impact on public policy preventing the kind of support that would be significant in positive ways for mothers, children and families generally. Universal daycare was almost a reality as long ago as the ‘60’s but was, and continues to be, derailed by an emotional investment in motherhood that ignores the real lives of women today. The unwillingness to relinquish ideas about women’s “place” has prevented the kind of universal child-care program that would go a long way to relieve damaging feelings of guilt – not to mention to improve the lives of children.
The seeming investment in motherhood does not appear to extend to support for the job of caring for children. Those who engage in child-care are not respected or paid in proportion to the importance of their work. Mothers, of course, do not get raises or promotions that tell them when they are doing a good job. On the contrary, they are not only subjected to much criticism of the job they are doing but also to advice on how to do that job.
Everyone has, or has had, a mother. Our childhood memories may lead us to think of mother as all giving and caring, or the opposite, as demanding and critical. Hopefully, as adults we can accept our mothers as real people, not all good or all bad. As parents ourselves we know that caring for children is stressful. Young children in the process of being socialized can be self-centered and express their needs and wishes in behavior that can be quite difficult to deal with at times. They see us as the source of their frustration – which we are as responsible parents.
Unfortunately, as mothers we are subject to the unresolved feelings of others toward their mothers that accounts for both the idealization and unfair criticism we receive. It is a challenge to maintain our own self-esteem in the face of unrealistic demands made of us and that we make of ourselves. The fact that children are too hard to be with all the time, that we may wish at times to be free of them, that we are unable always to be loving and patient, should not be feelings that are unsafe to express.
The poet, Rachel Zucker, also a mother, has published a new book of poems that reflects feelings of motherhood. Some lines from a poem she calls “mindful” read:
to-do list filled up inside I run & running
then a snowstorm so no school I cried &
Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded with hot
cocoa when someone said Yay for snow!
We probably all remember the turmoil caused by the winter’s frequent heavy snowfalls and the uncertainty brought about by whether or not schools would close. Mothers could not say, “Yay for snow!” with the conflict between their jobs and child-care looming before them.
Poets and writers have given voice to the true feelings and concerns of motherhood. They express unspoken feelings of many. Mother feelings reflect the realities of life with children. In turn they play a role in shaping those realities.