The strong emotional reaction generated by the separation of parents and children in the service of immigration control points to the value placed in this country on family and on the parent-child relationship. There are few issues that can provoke the outcries and mass protests that have taken place in response to the policies that have been put in place at the borders.
What is telling about this expression of feeling is the contradiction that exists between the desired sanctity to be accorded family relationships in enforcing immigration and the limitations in family support that exist in our own society. Although the sight of children being forcibly separated from their parents is emotionally compelling, the reality is that for many parents here maintaining an intact family is a struggle.
The struggle that exists for many is not only economic in nature. The fact is that the transition from the old model of father at work and mother caring for home and children to the present-day reality of two working parents has not occurred in meaningful ways. The problem of child care has not been resolved on a national level, leaving solutions to be found on an individual basis and raising questions about the care and appropriate supervision needed both by children for their physical well-being and parents for their emotional well-being.
The fragility of supports for family life reverberates for both parents but mothers confront not only present-day reality but the historical, cultural contradiction about both the importance of motherhood and the criticism of actual mothers. The paradox of idealized motherhood and devalued mothers has long existed. From child development experts and earlier feminists, to present day media gurus, women have been told both that being a mother is not as valuable as other pursuits, and that motherhood is so valuable that they are likely to mess it up.
What is actually idealized by all of us, is unconditional mother love – either because we have experienced it, or wish we had, or because we think we would be so much better off if we had. We live in a hurried, pressured, technological world in which intimacy is hard to find. We make unrealistic demands that are often unmet for emotional gratification in relationships. The child in us still thinks mother can and should provide it. As mothers we continue to believe it, demand it of ourselves, and judge ourselves by it – while in reality we have neither the power nor the wish to be the sole gratifier of needs. It is these feelings that leave mothers vulnerable to the criticism and prescriptions of others.
In today’s world, working mothers in particular feel the anxiety and guilt about not being home to care for their children while stay-at-home moms often bring a professional zeal to the job of being the “perfect” mother raising the “perfect” child. Working moms worry that their children may be deprived in significant ways and therefore they go to unrealistic lengths to compensate. Both responses interfere with successful interactions with children.
This is not to equate the inhumane separation of parents and children that has taken place with the conflicts and pressures experienced by parents living in our society. Rather it is to take note of the idealization of parent-child relationships underlying much of the current emotional response. These strong feelings have not been brought to bear to effect much needed change in support of contemporary family life.
It is, in fact, the idealization of motherhood in particular that has been used to prevent the supports needed by dual working parents. The message is – mothers are essential in caring for their children.