Monday, October 13, 2008

Mommy Dearest

This is the name of a book by the adopted daughter of Joan Crawford, the movie star. The book argues that Crawford abused her child and in general was the Mother From Hell. The title has taken on a meaning of its own after that time, being used to denote Bad Mothers in general.

Now, you can be a Bad Mother in so many ways that an ancient goddess must sit down and take a glass of nectar just to try to count the ways. For instance, you are a Bad Mother if you have too few children, because it means you are selfish. You are also a Bad Mother if you work for money. You are a Bad Mother if you don't have a husband and especially if you are on welfare. You are a Bad Mother if you have too many children.

You are certainly a Bad Mother if you spend too much time away from your children, but you are also a Bad Mother if you hover over them. That's a Helicopter Mommy. The other kind is just a Mommy from Hell. You are a Bad Mother if you don't play your children classical music and chauffeur them from one child-enriching event to another, but you are also a Bad Mother if you don't let your children just hang out and be children. You are a Bad Mother if you don't protect your children against possible pederasts behind every bush and tree, but you are also a Bad Mother if you are overprotective.

You are a Bad Mother if you don't encourage your child all the time, but then you are a Bad Mother if you spoil and pamper your children too much. Most importantly, you are a Very Bad Mother if you delegate any of the childcare duties to another adult. Not that those duties are yours to delegate, despite the implicit assumption that it is the mothers who are responsible. They still can't delegate.

Of course there are bad mothers, just as there are bad fathers. But it's lots easier to qualify as a bad mother than a bad father and almost impossible not to qualify as a Bad Mother in someone's eyes. This might not matter much if it wasn't the case that mothering is something everyone and his nephew think they understand well enough to criticize from the outside. Mothering has no privacy boundaries in this culture, and the only type of mothering that could not be criticized is perfection.

Oddly enough, you don't even have to be a mother to earn the title of "Mommy Dearest." Some years ago the Washington Post reported on a study which analyzed the child-rearing worth of women who had married men who already had children from a previous marriage. These second wives, according to the study, were the people who were responsible for the childcare of their husband's children when those children visited, not the fathers themselves. The report on the study was titled "Mommy Dearest!" Now you can be a Bad Mother without even being a mother and without ever realizing that you are viewed as one. Neat.


This post has been fertilized by the criticisms of Sarah Palin's mothering skills I have seen in all sorts of unexpected places, stretching from feminist listserves to the comments threads of progressive blogs. It was nurtured by the realization I had that Joe Biden could be commended for being a single-father who didn't give up on his high-flying political career while his sons were recovering from the horrible car accident that killed his wife and daughter, but that an imaginary Jane Biden would not have been so commended, because women still can't delegate parenting (without being judged for that) while men can.

The picture is of a mommy doggie, having a well-deserved siesta in the tropics. Courtesy of pj.