Long after they have delivered them into the world, mothers continue, for some mysterious reason, to feel deeply responsible for their children, for what they have become or will become. It is a burden that is not as often associated with or as intensely experienced by fathers.
Children are more properly seen as their mothers’ creations, rather than their fathers’. It is not only because they are more directly formed from their own flesh that mothers look upon their children as their unique possessions. It is also because, more than anyone else, it is mothers who gaze at the faces of their young in total contemplation and prayerful hopefulness. In contrast, fathers – typically — are, at best, a benign background presence in their children’s lives. At worst, they are the enemy from whom mothers shield their little cubs.
But it is, ironically, in the nature of patrilineal societies that children take their father’s surname, rather than their mother’s. The mother’s authorship, which may for a while survive with the single-letter initial of the maternal surname, is often subsequently erased to give space to a child’s second name.
Fortunately, such conventions are never powerful enough to obliterate a mother’s signature upon her children’s persona. Much of this signing is, of course, latent and unintentional. The mother’s life speaks for itself; she signs her name on her child as she lives. Nietzsche probably said it best: “Everyone carries within him an image of woman that he gets from his mother; that determines whether he will honor women in general, or despise them, or be generally indifferent to them.”
If this view is correct, then a mother’s greatest achievement is not to be found in the material or professional accomplishments of her children but in the special sensitivity and esteem with which they regard women in general. Do her sons treat other women as nothing but child-bearers and objects of pleasure, whose opinions do not count beyond the practical areas of the household? Do her daughters look upon themselves as nothing more than helpmates to their father, brothers and husbands? Or do they think of themselves as autonomous beings with an equal right to full personal development?
I do not mean to suggest that parenting is principally the accountability of mothers. There is already enough mother-blaming in patriarchal cultures. And I am myself uncomfortable about singling out the mother’s role for special attention when we try to explain the outcomes of parenting. But today happens to be Mother’s Day.
But, more to the point, I think what we are dealing with here is more powerful than parenting. It has to do with models of being that are unconsciously passed on. The image of woman modeled by one’s mother is especially crucial because of the natural affinity between mother and child, and the saliency and duration of the relationship. In contrast, that between the father and the children is subject to countless mediations.
A mother who does not stand up to a chronic wife-beater cannot possibly inspire confidence in her daughters nor respect for women in her sons. A mother who lives her life totally in the shadow of her husband and who panics when he is not around cannot teach anything about self-reliance and autonomy. There is of course the power of negative example – that a acquiescent mother could produce a willful daughter — but such reaction formation can often swing to the opposite extreme.
If what we have been saying here has any basis, then perhaps there is every reason to hope that a meaningful revaluation of values, especially those pertaining to women, could begin with the education of mothers about their rights as persons. Can such education perhaps reduce the number of rapists and wife-beaters in the next generation? Will it have any effect on the number of children who are sexually molested by their own fathers?
I am not aware that any studies have been done on the perceptions of women held by convicted rapists, and whether these bear any relationship to the kinds of lives their own mothers led. There are however many studies on mother-daughter relationships, and most of the fascinating findings from these explorations are summarized in the passionately written book Mother Daughter Revolution by Debold, Wilson and Malave.
They write: “Women’s relative lack of power in society creates a bitter complication in mother daughter relationships. One of the most painful ironies of mothering in patriarchal culture is that mothers, because they have to enforce the limits on their daughters to protect them, end up being betrayers in their daughters’ eyes… the enforcers of ever more costly losses in girls’ freedom to do and to be.”
Such a situation often produces a syndrome termed “matrophobia” by the writer Adrienne Rich – “the fear of becoming one’s own mother”. Most women, according to the authors, suffer from “matrophobia”, even when they feel and profess only genuine love and affection for their mothers. They struggle painfully not to be like them because they associate their mothers with the victim they don’t want to be.
The attempt of women to exorcise their mothers from their system is self-destructive, say the authors. The enemy is the culture that assigns to mothers the role of enforcer of the ethos of submission and compromise to their daughters. And the solution cannot be found in the rhetoric of mother blaming or in erecting walls between mothers and daughters, but only in the persistent “truth telling” that should characterize all mother daughter interactions.
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