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Mother of All Myths

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Mother of All Myths
Aminatta Forna

A provocative and debate-inspiring book which explores the pressure, politics, philosophy and culture of motherhood in today’s society.Motherhood has changed. For several decades there has been tension between traditional ideas and modern values of mothering. For years the trend was away from the constraints which bound down our own mothers and towards liberating women. But in the 1980s and 1990s the momentum has shifted into sharp reverse.Mother of All Myths documents the present backlash, examining responses in the media, the courts, the government, in medicine and through ‘pop’ psychology, which reasserts an old-fashioned, conservative and narrow view of what a mother should be and do.In addition, the author explores the strong, highly idealized concept of motherhood that exists in the West; finding reflections of that image in history, in Christianity, in literature and in mythology.So why is this backlash happening now and who is losing out? This powerful book provides a long-overdue debate on motherhood by pressing that society should not only rethink our concept of mothering and responsibility, but strip motherhood of the worst excesses of sentimentality thereby allowing the mother’s needs to be more evenly balanced against those of the child.



How Society Moulds

and Constrains Mothers

To Simon


Cover (#ud668b98e-75e0-52a4-96db-1ff5ec32d2fc)

Title Page (#ue251e7e4-5b0f-555a-83b5-0c14bd70bb2f)

1 Introduction: The Motherhood Myth (#u5197c7f2-6d3f-5fb5-9e4c-313f3ef13cb6)

2 A Brief History of Motherhood (#u9b534568-7958-5fb7-b8c6-61b84c867d3c)

3 Pygmalion Mother: The Making of the Modern Myth (#u50429f0e-2abf-500c-b2b6-795d313c50c5)

4 Motherhood in Popular Culture (#litres_trial_promo)

5 Future Perfect (#litres_trial_promo)

6 Persecuting Mothers: Motherhood and the Law (#litres_trial_promo)

7 Other Mothers: Cross-cultural Motherhood (#litres_trial_promo)

8 Left Holding the Baby: How Politicians Manipulate Mothers (#litres_trial_promo)

9 Conclusion: Relinquishing the Myth (#litres_trial_promo)

Notes (#litres_trial_promo)

Index (#litres_trial_promo)

Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

chapter 1 Introduction: The Motherhood Myth (#ulink_82cf726d-dd2e-5387-b866-c713f867ce70)

There have been a few key public moments during the research and writing of this book which serve as good illustrations of what it is all about. On a daytime chat show about teenage rebellion, a woman seeking desperately to explain the behaviour of her adoptive daughter apologized over and over again: ‘I know I’m not her real mother, but…

(#litres_trial_promo) During the O. J. Simpson trial in 1995, prosecutor Marcia Clark fought simultaneous battles to win a conviction in the trial of the decade and to keep her children. Her ex-husband was trying to win custody on the grounds that she was working too hard to be a good mother. When the toddler Jamie Bulger was murdered, I recall reading that his mother had received hate-mail blaming her for looking away for an instant! After the second royal divorce, on what did the press blame the British royal family’s misfortunes? Not their own constant intrusion but on the notion that the Queen was a cold and distant mother. Then there was the firestorm of criticism that greeted the announcement of Madonna’s pregnancy. Comment on her unsuitability as a mother led to the dismissal of the child’s father as a ‘sperm donor’, followed, naturally, by speculation after the birth that the state of motherhood would change the singer, a woman who is herself the mistress of image manipulation.

The most public humiliation any mother has ever been forced to undergo was reserved for Deborah Eappen. She was the mother of Matthew Eappen, the small child whose death was at the centre of the murder trial of British au-pair Louise Woodward. For many people, from the very beginning, she was the person who was on trial and not Woodward, because she chose to work three days a week as an ophthalmologist instead of being a full-time mother, because she was married to a doctor and did not ‘need’ to work, because she left her children to be cared for by someone else. A woman grieving the loss of her child was being torn apart instead of comforted, derided instead of consoled. In the fervour of the lynch-mob mentality, little Matthew was all but forgotten as people carried placards in front of the court bearing the words ‘Don’t Blame the Nanny. Blame the Mother!’ They called television and radio phone-ins to scream how she deserved to lose her baby, and vented their hatred of her in a specially-created Internet website. People ignored the fact that Deborah Eappen came home to breastfeed at lunchtime and that she had halved her workload. People ignored the fact that Matthew had another parent who was also a doctor. It was left to Sunil Eappen to defend his wife, because she could not defend herself and because he, merely the father, was not seen to be at fault. The baby died because she wasn’t there.

A great deal has been said and written about motherhood. The only purpose of the bulk of what has already been published is to tell women how to do the job better. You could fill the Augean stables with past volumes of advice to mothers. This book purports to do none of that. I hope it will be many things to many people, mothers and non-mothers, but it is absolutely not a childcare manual.

The rhetoric of motherhood has remained unchallenged for so long that it has become woven into the fabric of our consciousness. For once let’s turn the searchlight on those who presume to tell mothers what to do; to analyse their actions, unpick their motives and judge their handiwork, just as they have done not only to mothers but to all women because they have the potential to be mothers. Once held up to the light, the agendas behind many of our assumptions and beliefs about contemporary mothering are exposed, whether their roots are in popular culture, so-called scientific findings, historically accepted fact or the legacy of tradition. First you find the flaws in what are presented as crystal-clear truths and then you see how the flaws form patterns. Finally, you begin to realize that myths have been created about motherhood and see how those myths refract through the many prisms of our culture and through time itself.

The motherhood myth is the myth of the ‘Perfect Mother’. She must be completely devoted not just to her children, but to her role. She must be the mother who understands her children, who is all-loving and, even more importantly, all-giving. She must be capable of enormous sacrifice. She must be fertile and possess maternal drives, unless she is unmarried and/or poor, in which case she will be vilified for precisely the same things. We believe that she alone is the best caretaker for her children and they require her continual and exclusive presence. She must embody all the qualities traditionally associated with femininity such as nurturing, intimacy and softness. That’s how we want her to be. That’s how we intend to make her.

The ideology which accompanies the myth of the perfect mother can only conceive of one way to mother, one style of exclusive, bonded, full-time mothering. Despite the changes in the working and family lives of millions of women, despite the talk of an age of ‘post-feminism’, attitudes towards mothers are stuck in the dark ages. Thirty years on from the start of the second wave of the feminist movement, we are still debating the effects of daycare on the children of working mothers and blaming never-married or divorced mothers for their children’s problems. This vision of idealized motherhood still permeates every aspect of life from the division of labour at home, to our employment laws, policies and legal rulings, and it drips down continually through popular culture, books, television, films and newspapers.

The ideal mother is also the ‘natural’ mother, hence the stereotype of the wicked stepmother. The maternal ideal is based on a belief in what is natural, on notions of maternal instinct. Today there is a renewed reverence for ideas about maternal instinct, which has been prompted by the fear that motherhood, one of the two pillars upholding the institution of the family alongside marriage, is being threatened. It stands to reason, then, that if maternal qualities are natural, all women must have them. The growing number of women who choose to delay or avoid motherhood altogether fascinate and alarm the myth-makers because they defy the myth. For them, new mini-myths are invented to try to co-opt them into the maternal state.

There’s a moment in the popular film When Harry Met Sally in which the main character, played by Meg Ryan, is discussing man problems with her best friend. ‘You’re thirty-one. The clock is ticking!’ warns her chum. ‘No it isn’t,’ she replies. ‘I read it doesn’t start until you’re thirty-six.’ The notion of the so-called ‘biological clock’ is a great example of contemporary mythmaking. The clock has two hands. On the one hand there’s the fact that a woman’s fertility declines over time, which is true and which is being shamelessly exploited to make women anxious about the decision when to have a child. On the other hand, there’s the notion, as expressed by the character Sally in the film, that the urge to have a child strikes all women at a particular time, without warning and independent of all intellectual thought processes, which is palpable rubbish and has no scientific basis whatsoever. Those women who say they have experienced a natural urge or need to have a child do so at different times of their lives and in different ways; plenty of women never do. Nevertheless, these two ideas are rolled into one and delivered as gospel in such a way as effectively to browbeat women (including those who may feel ambivalent about having children) into the institution of motherhood. Listen to your heart not your head, is the message.

Women’s magazines and the women’s pages of newspapers are full of it. ‘The price of delaying pregnancy is high,’

(#litres_trial_promo) warns a writer. ‘The brood instinct is a biological time-bomb with a dicky fuse,’

(#litres_trial_promo) postulates another. ‘What time is it by your biological clock?’

(#litres_trial_promo) asks a third. The logic goes like this: if you are over thirty you are running out of time to have a family; you may think you don’t want one, but you are wrong; the feeling will strike but by then it may be too late! This unpleasant and exploitative mind-game is played out over and over. Meanwhile no one never hears the flip side of the coin, from the women who have children mainly because they don’t quite dare not to, because they are afraid of losing out, and of ‘missing the boat’. Or from the woman in her mid-forties who preferred to tell people she was infertile rather than explain her decision not to become a mother. Nor do you hear from women, like the television director I spoke to, who cherished her children but regretted her decision to become a mother. There’s silence on that. In the language of the myth it is important to believe that all women come from one mould, with the same biologically programmed responses.

Beliefs about motherhood are passed off as ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’, as though the two words had the same meaning; and, as both traditional and natural, these beliefs have become unassailable. Yet, as any historian will tell you, the most enduring of these ideas is not more than a few hundred years old. There have been periods in history when women appeared not to care much for their children at all, routinely sending newborns away to wet-nurses and using infanticide as a means of family planning. There have been times, specifically the early years of colonial America, when fathers and not mothers were thought to be the best people to raise children. The current maternal ideal is simply the product of a particular time and place, and at its height lasted no more than a few years from the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s. It just happens to be the version that was in place when most of the people who are now running the country were born, and comes to us washed with the sentiment of nostalgia.

Today, caring for children is still virtually an exclusively female task. It is also harder than ever before. As the quantity of available information about childcare and child development has ballooned, so motherhood has become increasingly proactive and interventionist. The job now starts at conception. The mother-to-be is expected to give up tea and coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, including passive smoking, soft cheeses and other unpasteurized foods; she must avoid stress and too much aerobic exercise and take folic acid and multivitamins – and that is the very minimum. If she consults any of the several dozen contemporary advice manuals available she will find an unending list of do’s and don’ts, some doubtless valid but many irrelevant, perhaps even the product of the ‘expert’s’ own imagination. Throughout her pregnancy the growth of her child and every aspect of her own behaviour will be closely monitored by her doctor and hospital.

Once a mother fed, clothed and comforted her offspring, and there, for better or for worse, lay the limits of her obligations. Today her responsibilities have doubled. She is also in charge of her children’s emotional stability and psychological development. In the mid-twentieth century, Freud and the psychoanalysts who followed and developed his theories – John Bowlby and D. W. Winnicott in particular, who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s – emphasized the mother’s role and her competence in a way that had never been considered before. They issued dire warnings about children who would turn into retards or psychopaths if women failed in their duties as mothers. Since those days, added to her responsibility for her child’s mental well-being, mothers have also been given the third task of driving their offspring towards intellectual and academic achievement. Successful motherhood now means producing a high achiever as well as a well-balanced adult. Bookshops today sell volumes entitled Discovering Your Child’s True Genius and toys come from the Early Learning Centre.

Mothers are besieged with information, more than they can possibly absorb. The advice is always presented as ‘best for baby’ but masks any number of other agendas – professional, political and social. Careers are not made by agreeing with the findings of the last researcher; newspapers need stories to sell; and authors must have something new to say. So modern mothers find themselves faced with a plethora of often conflicting advice. One doctor might warn her not to gain weight; another might tell her to eat for two. Childbirth choices go in and out of fashion, mirroring power struggles in the hierarchy of hospitals: natural versus interventionist; home versus hospital; midwife versus consultant. One month a mother may hear that she should bring her new baby into her bed; the next she will be chided and told she risks smothering her baby, either literally or emotionally. In an era when delinquency and the breakdown of discipline are at the forefront of social and political debate, the mother who strikes her child is condemned.

Nothing exemplifies the paradox of motherhood as a state which is both revered and reviled, natural and yet policed, more clearly than the issue of breastfeeding. Bottle-feeding is frowned upon and the pressure on mothers to breastfeed is immense, yet there are still very many people in the UK who regard the sight of a breastfeeding woman as obscene. In August 1997 a woman breastfeeding her child in a courtyard had water thrown over her by a disgusted shopkeeper. She turned out to be an Express newspaper journalist and the story, which was carried on the front page of the next day’s newspaper, prompted a national discussion. Many people, including Anne Winterton MP, supported the shopkeeper’s view that women should breastfeed out of sight, but in Britain there are extremely few public breastfeeding facilities and the combined effect of public disapproval and lack of facilities keeps breastfeeding mothers virtually homebound. In Britain the Campaign for Rights in Breastfeeding lobbies MPs to prevent women being thrown out of restaurants, shops and public places for breastfeeding their babies. In the USA harassment of women feeding their babies in public has required twelve states to pass laws clarifying a mother’s right to do so.

This contradictory response to motherhood is evidenced in other ways, too. A woman announcing her pregnancy will be offered congratulations, will find herself treated as though she has done something very special, but the display of a pregnant body inspires a degree of repulsion which is not properly explained by the suggestion that such images are merely indecorous or inappropriate. When Demi Moore appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair and exposed the curves of her pregnant body, some newsagents insisted the magazine be sold in an opaque wrapper. In 1997, when the new women’s magazine Frank ran a fashion layout using pregnant models, the magazines’s offices were deluged with complaints. Mothers should not be seen. Neither should they be heard.

One rarely hears mothers complain, and then never in public. Their compliance is bought or ensured in three ways: by glorifying aspects of motherhood; by making women who don’t feel or do what is required feel guilty; and finally, and as a last resort, by punishing mothers considered actually deviant (for example, women who leave their children inspire a moral wrath not visited on the thousands of fathers who do the same; legal sanctions are being levied on pregnant women who refuse medical treatment or abuse their own bodies).

The best-known image of the ideal mother has been with us for centuries in the form of the Madonna and Child, the most compelling depiction of pale, calm, benevolent motherhood. Whether sculpted by Pisano in 1300 or painted by Dali in the mid-twentieth century, she is always portrayed cradling her child in her arms and gazing at him in a moment of private pleasure, or looking outwards contemplating the viewer with a smile of peace and fulfilment playing upon her lips. Although Christianity did not, on its own, invent the motherhood myth, the Church has been highly efficient at marketing the maternal ideal. Mary is held up to Catholic women everywhere as an inspirational figure. In parts of Catholic Central and South America there exists even today a kind of cult of motherhood named after her: Marianisma. Poor women sacrifice and deny themselves everything for the sake of their children, especially their sons, in the hope that they will one day repay their mother’s love and loyalty when she is old. Motherhood in this instance is capable of delivering earthly salvation.

Baby Jesus is never painted with his head thrown back and bawling. His mother never looks testy or tired. No one paints her trying to prepare Baby Jesus’s food with one hand while jiggling him on her hip with the other. Or ignoring him while he screams his lungs out in the next room. No one has ever painted Mary going about the mundane tasks of motherhood: giving Jesus a bath, feeding him or dressing him. The Madonna and Child are frozen in eternity in a moment many mothers experience with their babies relatively infrequently.

The image of the maternal idyll is presumably so appealing because it reminds both those who paint such images and those who look at them of a time when they were children and found comfort in a mother’s embrace. It isn’t really a comment on women’s experience of motherhood, although it is often read as one. The power of the image is derived from what society wants from women.

The ideal mother is everywhere in art, poetry, fiction, film. She is the dream for whom Peter Pan searches, a beautiful memory to Cinderella and Snow White whose stepmothers are cruel to them. She is there on the cover of Good Housekeeping and Family Circle, in television programmes such as Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie. In more contemporary depictions like the Cosby Show, a nod to modernity has allowed her a job. She is such an archetype you sometimes don’t even notice her, but there she is in Hollywood action movies standing behind Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford, vulnerable, warm yet wistful, part of the hero’s home and family life that he must protect. And be sure she exists by design and not by accident. In 1997, when Disney again adapted Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians for the screen, writer-producer John Hughes changed Smith’s original version in which Cruella DeVil is an old school chum of the dalmatians’ owner Anita. Instead, he made her Anita’s former boss and owner of a fashion design company, unmarried and childless, whose motive for wanting to kill the puppies is her fury at being deserted by Anita, who gives up her job when she becomes a mother. In the first version of the tale it was Snow White’s natural mother who was her adversary.

Mothers are stereotyped and so are women who choose not to become mothers. In 1995, researchers ascertained the attitudes of a group of college students towards motherhood.

(#litres_trial_promo) They showed that married mothers who stayed at home were seen in a positive even sentimental light, but stepmothers were held in poor regard, divorced mothers were viewed as failures, and single mothers as deviants and losers. Traditional mothers were even thought to be nicer people. Our beliefs about motherhood are pervasive and powerful. Whether Snow White and Cinderella helped to create the myth or simply perpetuated it, they illustrate its appeal. Marketing men use it to sell feel-good movies, baked goods and cold remedies. Today the same idealized image is even being used to sell motherhood itself, as a multi-million-pound market in reproductive technology flourishes using glossy brochures containing colour pictures of mothers and their babies to sell infertility treatment to childless couples.

In the 1960s feminists rejected an overly romantic vision of motherhood and identified its silken cords of oppression. Before the changes wrought in the 1960s only one line of promotion was available in the lives of most women: from perfect bride to perfect wife to perfect mother. An oversight on the part of the feminist movement as a whole has been to ignore motherhood from that point on, believing that if all the available political energy was devoted to increasing women’s career choices and achieving economic independence, motherhood would somehow take care of itself. At the same time, another school of popular feminism actually bolstered myths about motherhood by arguing women’s moral and social superiority in relation to men and laying claim on behalf of womanhood to qualities such as creativity and emotional sensitivity.

Even the so-called ‘power feminists’, such as Naomi Wolf, author of Fire with Fire, argue that there is nothing stopping women today except their own victim mentality. In her analysis Wolf overlooked motherhood, the one area of women’s lives feminism has barely acknowledged. The dated, unchanged, narrow institution of motherhood which obliges women to mother in a certain way is the Achilles’ heel of modern feminism. Despite Wolf’s exhortations to think positively, no woman manager can compete with her male colleagues on fair terms if she is also a mother. Yet the word ‘motherhood’ does not even appear in the index to Wolf’s book, and in the page and a half of text given to the subject the author merely repeats the old feminist adage that biology is not destiny. End of story. In fact, the story of how feminism must tackle the issues surrounding motherhood is only just beginning.

It is unrealistic to suppose that the majority of women will stop having children. Many women talk, in convincing terms, of a strong, biological impulse which produces the desire to have children; others simply love children and wish to raise them; others still value family and the links created through the generations by blood ties. This vital and valuable commitment to children nevertheless means that today, while the perfect bride is no more than a one-day fantasy and the perfect wife has been consigned to the waste disposal, the perfect mother as an instrument through which women’s actions and choices can be controlled and manipulated has survived, because while men can be left to look after themselves, children cannot. And while a woman might rightly walk out on an aggressive, incompetent or uncaring man, few women would wish to forsake their children.

Working alongside the idealized depiction of motherhood is the second tool of enforcement: guilt. Guilt has become so strongly associated with motherhood that it is often considered to be a natural emotion. It is not. Guilt is not a biological, hormonally-driven response. Women feel guilty because they are made to. Mothers are told that every failure, every neglected task, every dereliction of their growing duties, every refusal to sacrifice will be seared upon their child’s psyche, will mar his or her future, and damage not only the mother-child relationship but every subsequent relationship in the child’s life. That is, if the mother who is found to be wanting doesn’t create a juvenile delinquent or a fully-fledged criminal.

A culture of mother-blaming, by everyone including children, has become so deeply entrenched in our society that bad mothering is considered to be a contributory cause in an astonishing array of contemporary problems. In America, when the Unabomber was arrested, a leading news magazine hypothesized that the rage which had caused him to wage a twenty-year bombing campaign might have been provoked by an early episode when his mother left him. The desecration of inner-city communities is laid at the door of single mothers instead of economic policies or even absent fathers. A psychologist assessing a child’s bed-wetting, or a teenager’s use of recreational drugs, will often look first to the mother – does she work, how much time does she spend at home? Maternal guilt can be elicited directly in newspaper headlines (‘What kind of mother are you?’) or indirectly, as in the advert for a company selling home-office products: ‘When I finally got home, John was waiting.

(#litres_trial_promo) Half asleep he asked the question he’d been saving all day: Mom, can we play now?’ In 1997 the BBC programme Panorama produced new ‘evidence’ showing how children fared badly when their mothers worked.

(#litres_trial_promo) All this time, the responsibility of fathers has gone unquestioned.

In the 1990s the accumulated result of the hailstorm of advice and threats is a hyperconsciousness about mothering, particularly among middle-class women, many of whom work and have children in their thirties. The current pressures on mothers mean that such women embark on motherhood with guilt built in from the start, and they approach the role with an enormous degree of anxiety, determined to do it right, determined not to be criticized. A lack of support from the wider polity means they are like trapeze artists, flying without a safety net, unable to afford the luxury of a single mistake. They become control freaks. Everything is sublimated to the needs and wishes of the child. There is a rigidity about the running of the household, which has become totally child-centred: the telephone is switched off during afternoon naps; bedtimes, bathtimes and mealtimes take precedence even over the appearance of visitors, and certainly over entertainment and other social events; there’s a baby intercom in every room and a planner on the kitchen wall with every activity from ‘Water Babies’ to music play carefully timetabled. Because the buck stops with her, the mother sees herself as absolutely indispensable and no one else, except perhaps a carefully-vetted nanny, is entirely trusted to take care of her child. To non-mothers she appears ridiculous, but she is driven by guilt and fear, and cannot see how excessive her own actions are. In this lie the makings of a tragedy.
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