It has been just over a week since Negotiating Competing Demands: 21st Century Motherhood ended and I have not been able to stop thinking about all of the new ideas that I absorbed. One fundamental concept and theme that arose throughout the conference was that of “the Good Mother.” The Good Mother is an unattainable ideal, which is a function of the institution of patriarchal motherhood and is naturalized and embedded in our society. The archetype is a collection of expectations and definitions that mothers are supposed to uphold.
Jenny Jones calls this archetype the dominant maternal identity, wherein the mother is doing her caregiving in a happy, nuclear household, providing the moral and religious inspiration alongside a father who works in the public sphere. At the conference, Andrea O’Reilly talked about the ten commandments of patriarchal motherhood, including naturalization and individualization. Rather than thinking about mothering as a learned skill or role, these ‘commandments’ position it as a natural instinct which is the sole responsibility of women. The Good Mother’s love is unconditional and there is no room for ambivalence. Tina Miller discussed how the neoliberal economy has added to the expectations of the Good Mother. The mother must “produce” not only a happy child, but also now a “successful child,” which is to say a child who contributes to the economy. Not only is this middle class notion meant to serve the neoliberal mandate of endless growth and profit, but it also produces more poor and single mothers. These marginalized mothers cannot fulfill the “good mother” ideal and face increased surveillance, judgement, and policy intervention. Further, Christina Fernandez and Rachel Robertson, along with others at the conference, discussed how mothers of children with disabilities have exacerbated expectations of the Good Mother forced upon them.
Though I had previously thought about the unrealistic and patriarchal expectations mothers experience, they are so entangled into our social fabric I wasn’t able to see just how embedded this stereotype is. Despite my continual reading and learning of feminist work, the lack of inclusion and attention given to ‘mother’ as an identity within feminist thought definitely supports the continual normalization of the Good Mother ideal.
Since the closing of the conference I have begun to notice more and more the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Good Mother ideal is embedded and circulating our society. It is in advertisements for every cleaning product, it is in the portrayals of mothers and fathers in movies, it is in the pictures of mothers on the front pamphlets for new university students.
I have heard the ring of these patriarchal expectations that are hovering over mothers, in everyday conversation. In a line at the grocery store, I heard the cashier point to a family and say, “of course mom is making you eat your veggies! Wait for dad to give you the chips!” Tying together motherhood and beauty expectations, I overheard a mother and father talking about talking a family picture. As the mom explain she is not okay with her “post-pregnancy tummy” yet, someone pointed out she didn’t need to worry about it. Her response was “well society tells me I have to be the fit mom six weeks after, so yes I do.” The notion of “momma bear” has come up multiple times, where the mother is the relentless protector of her children. While I don’t see this as a bad thing in and of itself, I am wondering how much this is about loving, protecting or caring for children and how much it has to do with the expectations put on moms, the shrinking responsibility of the state, the lack of support our society offers families, etc.
I am continuing to think of the complexity of the Good Mother as a function of patriarchy and mothering as a practice that can be defined by any individual who is doing the work of mothering (Adrienne Rich’s idea that is fundamental idea in maternal theory). Like any stereotype, the problem lies within the strict expectation that leaves no room for self-definition, the reduction of an identity to the borders the stereotype permits and the scrutiny, blame and judgment that comes whenever one deviates. The Good Mother ideal doesn’t leave room for egalitarian caregiving responsibilities, different definitions and arrangements of families, or new ideas around parenting, femininity, masculinity, or mothering. I think it is important to think about the Good Mother expectations and the stereotypes around mothers engaging in social change. Moreover, what expectations put onto grandmothers, both in terms of caregiving and activisms? Are mothers “allowed” to be activists within the definition of the “Good Mother”? Is there a “Good Grandmother” ideal? As neoliberalism expands at the same time as self-destructs, how will the intersection of mothering and social change work intersect?
Do you have any thoughts or reflections around “the Good Mother,” caregiving responsibilities, and activism? Comment below and share them with us!