Families in Psychiatry

The mother’s double jeopardy


Jamestown, Colo., is a small mountain town several miles up through Lefthand Canyon out of Boulder, in the Rocky Mountains. The canyon roads are steep, winding, and narrow, and peopled by brightly clad cyclists struggling up the hill and flying down faster than the cars. The road through Jamestown is dusty in the summer with brightly colored oil barrels strategically placed in the middle of the single road through town. Slashed across their sides: “SLOW DOWN! Watch out for our feral children!”

Wild child or hothouse child? What is the best choice? Women bear the brunt of this deciding, whether they are working outside of the home, or stay-at-home caregivers, or both. Women know they will be blamed if they get it wrong.

Dr. Alison M. Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Society has exacted a tall order on women who choose to have children. Patriarchal norms ask (White) women who choose both to work and have children, if they are really a “stay-at-home” mother who must work, or a “working” mother who prefers work over their children. The underlying attitude can be read as: “Are you someone who prioritizes paid work over caregiving, or are you someone who prioritizes caregiving over work?” You may be seen as a bad mother if you prioritize work over the welfare of your child. If you prioritize your child over your work, then you are not a reliable, dedicated worker. The working mother can’t win.

Woman’s central question is what kind of mother should I be? Mothers struggle with this question all their lives; when their child has difficulties, society’s question is what did you do wrong with your child? Mothers internalize the standard of the “good mother” and are aware of each minor transgression that depicts them as the “bad mother.” It is hard to escape the impossible perfectionistic standard of the good mother. But perhaps it has come time to push back on the moral imbalance.

Internalized sexism

As women move out of the home into the workplace, the societal pressures to maintain the status quo bear down on women, trying to keep them in their place.

Social pressures employ subtle “technologies of the self,” so that women – as any oppressed group – learn to internalize these technologies, and monitor themselves.1 This is now widely accepted as internalized sexism, whereby women feel that they are not good enough, do not have the right qualifications, and are “less” than the dominant group (men). This phenomenon is also recognized when racial and ethnic biases are assimilated unconsciously, as internalized racism. Should we also have internalized “momism”?

Women are caught between trying to claim their individualism as well as feeling the responsibility to be the self-denying mother. Everyone has an opinion about the place of women. Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly considered “women’s lib” to be un-American, citing women in the military and the establishment of federal day care centers as actions of a communist state. A similar ideology helped form the antifeminist organization Concerned Women for America, which self-reports that it is the largest American public policy women’s organization. Formed in opposition to the National Organization for Women, CWA is focused on maintaining the traditional family, as understood by (White) evangelical Christians.

An example similar to CWA is the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It was established to help evangelical Christian churches defend themselves against an accommodation of secular feminism and also against evangelical feminism (which pushes for more equality in the church). It promotes complementarianism – the idea that masculinity and femininity are ordained by God and that men and women are created to complement each other.

At the other extreme, the most radical of feminists believe in the need to create a women-only society where women would be free from the patriarchy. Less angry but decidedly weirder are the feminists called “FEMEN” who once staged a protest at the Vatican where topless women feigned intercourse with crucifixes, chanting slogans against the pope and religion.

Most women tread a path between extremes, a path which is difficult and lonely. Without a firm ideology, this path is strewn with doubts and pitfalls. Some career-oriented women who have delayed motherhood, knowing that they will soon be biologically past their peak and possibly also without a partner, wonder if they should become single mothers using sperm donation. For many women, the workplace does not offer much help with maternity leave or childcare. Even when maternity leave is available, there is a still a lack of understanding about what is needed.

“Think of it as caregiver bias. If you just extend maternity leave, what is implied is that you’re still expecting me to be the primary source of care for my child, when in fact my partner wants to share the load and will need support to do so as well,” said Pamela Culpepper, an expert in corporate diversity and inclusion.2


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