Mothering and mental health

In the the course I am taking about mothering and motherhood, as students we are asked to write journal entries after our readings. This particular entry is based on the Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, Margaret Laurence’s Fire-Dwellers, and readings in Maternal Theory Essential Readings edited by my professor Andrea O’Reilly.

Maternal Theory

Motherhood can be dangerous to our mental health, according to a UK study. Susan Maushart refers to this study, which looks at mothers of children younger than five years old, and its findings saying half of these mothers are more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness than ever before. This may be because a lot of mothers are not fully prepared for motherhood, in how it has been institutionalized. Maushart explains, it is not just the hard work of motherhood that can be shocking to a new mom, but the entire mothering experience and how it transforms a woman’s life. For decades mothering has been blamed for anything bad anyone has done or felt.

The characters Kate Reddy, from Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It and Stacey MacAindra of Margaret Laurence’s Fire-Dwellers have little in common. They have different experiences with labour, relationships, and socioeconomic backgrounds. However, both mothers can relate to a feeling of despair. MacAindra is constantly self-criticizing. She does not feel confident in her social skills, her physical features, her intelligence, her age, her role as a wife, nor in her role as Mother. Reddy links being a good mother to superficial things like having freshly coloured hair, her ability to cook and bake, her middle-class status, the prestige of her daughter’s primary school options, hosting perfectly planned birthday parties, being a constant presence at PTA meetings (which she is not and is upset with herself for this), her relationship with her husband, her in-laws, and with her children. Both mothers are policed by the inevitable self-doubt associated with the patriarchy’s construction of motherhood. “We all want to be the mom in baby food ads,” writes psychologist Shari Thurer, “Loving, selfless, tranquil.”

The way that the patriarchy has created motherhood, none of us will be the mom in baby food ads. According to Paula J. Caplan, as a society we are taught not to see the good things mothers do; if a mother has prepared a delicious meal or has the home sparkling, it is expected, not something to be appreciated. The hard work that went into that meal and clean home is not even acknowledged. However, if the food is not prepared, and the kitchen sink is not sparkling, that is to be acknowledged and punished- it is used as proof that bad mothering is at play. This injustice is intended. These expectations are impossible for any one person to meet, and so the patriarchy is apparently justified for oppressing women by use of motherhood.

“We found that mothers were blamed for virtually every kind of psychological or emotional problem that ever brought any patient to see a therapist,” writes Caplan. With mother blame so obvious, the effects are bound to be negative. The pressure of meeting mothering expectations can get so great that even receiving a school notice can reduce one to tears. MacAindra thinks that if she does not perform her role as mother properly -with a smile- that she would be punished by the powers that be. She genuinely expects one of her children to die for her supposed insubordination. According to Caplan, a woman’s sense of self-worth relies largely bound with their identification as nurturers. Maushart goes further into what the identity of nurturer means, realizing that this label can make a woman feel trapped, and gives a sense that their life is somehow living them instead of vice versa.

“A woman who catches sight of herself in the mirror sees a very different picture. And the message is clear: she is a failure,” Maushart quotes anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger. This message is intended. Instead of realizing the unhealthy nature of creating unfair demands on women, they are justified by science under a patriarchal state. Self-Defeating Personality Disorder is a supposed mental health condition Caplan found when looking to the American Psychiatric Association. This disorder’s symptoms include feeling underappreciated and making the wrong decisions. So instead of blaming the actions of the oppressor, the victim is blamed. The blame is put on the mother for feeling this way, not on the system making her so, and the blame is placed on the mother’s choices, not her lack of due to the system she lives in.

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