“She Did What?!”

September 26, 2018
7 mins read

This column is for the next generation of parents. Hell, who am I kidding? It’s mainly for the mothers. Please understand, young ones: Raising you was the purest light of our lives. Some days it felt like a five-alarm fire, but for you, our precious little darlings, we’d walk barefoot across hot coals invoking useless childbirth-breathing techniques while maintaining a calm facial expression so you, too, would remain calm. As a rule, we’re careful not to tell you how difficult parenthood is. After all, damn it, we deserve grandchildren.

Still, a couple things do merit fair warning. We deliberately raised you, our brilliant ones, as The Free-Minded Generation, and now we’re at the point in human evolution where a Big Secret must be revealed. The day-to-day, bone-achingly exhausting pragmatics of raising children is nothing compared to the societal scorn you’ll endure, eschew and/or guard against all your lives as mothers. Our patriarchy, you see, has taken great pains to develop (over centuries!) an elaborate reverse-incentive system for keeping mothers in line. Since everybody knows we mothers want everything for our children, this all-stick, no-carrot system works swimmingly. In fact, because of our neurotically human impulse to feel better about ourselves by judging others, we mothers are some of the worst enforcers of The Contemptible Mother Penalty.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, children. Within our system is a built-in shaming mechanism that ensures you’ll never know if you’re “good enough” while you’re actually mothering! You have to make yourself believe it, every moment of every day, while you’re winging it. And if you happen to look over your shoulder to see if anyone’s watching you, you’re not paranoid, little mama.

They’re watching you, all right.

No matter what rational decisions you make, as writer Kim Brooks found out recently, there’s someone out there who will criticize you for them. They might even call the police.

Brooks’ sin was leaving her child in a locked car with the windows cracked as she ran into a store for five minutes. Her New York Times op-ed, “Motherhood in the Age of Fear,” asks important questions about why, when it comes to childcare, we hold mothers to a far higher standard than we do fathers. Her piece gets to the heart of the social “norm,” though there must be a stronger word for it, against which we so unforgivingly judge all mothers. What is it, exactly, that would have a police officer shame a public defender for taking a coffee break in Starbucks as she sat watching her children through the window, in their cool, locked minivan, enjoying Dora the Explorer?

It’s the same “norm” that, on a recent Saturday in a Riverside burger joint, had me mentally gauging the age of the child left to sit playing his electronic game, alone, while his mother went to the bathroom. Watching him, I remembered the fear of being judged for leaving my children alone in similar places before they reached a certain age; I also remembered fearing someone would ask them “Where’s your mother?” no matter how old they were, while I was still indisposed.

Brooks cites some cool social psychology research demonstrating how perceptions of morality are more relevant to observers than any actual, objective degree of danger a child might experience, in any given air-conditioned minivan or suburban Burger-Fi. Observers understand, and research shows, when dads get distracted, or when dads just need a minute to breathe, people think: “They’re fine. Their dad’s right there; he can see them through the window.”

When it happens to moms, though? Outrage.

“She did what?”

The Contemptible Mother Penalty takes its ugliest form when we moms project our own vulnerability to it onto each other:

“She breastfed him how long? Sheesh, I wonder if she’s planning to go to college with him.”

“She didn’t even try to nurse him? She’s always been, you know, a little cold.”

“You make your teenager text you when he’s running past his 11 p.m. curfew? You’re one of those overprotective hovering, helicopter parents, huh?”

“You let your 11-year-old child ride her bike all the way to her friend’s house? Doesn’t she live all the way across _____________ (San Jose, Normandy, Third Street)? Don’t you know the traffic is deadly on that street?”

You’re damned no matter what you do. You’ve got to learn early not to give a damn.

The Contemptible Mother paradigm is not only an impossible double bind, it’s the mother of all misdirects. It’s sleight of hand of Trumpian proportions. While The Patriarchy’s Magical Mothering Contest has many of us one-upping each other, we hardly notice the lack of OSHA laws demanding private bathroom breaks for moms—much less, time off.

We’re sure that not remembering when we last showered must be proof that we’re good-enough newborn mothers. We feel guilty for working too much and not being able to spend more time with our children. We feel guilty if we give up juggling relentless multitasking in favor of full-time childrearing, because other mothers don’t have that “luxury.” We feel selfish for wanting just one damn cup of hot coffee in the morning before the busy, busy day starts.

Guilt, shame, comparing ourselves to other mothers, or worse, to some nonexistent ideal from the land of “should”—it’s a never-ending hamster wheel off which you are absolutely free to hop. Staying on it is diabolical, because it makes us forget the Big Truth hiding under The Patriarchy’s other, metaphorically sweaty palm: While our society gives great lip service to “family values,” actually cultivating them is not a job that pays money.

It’s why so many of us play into the Motherhood Contest. It’s why we beat ourselves up for not being superhuman. The stakes of being a Good Mother are higher, society tells us, than could ever be measured by any dollar amount! (Though, collectively speaking, we’ve never really tried quantifying the value of good parenting, have we?) The shame associated with the words “bad mother” is enough of a whip to have kept women pulling the mother-guilt cart for, well … forever.

Despite the high stakes that our culture places on child rearing, make no mistake—we don’t put our money where our collective mouth is. Caregiving is “the work feminism forgot.” As second-wave feminists have rightfully gone about leveling the gender-lopsided playing fields that yielded money, they inadvertently dissed the at-home, lady-caregivers. In that way, you little mamas, early feminists swallowed the myth still curdling like milk in the pit of our stomachs: “Traditional” women’s work, like cooking, cleaning, childcare, sick-care, eldercare, etc. is less “important” than blazing professional trails for our daughters—but you still can’t screw it up! Lean in!

Never mind that gender might be the least of the personality constructs that determine whether a woman can, or even wants to, lean in.

Even third- and fourth-wave feminists like me were duped by the racist and misogynist rhetoric of “welfare reform” during the Clinton years. People should have to “work” for their government checks, lawmakers insisted. Never mind that taking care of children is already a job.

Caring has never paid well, if at all, because of who does it. Let’s face it: The world has always run on the unpaid and underpaid work of women.

In their Foreign Policy article, “Who Will Care for the Carers?”, Sarita Gupta and Ai-Jen Poo take a close look at the gender and racial politics that marginalize care workers. Caring, they argue, requires the kind of compassion and patience that robots will never be able to deliver. Even as the demand for quality caregivers grows, however (which in any other economic sector would lead to pay increases), caregivers’ wages remain stagnant.

Nevertheless, the authors point out, as the world’s population ages, our very survival depends on taking better care of our caregivers:

Historically, care has been seen as women’s work; it was long voluntary or unpaid and thus systematically devalued. Even today, most care workers in developed countries are still women and disproportionately women of color, migrant women, or women of marginalized social status.
They often work part-time and have inconsistent hours. In the United States, the profession’s historical associations with black women have led to harsher conditions and a deeper contempt. Long-standing racial exclusions from labor protections and a culture that has failed to adequately value or support caregiving have resulted in high turnover rates, worker shortages, and, ultimately, lower quality care. The median annual pay for home care jobs hovers around $13,000 in the United States—barely above the federal poverty level. As a result, more than half of all U.S. care workers rely on some form of public assistance.

It appears we feel entitled to extend the impossible-mother standard to all caregivers. It’s particularly pernicious when working with the current elderly generation, who might have narrow ideas about exactly how caregivers (read: women) should serve. (Did I mention the impossible-daughter standard?)

So how do we change any of this?

We can start by taking a lesson from those industrialized Western European nations offering guaranteed minimum incomes for their citizens, because their people value
the fundamental act of having families as valuable “work.”

“Work worth doing,” former Jacksonville mayoral candidate and corporate-executive extraordinaire Audrey Moran once said, “is work worth getting paid for.” (Audrey and her husband have raised four children.) How to negotiate that pay-worthy work in a job, a marriage, an extended family, a daycare, an assisted living facility, a neighborhood, or a country? It’s all on the table, kids.

Take a lesson, too, from our nation’s 20th-century labor movement, and understand that it’s important to enfranchise workers worldwide, especially our tired, hungry, poor, huddled caregivers, yearning to make ends meet. Free-market economies aren’t just for bosses. The freedom to associate with others and organize for better treatment is an important part of “market economics.”

Remember, my darlings, as many older adult lawmakers seem to have forgotten, that you were born hungry and naked like everyone else. You didn’t raise yourselves in the woods among wolves. Someone cared for you. Understand that when people aren’t starving, sick or living underneath bridges, they’re more likely to contribute to the economy, which benefits us all.

Lastly, promise me, young hearts, while you’re out there changing the world, you’ll attune your rhetoric to the over-60 crowd and soften your boldfaced enthusiasm for all things socialism. We’re all living longer. Your parents and grandparents want to stay here on Earth with you for a while. We can’t expect the deep-dyed, American, “red scare” reactions to suddenly just … die.

You might try something like, “Capitalism needs to work for the betterment of human beings, and not vice versa.” You get the idea.

Do it for your mothers.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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