In a way, the pandemic has been a blessing for me!” Sameera’s words were quite surprising to me as just moments before she had been telling me about her struggles with her four-year-old son with autism. Seeing my surprised look she explained, “I do not have to face the constant scrutiny of the world telling me how I am messing up, and shaming me!”
The binaries for women are so deeply indoctrinated in our culture – good girl/bad girl, good mother/ bad mother, Devi/Dayan that it becomes difficult for us to step back and challenge this glorification/vilification. Find it difficult to believe? Just Google “good mother” or “toxic mother” and see what jumps at you!
As a child, growing up in the mountains, I have memories of children growing up with what I can call benign indifference. My messing up in school (happened too often), or winning accolades (rare occurrence) did not seem to dent or inflate my mother’s worth. I think it was the ’80s and the ’90s that changed the language or discourse around mothering. Western ideas of parenting were imported, much like the rest of the consumerist culture. It did not take long for motherhood to be exploited as a lucrative industry with capitalism selling the singular idea of a “good mother” as a 24×7 rat race (if you are part of a mums’ WhatsApp group you will know what I mean) and children as our shiny trophies
That is how patriarchy works, doesn’t it? Make motherhood the single story about women, use normative judgement to exercise social control and invisiblise the injustice. The best part – make women complicit in this obscuring of the violation so that they can constantly carry out self-surveillance and police each other. Intersectionally, some of us become even more vulnerable to this indignity when there are issues of gender (horror of giving birth to only girls), sexual orientation, disability, single parenthood, poverty, religion or caste.
This cookie-cutter approach promotes one right way of parenting and if we do not fit into it then we have readymade labels to disgrace mothers – authoritarian, permissive, controlling, helicopter, drill sergeant and some plain stigmatising — toxic, narcissistic, cold. Some recent ones are really hilarious – you might have heard of tiger moms, but have you heard of elephant/penguin/panda/dolphin/jellyfish moms? I wonder what these animals would have to say about this colonisation? Jokes apart, even psychiatry and psychology has a murky history in terms of mother-bashing in the name of mother-child attachment, completely ignoring the socio-cultural and political context. Of course, babies need mothers who are emotionally attuned to them but rather than locating the problem in them and being complicit in this politics of mother blaming, it is crucial to highlight the structural inequality, inability to provide nurturing care to the mothers that drives so many of them to such black pits of despair and detachment.
There was a time when schizophrenia and autism were blamed on schizophrenogenic mothers and the so-called “refrigerator moms”. These terms might have been dismissed in the past decades from our textbooks but they lurk in the minds of so-called healers when they want to assign fault and denounce them; mothers have always been easy targets you see!
Reclaiming “bad mother”
What would happen if we could reclaim all the messy bits that come with parenting? What if we could own the label “bad mother” just like the young women nowadays own being called “sluts” (like Besharam Morcha) or the LGBTQ+ community reclaim “queer” as a matter of pride rather than a slur. What if we could talk openly about how we are not getting it right – being too exhausted to read bedtime stories, not supervising every bit of homework, allowing junk meal at the dinner table, or, worse still, in front of the television? Sounds like a sacrilege! Wouldn’t you be happy being called a “bad mother” rather than putting yourself through the social grinder that measures your worth and your children’s through some convoluted “good mother” standards?
Visibilise the patriarchy
Rather than judging each other, we should flip the gaze back onto the patriarchy that exploits women. The mother who ends up missing her daughter’s performance in school could be doing all that she can to hold her job in an oppressive workspace. We would not judge a father for missing it, so why are we so quick to judge mothers? Each mother is doing the best she can with the resources and skills she has. Patriarchy works by pitting us against each other. As a mother shared with me in dismay, “Shame convinces me that everybody else has got it right but me.” How many of us get that feeling while checking others’ social media posts! American writer Anne Lamott spoke for all of us when she said, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.”
Shame festers in silence, secrecy and isolation with a dollop of judgment. Children have sensitive radars for mother’s shame as they immediately tend to attribute it to themselves. As a teenager told me, “If my mother believes she is a failure as a mother, it means I have been a failure as a son.” Are we done with this or do we want our daughters to carry this burden? Concluding that postpartum depression is somewhere their fault; that messy homes are a reflection of their character; that they are selfish if they want to resume work or lazy if they do not – the list never stops, does it? It is up to us if we want to stop it now. Nobody else is going to do it for us.
It takes a village of mothers
We are all in this together, and as we muddle along, let’s commit to stop judging each other and reach out to take collective responsibility. Offer to send a weekly update to a mother from your son’s class whose child might be struggling academically, or invite the lonely child for a playdate and teach your child a wonderful art of being inclusive. Start a parents’ group which is not about flaunting your children’s latest achievement but having conversations on real, messy bits of parenting. Share, support, laugh it out and show solidarity. Step back from the race because as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”