Blame it on mother

Mary Ellen Elwell

May 10, 1991|By Mary Ellen Elwell

MOTHER'S DAY is a troubling holiday for me. My own mother was entirely satisfactory, and my own mothering has been more growth-producing than frustrating. Yet the second Sunday in May always bothers me.

I dislike the sentimental image of sainted motherhood slickly promoted by greeting cards and advertisers. The perfect mother makes no connection with the love and anger or the joy and pain I experience both as mother and daughter. Mother-as-saint just doesn't ring true for me as I reflect on my life or as I observe my world.

As a social worker, I see too many children abandoned literally or symbolically by inadequate mothers, and I see too many struggling mothers unable to meet the demands placed on them. My training emphasized the serious psychiatric damage to personality development -- the inevitable result of bad mothering.

As students, we studied the dangers of maternal neglect or abuse and the equally serious results of neurotic maternal attachment. Freud, the paternal Victorian, spawned a school of mother-blaming for pathologies ranging from adolescent stuttering to adult sexual malfunction.

The blaming of mothers for our personal troubles has evolved gradually to the blaming of entire categories of mothers for our social ills. Working mothers have become a problem rather than a symptom of a culture which promotes high expectations but doesn't provide the economic means to support them.

Along with sainted mother and mother as cause of personal maladjustment, mothers are identified as social problems. The list includes welfare mothers, single mothers, unmarried mothers, teen-age mothers and cocaine-addicted mothers. Never mind that these mothers are paired with fathers in many cases or that our social programs blame instead of support the families headed by these mothers. They are still problems.

This Mother's Day, I'm going to do my best to ignore the annoying stereotypes of the commercial promotions as well as the negative connotations of motherhood.

I'll send warm wishes to all women who are struggling with the day-to-dayness of active mothering.

I'll remember my own mother for her enthusiasm and her complexity.

And I'll take a few minutes to contemplate the multitude of conflicting emotions aroused by my own often-flawed performance as mother.

Mary Ellen Elwell teaches in the Social Work Department at Salisbury State University.

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