I am thinking, as I write, specifically of Sally Roberts, the mother of the boy named Neon, who is in the news for refusing to allow her son to undergo a course of radiotherapy for a brain tumour. She has since been overruled by a judge, a man, who has said that her judgement may have gone ‘awry’. I am also thinking about Nancy Lanza, the first victim of her son’s massacre in Newtown, USA. And then because I am a daughter and a mother I realise I am probably thinking about myself.
Mothers are women who have children and each of us approach the state differently, I suppose: some of us adopt, some foster and some give birth. There are still others, a few, who steal or borrow, or simply refuse to return. And then there are the step-mothers of fairy tales, who lurk in the wings with a basket full of shiny apples, leaning on a stick. We should all aspire, perhaps, to the image of the Madonna: a beatific face that dandles a well-behaved boy child on her lap. Surely a Madonna would not run away with her sick child and hide from the doctors; surely a Madonna would not be gunned down by her own son; surely a Madonna would not make the commonplace mistakes that many of us make – on a daily basis. In terms of cultural references (and I can only write of the western tradition, another perspective would be welcome) a woman is there, like Eve, to transgress: to fall from a state of grace. The Madonna, exclusively amongst mothers, remains in grace because she has not fallen from that hallowed state to conceive in the sweat and mire of humanity. No, she has simply had a conversation with an angel.
Mothers blame themselves for their children’s mistakes. Or they do not. I cannot speak for all mothers. But for those that do, and the ones I know do, have a strong societal bias to overcome because when push comes to shove – we blame the mother. Fathers are absent, but rational, mainly. Some of them are absent because they are rational, allegedly. It is the mad mothers that they are absent from, not the children. Not the children. Women give up a lot to have a family. Like men, they need support to bring up that family, but if a lone parent is in town statistically it is more likely to be a woman. Mothers need emotional and practical support, as well as financial. The truth is, if one mother has to do it all, some of it will necessarily remain undone because there will simply not be enough of her to go round. This is not because we mothers are mad, bad and dangerous to know, but because bringing up one child is at least a three person job…
It takes a whole village to raise a child.
Societies, like ours, that continue to hold mothers up to public shame (not counting Nancy Lanza in the final death toll at Newtown, publishing every medical twist and turn of what should be a private court case) are perpetuating an archaic and repressive notion: that mothers are responsible for the way it all turns out.
Of course, we are responsible for some of it, but marching us off to the stocks for public excoriation via the media makes it more difficult to parent effectively and with sensitivity. I am not going to attempt to judge the actions of another mother in a blog post: I have no context within which to operate, unlike a High Court Judge, but I do note that there are noises about Sally Roberts being paid for her story by a paper (which makes me sad). Still, indiviudal cases aside, I believe the limited and stereotypical representations of women in our culture give many mothers an impossible image to live up to. Motherhood is a myriad state with many mixed feelings. It’s a curious notion and you wouldn’t believe it sometimes, but being a parent is yet another state of humanity, not grace. It seems to me is time to reinterpret the role and ditch both the Madonna and its modern incarnation the Yummy Mummy. (There is probably a parallel for today’s fathers too, I just don’t have the scope to think about that this morning.) What such a reinterpretation would look like I really don’t know, but I am sure that a shift in perception and imagery of mothers can only help us all bring up the kind of children the world needs right now.
For more of these photographs, where the mother is there to keep order and provide succour to bored or scared children but not wanted in the tableau, her image presumably ruining the shot, go to The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things