‘UNFIT’ MOTHERS: THE BURDEN OF STEREOTYPES

By Srilagna Majumdar

During everyday conversations and discourses, we come across labels given to mothers that are burdened by stereotypes and fraught with sky-touching expectations limited by narrow definitions. Aimed at the welfare of others, this focus is seldom targeted towards women’s wellbeing. There have been so less frequent moments when fathers, and children, or people, in general, look at mothers as separate and independent human beings. Writing as an Indian student, engaged in feminist studies, it appears that the stereotypes that mothers are often corralled into can be organized into three main categories: Mothers as (a) primary caregivers, (b) teachers or role models, and (c) household workers or homemakers (Tessier, Gosselin, 2018). It would be safe to say that these categories are most often applied to biological mothers.

As a college student, contemplating the subject of motherhood, it appears that media depictions as well as the general tenure of social expectation dictate women caregivers must give exclusive priority to their children. Certainly, babies require much care and mothers are often the primary sources for expressions of love as well as providers of food and shelter. Being a good caregiver involves balancing many roles, including that of nurturer and a disciplinarian (as required). These qualities are highlighted in society with the expectation that mothers put everything on hold to be more available to their children and devote all of themselves to motherhood as the primary obligation. This belief reflects a deep internalization of an intensive mothering ideology. The mothers I know see themselves as purveyors of wisdom, important teachers- not exclusively in the academic sense- but as a source of information about how to get along in the world, which contemporary women are often encouraged to do.

But, within the home, many mothers are managers of the household. Women who are mothers are seen by some to embrace this duty to family almost exclusively. Many of the mothers I studied perceived themselves as very loyal toward their families. The chores associated with maintaining a stable home were a signifier of demonstrated loyalty. While divorced mothers might be perceived as failures: cowards, frivolous, weak for not persevering or enduring in the marriage (even whoreish, and easy-prey for free sex), promiscuous, irresponsible, selfish, not trustworthy, lacking courage, incapable of maintaining a family, alone and without protection, disrespectful of God’s rules, and without moral values – a heavy burden to contemplate, indeed (Aneja, Vaidya, 2016).

Outside the home, working mothers, portrayed by the media, or judged generally through a negative lens by society as well, are accountable not only to themselves but to the public at large. It is presumed that a mother, who works outside the home, would be incapable of managing the necessities of her children. If a mother keeps her child in the custody of a nanny, or a crèche, while she goes for work, society apprehends that it will affect the upbringing of the child and that full responsibility of any perceived outcome, is to be taken on solely by the working mother.

As in the previous two examples, mothers have a difficult time performing in the “correct” manner expected of them. Deviations from perceived “norms” are prone to accountability and assessment. Lesbian mothers, i.e. same-sex mothers are viewed as unfit, by society, in cases that I have read about or heard of. These negative conceptions appear particularly rooted in religious doctrine. Stereotypes regarding lesbian mothers as not normal are promoted by entrenched beliefs that children should be raised by a mother and a father, not by two mothers. The argument for this lack of a male parent, doctrine asserts, might confuse children, especially regarding their own sexual preference when they become teenagers (Tessier, Gosselin, 2018). Participants of interviews conducted by Vadiya, in 2016, reported different cultural norms influencing their attitudes. This included coming from a conservative Catholic religious background, uncontested and unchecked concepts of machismo, and the fact that interviewees did not know any lesbian parents personally, further polarizing them from actions outside of hegemonic ideals and further entrenching erroneous assumptions about “good” parenting.

The themes of deficiency and lack, good and bad mothers, the burden of care, and the valorization of the mothering role that have been explored here acquire a new dimension when we take into account a different kind of embodiment, namely, disability. When the mother in question is a disabled woman, the discourse of motherhood becomes even more complicated. Sexuality, conjugality, and motherhood are associated with normative, desirable, fertile bodies, whereas the disabled body is regarded as defective, undesirable, and thus, devalued (Aneja, Vaidya,2016). Motherhood denotes caregiving, while disability suggests a person in need of care herself, and thus, being unfit to assume the caring role for another, especially of one as vulnerable as an infant. We can certainly see how difficult it is for mothers to avail themselves of additional scrutiny.

Disability has historically been viewed as a ‘problem’ or aberration in need of fixing or remediation, suggesting that something is missing or lacking. The personhood and agency of women who are deemed ‘the other’ on account of their bodily differences are denied in the context of their reproductive needs and rights. Women with disabilities are regarded either as asexual beings incapable of becoming sexual companions or as hyper-sexual and unregulated ones (Aneja, Vaidya, 2016). In some cases, disabled mothers were abandoned by husbands, who later got married to able-bodied women at the behest of the man’s family. Many times, it is revealed that disabled mothers experience violence within the family, both emotional as well as severe physical violence in some cases. It can be imagined, how these disabled mothers also have to explain to their children why they can’t participate in an activity, attend a field trip, or use the same door [as their children do]. They might even have to spend a great deal of time explaining themselves or educating other people, and that can wear a person down (Scroll,2018).

In most societies, the predominant image of the family is represented by a middle-class, first-marriage nuclear family with two heterosexual parents, including a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and biological children (Routledge, “Marriage and Family review”, 2018). Social institutions, including mass media, language, legal systems, and religion, convey the message that this family configuration is the norm. As a student who wants to arrive at a finer feminist perspective, I feel this is how agency over the body and consent for the things done to it are appropriated by medical, legal, and social practices that challenge the very personhood and humanity of the mothers who want to break away from the society generated idea of how a mother should be.

Citations:

A Literature Review of Cultural Stereotypes Associated with Motherhood and Fatherhood, Sophie-Claire Valiquette-Tessier, Julie Gosselin, Kristel Thomassin, 2018

EMBODYING MOTHERHOOD-Perspectives from Contemporary India, Anu Aneja and Shubhangi Vaidya, Yoda Press, 2016

‘Your priority is your baby’: Why does India have a culture of demonizing working mothers?, Article by Scroll, 2018

Edited by M. Joy Rose

About Srilagna:

Srilagna Majumdar is a student of History, third Year in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. She is a keen student of social sciences and wants to pursue her future in Museology. She is currently working with 1947 Partition Archive and Stanford University for a project regarding interviewing Partition witnesses. She is also a Digital Content writer and editor at the same Archive. She wrote papers on Redefining gender roles to get a wider perspective of gender relations in the Global South. Srilagna Majumdar lives in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She is also working for developing the proper ways of editing Partition witness’s stories and preparing them for digitization. She is also working with the Partition Museum to archive Partition history and find how women were affected during the same. She interns with Daak, a nonprofit organization for promoting lesser-known artworks and artists of South Asia. Srilagna is also the research authenticator at India Lost and Found, a heritage conservation initiative by Amit Pasricha. She is an oral histories and research intern at Kashmir Untold, an initiative to archive stories of Kashmiri migrants and is also working for exploring various aspects of motherhood in society and trying to arrive at a finer feminist lens by being an intern at the Museum of Motherhood, Florida.

Published by MOM

The Motherhood Foundation is a certified nonprofit 501c3 connecting Women, Mothers and Families through Music, Art, Activism and Education for Cultural, Economic & Social awareness. By creating, producing and presenting visual, literary, educational, academic, performing arts exhibits that celebrate, nurture and support women with a special emphasis on mothers, and their activities, MFI pays tribute to mothers (Moms). The Foundation gives individuals and groups of Moms opportunities for artistic, academic, and cultural presentations they might not otherwise have; free of age, race and socio-economic barriers. MFI cares about, and acts upon the status of women, mothers and families, while addressing important issues, creating meaningful content, and providing compelling educational and community experiences.

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