Mothers under scrutiny

On the way to work yesterday, I was listening to the radio and there was a commercial for a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ (translated from Finnish). I’m sure this a Finnish version of some international hit reality show, but since I’m not a great fan of reality shows, I had never heard of it before. Now there are a lot of things that can be said about reality shows; the publicly private nature of them say a lot about the ideals and obsessions we have in contemporary society, but that is not what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about mothers. I find it really sad that someone has come up with the “brilliant” idea to dedicate a whole show to mothers criticizing each other.

Mothers are already so scrutinized as it is. It is mothers who are considered responsible for the kind of individuals their children grow up to become. If a child develops into a successful adult, we think the mother has done a good job. And if the child on the other hand has problems or should God forbid become a criminal, we look to the mother for blame. We have such high expectations of mothers, and a mother who doesn’t prioritize her children over everything else is not only considered a bad mother; she is also considered a bad woman. Men just aren’t judged as harshly for their priorities (although men do have other social expectations to deal with).

But mothers aren’t only scrutinized by society; they also get a lot of criticism from each other. I don’t think mothers mean to be unsupportive of each other. I think many just feel so overwhelmed by everything they are expected to do and be, that in order not to feel like a failure – in order to feel like they’re doing okay – they compare themselves to other mothers, looking for any sign that they at least are doing better than that. And that is actually as awful as it sounds. We have enough stress as it is, we don’t need to also be waiting for each other to slip up just so that we can feel better about ourselves (see What is it about mothers today? for more thoughts on what it is like to be a mother in contemporary society).

I think one reason mothers may be so critical of each other is that they feel alone in their situations. I remember a woman I interviewed once, who had opted out of her career. She was juggling small children, a very inflexible job, and caring for her husband who was ill. And she was of course the sole provider, as her husband couldn’t work due to his illness. This was a lot to handle to say the least and eventually she realized she just couldn’t do it anymore. Of course she felt relieved after she opted out, but she also felt like a failure. I remember her saying how so many other women seemed to be handling it just fine, what was it about her? Why couldn’t she handle it?

Well that’s the thing. Women are expected to have and do it all. And they are also expected to look their best, be feminine, well-groomed, and pleasant while they are busy doing that – having it all that is. We don’t talk very much about how we aren’t handling it, and we’re generally pretty good at keeping it together, at least on the outside, even though we may feel like we’re going crazy on the inside. Yesterday my colleagues and I talked about women executives who need to take a break for a few minutes in their work day to have a good cry in the bathroom, after which they quickly retouch their makeup to hide any evidence that they might possibly not be keeping it together, and then go back out to continue working.

And no, I’m not saying we should all cry openly at work. It’s just unfortunate that so many women experience similar feelings, but feel they have to go to great lengths to hide it from each other. And as a result we are alone, or even worse we are comforted by others’ difficulties and failures. To tell you the truth, just the thought of a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ makes me feel sick.

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