MMO: The "motherhood mystique" you described in The Growth and Development of Mothers -- the notion that children are perfectible and mothers alone can perfect them, that child-bearing and child-rearing are a woman's ultimate fulfillment and her normal priority in life, that the sex-based division of family work is predetermined by natural selection -- has acquired a few new flourishes in the last thirty years, but is still very much alive and well. Writers such as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (The Mommy Myth) and Judith Warner (Perfect Madness) have even argued that today's model of ideal motherhood is more unrealistic and oppressive than the version which compelled Betty Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique. Do you feel we've made any progress in deflating the myth of the perfect mother in the last three decades?
Angela Barron McBride: I think that we have both made some progress and we are still affected by the "motherhood mystique." It is difficult now to remember what the state of affairs was in the beginning of the 1970s when I was writing The Growth and Development of Mothers, but it was a time when the entire focus was on what the mother should do for the sake of the child with no concern about her own development during the adult years. It was only in the 1970s that we began to consider the importance of fatherhood and began to take seriously adult development (both shifts are underappreciated consequences of the women's movement). We have made progress when we can elicit societal sympathy for the experience of motherhood from the woman's perspective, and most men, no matter what their ideological persuasion, now understand that if they're not involved with their children when they're young then their children won't care about them when they are older.
On the other hand, expectations for what the "good mother" should do remain unrealistic. My mother once said to me, "I feel sorry for you. In my day, we thought we were successful as mothers if we kept our children fed, clothed, and out of jail. Your generation also expects to promote your children's mental health." I now say to my older daughter who is a mother, "I feel sorry for you. Not only do you expect to accomplish what my mother and I did in that role (i.e., keeping children fed, clothed, out of jail, and mentally healthy), but you believe that you can shaped the plasticity of your children's brains." The point is that the knowledge explosion keeps upping expectations for what we should be able to control, when the reality is that perfection is not possible and children are shaped by so many things beyond our control. We continue to hold mythic views of motherhood because our society continues to hope that perfection is possible. In therapy, you strive to help clients appreciate that they and their mothers/fathers can be "good enough" rather than perfect. It's a lesson all of us need to learn along the way.
MMO: You wrote that coming to terms with the emotional complexity and contradictions of motherhood opens up the possibility of growth and self-actualization for mothers. Why is that true?
Angela Barron McBride: Building on what I just said, I think that "growing up" requires one to come to terms with the world's complexities and contradictions. Because becoming a mother is such a profound experience, the role regularly brings to the fore a host of emotions and unresolved ambiguities. In confronting this assortment of thoughts and feelings, one moves away from the simplicities of "they lived happily after" to the hard-won maturity of dealing with difficulties as best you can and learning to love yourself and others even when they're far from perfect.
MMO: You suggest the most important question any mother can ask is herself is why she wanted to have babies in the first place -- what raw desires, personal vanities, wishful thinking and secret hopes of repairing old wounds make us hop on the motherhood train? And yet this also seems like an extremely challenging path of introspection, since the real reasons we yearn for motherhood are not always socially acceptable or altruistic. Do you still feel confronting the question: "Why did I have this baby?" is central to the growth and development of mothers, and if so, why?
Angela Barron McBride: I don't think you can analyze your own motivation while pregnant and a brand-new mother. Usually you are clinging to your own romanticized views during this time just to get through the experience (e.g., believing "it will be different for me" even if you saw your own mother struggle in that role). Later on, however, I do think every time you over-react to something or feel disappointed can be an opportunity to explore your response, and move forward in coming to terms with what real motherhood involves (as opposed to fantasies). Such introspection isn't easy, though it is made easier when other women are willing to talk and write about their own personal journeys, but confronting one's raw desires and personal vanities does enable the person to learn to handle disappointments better, meaning you're less likely to over-react when your child is not the incarnation of perfection and your partner isn't the perfect father you wished he would be. To put it another way, you neither want others to expect you to be the perfect mother, nor do you want to fall prey to thinking the converse, "I would be the perfect mother if only I had perfect children and a perfect partner." The challenge of the adult years is achieving what Erik Erikson referred to as "ego integrity" while fully understanding how imperfect all individuals are.
MMO: In the age of "hyperparenting" the issue of parental control seems particularly relevant -- we hope not only to optimize our children's behavior and development, but their ultimate destinies, through the practice of intensive mothering. What are some of the illusions that lurk beneath this kind of do-or-die parenting, and how can it shortchange the growth and development of mothers?
Angela Barron McBride: To the extent that you as a mother think that "doing everything right" is possible and that you can shape your child's destiny, you may be unprepared for several realities:
Children from the same families (i.e., same genetic pool) can vary tremendously in temperament and behavioral predispositions, and parents vary in their ability to handle different personality types.
Children are affected by what you do, but they are also affected by many other things, e.g., lead in the environment, the behavior of a host of relatives and friends, what is on television.
The notion that early good mothering can inoculate the child to subsequent unsavory influences can actually leave you ill prepared for the challenges of parenting school-age children, because you begin to believe that the hard work of parenting is pre-kindergarten.
Too much focus on "doing right" can make you oblivious to the real task of parenting, i.e., helping your child develop resilience and weather adversity.
MMO: In your 1973 book -- which is not a self-help guide -- you suggest mothers might be curious about why they feel what they feel and when they feel it, because the nature and intensity of our emotional reactions to the everyday disappointments and frustrations of family life can tell us something about where to look for our growing edge. How so?
Angela Barron McBride: I do think that strong emotion, out of proportion to the realities of a situation, can be a clue to unresolved feelings which, if left unexamined, can get in the way of being an effective mother. The more you understand "where you're coming from," the more you're not likely to be blindsided by repressed thoughts and feelings.
MMO: In A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, psychologist Janna Malamud Smith writes about the possibility of "the free mother." Can mothers be liberated?
Angela Barron McBride: It is difficult for the individual to be free of social constraints, including unrealistic expectations for how selfless the "good mother" should be. I do think it is possible, however, to be your own person in that role by using the experience to explore your own unvoiced expectations and fantasies. In the process, you can learn to become comfortable with being the "good-enough mother." That's my idea of "freedom"!
MMO: If you were to re-write The Growth and Development of Mothers today, is there anything you would add or approach differently?
Angela Barron McBride: I am both a psychiatric nurse and a developmental psychologist so my own predisposition in The Growth and Development of Mothers was to explore the psychology of the experience. In the ensuing decades, I have come to appreciate how much individual psychology is shaped by the larger society. For example, American society is shaped by the myth of rugged individualism; this value system has, in turn, shaped American motherhood where the responsibility is placed on the mother's behavior not on whether the society supports the mother. With birth control, we have come to see motherhood as an optional experience, an individual choice, and I've heard people say unfeelingly, "I don't see why I have to baby-sit my sister's children; she chose to have them and I didn't." Our belief in rugged individualism has caused us to laugh at the notion of "it takes a village." But it does take community supports to be an effective parent, and I would emphasize this fact much more if I were rewriting The Growth and Development of Mothers at this point in time. Individual parents shouldn't have to create their own basic support structures (e.g., safe, affordable child and after-school care).
mmo : february 2006
Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of The Mothers Movement Online.