Motherlove is a terrible and terrifying emotion—savage, pure, inchoate. You can fall in and out of love with boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives. Those loves are often conditional, no matter what the movies and e-cards say. Loving your partner is at its heart transactional, a coupling rooted in sexual attraction and sustained by compassion, cooperation, and sheer determination.
But loving your children is something else entirely—an act as close to true selflessness as any our species can contemplate (Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene notwithstanding). The literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote, “If love has ever really meant anything, it has meant the largest possible risk.” I have certainly found that sentiment to be true in my own experience—and the act of procreating is perhaps the riskiest manifestation of love that two humans can perform.
The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness
Penguin (August 2014)
Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Obviously, most parents decide in favor of offspring, to the benefit of the species. But most biological and adopted parents of children at least occasionally wonder what their lives might have been like if they had chosen not to have children. I am no exception. And when your child has a mental disorder, it’s only natural to feel resentment sometimes, or to feel like you’ve given up far more than you bargained for. The “angels of our better nature” struggle with demons of doubt and recrimination and guilt as we watch our own children suffer. Montes, Guillermo, & Halterman. “Psychological functioning and coping among mothers of children with autism: a population-based study” in Pediatrics.And yet a population based survey of mothers of autistic children concluded that: “Mothers of children with autism showed remarkable strengths in the parent–child relationship, social support, and stability of the household in the context of high stress and poorer mental health.”
I’m reflexively resistant to the all-too-common censure that a child’s behavior is entirely the mother’s fault, the result of my neglect, or indifference, or narcissism, or whatever convenient label you want to attach to it. But at the same time, I am seduced by this repugnant idea, because frankly, we mothers are such easy targets. And to a large extent, we’ve made ourselves that way. I was raised and educated in the ugly trenches of the Mommy Wars, and I often think that by abandoning my academic passions, by choosing to stay home and raise four children, I chose the wrong side. A woman can take no greater financial risk for herself and her offspring than to choose to leave the labor force. I thank whatever gods may be for second chances.
Blaming the mother for the sins of her sons has longstanding roots in literary tradition—the old Greek plays gave us Clytemnestra, mother of Orestes who murdered his own father, and of course, Medea, the granddaughter of the sun god Helios who helped Jason to find the Golden Fleece, bore him two children, and killed them when Jason left her for another woman. It’s no accident that Freud turned to the language of Greek mythology when he sought to describe a new science of the soul, the motivations behind desire.
Through the conduit of Freud, Greece’s mad matriarchs became the West’s “Refrigerator Mothers.” Before my blog post about my struggles in raising Michael went viral, I was completely unfamiliar with that term. This 1950s catchphrase blamed emotionally frigid mothers for children suffering from a strange and as-yet unidentified set of behavioral abnormalities that came to be understood as autism spectrum disorders. Perhaps because so many psychiatrists of that generation had cut their teeth on Freud, the largely male cadre of physicians jumped straight to the biological mother as the cause for these children’s mysterious inability to interact with others. Leo Kanner, who first identified autism as a discrete disorder in 1949, mistook cause for effect when he attributed antisocial behaviors to a “genuine lack of maternal warmth”—never mind the fact that the children he treated had normal siblings!
Bretherton, “The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth” in Developmental Psychology. While the “Refrigerator Mother” hypothesis has long been discredited in the scientific community, reactions both to Nancy Lanza and to my blog post show that mother-blame is alive and well in the noisy realm of popular opinion. Slate’s Hanna Rosin joined forces with blogger Sarah Kendzior in an all-too-common attack on mothers who talk about their children’s mental illness: “In this era, when we worry about whether we need to keep a closer eye on the dangerous and mentally ill, ‘Michael’ is not the one in that family we should be monitoring.”
I have nothing against Hanna Rosin — she is a smart and intelligent writer. But I would like to take her out for coffee and attempt to educate her about what it’s like to live my life. In her response to my blog, Rosin extols the virtues of parents who keep their mentally ill children’s identities anonymous out of concern for their children’s futures, suggesting that my “tragic cadences” expose me as just another narcissistic mommy in the middle of a bad divorce who wants to call attention to myself. I would argue that it is precisely this demand for anonymity that continues to isolate parents and children in their communities. I couldn’t even tell my close friends about my son’s violent rages.
Is this the newest incarnation of the Mommy Wars — mothers whose children have mental disorders vs. mothers whose children are “normal?” With one in five children suffering from a debilitating mental disorder, and with autism rates dramatically on the rise, this question is a legitimate one, and the war’s first skirmishes are being fought every day on playgrounds and in elementary school classrooms across America.
Why are mothers the loudest critics of other mothers? Our culture, obsessed with books like Facebook COO and uberwoman Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Slate.com writer Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, might provide some answers. In his book on stigma and mental illness, sociologist and historian Gerhard Falk observes that “because deinstitutionalization places the burden of care on the family, this is really a feminist issue since in our culture women are the prime caregivers for ill people who remain at home…. Generally, outsiders, including professionals, let it be known that the family is responsible for the mental illness of the patient and that parents in particular are responsible for the condition of their children.”
I now have another word for Rosin’s cherished privacy: stigma. Why is a mother who speaks out about her child with mental illness any different from a mother who speaks out about her child with cancer? Should we not celebrate recoveries and mourn losses for children with mental illness in the same way that we do for children affected with physical disease?
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.