The definition of mother has changed a lot over time, especially since the birth of the nation-state, and America is no exception. Throughout history, literature and film have provided us with representations of motherhood and maternal ideals that reflect the social realities of the time and place. The book “Motherhood and Representation: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Material American Melodrama” takes a look at some of the ways in which literature and film have presented society’s changing notions of motherhood and maternal ideals.
Nineteenth Century Motherhood
In Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women“, set during the civil war, Mrs. March is portrayed as the quintessential lady of the time period. She doesn’t have a career of her own, but she is not a lady of leisure. She spends most of her time outside the home doing charitable work such as tending to those less fortunate and helping with the war effort. Mrs. March is very religious, a perfect housekeeper, and a role model of maternal ideals who always has patience with her four daughters, safeguarding them while allowing them enough freedom to grow. Tireless and unfailingly kind, she represents more of an ideal than a real person, yet her character provides insight into how motherhood was defined in the nineteenth century. Those who deviated from these maternal ideals, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, were portrayed as committing social, and sometimes physical, suicide.
Kate Chopin, author of “The Awakening“ a novel still taught in universities today, was herself a mother on the forefront of the women’s rights movement. In addition to her novels, she also wrote feminist essays and kept a journal about parenting, which provided enormous insight into what motherhood was like in the late 19th century. She wrote about the sacrifices she made to care for her five sons as well as her ailing mother. She was one of the first women to say publicly that motherhood and maternal ideals should include providing children with a role model of women’s true capabilities.
Maternal Ideals in the Twentieth Century
The twentieth century ushered in the suffrage movement, with women winning the right to vote in Tennessee in 1920. That was partially thanks to Pheobe Burns, the influential mother of Harry Burns, the young member of the state legislature tasked with voting on the issue. With the vote, the voice of motherhood became stronger.
In the 1950s play “A Raisin in the Sun“, by Lorraine Hansbury, a widowed mother living with her family in a small apartment, receives an insurance check from the death of her husband. She decides to buy a house in a middle-class white neighborhood and resists efforts of residents to bribe them to stay away. Her strong convictions and courage convince her family to take the house and live according to their principles rather than in fear. This was one of the first modern literary and dramatic representations of a mother and different maternal ideals, this time represented as strong decision-maker and social activist.
By the time the two-income household was commonplace, mothers were expected to play as big a part in society and the world as they did in their homes. Simultaneously, divorce rates were sky-rocketing and single-parent homes becoming more common. One of the best portrayals of ideal motherhood and maternal ideals during this time period was the 1998 film “The Parent Trap”. While the story follows two twin girls, the mother is young, beautiful, divorced, and financially successful. Other movies with motherhood as the theme began to focus more on the strengths of women.
Motherhood in the Twenty-First Century
Modern movies tend to portray a much more realistic definition of mother. The 2012 novel-turned-movie “The Fault in Our Stars“ provides a great example of modern motherhood. The main character, Hazel Lancaster, is diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13. Her mother sets aside her career to be her caregiver and teacher. She encourages Hazel to follow her dreams and never lets her act like a victim even though she has cancer. In the end of the novel, it is revealed that Hazel’s mother has been so moved by the experience that she begins working towards a master’s degree in counseling in order to help other families with similar struggles.
However, modern society, through the widespread media coverage of celebrity moms like Kim Kardashian, still puts a great deal of pressure on women to remain sex sirens despite childbirth and 2 a.m feedings. Celebrity moms like Melissa Joan Hart, former star of Sabrina the Teenage witch, who write about the difficult realities of working parenthood receive far less media attention.
Is today’s definition of mother a self-sacrificing lady, a professional role model or a superwoman? The answer seems to be yes. Rather than one view being replaced by another, it seems that more aspects are being added. Perhaps, over time, dramatic representations of mothers and maternal ideals will more truly reflect the complexity, and diversity, of actual mothers.