Social Change of the Mother Role

Mothers vs. Feminism: Social Change of the Mother Role

“We think back through our mothers if we are women.”
Virginia Woolf

Feminism has made progress on numerous critical issues in women’s lives — but not all.  Social Change of the Mother Role was spared. The philosophy of women’s liberation has surprisingly little to say on the topic of motherhood. As a result, mothering has remained a bastion of oppression for most women. Patrice DiQuinzio in The Impossibility of Mothering asks questions like,

Is liberated mothering possible? Does motherhood have to limit women’s options and divide their interests?

She says no and believes we have to think a little differently if we want to start moving in the right direction. She believes we are stuck and have not envisioned a social change of the mother role yet. The book considers how people like Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Nancy Choderow and Adrienne Rich struggle with this dilemma of difference in analyzing mothering, encompassing the paradoxes concerning gender and representation they represent and considering social change of the mother role.

Feminism and Mothering: A Conflict of Interest

Mothering can be a major source of oppression in women education and working lives. Despite the fundamental importance of mothering for virtually all societies and individuals, mothering work remains undervalued and unpaid.

Women overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of childrearing labor and are judged harshly for their failures as mothers, even when those failures are the result of malfunctioning social structures. In today’s male-dominated cultures, mothering tends to limit the material independence of women, and often entails harsh psychological regimes that control rather than empower women as mothers.

From reading many of Western feminism’s star thinkers, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Adrienne Rich, we might think, Does all this mean motherhood is bad for women? Is it “impossible” from a feminist standpoint? Modern feminism, DiQuinzio says, has biased itself against mothering and women’s work in the domestic sphere, preferring to define liberation as progress in women education and the labor market.

But this individualist approach leaves mothers out in the cold. As a result, little or no feminist progress has been made with respect to mothering. Compared to women education as workers, women as mothers continue to be held back by centuries-old sexist norms, laws and behaviors that make their lives more difficult. This uneven progress against sexism has left working mothers with more work and less freedom, as they try to balance career and domestic responsibilities without compensatory resources.

A Politics of Mothering: Social Change of the Mother Role

Mothering isn’t going away any time soon,

says DiQuinzio.

It’s time to develop women education so as to make progress in this key area of female experience. Is there a way to embrace mothering without reinforcing patriarchal ideas about how women are born to be society’s happily unpaid child-rearers? Can feminism theorize the liberation of mothers?

If so, DiQuinzio says,

the path forward must deviate from Western feminism’s obsession with individualist success and its pathological fear of exploring the ways in which women differ from men, especially as mothers.

Feminists have rightly condemned puritanical gender ideologies that define women as little more than their ability to make and raise babies – the ideology of “essential motherhood.” But should feminism deny all forms of sex-based difference? Doing so risks trammeling over highly gendered experiences like mothering, DiQuinzio argues. Instead, feminist theory should unashamedly take up the unique differences that drive some women to become and identify as mothers.

Women Education and the Liberated Mother

Western feminists have so far failed to come up with an effective politics of mothering and have not defined social change of the mother role. Instead, they have wrestled with motherhood as a problem that needs to be solved. But when we look at real women’s experiences, it looks like motherhood is not the problem – it is the social overdetermination of mothering.

Women are not going to stop being mothers any time soon, and it’s not clear that the end of mothering is a feminist goal worth pursuing. But how we define mothers and their work, the circumstances of childbirth and mothering, girls’ and women education, and the support available to moms for the resolution of their distinctive problems can and should be questioned as a matter of feminist strategy.

This is DiQuinzio’s thesis.

Mothering is a feminist issue. It is time for women, mothers, and feminists alike to challenge not only the patriarchal ideology of essential motherhood, but also the individualism that obstructs justice in this critical arena of women’s lives.

Social Change of the Mother Role
Hamlet and His Mother, Eugène Delacroix, 1841. Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 13,2015  |


Nurturing reactions to a child: from past to present

According to psychologists, the parent and child relationship has evolved dramatically over time. Lloyd Demause claims,

“The further back in history one goes, the lower level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused”

Basic three mothering or nurturing reactions

Children have generally provoked three responses from adults throughout history: projective, reversal, and empathetic reactions. Mothering or Nurturing has gone from protecting the parent from the evils of the child to protecting the child and preparing him for modern life. It is important for modern mothers to understand how viewing childhood over several generations has drastically changed the way in which we parent. While you are up five times during the night with your 4-month old you may wonder how mothers have coped with this over time.

Projective Reaction

In the past when responding to a child’s demands an adult would project themselves and their own unconscious onto the child. Instead of identifying the baby as its own separate being mothers would see their children as a part of them. Because of this the children were essentially an extension of their parents which needed to be controlled.

This type of reaction makes guilt impossible when disciplining the children because the parents see it as punishing themselves. When the child was beaten the parent was actually beating himself and felt no guilt at controlling this evil. This thought process made child abuse and beatings common even for trivial offenses. Children and especially infants were believed to be very susceptible to turning totally evil and were often tied up, swaddled, and scared into behaving appropriately. Some churches even insisted,

“that if a baby merely cried it was committing a sin,”

This type of parenting causes a limited sense of responsibility for caring for the children and a complete lack of empathy which often leads to such abuses or abandoned. There is no nurturing mother here. Projection mothering also leads to a lack of guilt when the children are involved in an accident. Injuries suffered by the children were seen as injuries or punishment for something the parent did wrong. Without any guilt there was no need to take action to prevent future accidents and children were often left home alone.

Reversal Reaction

The reversal reaction occurs when the parents view the children as existing in order to satisfy the adult’s needs. In other words the adult and child roles are reversed and the child is expected to provide the parent with love, nourishment, and protection. The nurturing is reversed. According to the International Child and Youth Care Network this reversal reaction often involves the adult using the child as a substitute for an adult figure from the parent’s past.

This type of mothering or nurturing often results in child abuse when the child is unable to fulfill this parental role expectation. Children of the past were commonly expected to meet financial, sexual, or emotional needs of the parents making child labor and sexual abuse much more frequent. It was common in the Middle Ages and Roman times for children to wait on their parents at meal times and live the life of a servant and literally be nurturing the parents.

Empathetic Reaction

The evolution of mothering has brought us to the final reaction, an empathetic one. Without projections this reaction occurs when the adult is able to correctly identify the child’s need by regressing to the level of the child. The complete focus is turned onto the child rather than an adult-centered reaction like projection and reversal.

There are two main points about this reaction which differ from the previous two. The first factor is that adults began to believe that children possessed souls. This in turn meant that the children were considered individual beings with individual needs. Physically controlling and beating children turned into being involved in the child’s upbringing and training the child. The modern mother experiences extreme empathetic and nurturing reactions and today’s view on parenting explains that the child knows their needs better than the parent. Parent and child work together to ensure all the needs are fulfilled. The parent has become the child’s servant and the parent is nurturing the child.

It can make you feel inadequate at mothering assuming that during the past people held children and babies in the same high regard that we do today and managed to pull off significantly more chores. The real truth is that mothers were able to get so many other things done because they felt little responsibility for caring for their children and mostly left them to play alone.

It is important for us modern mothers to give ourselves a break and remind ourselves that our children are growing up in a time period where they are getting their needs satisfied and receiving the best care that we can give them. Relax…

Baby’s Back, Mary Cassatt, 1890, Credit Line H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 30,2015  |

inclusive education

How Caroll Gilligan re-defined care ethics and inclusive education

‘In A Different Voice’: Gender and Children’s Moral Development

In the 1980s, professional psychology was at a crossroads. Facing an active women’s movement and growing criticism of its male-dominated theories of personality and development, the discipline was ripe for change. To that end, psychologist Carol Gilligan published In A Different Voice in 1982. It was the first of many scholarly works by Gilligan that would tackle difficult issues of childhood development, girls education, inclusive education and moral integrity.

The book rapidly took the world by storm, becoming a bestseller within weeks of its release, and had a tremendous impact on our thoughts today. Especially on inclusive education. What drove the success of In A Different Voice was its open defiance of psychology’s stubborn male bias and Gilligan’s confident portrayal of the merits of inclusive education and of a more feminine approach to boys and girls education in morality.

Western psychologists have long assumed the male mode of morality is the correct one. In this book, Gilligan invites us to reconsider the merits of a traditionally feminine relational ethics — a morality of mutual care, rooted in interpersonal responsibility.

Psychology hasn’t been the same since. And I must admit this book and her concept of ‘care’ influenced my thoughts more than others.

Care ethics and inclusive education

Inspired by Carol Gilligan’s work on care ethics,  ethics shifted  away from relations between citizens to close relationships with emotional bonds, like friends, lovers, mothers and children.
With emotional relations, people respond to each other as unique individuals, not as general human beings. Here people will be  more vulnerable to indifference, unkindness and abandonment.
And, personal relationships are not always reciprocal. There may be temporarily or long term dependency on one of them. In those contexts, then, moral reciprocity is not reducible to equal respect or equal contribution.

Sex Differences in Moral Development

Research consistently shows that girls and women tend to make moral judgments differently from boys and men. The empirical differences can generally be observed in children by the time they’re old enough to attend school.

For girls, morality happens in relationships. Girls tend to see moral issues as arising and resolving within a network of interdependent social relations. Moral conflicts are taken as crises of responsibility and failures of communication. From the female perspective, conflict resolution is understood to hinge on the building-up and renewal of critical ties. The best solution serves both oneself and the greater good.

In contrast, boys are more likely to explore the philosophical basis of moral judgments. They seek to weigh the relative importance of competing elements in an abstract hierarchy of value. The element with the greatest value ‘wins.’

For boys, morality is a calculus of individualism, natural rights, and adjudicated fairness. Universal laws govern across situations. The masculine stable state contrasts with a feminized morality distinguished by its willingness to bend the rules to accommodate a solution that pleases everyone, no matter how innovative. While boys may believe one can always deduce the ‘right’ answer, girls may contend there is no single answer that is always correct.

One can also see emerge the true value of inclusive education.

Harvard’s ‘Little Book That Started a Revolution’

Gilligan does not challenge the existence of the observed sex differences in moral development. Rather, she takes issue with their interpretation. Women’s emphasis on relationships has been cast as a developmental liability – but why?

Relational morality, feminine by association, has been dismissed as inferior, she writes, because it deviates from the terms of male moral thought. But mere difference does not imply disability. It’s not clear that rejection of interpersonal responsibility is constructive for either boys or girls education.

In fact, Gilligan proposes, the undervalued female perspective may be just what we need to make better moral decisions.

Gilligan is not trying to say that only women are in tune with relationships, or that the ethics of responsibility will save us all. Nor does she believe the ethics of care is the opposite of the ethics of justice. She argues, rather, that development is incomplete without the sense of mutual responsibility, in both sexes. A worldview that hails separation and autonomy while neglecting relationships is jaundiced for what it lacks. The importance and value of inclusive education and an inclusive world for that matter can again not be better underlined.

Lessons for Moms: Girls Education and Teaching Interdependence

For mothers, Gilligan’s lessons are profound and practical. In A Different Voice expands our idea of healthy moral development to include proactive affirmation of one’s responsibility for others’ happiness and well-being.

This is not to say it is wrong to teach individualism in girls education. Your daughter is distinct from her peers, and she will hopefully grow into an understanding of self that honors her personal boundaries and unique identity. But it’s just as true that her self is interdependent with others, knowable through the intricacies of relationship and dialogue.

In the end, humans are social beings – responsive and relational at our core. For Gilligan, it makes sense to encourage this style of thinking in girls education. For boys too, we can instill a balanced ethics, inclusive of humanist interconnection. We can show our kids that they are deeply linked to their community, and their success need not come at others’ expense.

Ethics + Gender: Food For Thought

Don’t worry if little Johnny cries when he gets in a spat with his best buddy, or tiny Sally is determined to become a hard-hitting lawyer steeped in justice morality. Gilligan’s book comes with an important caveat: your mileage may vary. Either moral approach may spontaneously develop in either sex, in any configuration. And that’s okay.

In A Different Voice does not propose a dogma of gendered morality or for inclusive education or approach. Instead, it shows us how addressing gender inequality leads to a stronger vision of ethical development in boys and girls education.

Together, masculine and feminine ethics can be the building blocks of a complete moral system. Synthesized within a child’s moral universe, the combination of rights and responsibilities makes a powerful tool for grappling with some of life’s toughest realities.

inclusive education
Mother’s Kiss, Mary Cassatt, 1890–91, Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 22,2015  |

parenting style

Schreber’s Parenting Style Was About Unconditional Obedience and Harsh Discipline

“You will be master of the child forever. From then on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child,”

said Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, about mastering the crying baby through frightening it.

Parenting style

Schreber was not a madman who took pleasure in torturing babies. He was a world famous German pedagogue and child psychiatrist wrote many childcare books promoting his parenting style between 1850 and 1860. He was a physician, later a university teacher at the University of Leipzig and director of the Leipzig‘s sanatorium and was seen as a child psychiatrist. He was read widely in France, England, and America and his parenting style was very famous. He really became a rare authority on childcare in Germany which went through forty reprints of his books from 1858 till 1950’s. His success in giving advice on parenting style was unmatched for several decades, and it still has some ripple effect today.

The manuals on education and his parenting style explained in a step-by-step method how to create obedient children from day one, through a systematic approach close to torture. The method had to be applied with the newborn baby who should be drilled from the very first day to obey and refrain from crying.

Stroking, cuddling and kissing were forbidden and entire generations of Germans went without direct, loving contact with their parents. Today’s extensive research into attachment theory makes clear the damage done by such parenting style.

Unconditional obedience through harsh discipline

His own words, from his book Education towards Beauty by Natural and Balanced Furtherance of Normal Body Growth written in 1858 are the best ticket into his mind:

“Joined to the feeling of law, a feeling of impossibility of struggling against the law; a child’s obedience, the basic condition for all further education, is thus solidly founded for the time to come… The most generally necessary condition for moral will power and character is the unconditional obedience of the child.” (p. 135)

When the child psychiatrist talked about his parenting style and more particularly the caring for infants under five he uses words like law, control and will power. He was all about harsh discipline and for babies that would start with cold baths and constant discomfort.

“The noble seeds of human nature sprout upwards in their purity almost on their own if the ignoble ones, the weeds, are sought out and destroyed in time. This must be done ruthlessly and vigorously. It is a dangerous error to believe that flaws in a child’s character will disappear by themselves. (…) A child’s misbehaviour will become in the adult a serious fault in character and opens the way to vice and baseness.” (p. 140)

A child could not be the responsibility of a women

There were still many Schreberian children, as they were called, around by the 1920’s when Nazism came around. He was one of the many reasons why fascism was easier in Germany than in other countries. The time for sense and sensibility personified by women was over. In his totalitarian attitude and parenting style one could easily detect sexism.

“To form a protective wall against the unhealthy predominance of the emotional side against that feeble sensitiveness – the disease of our age, which must be recognized as the usual reason for the increasing frequency of depression, mental illness, and suicide.” (p. 281)

The father would be the absolute ruler, an open door to homemade and familiar despotism.

“No wife with common sense and good will want to oppose his decisive voice.”

A child could not be the responsibility of a women:

“If one wants a planned upbringing based on principles to flourish, the father above anyone else must hold the reins of upbringing in his hands…. The main responsibility for the whole result of upbringing always belongs to the father…” (p.32)

Schreber was a self-declared child psychiatrist  but above all a fine business man and along with his books and parenting style came a series of merchandise goodies. One could choose belts to tie children tightly in bed or a head holder with chin clamp to hold a head straight or straight holder to sit up in a chair or shoulder bands to keep the shoulders nicely back. Or you could buy the lot. Schreber opened gymnastics all over Germany and members had Schreber magazines to be kept up to date. That must have given him even a greater authority to speak so confidently on mothering and parenting style.

He was extremely successful and the approval of Freud of the appropriately called Schreber system from this child psychiatrist might have helped also. The fact that his two sons got insane and that one got therapy by Freud himself did not impress people much because by 1958 there were still two million people member of the Schreber association.

parenting style
The Daughters of Catulle Mendès, Auguste Renoir, 1888, Credit Line The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection 1998

April 13,2015  |