mother myths

While shopping in Target a few weeks ago, I came across some stickers in the dollar section, and in each pack, one of the stickers bore this quote:
As fellow ACONs, I'm sure you've guessed that I did NOT buy the stickers. I'm not terribly big on mother worship.

This phrase is one of hundreds that our mother-idealizing society plays on repeat, increasing in frequency as we get closer and closer to Mother's Day. To honor your dear mum, you may buy this quote on note cards, on picture frames, on refrigerator magnets, on plaques, on jewelry, on art prints, and on vinyl wall transfers. I even saw a cross stitch sampler pattern. I'm sure it doesn't stop there. The message is strong: your mother should get credit for everything in your life. Everything. Even if you did something yourself, it's because she raised you to be somebody who can do that thing. Have positive personality characteristics? Inherited from or instilled by her. Your children? Also her accomplishment. Did another person positively influence you? Well, only because your mama gave you the social skills to network, or was related to that person, or sent you to the college where you met them. And on and on. 

As an ACON, phrases like this hurt. They erase me and my experience. They perpetuate the myth that mothers all genuinely love their children, that mothers are the ones who are always "there for you," that all mothers are nurturing, that mothers who do harm only do so inadvertently, because they had the best of intentions and were trying as hard as they could, and really, what kind of ungrateful child complains about the (surely trivial) harm done in the past?

Phrases like this disregard the many, many people who are hurting because "all they are" sometimes - or often - feels like crap, due to a childhood - and often an adulthood - filled with abuse. 

Now, I don't think that people who utter this (and I'll include the supposed originator of the quote, President Lincoln himself) really believe this to the core, even if they say they do and think they do. And that's because deep down, we all know it's not true. It's certainly not true for those of us who have had to break away from abusive mothers. Sure, your life bears her marks, some good and many bad, but there's also a hell of a lot that YOU did yourself, and it's absolutely OK to claim it and be proud of it. 

It's not true even for normal, healthy mothers. No matter how supportive, how nurturing, how fantastic a mother a woman might be, she is not her child. And since the child is his or her own person, he or she deserves credit for doing whatever he or she did with the raw materials provided by dear Mama. As for all a person "hope[s] to be" - can you imagine anything more defeatist than saying that you cannot ever be anything other than what your mother made? How awful. Even if Mama was truly an angel, how horrible to have no destiny other than what she provided. In the case of a child born to an emotionally unhealthy mother, what a terrible life sentence for "all I hope to be" to have no actual hope.

This relates to personal accountability, which is a theme often touched on in discussions of dysfunctional mothers. If "all that I am" is due to my mother, than all she is is due to her mother, and so on back through the ages. Nobody, then, is really responsible for her own actions. You know this not to be true. Each of us receives some DNA, some nurture (or neglect), and some programming from our mothers. Many of us may have run on the scripts handed to us for a long time, but if we're able to come out of the auto-pilot of our family programming, we receive something that is entirely ours: autonomy. We get to decide what to do with the DNA and the history. We can make changes to who we are and what we do. We can work to heal our wounds, enrich our lives, and pass a different package on to our own children, for them to use in their own way when they are ready. 

With apologies to Mr. Lincoln, I suggest we throw away his mother-worship for something more true, written by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be." 

All you are, or hope to be, you owe to yourself. 


  1. thanks for this.

    all this mother-worshipping shit everywhere right now is getting me down. ugh.

    thanks so much for the whole amazing post.

  2. You are very welcome. I don't mind if some people think that their mothers are amazing and filled with goodness and light. For them it might be true. But blanket statements about ALL mothers piss me off. "Mothers are the people who are always there for you!!!" enthuse Facebook friends. Honey, speak for your own mother. Mine is a different model entirely. People who idealize all mothers are speaking, most likely, from either a position of denial or a position of privilege.

    This time of year is really hard. I hope your second mother's day since declaring your independence is peaceful and full of love. I have found that it gets easier every year. This year it helps that I've been injured and unable to do much shopping, so I haven't had to see the stores all decked out with tons of Mother's Day paraphernalia.

  3. Since mine was a stalker post NC I surely don't need any reminders she was "always there." She made damn sure I knew. Unfortunately her being anywhere in my vicinity at any time never bode well and I am entirely relieved she's dead. Finally.
    I do feel for my fellow ACoNs who have to suffer through another Hallmark "Holiday," another bogus round of torment in the card aisle. Oxfam has some great cards: There's one that shows a nice, steaming pile of dung on the front that says, "I saw this and thought of you!" You can make a donation towards a eco-friendly stove for a third world family. In view of the reality no matter what card you choose, what gift you buy it won't be "right"/"enough" etc. if you feel you must do "something" please consider a donation to the charity of your choice in their name.
    And YES, YOU count as a "charity of choice." ;)

  4. Hi -

    Just replace the letters "el" with "ry" and poof, the sticker changes ... "angel" replced with "angry." There, much better.

    Or, perhaps place a comma after angel, and poof, it's a message to mother about how all that I am or hope to be "I owe to my angel"... comma, mother.

    ... My NM always said my humor was inappropriate ;-)