On Balance

Published on September 13th, 2018 | by Gina Frangello


The Common Denominator: An Inventory on the State of Motherhood in America

In March, 2011, on a pleasantly cool afternoon in Virginia, a thirty-three-year-old mother of two, Kim Brooks, left her four-year-old son playing on an iPad in her parents’ alarm-equipped car while she ran inside a Target. Brooks, in her ground-breaking book Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, writes of the mother she was that morning: “I had ample love, endless good intentions, and absolutely no confidence in my own authority,” either in terms of standing up to her son’s desire to remain in the car and draw effective lines with him, or in terms of trusting her own judgment. Every option available to her as a mother tended to make her anxious, even as mothering wholly dominated her identity and her time, to the point that her own mother said of her, “She worries about the kids…She obsesses over them. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, social therapy. If they had any more therapy, they’d be in an institution.”

Emerging from Target, however, Brooks assessed that all was well. She and her family flew home to Chicago later that day. It wasn’t until they landed that they discovered that another woman in the Target parking lot had filmed Brooks’ son alone and called the police, leading to Brooks facing charges in Virginia for child endangerment, and the incident eating up some two years of her life.

Brooks is an educated white woman, married to an educated white man, and in possession of enough funds to secure competent legal representation. As such, she was eventually able to shake these charges and serve a token probation without ever losing her children, which—she discovered once she began interviewing other mothers to whom such things have happened—disturbingly makes her story somewhat exceptional. Stir the details of her case just slightly—make Brooks African-American, for example—and it is far more likely her children could have ended up in foster care. And though Small Animals was written before our current situation at the border, one now can’t help but imagine stirring the details just that much more again by making Brooks an undocumented immigrant—in which case, you can even remove the part where her children have been left unattended at all for them to end up taken away, this time put not in foster care but in a cage.

Mothers are the gods that can become demons in the blink of an eye. In her New York Times op-ed, Heather Havrilesky asserts that, “Motherhood is no longer viewed simply as a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated—or perhaps demoted—to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.” If this is accurate—which is seems to be in the collective consciousness of many white, affluent arbiters of culture and public policy—then it is easy to immediately realize that any woman who cannot economically afford to make motherhood the absolute center of her existence, often precisely because she is working several jobs to support her children, will automatically be a failure according to contemporary standards. And while to be a “good mother” is often thought of as the highest compliment that can be paid a woman, to be a “bad mother” is to be beyond compassion, beyond redemption. There is little a father can do (short of sexual abuse), including full-scale child abandonment, that can horrify people en masse as wholly and tidily as a woman who makes any mistake that results in her children being “unsafe”…even if, as was the case with Brooks, no harm actually befell the child in question.

That mothers are blamed for everything is hardly revelatory (see psychoanalysis). In privileged milieus in particular, if a child doesn’t get in to the right preschool, doesn’t have the lead in the play, doesn’t make the travel sports team, doesn’t graduate from Harvard, and doesn’t end up a brain surgeon earning in the high six figures, it’s assumed the mother did something wrong. However, the more disenfranchised the mother in question, the more dangerous mother-blaming can become. Extreme examples of mother-blaming among the most vulnerable can range from blaming immigrant women for their children’s ICE imprisonment (they shouldn’t have brought them across the border illegally if they didn’t want them to…end up in cages or dead?), to blaming mothers if their eleven-year-old daughters are gang raped by a group of adult men.

What is more revelatory is a thing Small Animals illustrates but never comes flat out and says: that judgments against mothers differ wildly in their origin depending on class and race, and that the difference, essentially, boils down to who is doing the blaming. Brooks’ experience in being dually terrified of the judgment of her privileged female peers while also being persecuted by the law bridges a gap that is usually left unexplored: that the culture of shame and fear for blue collar and poor mothers usually comes most terrifyingly from the outside—from the media, politicians, social services, teachers, and in general the policy-and-culture-making white, moneyed “establishment”—while the culture of shame and fear for upper middle class and affluent white mothers may actually be driven primarily by the judgments of other women in their circles.

To be clear: I am not saying that women of color or less affluent women do not also judge each other’s mothering. In a world where all women are trained to view one another harshly, that would sadly be a misrepresentation of the many divergent and non-homogenous communities beyond the niches of privileged white women. What is meaningful, however, is that while poor mothers of color may have little power to stop the wider culture from demonizing them and leaving them with impossible choices, all women do arguably have some power to stop demonizing each other and redirect the “mommy wars” in more constructive ways. Writes Brooks in a recent New York Times op-ed:


…critics insist that it’s not mothers they hate; it’s just that kind of mother, the one who, because of affluence or poverty, education or ignorance, ambition or unemployment, allows her own needs to compromise (or appear to compromise) the needs of her child. We’re contemptuous of “lazy” poor mothers. We’re contemptuous of “distracted” working mothers. We’re contemptuous of “selfish” rich mothers. We’re contemptuous of mothers who have no choice but to work, but also of mothers who don’t need to work and still fail to fulfill an impossible ideal of selfless motherhood. You don’t have to look very hard to see the common denominator.


The common denominator Brooks is speaking of, of course, is misogyny. The one thing uniting the experience of motherhood is that a mother is an individual who identifies as female. And if, as the writer Kristi Coulter posits, “there is no acceptable way to be a woman,” then motherhood ratchets up the number of things for which a woman can be criticized, and the stakes of her inevitable failures.

The critical “we” Brooks speaks of, however, is harder to pin down, because it shifts depending on the mother being demonized. In some cases, the “we” is a legal system that favors those with money for private attorneys and is stacked with institutional racism. In other cases, the “we” seems to refer to women eating their own.

In a misogynistic world, the ultimate coup of the patriarchy is convincing women to perpetuate the system ourselves. This is accomplished at the most primal level by rendering motherhood a shell game, economically and socially. To parent the way Brooks and Havrilesky describe, it is virtually impossible for a woman to also have much of a life outside of Motherhood. For some women, this may be wholly fulfilling, at least for a limited period of time, but many others may find the current mothering zeitgeist all but eradicates their own personhood. .

“Being a mother,” Brooks writes, “was a lot like being a manager or a CEO of a small company.” Not surprisingly, many of the women who have given rise to this brand of motherhood-as-lifestyle are women who are qualified to be CEOs or other high level professionals, but have given up their careers to vigilantly Mother 24-7, feeling inadequate if an hour goes by in which their children are not benefiting from enrichment opportunities. It isn’t uncommon—speaking from experience—to hear graduate-school-educated women saying things like, “My life isn’t particularly satisfying right now, but it’s okay because it’s on hold for the children.” This self-enforced stasis can last decades while several children are raised. And while an “unsatisfying” life of economic and racial privilege is hardly on par with the tragedy of children incarcerated at the border, it is quite a parlor trick of patriarchy to convince the women with the most potential opportunities to lead fulfilling lives to purposely sabotage themselves in pursuit of a martyred brand of motherhood that even their own mothers—like Brooks’—would have found preposterous.

How, exactly, has motherhood been rendered harder than it was in an era before feminism? Well…maybe for starters by enlisting mothers in the propaganda that motherhood has to be grueling and relentlessly difficult or you aren’t doing it right. Writes Brooks, “How had we managed to take this thing—raising a child—that’s next to impossible, and make it even fucking harder?” Having raised three kids myself—the past three years as a divorced mother working more than full-time and at times under treatment for breast cancer or having a hip replacement—it is certainly not my argument that mothering isn’t demanding. (For those whose children have serious illnesses, disabilities or special needs, parenting hypervigilantly may also not always be anything resembling a choice.) But how, exactly, can a thing that the human race has been doing literally since its inception, and on which the survival of our species is entirely dependent, be generally “next to impossible” unless we are the ones making it so? By parenting our culture’s privileged children in a relentlessly high maintenance, preposterously expensive way, and denying our own needs, women seek to avoid being judged and shamed, and that in and of itself is not any individual woman’s “fault”—to make it so would be blaming the victim of, essentially, all of human history. Yet parenting ever more aggressively hardly seems the best way to break the cycle. Out-mothering one another as a means of self-validation is, after all, more or less the same thinking Freud posited when he stated that only through having a male child could a woman finally conquer penis envy and attain her “own” phallus, attaining a sense of self-worth.

Um…the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Our attention as a culture to parenting “as a verb,” Brooks writes, is at an unprecedented high. Prior to the 1950s there wasn’t even much of a concept of the “teenager” as a distinct population—few products were marketed to children, and fewer still books or products were aimed at ensuring that their mothers raised them perfectly. The past half-century has seen a rise in the view of children as precious hothouse flowers that would have been unthinkable to previous generations.

I mean, this is the colloquial wisdom, right? That children are precious—the most important among us? That maybe mothers bear the brunt of a lot of finger-pointing, but it’s all for “the good of the children.” From politicians kissing babies to anti-choice activists who insist that every fetus is a person, the prevailing cultural view seems to assert that children are purer, more valuable than either their parents or their future adult-selves. From this vantage point, if a few moms (or a few hundred thousand moms) end up getting skewered in the process of “protecting the children,” then so be it. After all, what if Brooks’ son had somehow come to peril in that car? Better one thousand women have to defend their choices to the police than one child end up abducted in some psychopath’s basement. As a mom myself, I wouldn’t disagree with that logic.

The paradox, however, is that children are, according to Free Range Kids, a movement Brooks discusses extensively in Small Animals, safer than they have ever been. On the Free Range Kids website, stats boldly proclaim that kids are safer now than they have been since gas cost 29 cents a gallon and there was no color TV. What’s more, the children most likely to be victims of violence are infrequently included in the cultural froth about child-safety. It doesn’t take much—from the underage African-American boys routinely killed by police brutality to the some 60,000 children who have gone missing from foster care—to scratch beneath the surface of all the “save the children” hysteria and find that the children most feared for and those most harmed overlap in a Venn Diagram only by age.

What does it mean that we are living in a world where, in some cultural milieus, mothers are accused of abuse if their children ingest a single drop of formula instead of breast milk, while other children in the same nation can be caged, abused, and even killed with impunity? No different than in politics and business, the culture of parenting works overtime to preserve the status quo of those in power. Code words such as “opportunities” are used to justify racism and classism, such as when affluent white parents send their children to private schools rather than support diverse local public schools. After all, who can argue with the rhetoric of wanting to give your children opportunities? While few people (though arguably many more since the 2016 Election) will say flat out that they don’t want their white children in school with children of color, phrases like, “It’s a great school—there are so many families just like us” denote a kind of tribal mentality that aims at perpetuating segregation in unspoken ways. Such parents may not be aware of their racism—may even think of themselves as progressive—but their terror of their children being a part of any team than the winning team is grounded in structural racism. Theoretically, many parents may be all for the elevation of poorer schools and the success of children of color. As long as it doesn’t cost their children.

Rene Denfeld, author of the bestseller The Child Finder and a veteran foster parent whose children are Black, calls out the system for pretending to prioritize children when what it really prioritizes is the perpetuation of racial and class power. Says Denfeld (a white woman), “Black women get criticized for having kids. White women get criticized for not having kids. The value of privileged white women in our society is contingent on reproducing their own kind. When I decided to adopt from foster care, I heard never-ending warnings from my white friends. I was often told how I was making a mistake, how I would regret not having “kids of my own.” I actually lost a lot of friends. By choosing to foster, I demoted my own value.”

While Denfeld is of course reporting her subjective experience as one individual, I encountered many similar views when my ex-husband and I decided in our early thirties to adopt twins from China rather than pursue fertility treatments. Notably, neither Denfeld nor I are talking about fostering or adopting children of color as  demoting our  values as potential “fertile mates” to men—we are referring to our status among other white women. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising considering that, for centuries, women have allowed ourselves to believe that a certain power over the domestic sphere, most commonly manifested in the production and rearing of biological children, translates into actual power and equality. Because while American women do not earn as much on the dollar as men, helm companies anywhere near as often as men, or have anything resembling equal representation in public office, mothers are often—even usually—the ones in charge of making decisions about their children’s educations and extracurricular activities, as well as their children’s peer groups. So as the thinking goes, it’s not racism, much less misogyny fueling a certain self-selection among children and dehumanization of mothers generation after generation—of course not! It’s: You want to be a good mom, don’t you? Because if you’re not…you’re nothing.

While Kim Brooks was harassed for two years of her life for the crime of leaving an unattended white male child in an expensive, alarm-wired car in a safe neighborhood for ten minutes, by contrast many children of color cannot seem to get anyone to intervene for their welfare even when they spend years begging the allegedly concerned adults of the United States to do exactly that. A disturbing recent media example of this is the murder-suicide committed by the Jennifer and Sarah Hart against their six adopted children; according to the Washington Post, allegations of abuse began to hound the couple in Minnesota months before the adoption of sibling-group Devonte, Jeremiah, and Ciera was even finalized, yet the adoption plowed through. Ironically, set off against the Brooks case, these three siblings were originally removed from the stable and loving home of their aunt, who sought permanent custody of them, when she was called in to work unexpectedly and had to leave the children at the last minute with their biological mother. While their mother had a history of substance abuse and neglect, their Aunt Celestine was trying to avoid precisely what Brooks stood accused of—leaving the children alone—and didn’t realize she had broken any rule grave enough to cost her not only temporary custody, but to actually result in the nightmare of her family being wholescale adopted by a pair of white women in another state—women who would later starve, beat, and ultimately murder them while neighbors turned blind eyes.

“To me, the Hart case demonstrates it is never really about the children,” says Denfeld. “Children in our country are accessories, identity-objects, and sources for profit. I think it’s a mistake to assume that the pressure on white women to be perfect parents is anything about children. We live in a society that treats all children as objects, and finds it entertaining to shame others. We get our jollies out of passing judgment. Think about how much energy and activism could be harnessed if women were encouraged to spend the time fretting over being the perfect mom on making social change instead. It’s a way in which women are discouraged from being activists and artists.”

Not only does Brooks—whose Small Animals is rich with similar conundrums about her conflicting identities as mother and writer—concur, but so does writer Claire Dederer. In “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” published in the Paris Review, Dederer writes, “Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question…Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.” Dederer goes on to cite Jenny Offill’s spare and brilliant novel, Dept. of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

Let me be perfectly clear: Art monsters are not going to save the lives of any of the children still likely to die at the hands of ICE, or find any of the lost, trafficked or murdered children who have disappeared from the foster care system. Art monstery, per se, may just be another concern of the hyper-privileged—a thing one thinks about not at all when attempting to escape a dictatorship or feed a starving family. But the systematic eradication of the self, among women who are also mothers, is a problem across all cross-sections of society, and only in certain more privileged segments do mothers theoretically, possibly, hopefully, possess enough cultural currency and agency to interrogate this issue fully and stop playing along by reducing one another to their biological and mothering functions. It also, as usual, may fall upon women to be the ones to challenge men in their views of what a mother is supposed to look like. In some of the best dialogue of Small Animals, Brooks’ husband comes up on her while she is alone in their kitchen, not doing the dishes or wiping up the crumbs but instead staring out the window. “Didn’t you hear me calling?” he says to Brooks, and asks, “What are you doing?” Her response: “Thinking. I was thinking.” And his: “Can you do that later? After the children are in bed?”

No. No, dude, she can’t. Look, here is the book that proves it.

By the time this essay is published, more children may have died in ICE custody. Unquestionably, more foster children will have disappeared inside the cracks of a broken system. Women across the country—some African-American like Aunt Celestina, some white like Kim Brooks—will have come under criminal investigation for a parenting mistake that does not entail abuse or malicious intent, and will fear losing the most important person in their world—may even, as Brooks did, fear imprisonment. Yet the family court system remains enabling of violent men, such as in the recent murder-suicide of Kayden Mancuso by her father, a man with a history of violence so severe that he had bitten off someone’s ear and pushed his pregnant then-wife off a stool, but was still granted overnight parenting time by a judge in a prolonged custody battle. Younger women and women of color remain the most vulnerable across all categories. Even though murder rates are down from several decades ago, and even amidst a #metoo culture that no longer mandates utter silence on the part of rape and harassment survivors, statistics indicate that it is still overwhelmingly difficult to exist while female.

Meanwhile somewhere, in some Mommy-and-me group, one woman feels ashamed of for working—another mother feels shamed for staying at home. If no individual woman can halt centuries of misogyny and violence against women and children, and only sweeping cultural change across all genders over generations can eradicate widespread violence against women and children, one thing every woman can attempt is to step off the shame treadmill when it comes to other mothers. (For starters, perhaps if you are in a parking lot where a child is unattended, and you have the time to stand around filming this on your phone, instead go spend that time talking to the child and his mother, to see what the situation is and if you can help?) As long as there is no right way to be a woman, there will be no right way to be a mother. As long as we disparage well-off white women who don’t want children as selfish, and poor women of color who do want children as “welfare queens;” as long as we vilify working women who employ nannies yet never question a man’s right to work, and as long as we live in a world where many immigrant women in the United States have such poor work opportunities that they are caring for white people’s children for minimum wage while sending money home to their own kids in another country, the referendum on Motherhood in America comes back as Currently Fucked.

“I was radicalized by motherhood,” wrote Adrienne Rich, decades ago. Remembering this line, Brooks notes, “It had seemed a counterintuitive notion when I read it in college. I associated radicalism with youth. Motherhood happened from a place of safety and caution. Now, rereading, it made perfect sense.”

Feature Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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About the Author

Gina Frangello is the author of Blow Your House Down, Every Kind of WantingA Life in MenSlut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews, and journalism have been published in PloughsharesThe Boston GlobeChicago TribuneHuffPostFenceFive ChaptersPrairie SchoonerChicago Reader, and many other publications. She lives with her family in the Chicago area.

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