Published on November 28th, 2022 | by Cynthia DiTiberio1
When the Icons of Motherhood Fail You
When I was growing up in the 1980’s, I wasn’t allowed to watch much television. There were no Saturday morning cartoons or “Must See TV” gatherings around our television. If it wasn’t on PBS, my twin sister and I didn’t watch it. For the most part, our TV consumption consisted of LeVar Burton’s “Reading Rainbow,” a quirky science show called “3-2-1 Contact,” the ubiquitous “Sesame Street,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” My father was a professor and my mother a musician; they felt we had better things to do with our brains than mindlessly watch television. Ours was instead a world of books.
My parents sheltered us in different ways, though I didn’t truly recognize it at the time. I listened to “the Oldies” station on my purple boombox and never watched classic movies of my generation like “Pretty in Pink” or “Dirty Dancing” until my twenties. While other girls of the 80’s were reading Judy Blume, her books were banned from our household. There would be no initiation into tweendom via Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. My mother didn’t approve of the coarse language often found within her work.
In addition to watching the show that starred Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as Laura that was a mainstay of many childhoods of the 1970’s-80’s, my sister and I listened attentively as my mother read the entire Little House on the Prairie series aloud. We’d curl up together and imbibe the enthralling story of this family who faced such hardships. My mother was overjoyed to read these stories alongside us as she’d never read them during her own childhood. We’d usually read a chapter a night, and still laugh about the time we went to bed thinking Jack the dog died, only to find out the next night he’d survived and we’d cried all those tears for nothing. After the Little House series, we moved on to The Chronicles of Narnia where parent figures are largely absent, and The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, whose protagonists are orphans. With few other depictions of motherhood presented to me in these early, impressionable years, the image of Ma Ingalls inadvertently became the iconic mother figure for me.
I’m pretty good at being pregnant, but less skilled at dislodging a child from my body. My first labor lasted a full twenty-eight hours. My second included two nights of prodromal labor, but the contractions would stop come morning. On night three, I was exhausted beyond measure, unsure of how much more I could take, and the true labor hadn’t even begun.
Around 3 am, the contractions crescendoed to every three to four minutes, so my husband and I packed up our things to go to the hospital. My mother-in-law had come into town before we realized I was experiencing “false labor,” so she could babysit our two-year-old while my husband and I were gone. She’d been hanging around the house for two days, her presence a constant reminder that I’d failed to predict the timely arrival of my child.
On the television show, Ma’s face often wore an expression of exasperated serenity despite the drudgery of work that awaited her each morning. Though Pa did much of the heavy lifting, Ma was the one who kept everything running: the butter churned, the fire burning through the long night, her little girls’ fears assuaged no matter what sounds emerged from the cold, dark wilderness. If she dares sit down, it is to rock a baby, or to knit. There is no moment when she rests, when she is not bowing to the idol of industriousness.
At labor and delivery, the nurse attached the fetal heart monitor to my belly and then prepared to check my dilation. I collapsed onto the cot so she could determine how far I’d progressed. When she took off her gloves, shook her head and reported “one centimeter,” I looked at my husband with despair. No matter that I’d already suffered through hours of pain, my contractions had been unproductive. I could stay at the hospital and get an epidural, or I’d have to go home and try to accelerate labor on my own.
As we discussed our options, the nurse’s attention redirected to the monitor, concern spreading across her previously placid face. The baby’s heartbeat had dropped during one of my stronger contractions. She had me shift on the table, get on my hands and knees, hoping movement would prompt the baby to get into a different, safer position.
But nothing I did seemed to work.
The Ingalls’ life was far from easy, especially once they ventured out to the vastness of the plains. I imagine Ma while they are traveling, attempting to craft a home out of a covered wagon. Preserving rations. Trying to create a sense of coziness with just the blanket of sky above and the coarse ground below. Coming up with silly games to entertain her girls as day after day they have to simply sit and ride, or walk alongside the oxen. No time to play, we must push on so that we can get “home” before the weather is no longer gracious to us.
With Ma as my example, I learned that much of mothering was keeping others afloat, anticipating their needs, ensuring that everyone else is taken care of.
Before I knew what was happening, the nurse was wheeling me into an operating room, having thrown a pair of scrubs at my husband. She called my OBGYN; the fetal heartbeat had dropped precipitously; they were worried about the baby. I was being prepared for an emergency C-section.
I began to shake as they gave me an epidural and then broke my water so they could use a catheter to attach a heart monitor to the head of the baby in my womb. After the initial thrum of excitement, the baby’s heart rate had stabilized. Maybe everything would be okay. My doctor was on her way and she would make the final decision.
Though we were allowed to read contemporary books such as the Sweet Valley Twins books about identical twins Jessica and Elisabeth Wakefield, and The Babysitters Club series, I was drawn to an old fashioned collection of novels written by Maud Hart Lovelace about Betsy Ray and her best friend Tacy. Perhaps I liked escaping into worlds that looked nothing like my own, where girls were eager to reach milestones like wearing their hair in a pompadour or having their skirts reach the floor.
Meanwhile, my mother continued to read us “the classics,” this time moving on to Little Women and the inimitable mother figure, Marmee. Her husband off at war, Marmee, like Ma, is self-sacrificing and nonplussed in the face of difficult circumstances. She tends to her four daughters, volunteers at the Hospital, and gathers supplies for the soldiers returning from war, all while trying not to fall apart with worry over the safety of her husband. The only morsel of her displeasure we are offered is this snippet: “I am angry nearly every day of my life but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it.”
Repress, ignore, deny; these are the keys to good motherhood.
Even back then, I related more to the rabble-rousing Jo, a girl who wanted to make a name for herself and cast off the old tropes of what it meant to be a woman. Yet ultimately even Jo succumbed to marriage and motherhood, her wily ways tamed and her ambitious pursuits tempered in the quest to become an acceptable woman. Though this was not the outcome Louisa May Alcott wanted for her heroine, she acquiesced to her publishers who wanted a happy ending for their Jo, and what woman could be happy without the trappings of feminine success? A man, a house, a burgeoning family; someone to focus on other than herself.
My husband entered now swathed in blue, taking my ice-cold hand, my body trembling from the trauma and temperature of the operating room. My OBGYN swooped in and examined all the stats. She was not so reactionary, felt that I could wait things out and deliver naturally. I nodded, game for giving it a go. As they rolled me into a delivery room, the catapult from emergency C- section to regular delivery felt disorienting, like I could hardly keep up. It didn’t help that I was now strapped to a gurney, completely immobilized from the waist down. Nothing about this made me feel like I had any agency.
When my mother read us Anne of Green Gables, it became a favorite book and a touchstone that I would turn to throughout my life. I joined The Kindred Spirits Club my school librarian had formed along with my fourth grade teacher. We’d gather after school and talk about the books of L.M. Montgomery.
Anne of Green Gables was the pivotal text. Anne Shirley, an orphan, is sent to the home of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a brother and sister pair who have never married. Marilla is not exactly motherly; Anne, at first, is just her charge. They had wanted a boy to help Matthew in the field as he aged. Anne, in all her femaleness, is a disappointment. Marilla has no time for nonsense, and the world of fantasy that Anne inhabits is difficult for her to understand. Anne, with her whimsical musings and big dreams, is often reprimanded for being selfish. How dare she be so inward focused, on her thoughts, her imaginings? Eventually Marilla softens as she learns to love this little girl, as she discovers there can be a world outside of duty and discipline. But there is also a sense that she is being indulgent in allowing Anne this freedom; that a good, virtuous woman always falls in line.
After another eight hours of labor, it was finally time to push. Pushing was always the part I was good at, my last child having come out after only three sets of contractions. I don’t remember how long it took for this one, but soon she was on my chest, her skin soft as velvet, her body impossibly tiny (a full two pounds smaller than my first). A rush of accomplishment shivered through me as they prodded my abdomen to release the placenta. For a brief moment, I was elated. It was over. She was here. I had done the job asked of me.
While other children sat down to watch “Smurfs,” or “She-Ra,” we watched scenes of a one-room schoolhouse, and little girls in bonnets frolicking in fields. One of the few episodes of “Little House” that remains seared into my memory is the one where Ma scratches her leg in the midst of her daily chores. She barely tends to it; it is just one annoyance and inconvenience in a day full of them. But her negligence has dire consequences. The wound gets infected due to her inability to focus on herself.
I remember this episode above all others because it was scary to see Ma in a position of need. She is completely alone. Pa and the girls have gone camping. She is supposed to meet up with them after baking pies for the church bake sale. As she suffers and writhes in pain, as the fear that she cannot solve this becomes tangible, Ma morphs into someone unrecognizable. Her once shining eyes become wild with need, with the uncomfortable recognition of her vulnerability.
There is something animalistic in Ma’s rage that she has been taken down by this injury. This is not the way it is supposed to be. She is the one who tends. She is the one who caretakes. To have the roles upended makes her rabid.
She reminds me now of a woman in labor.
I was exhausted from three nights of contractions keeping me up. Depleted from the trauma of thinking I was having an emergency c-section. Spent from then pushing a baby out of my body. Emptied of blood after an episiotomy.
And yet less than 24 hours after the birth, I was discharged, and went home.
Our insurance would have paid for a second night in the hospital; in fact, two nights was standard procedure. I seem to remember signing a release saying I wouldn’t hold them liable if there were any unseen complications and I wasn’t at the hospital for them to respond. I must have wanted to stay where someone brought me food if I pushed a button. Where I could pick up a phone and receive more iced pads, more water, more drugs. A place I could remain a patient, be the focus, have a nurse who tended to me.
But I had spent two years in the role of mother, by this time, and thus I knew what that required of me. I put others ahead of myself, a hierarchy that did not serve me, yet felt like what was expected at the same time. I was wrapped up with thoughts of my little girl at home, anxious to have me to herself again. I was considering my husband, who couldn’t want to spend another night in a recliner that barely reclined. I could sense everyone’s eagerness to start our life as a family of four.
So, I acquiesced. Blinded myself to my wounds, like Ma. I fumbled forward, hobbling, broken, uncomfortable with my own vulnerability, and exited that hospital as if everything was under control.
I had learned that motherhood was letting others’ needs subsume you.
But like Ma’s simple injury, when you stop tuning in to what you need, the consequences can be dire. Self-negligence is not a virtue; it is a liability.
The gore of childbirth does not align with the sanitized version of motherhood our society tries to present. Instead, we focus on the glorious post-birth glow, the baby clean and swaddled, nestled in the nook of mother’s arm. We skip over the mother screaming in agony at what she is put through. We ignore the mother panting in frustration, unable to escape her situation.
We pretend that labor is the only time a mother lashes out in rage, but that is not true. Rage is a condition of motherhood. It stems from the self-annihilation that seems required of you. It overflows when you are pushed to your limit – one more meal rejected, another thirty seconds of whining, a stroller that will not collapse. It is a symptom of overwhelm gone too far; desperation with no vehicle for release.
The crux of motherhood is obvious in its origins. Blood, and sweat, and tears, and liquids coursing from the body. Accommodation, over-extension, everything in service to the baby. The mother is the vessel and once the infant emerges from her, she morphs into a machine, as they shove the tiny mouth onto her nipple.
But we never cease being human.
We lived just a three hour drive from where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent the final years of her life and one weekend my family set out to visit the farm in Mansfield, Missouri where she and her daughter, Rose, crafted these books. We roved the old buildings that had been carefully preserved, examining Wilder’s writing desk and letters exchanged between her and her daughter. It was the early 1990’s, and Wilder was considered one of the greatest chroniclers of American history of our time.
Fast-forward to today and the Little House series is no longer celebrated as a simple, heartwarming example of pioneering spirit. Within its pages are depictions that are deeply racist, indicative of the small-minded beliefs of their time. The stories are steeped in white settler culture and don’t feel timeless, but out of touch, the number of outdated opinions too many to explain away.
Yet these stories remain on summer reading lists, part of the canon of classic children’s literature. There is resistance to letting them go, as some still cling to the deeply held American beliefs they celebrate: self-reliance and self-sacrifice, hardship as penance paid to improve the lives of the next generation. But it is clear whose lives are improved; there is a hierarchy of who is allowed to claim ownership of the land, to this country, to the American dream. To continue to read these books without commentary, without annotation, means continuing to accept their faulty assumptions.
As I come to terms with these books today, I also question the depiction of women presented in these “classics.” What kind of harm is inflicted when we witness sexism in children’s literature? How does it affect girls when they see one gender subjugated to the house, to the children, celebrated when silent, when subsumed, when subservient? What do they absorb as the words wash over them?
It would take many years before I could expunge the image of Ma Ingalls, Marmee, and Marilla from my ideas about what it means to be a woman. Before I could identify that I had examples in my own life of mothers putting aside their needs and tirelessly working to keep everyone afloat. That this messaging, this martyrdom, was in the very air that I breathed, the water that I drank; it is the foundation that keeps our society going.
It wasn’t until the particular prison of the pandemic that I realized that my performance of motherhood was no longer working for me. In those dark days of desperation, I began to look back on the ways I’d abandoned myself in motherhood and reassess how I could be both mother and myself. That meant admitting that I enjoyed working outside of the home, and wanted more time to dedicate to my career. It meant not always being available to my children, despite the discomfort that created in all of us. But as I looked at my two daughters, I recognized that even within this discomfort were the seeds of what they would believe they were entitled to if they ever decided to pursue the path of motherhood themselves.
To change the narrative of motherhood means to create new options for the next generation, beyond that of good mother and bad mother, selfless mother and selfish mother. To set aside the assumption of procreation altogether and create more opportunities for fulfillment apart from the glorification of the nuclear family. The characters I encountered in these childhood classics are just a snapshot of hundreds of self-sacrificing women who are paraded before us as icons of femininity. Look at how selfless they are! Notice how much they take on! See how everyone else rests and still, she stands stirring the pot in the kitchen! Isn’t she amazing? Isn’t she a superwoman? Don’t you want to be her, venerated and revered, and yet ignored and annihilated at the same time?
We need more depictions of mothers who are allowed to be human and have lives apart from their children. Mothers who are flawed and fallible and yet still loved; mothers who are ambivalent and yet still present. Mothers who are mothers and also themselves. Mothers who do not have to take on it all.