That old therapist trope, “Tell me about your mother,” always seems to imply, “Tell me about how your mother messed you up.”
From the overly smothering mother to the cold and rejecting schizophrenogenic mother who gave mixed messages, mothers have often been given a bad rap by the mental health field. In a 1985 scientific inquiry into this matter, Caplan and Hall-McCorquodale published an article, “Mother-Blaming in Major Clinical Journals.” The authors examined 125 psychiatric and psychological journals from 1970 to 1982 that dealt with the causes of mental health problems. In those articles, mothers were blamed for 72 different types of psychological conditions in their children, ranging from depression to marijuana use to hyperactivity to homosexuality, and even an “inability to deal with color blindness.”
In this investigation, fathers escaped blame much more than mothers: they were viewed as much less pathological and were often deemed to have healthier relationships with their children. Even absent or uninvolved fathers were judged to have less of a negative impact on children than absent mothers, in which 24% of absent fathers were seen as having no negative impact, as opposed to only 2% of absent mothers. Of note, the research also found that male and female scholars were equally as likely to be perpetrators of condemning mothers.
Luckily, years later when I was in graduate school for psychology, many of these 20th–century mother-blaming theories were taught as mere artifacts of history, and contemporary psychological theories had left these ideas in the dust. The focus on the development of mental health problems had shifted to the interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. The impact of parenting is included in these environmental factors, but the focus is not specifically on mothers per se.
Nonetheless, as I was in my training, I made notes to my future self, whom I assumed would one day be a mother: “Don’t be too overprotective, it can lead to fears and the belief that the world is a dangerous place,” and “Be careful what kind of behaviors I’m modeling to my kids, and don’t show excessive concern with healthy eating and dieting, it could lead to eating disorders,” and also, “Make sure to always validate my children’s emotional experiences, so they can learn healthy ways to cope with their emotions.” OK, I’ve got this all covered, I’d tell myself, thinking I was fully armed to be the mother of a psychologically healthy child.
After my training, I worked for several years as a psychologist in student counseling at a large public university. During those years, students’ experiences with mothers ran the whole gamut. Some had close and supportive mothers, whereas others had well-intentioned mothers whose foibles contributed to psychological distress in their offspring. Others had mothers who had committed inexcusable, egregious transgressions. I will not forget some of the worst, like the client with anorexia whose mother forced her to weigh herself every morning, starting in 5th grade, or the student who was sexually abused by her stepfather, only to find out that her mother knew about it and seemingly did nothing.
While working in college counseling, I infrequently saw a student who was a parent, and thus, for the most part, I saw things from the young adult child’s perspective. In hindsight I think I did this to a fault at times, getting fully into the students’ experiences without pulling the lens back to examine the motivations and perspectives of their parents.
I first had this realization during a case conference meeting, in which challenging and/or high-risk cases were discussed with senior members of the staff. I came to the meeting to discuss next steps for a very distressed student with complicated family problems. I was laser focused on the student’s distress and how to help her manage the situation. One of my colleagues, a mother of two and grandmother of three, had a different perspective. “That poor mother,” she said. The comment stopped me in my tracks, as I hadn’t even thought to see things from the mother’s perspective. I hadn’t even considered what it would have been like for this mother to have a child with multiple mental health problems and chronic suicidal thoughts. I hadn’t thought about the stress of it all on her, and how difficult it must have been to deal with an ex-husband who was on a completely different page than her about how to best address their child’s difficulties.
And then, after two and a half years of uncertainty and multiple fertility treatments, I finally became a mother myself. The relief of finally getting pregnant provided a brief respite from thinking about what was to come. Once my son was born, the overwhelming enormity of the responsibility hit me all at once and I realized that my life was forever changed.
At times during my maternity leave I reflected on how it was easier to help anxious and depressed therapy clients than stay home with a newborn. One day when my son was crying inconsolably, in trying to comfort him, I said to him, “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” As the words escaped my mouth, I was mortified that only a couple of months into my son’s life I had betrayed my promise to myself to always validate my child’s emotions.
As more years passed into my motherhood, struggling with my own parenting challenges and talking to my friends and therapy clients about theirs, my perspectives on psychological development have matured and become more sophisticated. Through lived experiences, I now have had the privilege of seeing things from the other perspective. To state the obvious, it’s hard being a parent, especially a mother.
In heterosexual parenting relationships, studies have shown that mothers carry much more of the “emotional load” or “mental labor” of parenting. Even when the mother works full-time, she manages many aspects of the household that go beyond household chores. Often it is the mothers who are responsible for RSVP’ing to birthday parties and getting presents, arranging playdates, deciding what is for dinner on any given night, and scheduling their children’s doctors’ appointments. When a child has a disability or is in need of additional services, that burden also tends to fall on the mother. School room parent rosters are almost always composed of mothers, as are the memberships of PTAs and parent organizations. This is true even though 76.8% of mothers of children ages 6 to 17 are employed, and 80.3% of those are in full-time jobs, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
For single mothers, the burden is even more challenging, as when there is a single-parent raising a child, it is far more often a mother. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, 81% of all single parent households are led by single mothers. Moreover, single-parent mothers are almost twice as likely to be living in poverty, as compared to single parent fathers.
And then came Covid-19. With the burden of remote learning falling more heavily on mothers, the pandemic has only added further stress on the backs of America’s mothers. Sixty-nine percent of mothers (as compared with 51% of fathers) have reported that they have experienced adverse health effects due to stress from the pandemic. The New York Times devoted an entire series, The Primal Scream, to the effects of the pandemic on working mothers.
All of these factors taken together, it’s actually no wonder mothers are often the subjects of blame: they are often more present in a child’s life and often much more burdened and stressed out. How could this not have a negative effect on their children? As an example, a friend of mine is the child of a single mother. Her mother worked tirelessly to support her and did everything she could to live in a safe neighborhood and send her to good schools. Her father, a “deadbeat dad,” was often nowhere to be seen, out of her life for years at a time. However, she sees the bulk of her issues as stemming from her relationship with her mother.
One thing I realized is that most mothers are doing the best that they can. However, sometimes they need to be doing a better job and sometimes they don’t have the support to do so. In the past few years, in my therapy sessions with my clients, I have found myself having a more well-rounded and nuanced understanding of a person’s parents and early caregivers, often the mothers. Now, in gathering clients’ histories, when they talk about a negative impact caused by their mother, I ask them to “tell me more about your mother.” Rather than disparaging her, I really do want to know more about their mother and her struggles. Oftentimes opening the door for empathy and acceptance can yield more room for growth than blame.