What does it mean to be a mother?

Stepping out this morning to return an overdue library book (The Daring Book for Girls, natch) it was cold and windy, winter having arrived in coastal Virginia just last night. As I walked up Main Street to the public library the neighborhood church bells began to chime in memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. I counted twenty-six chimes, which is remarkable because twenty-seven people were murdered one week ago today.

Of course the person symbolically omitted from this sonic commemoration is Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, who has become persona non grata, not only for having given birth to a mass murderer but for taking him to target practice. For some this seems like an egregious and unforgivable mistake, perhaps more so among people who did not grow up around guns. But as activists rally around the cause of gun control the gender politics of masculinity and parenting are just bellow the surface.

Across the Internet people took to blogs and comment boards to declare Nancy Lanza an unfit mother, to reflect on the difficulties of parenting a child with mental illness, and to criticize others for their opinions and rhetoric. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what a proper mother is and they are not shy about voicing their opinions about what other people are supposed to be doing to meet those standards of mothering.

In a Washington Post report from Newtown, CT, one local resident was quoted, “I am feeling that there is more anger toward the mother than there is toward the son.”

As a non-mother, I was somewhat surprised by this. Perhaps those of you out there who are mothers are already familiar with the power of this discourse to enforce conformity. Like all members of the order Primates, humans are obsessively interested in the reproductive behavior of others in our communities especially when, where, and how mothering takes place.

In the United States children are supposed to be given priority over anything else in a mother’s life. This attitude colors everything about the current abortion debate, for example, which is really a debate about what it means to be a mother. Mothers are often held to unobtainable Victorian feminine ideals of complete selflessness and unconditional love such that for a woman to pursue her own interests, say, is to open up the worth of her parenting to the judgement of others. Men and fathers are not surveilled in this way.

Tragically Adam Lanza had access to his mother’s guns and she, along with twenty-six others, died from his rampage. It appears she has not survived public judgement on the worth of her parenting either. However, I have yet to see any pundit weigh in on the relative merits or shortcomings of Adam Lanza’s father. Our society is much more interested in monitoring the parenting behavior of females than males.

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

4 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a mother?

  1. I think I agree with a lot of that, but I don’t think you can have a discussion about the role of motherhood and parenting in this without talking about Liza Long’s blog post. Also, notably, the critical response that dug through her blog and found a lot of unsettling stuff was written by Sarah Kendzior—the same Sarah Kendzior who wrote about adjunct professorships and the AAA over the summer.

    There’s a lot about this entire affair that makes me really uncomfortable, from Liza Long’s descriptions of her son to the genuinely dangerous way mental illness has been brought into this debate to the weird blog fight that never was (I love how even this ends in the antipolitics of charity). I’d just be a bit cautious about reducing this to just a simple policing of motherhood.

  2. As a mother, one feels this constantly. People usually assume that medical information, comments on clothing choices, injuries, etc should be directed first to the mother. This becomes internalized, so that as a mother one is thinking about how people will react to things about your kids in relationship to you. If my husband dresses the kids in intentionally mismatched clothes, I know that reflects on me… not him. (Which is what he thinks is funny about it, of course.)

    In the Newtown case, though, I think the public criticism is also about the combination of mothers with guns. Guns are masculine, and women who use them are breaking the norms. That can be viewed as sexy (women with guns pin-up calendars and action movie heroines) or admirable (there was a Slate article last week about a woman’s experience at gun ranges), but when it comes to mothers they are supposed to put their kids first. In many ways, women and mothers are judged by different standards.

    I think your comment about the abortion debate is insightful. It’s particularly interesting because the one thing most women who have had an abortion have in common is that they were *already* mothers. Yet the debate seems to focus on the idea that abortion is a way for women to avoid *becoming* mothers.

  3. I found Sarah Kendzior’s “critical response” a lot more troubling than the original viral blog post on mental illness.

  4. A very thoughtful post. I also feel it is very sad that Nancy Lanza was “excommunicated” from this memorial. Who are we to judge really? She was surely doing her best to help her son. Everything we know suggests her intentions were only the best and she was trying to help her son. I think it is fair to ask where was his father? What was his father doing to help? Anything? I don’t know.

    On the other hand. We do know she put a gun in his hand. Whatever your beliefs about the unfairness of our deep cultural baggage attached to motherhood. Whatever your beliefs about our rights as Americans to own firearms. She put the means in his hands.

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