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.