David Hockney, Portrait of Mother I, 1985.
If things are not always so at peace with the family matriarch, it is a truth universally acknowledged that you must disguise all evidence of this on Mother’s Day. On the first Sunday of every May, social media blooms with ingratiating Mother’s Day wishes. Vintage photographs sentimentalizing a rosy MILF that we were too young to know. Side-by-side portraits confirming we are indeed the more collagenated offspring of a faded beauty. Mother’s Day reifies old ideas of honor, respect, and memoriam that leave no room for fatal flaws.
It’s understandable why some might not want to lift this gauzy romantic veil. It not only disguises but also protects the truth from callous judgement; I think of Cathy Park Hong, who wrote that her own mother was too precious a topic to cover in her book, Minor Feelings. Instead, let us step back to examine the creation of a normative mother figure, or the type of motherhood that merits praise. What else is there to idealized feminine beauty in heterotopic Christian tradition than to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28)? Can there be more to admire about a woman, other than her ability to complete pale Eve’s duties and remain Virgin Mary?
Even the apparently “perfect” mother demands us to scrutinize her lack; a Stepford wife must be compromised because fantasy is meant to be unachievable. Conversely, it is not encouraged to be a childless woman, or an woman without abundance. A mother lode is the principal vein of an ore or mineral, merely a point of resource extraction. If a barren core, she is discarded, hardly of any value. It is even more taboo, if ever entertained at all, to be a reluctant mother, as Tilda Swinton plays in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). If a mother is measured purely by the societal viability of her children, what happens to the mother of a criminal, or a woman who bears rotten fruit?
It’s quite adult to have Daddy issues, but Mommy issues reduce you to a suckling child. Society seems stuck in the previous century, when Sigmund Freud first proposed that it was natural child psychology for mothers to become alluring objects (Oedipus Complex), and yet rejected the notion that the same could apply to fathers (Sorry, Electra Complex, proposed by Carl Jung!). Freud claimed that psychosis marked a male child’s unsuccessful passage through sexual attraction to his own mother. One thinks of, for example, Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, whose domineering single mother stunted his mental state to the degree that he engages in murderous rampages, clothed in her floral patterned dress and wig. Effeminate and juvenile, Bates signals that one is not born, but rather becomes a mother.
Maternal villains can reveal some of our underlying anxieties about feminine governance: that it is excessive and compulsive, that women are only maniacal agents of patriarchy. This is true of, for example, the many wives in the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and the adoptive mother in Mommie Dearest (1981). Dark mothers with their own sense of independence risk becoming social pariahs: evil stepmothers, witches, widows, and divorceés. Hortense Spillers writes in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” that there is perhaps no figure more egregiously denigrated and misrepresented throughout U.S. law than the black woman, or the black mother. A “matriarchal structure” served as the locus of blame for Daniel Moynihan’s report on poverty in “the Negro community” for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965. Between giving life and facing death, flesh that is property is not given any choice.
Photo from Buzzfeed
There is something troubling about the way we traditionally depict mothers, where even celebration seems to only reinforce that she cannot be embraced in her entirety. She is a wife and caretaker rolled into one. Mothers must remain that perfectly uncracked mirror that proves we turned out okay. If we take into consideration the full picture, including the fault lines that form due to withstanding the pressures of motherhood, would we still recognize her as a familiar face? Or is it more likely that even people we have known our whole lives can suddenly become strangers? Mother’s Day asks for our critical calculation: to see if familial intimacy is strong enough to survive the fall. Perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of motherhood can be a gift in and of itself; in other words, give mom a break from the heavy maintenance of conforming to impossible standards. Mommy wants, mommy needs!