News and Tribune


May 11, 2012

STAWAR: The mother blamers

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, perhaps it’s time to speak up for moms, some of whom have been subject to a rash of public bashings lately. Just last week “Saturday Night Live” mocked New Jersey mother Patricia Krentcil, who was accused of taking her 5-year-old daughter to a tanning salon in violation of state law. Of course, the issue that made this such a media event, was Krentcil’s own shockingly over-tanned appearance.

Moms took another hit in the recent movie, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” in which Tilda Swinton portrays Eva, the mother of Kevin, a teenage mass murderer, who goes on a high school killing rampage. While Eva is portrayed as the chief victim of Kevin’s sadistic cruelty, she is also overtly condemned as a “Monster Maker” by other characters in the film. Such public blaming may have some basis in reality, as six months after the Columbine High School Shootings, polls showed that 85 percent of Americans held the parents responsible for the teenagers’ acts. Eva is more subtly blamed as a mother, however, by the portrayal of her inability to bond with Kevin as an infant and her subsequent guilt.

Finally when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney, who raised five sons, “never worked a day in her life,” she opened a can of worms that is yet to be closed. Even though everyone agrees that raising five boys is extremely hard work, perhaps bringing up five sons wasn’t quite as difficult, as it could have been, if the family fortune wasn’t in excess of $200 million.

To set the record straight, analyzed national salary data and the various kinds of jobs that stay-at-home moms perform in 2012 and estimated that the 94.7 hours a week such moms work, on the average, would cost about $112,962 to outsource to appropriate professionals.

Sociologists Anita Garey from the University of New Hampshire and Terry Arendell from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, say that “mother blaming” is not a new phenomenon.

 In the 1940s and 1950s mothers were blamed for autism, schizophrenia, as well as the psychoneuroses of many American soldiers. Looking for an explanation why so many American men were found to be unfit for combat duty, Americans seized on the work of writer Philip Wylie author of “Generation of Vipers,” which presented a comprehensive mother-blaming explanation for society’s problems. According to Wylie, it was overbearing and over-affectionate mothering that led to “the mealy look of men” back then, as well as most of the country’s other social problems.

Immediate postwar America was also the time of the “Cult of Expertise” as the population became more dependent on science for guidance. Naturally American women looked for an expert to tell them how to best mother, and Dr. Benjamin Spock, with his kind and affectionate book “Baby and Child Care,” was there to oblige. Spock’s prescriptions, as opposed to Wylie’s gender paranoia, represented a sort of mother worship. Mothers were told to follow their instincts, but then gently given a 596 page instructional manual to follow on how to be a perfect mother. Mothers were caught in the middle. Going to work could easily produce an affection-starved juvenile delinquent, while staying at home and smothering the children could result in a generation of soft and sissified youth, putting the whole nation at risk.

 In the 1960s mothers were held responsible for the rebelliousness of youth, protests and the proclivities of teenagers toward sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And an analysis of psychology journals in the 1970s and 1980s found that mothers were blamed for more than 72 distinct childhood problems.

Childhood autism, a major developmental disability, is another case in point for mother blaming. Caring for an autistic child is a daunting enterprise. According to a recent Time magazine article, mothers of autistic children show stress hormone levels comparable to solders in actual combat.

In the late 1940s psychiatrist and childhood autism pioneer, Leo Kanner, called attention to what he believed was a lack of warmth among the fathers and mothers of autistic children, who show serious communication and social deficits.

Uninvolved fathers somehow weaseled their way out of the equation [they were sort of expected to be distant anyway] and the myth of the “refrigerator mother” as a cause of autism was born. It was renowned University of Chicago psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, however, who encouraged widespread acceptance of this theory, with the publication of his book, “The Empty Fortress” in 1967.

The theory was later extended to include schizophrenia, in the work of Yale psychiatrist Theodore Lidz, who authored the influential book, “Schizophrenia and the Family” in 1965. Lidz popularized the pejorative term “schizophrenogenic mother,” which means a mother who produces schizophrenia.

Due to the national emergence of feminism, along with the evolution of advocacy groups that supported the rights of parents, with children who were mentally ill, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI], most of these early theories lost credence in mainstream psychiatry. Psychiatry gradually became more biologically orientated and focused on genetic and biochemical causes of mental illness. Mother blaming, however, is far from over.

 In a brand new study, by Irva Hertz-Picciotto, from the University of California-Davis, mothers who were obese during pregnancy, were shown to be 67 percent more likely to have autistic children, than women who maintained normal weight. We’ve gone from the “refrigerator mothers,” who were too cold and rejecting, to mothers “who overuse the refrigerator.” Blaming overweight mothers instead of frigid ones, seems to just be adding insult to injury.

Nationally the incidences of childhood autism have been increasing and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that one in 88 children in the U.S. has an autistic spectrum disorder. There seems, however, to be little interest in looking any closer at the age of fathers, at time of conception, which has already been implicated in this increase, as once again men seem to get a free ride at mothers’ expense.

Dr. Paula Caplan is an authority on the psychology of women, who is now an associate at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute. She wrote “Don’t Blame Mother” in 1990, and today finds that more than a decade later, we still routinely blame mothers for how their children turn out. She believes that a major problem is that dangerous archetypes pervade our culture, like the myth of the “Perfect Mother” or the “Bad Mother.” She believes that these myths create impossible standards or grossly exaggerate mothers’ imperfections, which only serve to unfairly demonize women.

No one can assert that individual mothers never harm their children, or that all mothering is appropriate [e.g. no 5-year-old requires a professional tan]. According to Garey and Arendell, however, a general indictment of mothers only serves to unfairly place a burden of guilt and anxiety on all these women while distracting society from addressing important social issues, which could help improve the well-being of children. So this Mother’s Day give mothers a break and let’s face it, as a group, they’re much closer to being saints than monster makers.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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