I first tackled this subject in my post Dreams From Our Mothers. In Dreams I expressed frustration because of the unique position Obama is in to elevate disempowered women—namely mothers of biracial children—to a position of value and recognition in this society. Anyone with close biracial relatives knows what I’m talking about. America has seen a change taking place because those whoring white women went out and mated with black men. A quiet revolution has taken place right in America’s living rooms as one prejudiced heart after another fell to the allure of infancy and kinship.
Fantastic. Now how about a little credit for that, huh? How about a little recognition for just what was accomplished here? How about we have a discussion about what it cost these women? Do you think this revolution was free?
But that wasn’t my real complaint. What really pisses me off most about that book is that it is a case study in latent misogyny. Here’s what I said then in More on Dreams:
The very idea that a person should feel grief for an absent father and little to no appreciation for the present mother is an expression of latent misogyny. The person experiencing the grief may or may not be to blame, because we are told a lot of lies from very early on about the nature of parents, we set those values in stone very young, and they are difficult to correct. The correct emotion to feel in the event of having a father who doesn’t give a damn is to feel anger at the father and gratitude towards the mother, if she is a good care-giver. But that doesn’t often happen, especially with males. If you tell someone this, they may come to accept that and internalize it, but because the culture is so busy protecting male privilege and projecting male fantasies, that truth rarely occurs to individuals on their own.
This is a problem much bigger than Obama, though his book is an example and a springboard for the discussion about the topic of our unreasonable, ungrateful, and downright selfish expectations of mothers and our reverence for fathers, regardless of their performance. This dynamic is best understood by recognizing these two patterns:
- In the absence of a father, the most common emotional response is grief and longing.
- In the absence of a mother, the most common emotional response is anger and resentment.
This double standard is not that difficult to figure out. Any single mother alive today can tell you what I’m talking about. Hell, as the child of an eventual single parent, I can tell you it was my own experience. My father beat the crap out of me in particular (middle child) almost every day he was present in my life. By the time my mother left him I had spent my evenings praying for his death or their divorce for years. But I still pined for him when he was gone. And I resented my own mother. How stupid is that?
But what can we do about it? It’s not like Obama, I, or any other oblivious actor in that scenario is even aware they’re doing it. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. I had to be put in that situation myself to be able to see it. I was convinced I was entitled to the perfect mother, even as I quickly forgave an abhorrent father. There is something to this idea of cultural narratives, but the narratives associated with both who and how we should be as mothers, and what we should expect from parents as children are too numerous to even consider. I guess we’re going to have to change ourselves.
Years ago, when my daughter was just a toddler, a good friend of mine who then (and now) lived in Germany came stateside and we got a chance to visit. We had a conversation one day as we were walking along the Ohio River that has haunted me ever since. He was studying psychology at the University of Freiberg, and he shared some thoughts he had been developing regarding the rise in single motherhood in the States, and actually globally. I was young, newly radicalized, and the conversation appeared to me at the time to be a personal judgment of my ability to make valid decisions, and so we argued for some time while I grappled with what he was saying.
What he said (paraphrasing) was that the rise in single teenage motherhood was a response to girls looking for respect and authority. Girls these days, he said, look to see who in their culture is respected and who has authority, and the cultural narratives tell them that motherhood is it. Every other avenue for women comes with a peculiar judgment—i.e. whore, castrating—and/or zero authority—i.e. undesirable, old. What these girls didn’t know was that all the narratives we tell about mothers are a lie. They don’t often get respect, nor do they have much authority. We tell those narratives not to imbue that position with respect and authority, but to give women an impossible standard to live up to: Absolute perfection.
The older I get, the more I understand his points. That’s what we have to fight, I suppose—those lies we tell ourselves, and the ones we pass to our daughters.
I don’t have many principles I live by. I’m not religious in the least, and I’m now nonpartisan, so the framework that guides me is one I have to make up as I go along. There are a few things I’m certain of; among them is that no one is perfect, and that telling the truth is the most authentic way to live and the most effective way to affect positive change. That’s what we’ve got to start doing. We need to be telling the truth of our experience to each other, and especially to our children. To this day my mother’s youth is shrouded in mystery. It’s a relic we only take out when I ask. She holds her past close, I think because she thinks people don’t or won’t care. I understand where she is coming from, the limits of her personality and generation, and I love her in her imperfection. But I will do it different.