Why the self-sacrificing mother stereotype sucks

When C.L. Hanson posted about Ice Age, it generated a lot of discussion about how a mother sacrificing herself for her child could be a negative stereotype. I decided the whole topic was worth a post, since there are several ways.

Context and exclusion. While one individual depiction of a self-sacrificing mother might be good in and of itself, several dozen of them a year without balance from other types of mother depictions makes you feel like someone’s trying to tell you something. For example, where are the moms who kill for their kids? …aside from Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and Dolores Claiborne? They’re few and far between, especially in kids’ films. You might argue that it would be disturbing for a kids’ movie to feature Mom killing in defense of her young, but that just begs the question why isn’t it disturbing to see mom die in defense of her young?

And where are the moms who cleverly rescue their kids from danger instead of dying for them? Sorry, ladies – that’s the father’s role. Daddies rescue the kids; mommies just die for them. Which is such a bullshit stereotype I can’t even imagine where it comes from. Tons of mothers are nothing short of heroic in their kids’ lives, and tons of fathers make sacrifices for their kids. The stereotype is insulting both to heroic moms and self-sacrificing dads. If we saw more balance, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue.

The martyr mother. But there’s another chilling aspect to the self-sacrificing mom stereotype, and that’s how many real life abusive mothers hide behind it, how many people refuse to hear anything said against them, and how many kids suffer and even become abusers themselves because that’s how we’ve coded our society. These mothers are all the time mentioning all the many things they’ve given up for their kids – or if they’re really clever, getting you to notice yourself (so you think it’s your own observation).

Sometimes they have a whole myth going: how they could’ve been a ballerina or an astronaut if they hadn’t fallen in love/gotten pregnant/whatever, how they nearly died giving birth to the precious child or had to be on bed rest for 16 of the 9 months of pregnancy, how they had to give up a promotion, etc. And while all the fools are sitting around thinking, “Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she saintly? Why, she’s Self-Sacrificing Mom!” these mothers are either controlling, neglecting or taking their frustrations out upon their children to the point where it impacts the child’s well-being. The situation is dysfunctional as hell, but neither the average person nor the average social worker will grasp that, because we’re all so programmed to think women who sacrifice must be ever such lovely people.

I’ve known a number of people – including several abusive men – who had mothers like this and even in adulthood continue to think their mothers are saints. I’m not saying that killing these fiction stereotypes would end the abuse cycle – but if you don’t even realize you have something to recover from and can’t figure out why you have these conflicting love/hate feelings toward your seemingly self-sacrificing mom or publicly heroic dad, it does tend to inhibit your chances of recovering.


  1. says

    I’ve never seen Psycho (I’m well aware of how much I can’t handle certain kinds of horror films), but what elements of it have hit me via general cultural awareness make me wonder how much it exploits exactly this paradigm.

    In a general sense, as well, though, it’s negative to portray this one method of feminine perfection, because it creates an impossible standard for women to live up to. It’s the Virgin Mary idealization all over again, so that we can slight everyone who isn’t going to make it up onto that pedestal. A dysfunctional mother who has internalized this will do everything she can to draw attention to her pedestal, regardless of who is holding that pedestal up.

    I’ll stop now, because I think I’m overlapping with my own linked post, and I also think I’m dealing with too many intersecting trains of thought.

  2. says

    It’s hard not to branch out into a lot of overlapping topics with this stereotype. And I didn’t even get into the points you made about how having a mom who’s lost her identity is not good for kids, etc.

    In a general sense, as well, though, it’s negative to portray this one method of feminine perfection, because it creates an impossible standard for women to live up to. It’s the Virgin Mary idealization all over again, so that we can slight everyone who isn’t going to make it up onto that pedestal.

    Yes, and what’s really fun about setting impossible standards for people who aren’t you is that if they do seem to meet those standards, a close look usually reveals that they’re a big nasty faker, and then you get to expose them and point and laugh (and wonder why it doesn’t make you feel any better about your shitty self, and go look for another victim).

  3. Hayclearing says

    A lot of people in the Ice Age thread were arguing that using the sacrificing mother thing made her a strong and admirable character. That really doesn’t work for me, because whenever I see a character do this, I always- ALWAYS – wonder if they’re actually doing it because they feel strongly about the situation, or because they have been culturally brainwashed into thinking it’s required of them. And, thinking about it, I realize I subconsciously lean to the latter.

    It occurs to me that the way a well done movie could avoid getting this reaction from me is to previously set up the mother as a strong person who is willing, if she sees no other way, to die for her kids – which movies will sometimes do quite successfully.

    In other words, having the mother sacrifice herself as a shortcut to characterization? Fails. So badly.

  4. says

    Last year at the LA Times Festival of books, Berkeley Breathed was on one of the panels talking about his new book Mars Needs Moms. (spoilers below, as if anyone cares about a 32 page picture book being spoiled)

    Apparently, he’d already gotten some flack for using this trope in his book, so the topic came up.

    He argued that, firstly, children’s books today are too sanitized and everyone’s just shocked that he had a mom die because everyone’s worried about the little kiddies. To which I’m all “huh? Haven’t read a whole lot of kid’s lit, have you?” (And later, after having read the book – “Dude, she doesn’t even actually die. wtf.”)

    Oh, wait, that was second. Firstly he all but called such reviewers feminazi’s.

    Lastly he talked about how the story came from his heart and his own realization, upon becoming a parent, on how much parents are willing to sacrifice for their kids. To which I actually got up to ask “Then why the hell wasn’t the sacrificing parent in the book the dad?” (only without the “hell”) Unfortunately, questions were cut off before I could.

    (He also made some disparaging comments about “kids books that are actually meant for adults” which I found funny, because it seemed pretty clear to me, from the story, to the gender of the parents, to the timing of it’s release, that this was very much a book written for dads to buy for kids to give to their moms on mothers day.)

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Kid’s books too sanitized? I wouldn’t know – I grew up on Bloom County. Which was really hysterical, but had no almost no female characters – the only ones it did have being someone’s love interest or Mom.

    Sounds like he just wrote what he felt like writing (which is fine) but, upon learning he’d invoked an annoying trope, went to the wall defending it when maybe he should’ve just said, “Oh, really? I wasn’t thinking of any of that when I wrote it.” Better to admit ignorance than get defensive.

  6. says

    I was thinking of this the other day as I considered the number of copies of “The Giving Tree” that I received when I had a baby. I got three of them, and I think that someone gave another copy to M. when he was a toddler. Thanks… but into the trash they go. Worst book ever. I’ll be fucked if I turn myself into a goddamned stump… 😉

  7. says

    Badgerbag, I actually had to look up that book, and found this on Amazon.com:

    To say that this particular apple tree is a “giving tree” is an understatement. In Shel Silverstein’s popular tale of few words and simple line drawings, a tree starts out as a leafy playground, shade provider, and apple bearer for a rambunctious little boy. Making the boy happy makes the tree happy, but with time it becomes more challenging for the generous tree to meet his needs. When he asks for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches for lumber. When the boy is old, too old and sad to play in the tree, he asks the tree for a boat. She suggests that he cut her down to a stump so he can craft a boat out of her trunk. He unthinkingly does it. At this point in the story, the double-page spread shows a pathetic solitary stump, poignantly cut down to the heart the boy once carved into the tree as a child that said “M.E. + T.” “And then the tree was happy… but not really.” When there’s nothing left of her, the boy returns again as an old man, needing a quiet place to sit and rest. The stump offers up her services, and he sits on it. “And the tree was happy.” While the message of this book is unclear (Take and take and take? Give and give and give? Complete self-sacrifice is good? Complete self-sacrifice is infinitely sad?), Silverstein has perhaps deliberately left the book open to interpretation. (All ages) –Karin Snelson

    Indeed. I’m going with the message that maybe if men weren’t so freakin’ privileged that they just took took took from women like society trains them to do (and trains us to give), they’d find we have a lot to offer without sacrificing ourselves to them.

    Of course, it’s hard to infer that message if you’re a woman receiving the book. Pretty obvious they’re going with the sacrifice thing. Jesus Christ, what a repulsive message.

  8. says

    Well, I don’t know what Silverstein intended, but I’m fairly certain that the popularity of The Giving Tree has to do more to do with helping kids deal with loss and fear than with adults explicitly seeing the tree as a sacrificing mother figure.

    Preschoolers tend to not worry about big and realistic things, like parents getting hurt, etc, instead they constantly transfer than onto fear of bugs, insisting that certain books/movies that they’ve never read are way too scary for them, and stuff like that. So the most loved picture books are often ones that deal with loss and fear in slightly abstract way. Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are are two really good examples of this.

    In addition, we don’t really learn to analyze picture books the way we do novels, and most people don’t remember earlier than 4 or 5. This means that most people who come into the bookstore looking for shower/new baby gifts tend to ask for the picture book they remember loving best when they were seven. Which tends to be something really sappy like I Love You Forever or, yup, The Giving Tree. (Which is also why, unless they were picking out a new/unusual board book, I’d always counsel those customers to ask for a gift receipt.)

    Not that the tree being female doesn’t make it extra squicky, all things considered. I just think it would be as popular if the tree wasn’t female. (Although, now I’m noting that the other three books I’ve mentioned also feature mother figures and children – two of which are explicitly boys.) And yeah, it’s the insane popularity of books like this that had me going “wtf?” when Breathed made that comment about kid’s books always having happy endings.

  9. says

    I read a great book some years ago – a historical murder mystery The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr some years ago. While some of the characters are stereotypical, the main “villian” is female. The main characters struggle with the societal prohibition that very concept that a woman could murder her own child. In that turn of the century society, mothers were naturally self-sacrificing and never abusive or disturbed. In the end, it was a mother who abducted a child and murdered her own children – despite the people who doubted it.

    I thought it was an interesting concept that we still are working through today. That a mother, just like anyone else, is still capable of murder – and doesn’t automatically bond or love her child.

    It’s true that this brings up a host of topics.

    I agree that the self-sacrificing stereotype does a disservice to women, moms and parents everywhere. It does a disservice for the very real sacrifices that some parents make each day. And I agree with Hayclearing’s take on it – it can be done well (although I haven’t seen Ice Age, yet – so I can’t say).

    To respond to Mickle, I don’t understand how Goodnight Moon brings up fear and loss. It seems pretty straightforward to me, a child says goodnight to everything in their room. As far as I could tell, everything will be there when they wake up in the morning.

  10. says

    As far as I could tell, everything will be there when they wake up in the morning.

    But a toddler is still learning that this is true. To a toddler, what he or she can see is what is. Predicting outcomes is still a relatively new skill, and they are still struggling with realizing that things happen when they can’t see them. So, it’s not so much that they fear the items will disappear overnight, but that they do disappear when one closes ones eyes and falls asleep.

    A day is also a very long time for a toddler. Plus, American babies/toddlers are rarely left alone in rooms by themselves, for obvious reasons, and yet they are often left alone in a dark room every night. (Usually caged in, at that.) So to them, saying goodnight often feels like having to say goodbye and it can be a bit scary at times – dark or no dark.

    The repetition and the cataloguing of the items in the room helps to ally those fears. The almost ceremonial manner in which it is done – and the fact that the act of reading Goodnight Moon every night at bedtime becomes a ritual itself for many toddlers – also helps to create a sense of order and permanency in a world that is actually constantly filled with new and strange things when seen through the eyes of a toddler.

    On the surface it’s a book about falling asleep. It’s really the reasons why a child would want to read a book about falling asleep and the way in which the book deals with falling asleep that shows that it’s also a story about dealing with loss (not getting to keep playing, saying goodbye) and fear (bright turns to dark, the world disappears).

    And there, you just got the most important thing I learned in the $1,500 library science class I took last year – but for free! :)

  11. shujaat ahmed says

    yes. mothering is already a frustrating job and to perfectionize and idealize it is to ask for trouble. we are playing with the lives of our children by placing all the burden on the mother alone. can’t both husband and wife take on the household and like kinda share the workload of childrearing. agreed that the cliche “mothers make men” rings partially true but many many twitching psychos are also products of overprotective, overrepressive mothers. ask me. i was one of them. and it took years of psychotherapy, journalling, prayer and a loving understanding wife to get rid of the demons.

  12. says

    many many twitching psychos are also products of overprotective, overrepressive mothers.

    And of manipulative, frustrated (and damaged) mothers rear their sons to be the sort of narcissists they themselves (the mothers) long to be. These sons can end up so damaged they literally are not treatable by any amount of therapy, drugs, prayer or anything else.

    Of course, this doesn’t render the fathers in these instances unaccountable. Sometimes what we fail to do is as damaging as what we do.

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