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.