I was recently looking through some tweets and Facebook status updates trending #MothersDay and #FathersDay, and I’m sickened by the cultural constructions of mothers as self-sacrificing cows and of fathers as hard-working heroes. I am revolted by all the praise and emphasis on parental unselfishness disproportionately based on gender. While one individual portrayal of sacrificing mothers might be alright, several dozen of them a year without balance from other types of mother depictions makes you feel like someone’s trying really hard to tell you something.
Mother’s Day tweets, reinforcing the notion of mothers as sacrificial cows
Father’s Day tweets, reinforcing the notion of fathers as Superman
Where are the stay-at-home moms who look after their children because they want to, not because having children suddenly triggers some switch inside them that makes self-interest fly out of the window? Where are the moms who leave their children in day-care while they go to work? Sorry, ladies – that’s the father’s role. When it comes to mothers, we’ve got the whole celebration going: mommies who could’ve been doctors or engineers if they hadn’t been married off/fallen in love/gotten pregnant/whatever, mommies who nearly died giving birth to the precious child or had to be on bed rest for 16 of the 9 months of pregnancy, and mommies who had to give up their jobs. All the while, we’re awe-struck by this creature, thinking, “Isn’t she wonderful? Isn’t she saintly? Why, she’s Self-Sacrificing Mom!”
Look at how we are constructing a whole compelling narrative around her. First, we are planting the seed of a thought that once she becomes a mother, her child’s life is more important than her own. Following that, any personal goals that she has must be encouraged to be given up so she can focus on grooming her children to achieve their own personal goals.
Did you notice what we just did there? We viewed her value as purely contingent upon her children’s value. We’re making her internalize this sexism, leading her to believe that she can only find value through her children. And naturally, as any human on the quest of finding value for oneself, she is thrown into self-sacrifice mode. This is called the Martyr Complex – the feeling of being a martyr for one’s own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.
Why does it surprise us to think that she is a human, wanting things for herself in spite of being a mother – fulfilment of her personal dreams independent from her children’s dreams, or simply an intangible sense of personal worth? Being constantly told that one’s value as a person is inherently tied up in sacrifice means that sacrifice becomes the only way to have any kind of value at all. So now the only way she can actually come close to achieving her dreams is through her children. In some situations, that leads to unhealthy mother-child relationships where mothers place heavy demands upon their children to fulfil all that they sacrificed in order to raise them. This is so common around us – our mothers are constantly pushing us to take up engineering and other traditional professions that were prevalent since their childhood. Moreover, it leads a mother to think of these as perfectly valid demands, because she herself begins seeing her children as externalized extensions of her own desires that she had to give up.
Then of course there’s Bollywood. Those of you who follow my writing would have come to notice my frequent references to Bollywood; it never disappoints when there’s some bullshit stereotype to be furthered. With few exceptions, Bollywood pretty much has one kind of a mother – noble, self-sacrificing, pampering her sons with gajar ka halwa, and persecuting her daughters-in-law. She is constructed only through the gaze of others – her husband, sons, in-laws, and neighbours, and is usually silent about her own desires.
Mother India’s theme song states –
Duniya mein hum aaye hain to jeena hi padega, (We have come into this world, we will have to live)
Jeevan hai agar zahar to peena hi padega, (Life is poison, we have to drink it)
Aurat hai who aurat jise duniya ki sharam hai, (A woman is one who is shy about the world)
Sansaar mein bas laaj hi nari ka dharma hai!(In this universe, only shame is a woman’s culture)
What a whole load of crap! To top it off, there is literally a dramatic Jesus-like crucification of her on a cross of what seems like Indian Virtue to depict her sacrifices.
Then in Deewar, we have the famous scene re-enforcing notions of a mother as a possession whose value is determined merely by her children.
“Aaj mere paas paisa hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai, naukar hai, bank balance hai, aur tumhare paas kya hai?” (Today I have money, a bungalow, a car, a servant, and a bank balance. What do you have?)
“Mere paas Maa hai!” (I have a mother!)
Her choices and freedoms are limited because of the dependence of her children, and she can leave one son’s house only to go to the other’s home.
My mother wasn’t, and continues to not be, a sacrificial lamb. I had a nanny who looked after me when my mother went to work every day. That is not saying that she did not make sacrifices for me. It is only to say that I love her for reasons that go beyond what she did for me; I love my mother because of who she is – the state-topper in MBA during her time, a marketing guru, and an amazing cook. And I’d like to think I turned out just fine despite her limited presence around me during my childhood. So yea, my mother pretty much kicks ass at being a hero, and when I grow up, I want to be more like her – strong, independent, and cognizant of my own personal dreams. And admitting that doesn’t make me some kind of an evil, baby-eating feminist. And it shouldn’t make you one too.