Mother Blame: Psychology’s Shame


Mothering is tough, one of the hardest jobs in the world. I had absolutely no idea of just how tough it was until I became one myself. Then I discovered that there is no manual, there’s this horrible thing called mother guilt and our culture doesn’t give us much support (lots of lip service, sure, but minimal support). If only there was a profession that could be helpful to us….wait a minute! As a psychologist myself, I eagerly turned toward my field to get assistance only to find that not only had we not been all that useful but at times we’ve been downright terrible.

Mental health professionals have accused mothers of everything from creating schizophrenia and autism to not protecting their children or protecting their children too much. We’ve often blamed mothers for their children’s problems or for any difficulties the family itself is experiencing (talk about broad shoulders). Treatment usually is on mothering behaviors but rarely on the needs of the mother herself. The field of psychology also has ignored the realities of mothers in theory, research and practice. There is very little theory or research on the process of mothering. Moreover, treatment of issues that affect mothers, like postpartum depression, the “supermom” phenomenon, and high rates of depression in general, is minimal at best. Consequently, psychology has a lot to answer for with respect to the mothers whom we serve.

The research that has been done on mothers has been met with a deafening silence. We know that married women with children are much more likely to suffer from depression than any other group yet we say nothing about the reasons why this is true. We recognize that postpartum depression is, to a large degree, caused by the lack of societal, community and partner support yet we remain quiet about the changes that must be implemented if this disease is to decrease in frequency. We realize that poverty is a huge factor in mental illness and that it is definitely a mother’s issue yet we do not play a large role in policy debates about welfare or other social programs that impact mothers. We are aware that pregnancy is an incredibly dangerous and vulnerable time for women and mothers are disproportionately affected by domestic violence yet there is no huge outcry by psychologists for mothering status to be considered in policy decisions. Why has the field of psychology been so silent about all of these issues? If we do not advocate for mothers, who will?

Mother blame in therapy also exists to a very large degree. Who among us has not seen a family or even just a child in therapy and blamed the parenting skills of the mother? Single mothers in particular come in for much of this censure because we believe there is no one else to blame. However, this type of thinking is fundamentally flawed and is only an example of the deep-seated nature of this prejudice against mothers. Instead of demanding to know why that mother left her child without supervision, we should be investigating the kind of social support and financial resources she has. Instead of faulting the mother’s parenting skills, we should be asking what kind of role models she had for mothering and determining when she last had time to spend on herself.

Good parenting skills do not exist without adequate rest and self-care. Any employer who demanded a full day’s work plus overtime without sufficient breaks would find themselves in court. Yet we expect excellent job performance under incredibly difficult conditions of mothers every single day often without breaks, weekends, holidays or sick leave. When mothers cannot do the impossible, then we fault them for their lack of perfection. When do we start examining ourselves as a society and realize that we are also accountable?

Although the field of psychology has been negligent, even harmful toward mothers, we can start doing better. Given our emphases on development, intrapsychic concerns, family processes and societal effects, we are uniquely positioned to take a leading role in providing the support most mothers so desperately need. So, the question then becomes: how are we to change this mother deficit and stop the mother blaming that is so entrenched in psychology? There are several ways we can do this.

First, we must recruit and engage mothers within our own field. Mothers themselves are often very aware of the challenges that exist for other mothers. Psychologist mothers can raise awareness, incorporate mothering issues in training and respond with compassion to the mothers we see in therapy. Moreover, if the discipline does it correctly, we can serve as role models for how to properly treat mothers.

Second, the field must raise awareness about the challenges mothers face and how these difficulties are affecting the mothers themselves, families and the larger society. Part of this awareness will involve taking a step back from our traditional individualistic focus and look at the larger picture. It is no longer acceptable to only deal with the person, family or group in front of us. Taking a systemic perspective is essential. To paraphrase one of my psychology of mothering students: to ignore the myriad challenges mothers face borders on unethical practice because we are actually doing harm.

Finally, psychologists must take a larger role in public policy and political decisions that affect mothers. Given what we know, we should no longer remain silent but instead start shouting from the rooftops. Mothers deserve no less.

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