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.

Comments 12

  1. Mother blaming is insidious, damaging, and everyone looses. My father was ocd and bipolar and abused my mother. When I was younger, I blamed my mother for putting up with his abuse, and I blamed both of them for being alcoholics. Took me too long- decades – to finally come to see my parents for what they were: frail human beings… as we all are.
    My oldest daughter is ocd and bipolar- and she blames me for not getting her sister and father to understand her better. The dynamics in our family went completely sideways because of the stress of living with her illness and having no outside family support. It was a tremendous struggle. My in-laws blamed me for her illness, as did my family of origin. I was her mother, after all! How ironic that I was and am still the only family member who could see it for what it is: an illness – that runs in the family. What goes around, comes around I guess. I blamed my parents and now I am carrying the blame. Although I did everything I could to break the dysfunctional chain… I was not able to alone.
    Neither of my parents acknowledged that there was anything unhealthy going on in our family… until they were literally near death. When they finally let go of the denial, there was just a calm acceptance, love, and forgiveness on all sides.
    My ex’s family never let go of blaming me. It killed my marriage because he didn’t have my back. At all.
    I wish there was a way to stop the intergenerational trauma and blame games. I’m hopeful my daughters will see what I learned earlier than I did: people who love you never mean to hurt you…but sometimes they can’t help it. Sometimes, treating you like shit is the best they can do. Make no mistake: I am not condoning taking abuse, at all. Definitely, stand up for yourself and if that doesn’t work- then move on.
    What I am saying is, mothers are not the master of all messes. DNA, circumstances, other family members, schoolmates, financial pressures, etc.. have impact too. And, human beings are messy creatures with flaws. We need to stop the blame, shame games. A little compassion for the other person’s struggles along with some personal accountability would help.

  2. I think the only solution is to stop BECOMING mothers. It is not as though humans to care for are hard to come by. It’s the 21st century, and yet girls are still expected to become “mommies” – whatever their other work in life; “grandbabies” are still sought. Best to hold off on reproduction until society gets its act together, although it isn’t as though there aren’t alternatives, like women who want to have children living communally – or some such.

    How many obituaties do you see where the big prize is being to list endless numbers of offspring, grad-offpsinrg, nieces, nephews, blah blah blah blah blah. (And notice how few of them still live in the same state).

  3. I definitely thank you for your post as I live and have always lived with mother blaming. My husband and I became foster and then adoptive parents to our 27 year old daughter. We chose her out of unconditional love for her. Yet, I continue to find myself exhausted, even now at age 60, in my efforts to keep the many positives, amazing and joyful qualities of our family front and center, as well as to affirm her worth, beauty, talents, etc. Her short-term memory of our sacrifices, of rich experiences that we provided and of our unconditional love we’ve strived to show continually gets in the way of family growth and bonding. Her immature adult behaviors have exhausted me for the last time. Spouting “I’ll never come home again.” has seen its last audience. My heart breaks.

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  4. I applaud your post and its explanation and examples. My daughter currently hates me for a decision I made when I was 18 yrs. old. I am not 60.

    We are all a product of the era’s in which we grew up and the influences we had at the time. Children today are raised and recognized quite differently and are actually celebrated much more than they were 50, 60, 70 years ago. We should start showing a little more grace for older generations and instead of pointing fingers and placing blame – listen to their stories, their experiences and show them some understanding!!

    I doubt that I will ever have a relationship with my daughter in the future and sadly that will involve 4 grandchildren too, BUT I know that I am worthy and that my young adult choices do not limit me to being a person that can love and be loved!

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      I’m so sorry to hear about your challenging relationship with your daughter but am glad you understand you’re worthy of being loved. Hopefully, you two can communicate more effectively in the future and find some common ground.

      1. I am open to that, but she is stuck in the mind frame of blame and carries a lot of anger. I will always love her and the last time we spoke, I told her I only wanted her to be happy and healthy, but that clearly our relationship could not provide that!

  5. Just wanted to let you know this text will be a big help to my own mother. We’ve already suspected it, but here it is from a practitioner: mother blame is real. And in my opinion it is the easy way out for hacks. To tell the truth, I don’t care much for psychology, it’s like religion so far as I’m concerned – there are over 300 schools of thought on psychology, calling it quasi-science would be a compliment. My only contact with psychology has been seeing my mother broken because my sister started blaming her for everything, thanks to a government welfare psychologist. And my mom has friends who have been subject to the same guilting by their children, thanks to psychologists. Seems psychology is about relieving the patient of any responsibility for their own actions, and finding a scapegoat. Is there any school of psychology out there that demand their patient to face up to their life choices on their own responsibility? Stupid question, when, at least in America, you need satisfied customers or you don’t get funding.

    Nevertheless, I will show this to my mother and hope it relieves her at least a bit.

    You should include in your polemics how sane relatives of blamed mothers lose all faith and trust in the credibility of psychology, if they had any to begin with.

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      I hope my post will be of help to your mother. However, I don’t agree with you about psychology (obviously). While my field does have a lot to answer and can definitely do better, we also have come a long way and do good work. Much of psychology is about becoming aware of the systemic influences in our lives while also recognizing our role in them. As such, there are many schools of psychology that demand individual accountability. How else can you change since the only person you have control over is yourself? Thanks for reading.

    2. you said it very well…….for we know what we know, we look around, we think, we feel, and we try our best and that we praise-worthy….blame is big, as you mention, in America especially considering the great responsibility it claims to have for the rest of the world and it is a child’s mind-set. I have two daughters ten years apart, in Austria in Vienna the city of Freud. I myself grew up in the United States and it remains confusing to me how the values we assume are world wide are not and have a lot to do with the particular culture in which we grew up. That is one things I at least recognize. This thing about blaming mothers for everything however has really found fertile conditions here….that I try not to forget, the history of the people around me with two wars, religion, etc. is so complicated and I am still learning and being surprised. Everything you mentioned, however, is valid and I thank you for putting it so well. One of my daughters is a psycho-analyst even attended the Sigmund Freud private university, spent a year and graduated from an American university, but I think she forgets everything she may have learned and it only became more serious and aggressive. The older daughter makes me feel sad for she is so guilt ridden she has to stay away and be very careful, I respect her standpoint but……..most however I was truly shocked, and I should not have been as I have lived here long enough at the naked brutality of the blame thrown around here, even the laws honor the authority of the father figure over the mother but that has changed somewhat in the last 30 yrs or so. Yes life is complex everywhere but in some places they always had the mother to blame..

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