“Where is Your Mother?”: Shame in Motherhood

I was seven years old. The only reason I specifically remember is that at age seven, I reached the pinnacle of childhood development: I could actually see over the counter at the department store. My mother, little sister, and I were at the local mall. We were in my favorite department store (it had three levels and the escalator rides were legendary) and my mother was at the makeup counter making an immensely important decision concerning eye shadow. I was bored with the process and wandered over to the perfume section. The bottles were striking. My spindly fingers danced over the curves of the perfume bottle and I began to clutch my hand around it. I brought it closer to my chest as I had seen my mother do and pressed the top of the bottle. I delighted at the scent. The woman who appeared at the counter was not so delighted. “What do you think you are doing? Where is your mother?” she asked as she yanked the bottle from my hands and stood glaring at me. I did not feel so tall anymore. She repeated, “Where is your mother?!” I fumbled a response for a few moments and eventually gave up and pointed to her. The woman marched over to my mother and reported my wrong-doing. I felt terrible, but my mother must have felt worse. My mother beckoned me to her side. According to this woman’s behavior, my mom was in as much trouble as I was. What I had done by spraying the perfume was as much my mother’s fault as it was mine.

I was talking to a mom-friend recently. If you have ever been a childless friend to a mom you know why I call them mom-friends; somehow the relationship with them is a different kind of connection even if you have never laid eyes on their children. That’s not to say that they accidentally treat me like their child or engage in some horrible form of baby-talk in my presence. They’re different in a transcendental sort of way. I have a deep reverence for these mom-friends’ moments of stillness. This conversation was during nap time and I was thrilled that this friend was sharing her piece of quiet with me. We began talking about Dr. Brene Brown and her TED Talk on shame. Naturally, we didn’t want to talk about shame, so the subject changed to my upcoming senior thesis. I wanted to do something relating to moms. I grew up the daughter of a dauntless nurse and doula who instilled in me warmth toward motherhood. My friend said candidly, “Moms are a hard group.” I puzzled at that statement. I thought I knew what she meant: those moms were far too preoccupied to help with a senior thesis. My mom-friend saw that I didn’t understand and clarified, “They’re a hard group because they’ll tell you about who they want to be, not what they’re actually going through.”

I started researching. Mostly I researched because that’s how I cope with life’s questions and uncertainties, partly because my graduation depended on it. I needed to know who moms in the 21st century are. I pored through data bases and journal articles, through books and interviews, and even though blogs, a place that is too often a mother’s only voice. I discovered that they’re not our mothers’ mothers. The majority (74%) are balancing work and mothering (Kreider & Elliott, 2010). Childbearing is delayed compared to previous generations (Arendell, 2000). There is a separation growing between marriage and maternity as women who are not married give birth to one third of the babies in the United States (Arendell, 2000). Mothers are looking for support in different places than the traditional familial context (Tummala-Narra, 2009). These are massive shifts from the mothers who came before. These shifts are heavy with complex responsibilities on top of motherhood. Many of these things mark the long awaited results of a battle for change in women’s roles in society. Unfortunately for mothers, it seems that their role hasn’t undergone a liberating transformation: they’ve received further requirements for success.

It’s easy to see this played out in culture. Examine for a moment television moms: they have undergone a huge transformation in the past fifty years. Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver showed the ideal of American motherhood on Leave it to Beaver from 1957–1963. June had mastered the art of immaculate life. Carol Brady, played by Florence Henderson led a large cast in her mothering role on the Brady Bunch from 1969–1974. She managed to keep the chaos under her control while making sure the lesson of the deed was always learned. Claire Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad on the Cosby Show from 1984–1992, was one of the first to show exemplary motherhood while employed. Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy has been played by Julie Bowen since 2009. Claire manages the household and its innumerable responsibilities as well as reentering the workforce in recent seasons. Her work at home was certainly not lessened with the addition of her new job at her father’s closet company. These roles are all so enormously different. Contemporary TV motherhood has changed significantly to represent shifting cultural norms. Whether or not you believe that television is mimetic of life or vice versa, the change is unmistakable.

It is no longer enough to meet traditional role expectations: “Mothers are directly and indirectly responsible for the child’s emotional, social, physical, and intellectual development” (Tummala-Narra, 2009, p. 8). Moreover, the expectations now include:

• filling any gaps in children’s education (i.e. music, art, and sports),
• directing “religious, spiritual, and social upbringing,”
• maintaining an appearance of “youthfulness and attractiveness,”
• and balancing employment and family life (Tummala-Narra, 2009, p. 8).

Researchers call this further requirement ideology intensive mothering (Hays, 1996). In intensive mothering, “…Mothers are the ideal, preferred caretakers of children. Intensive mothering is expert guided, emotionally absorbing, and labor intensive” (Medina & Magnuson, 2009, p. 91). It is no wonderment that women are failing to live up to mommy perfection. Mothers are “failing” from the very start. The expectation mothers receive from culture communicates to them that the transition into motherhood, biological or otherwise, should be a joyous experience (Nicolson, 1999). But for many moms, a paradox occurs: they love being moms to their kids but they miss the woman they used to be (Nicolson, 1999). How would you react if your mom-friend told you that she loves her children, but she misses life without kids? Some would think this mom just needed to do some self-care. This would be a tolerable answer. Too many, regrettably, would question the premise that she truly loved her children and even consider her selfish. Research suggests that the mother who made this statement is not alone.

Women undergo a true psychological adjustment that comes with a renegotiation of identity. She thinks she should be happy, but she feels the depth of a loss. This is how American culture sets mothers up to encounter self-discrepancy.

Dr. E. Tory Higgins of New York University published an article in Psychological Review in 1987 that introduced the Self Discrepancy Theory. This theory is the concept that there are negative mental health outcomes for people who feel a strong tension between their actual or own self and the ideal or other (Higgins, 1987). Decades of research have indicated that “the tendency to experience shame, but not guilt, was positively related to all types of self-discrepancies” (Tangney, Niethenthal, Covert, & Barlow, 1998).

Exposing what research has been solidifying for years, my mom-friend stated it perfectly when she remarked, “They’ll tell you about who they want to be, not what they’re actually going through.” The myth of the ideal mother haunts mothers in the 21st century. This is where shame begins to cast its long shadow on moms.

When I felt I had reached the “research wall” I began to plan my own research. Reasoning for why I decided to do my own research came down to the fact that I couldn’t believe that what I found in research could be representative of the moms I know and dearly love. They seemed to be so blissful and put-together, they couldn’t possibly be battling this menacing emotion! I decided to do a survey of moms using the Test of the Self-Conscious Affect-3 or TOSCA-3 (Tangney, J. P., Dearing, R. L., Wagner, P. E., & Gramzow, R., 2002) and the State Shame and Guilt Scale (Marschall, D., Sanftner, J., & Tangney, J. P., 1994).

I chose these scales because they could be easily modified for mothering. For instance, TOSCA-3 uses a situational basis and the test taker responds, on a scale of 1–5, how likely they would be to react in a certain way (1 being unlikely, 5 being very likely). Survey respondents took the unmodified version that asked questions such as “You make a mistake at work and find out a coworker has been blamed for the error.” Then, the respondents took the modified version of the TOSCA-3 and were asked questions such as “Your child breaks something while visiting you at work and then you hide it.” Each possible response corresponds with shame, guilt, externalization, alpha-pride, or beta-pride. I analyzed the shame responses and by taking the mean of the answers, finding the sum, and comparing this number for the modified and unmodified TOSCA-3.

The data show that women feel more shame about their role as a mother than they feel about themselves as individuals.

For the State Shame and Guilt Scale, the modification was much simpler and the results were much more profound. The State Shame and Guilt Scale focuses on the experience of shame and guilt. It asks questions such as “I feel worthless, powerless” and the test taker agrees on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being they don’t feel this way at all, 5 being they feel this way very strongly). The modification added three simple words to the end of these statements. “I feel worthless and powerless as a mother.” Those three words almost tripled the shame scores on the State Shame and Guilt Scale. Results didn’t discriminate based on employment status or age:

across the board, women experienced shame in their role as mothers.

The lighter bar indicates the difference that adding the words “as a mother” made to the overall shame score.

I was wrong. Even in my sphere of influence, mothers feel shame about their role as mothers. The data speak clearly to this idea. To give moms the option to tell more about their experience, I added a text box at the end of the survey. Moms could say anything they wanted about their experience “moming.” I expected a few comments here and there: I got page after page of heartbreak, triumph, joy, anger, fear, and love. I sat at my computer with tears streaming down my cheeks as I read through the thousands of words that these women had entrusted to me. Having no idea what experiencing mom shame felt like, those moments paging through the thoughts of mothers may be as close as I get until I join the ranks of motherhood. Some of them told me why they felt shame, others explained how it felt. Everything they said was consistent with the research yet infinitely more personal. What they told me sounded like this:

• “I often times feel guilty that they spend more time with the babysitter than at home because my husband and I both work.”
• “I had a traumatic birth and suffered postpartum depression until my son was about 10 months old.”
• “I wanted (my children) to care more about their grades because I felt it was a reflection on me.”
• “I often feel guilty that I had my son so young and that he can see how much better I am at mothering his siblings.”
• “Not spending enough quality time with kids, too much TV worries, spanking or not to spank, too much time on phone, not getting chores done.”
• “I was ‘let-go’ from a job that I had worked in since 2007 the day I left for maternity leave. The new management simply did not want to rehire me.”
• “My toddler is so frustrating and defiant. I lose my temper and yell at her, which makes me feel like a horrible mother.”
• “I have always felt bad about being a working mother.”
• “Discipline causes so much shame and guilt for me.”
• “I’m nervous that I don’t have what it takes to help them navigate through life well. Or that someday they will look back and disagree with the way I’ve raised them.”
• “Not being there for my kids every time they needed me when they were little really hurts.”
• “I feel like a worthless mom at that moment.”
• “I feel like I’m a ‘bad mom.’”

Take a moment to evaluate what being an ideal mother means for you. When you have made a mental list or have an image in your mind, assess whether or not those ideals come close to being attainable. What happens when you fail to reach your goal? How do you feel? Most people will experience either guilt or shame and the difference between the two is vital. Guilt has to do with a person’s mode of doing, while shame has to do with a person’s mode of being (Karlsson and Sjorberg, 2006, p. 352). Guilt feels like you did something wrong, shame feels like there is something fundamentally wrong with you (Brown, 2006). Guilt can be a very helpful and constructive emotion! Shame is a dark and isolating emotion that can have negative mental health outcomes such as depression (Gilbert, 2007). Guilt can actually propel you closer to your ideals. Shame will take you further and further from being the mom you want to be. When moms typed out that they felt like a “bad” or “worthless” or “horrible” mother, they were expressing shame. I was amazed at how often these mothers echoed each other. One response that seemed to represent the story of many mothers was this one:

I used to be driven by shame, to think I could be the perfect mom, and always have everything together. I held on to shame from some other personal experiences and was determined to be “the perfect mom” since perfection was unattainable in other areas of my life. Needless to say, I FELL HARD, resulting in depression. Through many avenues (counseling, very close friends, healing in other areas of my life) I have stopped letting the shame silence and control me.

This mom’s story seems to have a happy ending. I questioned why, if so many mothers feel this shame, they don’t reach out for help as this mother did. This question has a complex answer. No two women are the same, and so it should seem obvious that they will deal with shame differently. Some moms simply don’t have access to the kind of help they need. I think the most profound reason is this: shame is a cycle. Research is clear that failure to meet ideals is strongly correlated with self-discrepancy, which in turn, is highly correlated with shame (Medina & Magnuson, 2009; Rizzo, Schiffrin, & Liss, 2012; Higgins, 1987; Tangney, Niethenthal, Covert, & Barlow, 1998). Shame negatively impacts a person’s ability to empathize with others (especially children) and can lead to poor interpersonal problem solving (Michelle, June, Maddux, & Heleno, 2000; Liss, Schiffrin, & Rizzo, 2013).

This leads to a feeling of disconnection; a state of being that is far from ideal or desired (Brown, 2006; Pierce, Strauman, & Lowe Vandell, 1999). The cycle begins again. Over and over and over. It is possible to experience this cycle several times in a day! For others this shame cycle is a long and agonizing journey.

Shame Cycle Theory may feel like bad news. Who wants to hear that the negative and defeating emotion they feel toward their role as a mother is on a loop? The good news is that there is a way out.

That day at the department store is fixed in my memory for another reason. As we walked out into the parking lot my mom held my hand tightly. A firmly clasped hand could mean many things from my mother. It could communicate that I should stop whatever it was that I was saying or doing. In that case it was usually accompanied by a slight glare. My mom hadn’t glared at me so I ruled out that scenario. It could mean that I was in trouble and she wanted to make sure I didn’t try to wiggle my way out of whatever consequence was in store. That seemed the most likely. I wondered all the way to our gold minivan in silence. My mom opened the sliding door that my sister and I always had trouble with and waved us in. I scurried and buckled up quickly. She shut the door and climbed into the driver’s seat as I waited for the lecture that was most certainly about to follow. She turned around. I sucked in a breath. “Jordan, that was a beautiful bottle of perfume, wasn’t it?” I nodded. “It probably wasn’t a good idea to pick it up, was it?” I, again, nodded. “Maybe next time you should make a different choice.” I broke down and sobbed. I pleaded with her to forgive me and told her that I was so sorry that the lady wasn’t kind to her either. I’m not even sure she could understand me through my rather dramatic sobs. She cracked a soft smile as she said, “Honey, I wasn’t finished! Everyone makes silly choices sometimes, even me! No one is perfect. And wouldn’t it be boring if we were?”

No one is perfect. And wouldn’t it be boring if we were?

My mother, in that moment, found the remedy for the shame my fragile heart was experiencing. She connected with me. She was vulnerable with me. My mother was the most beautiful and perfect person in my little world and if she was imperfect, well, then I had permission to be imperfect too.

Dr. Brene Brown addressed shame specifically in women when she developed her Shame Resilience Theory (Brown, 2006). She wisely proposed that shame resilience is on a spectrum: shame is on one end and empathy is on the other (Brown, 2006, p. 47). I love the way she put it in her 2012 TED Talk:

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame…The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

“Me too” is not always an easy thing to say. It can feel uncomfortable, and it also requires us to listen to and be vulnerable with someone. Motherhood is especially hard to be vulnerable about. Our culture is hard on moms. Those further requirements for success are sinking mothers a little more every day. Those intensive mothering expectations permeate how we interact with each other. When the woman at the department store asked, “Where is your mother?” she was perpetuating the concept that mothers are solely responsible for everything related to their child. No doubt you have heard the phrase “Where is your mother?” and some of you may have had this phrase pointed directly at you. I wish I could quantify the times I’ve heard someone say that phrase after a person does something they perceive as rude or wrong. In contrast, how infrequently I have heard that phrase after a person does something perceived as good or right. To compound the problem, our traditional support system has all but vanished. Mothers are left with endless articles and books on how to accomplish perfection in all things mom. One mom put it like this:

…Many women seem to feel inadequate as mothers. I think a lot has to do with so much information out there on blogs & magazines about “proper” parenting and women’s tendency to compare themselves to others.

It’s not working. Motherhood is not a science to be perfected. It is certainly not the accomplishment of a list of ideals ever fluid in culture. There are no grading criteria. There are no medals. There is no perfect mother. It’s time to let yourself off the hook. You have embarked on a life long journey and it’s okay to mess up. Motherhood is hard. And just as importantly, let other mothers off the hook too. You may know what it’s like to feel like a failure. You may know that sometimes, all it takes to feel worthless is a pile of unfolded laundry. Or a dog that peed everywhere because you forgot to let him out. Or burnt dinner. Or a friend with seemingly perfect children. Be brave and tell her about the time when you forgot your child at preschool or simply show her empathy by listening and reminding her that she is not a failure.

“Everyone makes silly choices sometimes, even me! No one is perfect. And wouldn’t it be boring if we were?”

Is this true for you? Do you think I’ve completely missed it? Let me know! I would love to dialog with you.

For a list of more detailed references, please contact me. There is some incredible work out there!

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