Mother Sniping, Its Rise And Fall
Motherhood, groggy from decades of blastings from writers,
psychologists and the general public, is now reeling into the 21st
century. Her condition, while precarious, appears to be improving. The
1990s and '80s were kinder to mothers than the '70s and '60s. But oh,
those '50s and '40s!
Those decades took to heart the terms "momism" and "smothering." Perhaps
such anti-mother bitterness was a backlash against maudlin Victorian
recitations such as, "Foul hands touch not that tattered chair!" and
"Ah, cherished relic, a Mother sat there" were applauded. Whatever the
reason, when the '40s turned into the '50s, mother-bashing became a
national addiction. Sniping and sneering included paraphrasing old
stand-bys into new slams, such as "The hand that rocks the cradle ruins
the world." Animosity was lurked in the most unlikely places. One
seemingly pro-mother song, "Throw Mama from the Train a Kiss", was
pounced upon by psychologists as proof of hidden hostility, a subtle
hint that we really wanted to throw our mothers off trains or other fast
Anne Jarvis, instigator of Mother's Day, would have scoffed. Yet this
"maiden lady" also became embittered, not at mother, but at the
commercialism surrounding the day which she had induced President
Woodrow Wilson to set aside in 1913 to honor them. She forbade mention
of Mother's Day in her presence.
However, motherhood was feted for centuries prior to the national
commemoration. Pre-Christian ceremonies emphasized regeneration,
strength, fertility. Stone plates written by Sumarians of 2500 B.C.
refer to mother and Mother Earth as Ninhursag. Translated phrases such
as "...nourished by the trustworthy milk of Ninhursag" sound as unctuous
as Victorian phrases. In and around 250 B.C. the mythical Rhea, Great
Mother of the Gods, was believed to traverse Asia Minor in a lion-drawn
chariot. Wild were Rhea worshippers' dances.
Instead of hostility, pagan Romans hid offerings for Cybele, mother of
Roman gods, placed food near woodsy caves, her supposed residences. A
sly rumor (spread by ancestors of today's mother-basher?) hinted that
local priests ate the food.
Such cynicism did not follow Romans to England. Here mothers, at least
Mothering Sunday, fared well. Even servants were excused to go
a-mothering on this mid-Lent Sunday. The traditional gift for Mothering
Sunday in medieval England was a cake called a simnel. An old
description says, "This cake, with an outer crust of flour and water was
boiled, glazed with egg whites and edges fluted, then baked. Its crust,
yellowed with saffron, was frosted with criss-crosses." So large and
hard were these strange confections that they might well have bred
hostility, but they did not. In fact, one mother, not realizing simnels
were to be eaten, is said to have used hers for years as a foot stool.
A-mothering Englishmen also gave furmetys-thick soups of oatmeal,
nutmeg, wine, fruit juices, flour, butter, and eggs. In Scotland,
furmetys were fried and called carlings. Mothering Sunday is still
called Carling Sunday in some Scottish areas. With no cynical
behaviorists explaining that simnels, furmetys, and carlings were
actually contrived to break mothers' teeth and cause gastric disorders,
Mothering Sunday was hugely enjoyed.
By the 1600s England's Christian mother ceremonies emphasized tenderness
rather than power, as did Asia's Rhea, Rome's Cybele, and Ur's
Ninhursag. By the 1700s thoughtful Englishmen were deploring the
sending of seven-year-old boys to boarding schools, depriving them of
mothers' "beneficent influence" which led to "pervading gloom." Charles
Dickens observed that mothers might have value to their offspring rather
than simply focusing on fathers when he said, "...the virtues of mothers
could be visited upon children as well as "sins of fathers."
Meanwhile, the influence of the New World's mothers was strong. In 1740
a youth who would become famous, persuaded by motherly tears, gave up
being a midshipman in the Queen's Navy after his luggage was put aboard
a British Man-o-War. Mary Washington committed this "momism" thereby
changing son George's career and possibly the course of our nation.
A century later "Whistler's Mother" appeared. Actually titled
"Arrangement in Gray and Black" it is ironically the portrait of a woman
who disapproved of her son's artistic career. Friends viewing her grim
expression wondered if Mama was glooming over son James' refusal to
become a gospel minister. To some biographers Anna Whistler, mother of
five children and stepmother of three (only four of the eight lived to
adulthood) is the epitome of motherhood. Others criticize her grasping
"momism," pointing to friction sometimes occurring between strait-laced
Anna and a fun-loving stepdaughter. Splendid or selfish, her portrait
has been reproduced more than five million times, not counting the 1934
3-cent stamp. It is a part of mother lore.
Although the use of the painting was part of the commercialism that
embittered Anne Jarvis, commercialism filled a void left when poets
deserted mothers. Prior to 1900, Mother had been subject matter for
major poets. By 1940, however, mother-verses rarely appeared except on
greeting cards. Even proverbs like "An ounce of mother is worth a pound
of clergy" were seldom quoted.
By the infamous 1940s mother-sniping poured from the presses. Phillip
Wylie's Generation of Vipers (only Chapter 11 is anti-mother) was
followed by books and articles portraying mothers as monsters. Some,
such as Screwtape Letters by Clive Staples Lewis sliced with a subtle
scalpel. Others including Woman: The Dominant Sex hammered with
righteous fury at motherhood. In Their Mother's Sons, Edward Adam
Strecker blames the neuropsychiatric symptoms of 3,000,000 World War II
rejectees on mothers, ignoring the Depression with its toll of energy
Yet even in this anti-mother hey-day, a few pro-motherists stood up.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and comedian Bob Hope boldly confessed to
being fond of their mothers. Three best sellers of this era were I
Remember Mama, The Exile, and Mother Wore Tights. These books may have
led literary critics to suggest-after years of applauding the depiction
of mothers as neurotic, grasping morons-that mother-snipers "crawl back
into the woodwork." Pro-mother books began a hesitant comeback. One of
the first refuters of the "Mother is the source of all evil" theory was
The Male Attitude by Charles Ferguson.
Women's Lib writers are now pointing out that in nuclear homes where
mothers have sole responsibility for child care, they may at times be a
danger to their families. Maria Isabel Barreno, co-author of New
Portuguese Letters, states, "Motherhood is one of the prison walls...We
need new relationships." "Cures" are now being tried. Men are invading
hospital maternity rooms, kindergartens, nursery schools. Quality is
in, sentimental facade is out.
Is everyone deserting mother-sniping? Nope, anti-motherists can still
find comfort in the media. Philip Roth's books bad-rap mothers. If his
writing is too unbuttonedly hilarious for serious censure, let them
listen to some television shows. Obesity is blamed on mothers'
insistence on clean plates; rioting and vandalism is attributed to
mothers' permissiveness (both over and under).
No, mother-sniping is far from gone. But let us be grateful that
harangues against mothers have been reduced, and that quips are
sometimes aimed at mother-snipers instead of coming from them.
("Mothers are the last people in the world who should have children.")
If this tide continues, the only bone left to the anti-motherists to
pick will be the Almanac of Observances. In it they will note that
whole weeks are set aside for "Save the Horse", "Tin Can Week", and
"Care for Your Dog" while only one day a year is reserved for Mother.
© Marian Seddon
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