Mother Sniping, Its Rise And Fall

Marian Seddon


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 moving vehicles.

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 and emotion.

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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