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March 20, 2006



Hey Hugo - this has been a long, slow lesson for me - that if I lose myself in my children, noone, including them, will be happy. There's an e-group that I belong to that started as a result of Judith Warner's book "Perfect Madness" in which she laments the frantic pace of motherhood in modern day America and the lack of social support systems. The dynamics of the group have been really interesting.

Women will write in saying they identify so much with what Warner is saying - they're depressed because no matter what they do they feel it isn't enough and they take no time for themselves out of guilt. And then other mothers will write in and tell us how we should just get over it and remember that our children need us to drive them all over hell and back to several enrichment type activities and that we should just think more positively (read: you SHOULD feel guilty if you take time for yourself.) There's a serious cultural thing going on for mothers in the U.S.


My mother never, ever, gave us the awful speech far too many of my students get: "After all I've done for you, you owe it to me to..."

you're right, this does seem like a dynamic that plays itself out over and over and over again in society, especially between parents and children (and moreover, mothers and children).

i was very lucky to be raised by a wonderful, feminist mom who did all the right things. i love her dearly and she's a huge inspiration to me. but there was once, just once, when i was in graduate school, that "after all i've done for you" reared its ugly head - it was absoutely the worst row we've ever had. the whole family got sucked into it's vortex, because it's such a powerful accusation.


oh shoot - i meant "its vortex." sorry, but "its" and "it's" mistakes kill me, so i have to self-correct!


Wow, I really like this post. Such a clear and precise way of articulating the problem I see so many mothers and even fathers facing. I just read Emecheta's Joys of Motherhood, and even though its set in a different culture and different time, it's amazing how much relevance there is to here and now. It really illustrates the burden parental sacrifice thinking can put on both parents and children...

The Gonzman

"After all I've done for you, you owe it to me to...

It's this speech that is the problem - and the first part of it doesn't even need to be true.

I don't have a hardluck story. Working class, hand to mouth background, and both my parents sacrificed a lot because they made us kids the priority in their lives.

On the other hand, my parents don't have to give that speech. First, they managed to make a secure retirement for themselves, making it largely a moot point; and second, it will be a frigid day in the nether regions before any of us allows them to want for anything, after all they did for us.

And that isn't from guilt - it's just from common decency. Call it quaint, but if "Honoring your mother and father" is quaint, I'm proudly so.

prefer not to say

But -- and I think you already know this -- there's a certain level of financial stability you have to reach in order to be the feminist mom who's got her own thing going on and makes it clear that her whole happiness isn't wrapped up in her kids. What if your mom was cobbling together two parttime jobs to pay the rent, and takes you down to the soup kitchen at the end of the month because money just doesn't stretch that far? I mean, there's just not a lot of opportunity for grabbing your personal happiness in a situation like that, and maybe kids WILL be your main source of hopefulness and meaning in a situation that otherwise doesn't give you much hope.

What if she left her homeland because if she raised you there, you'd really be screwed -- but here in the states she's poor and discriminated against at every turn because of her race or language? I mean ideally, she wouldn't constantly whine about "oh, after all I've done for you, you owe me everything" but the fact would remain that you DID owe her everything, and that if she had just abandoned you things would have been simpler and happier for her.

I guess the vague problem I have with your post today -- and the one earlier about virginity -- is that positing a fulfilling life as the one central and necessary feminist aim tends to deny that there really are situations in life in which women (and men) cannot be happy, and that's not their fault. Try having two autistic sons in a family of five, for instance. Or working full time and raising children while taking care of a parent with alzheimers whom you really can't afford to put in a nursing home. Are these women then barred from the narrative of feminist maternity (sure ain't a lot of time for poetry group), or are they just not trying hard enough to be fulfilled?

I don't mean to be dissing your mom either, who sounds incredible and wise and remarkably resourceful. But I just want to point out that when that's our model of feminism, feminism isn't available to everyone.


Prefer, I accept that up to a point -- but anecdotally, I know mothers (a few) who did come from great poverty and oppression elsewhere to this country -- and still manage to avoid burdening their daughters and sons with this crushing guilt trip.

But rather than attack those women who do this, let's work on reaching their sons and daughters, the ones who will grow up (deo volente) with more access to choices. Let's ensure that they don't pass on the legacy of guilt and obligation and contingent happiness.

And tangentially, from a Christian perspective, I do believe real happiness is possible in any circumstance through relationship with Christ and a community of believers. I've done enough missions work in the Third World in places of great poverty to realize that despair is not the universal fate of the deprived.


Thanks for posting this. One thing that has sort of been glossed over is that all parents do make a lot of sacrifices, and could always say "after all I've done for you..." regardless of whether or not they took personal time. So perhaps the emphasis shouldn't be on making sure that mothers take time for themselves, but should be on making sure that mothers don't loose themselves in their children. The single mother who works 2+ jobs and has no personal time would do better thinking of herself as "working to support me and my kids," instead of only "working to support my kids." In that way her ability to separate her life from her kids' lives isn't contingent on having the luxuries of free time. It's a subtle change in thought, but it has made a huge difference for me.

Emily H.

(Insert usual I could be wrong but--) I believe that the white, middle-class sacrificing of oneself for one's children is a fairly recent development. Most mothers, historically, were simply too wrapped up in their own work, whether domestic or agricultural or whatnot, to devote themselves completely wholeheartedly to their child's wellbeing in the same way that I see parents doing by chauffeuring their kids to ballet, karate, soccer, music lessons, sending them to tutoring at the first sign of a C-- it's a different kind of sacrifice than the immigrant mother's sacrifice, but it can have the same results, and I've heard the "After all I've done for you" speech. I am 23. I live about 35 miles from "home." My mother thinks nothing of, say, chauffeuring me to interviews (I can't afford to drive), or taking me shopping, or doing my laundry when I'm home for the weekend...because it gives her something to do, it gives purpose to her life. And really, that's kind of sad.


Emily -- oh, I like the "soccer mom" bit. The notion that creating a perfectly well-rounded child is one's ultimate project and source of validation is an interesting one, and it dovetails nicely with this topic.


Thank you for posting this. My mother is like that in many ways and I often forget how much growing up in a household with a successful professor as a mother contributed to becoming a feminist. I can only hope that when I am a mother I can teach my children the same lessons as well.


Just throwing in my two cents here (and hoping that this is safe enough to not attract MRA types):

My mother was (and is) decidedly non-feminist. And the problem with that fact is a) I've recivied, subtley and blatantly many versions of the "you owe me this because..." speech. Having rejected my parents values, I'm kinda drifting: I love and wish to honor and respect my family, but at the same time, feel they are being unreasonable in their expecations of me, and how much control they feel they should have over me.

Problem b is I have no idea how to be a wife or mother. The main role model I have is my mom, and there's no way that I want to emulate her. So, when I get in a relationship, I start to over-analyze everything: am I doing this to be nice, to show affection, or am I doing this because I'd feel guilty if I didn't? Is this appropriate behavior, or is it a result of unrealistic family (and social) explanations? There was no good feminist role-model for me: I feel like I'm making this up as I go.


Antigone, this is why feminist community matters -- and why we need to do a better job of cross-generational mentoring.

But plenty of feminist mothers were not, obviously, also the daughters of feminist mothers! It is possible to have relationships radically different from the ones you grew up observing; it is possible to have a feminist marriage/be a feminist mom without coming from that background.

Not easy! I'm not saying it is. But "making it up as you go" may pay off in ways that surprise and delight you.


there really are situations in life in which women (and men) cannot be happy, and that's not their fault

I don't see what that has to do with Hugo's post. He's not talking about finding happiness and joy through your kids. There is a great difference between that, and making your happiness and joy contingent on your adult children's obedience and willingness to follow the life you want them to have.

And, y'know, having come from a family with autistic kids and crushing work schedules and soup kitchens and all kinds of other things, I'm really not buying that poverty or suffering is an excuse to use guilt to control your children.


I'm also from a single parent family of poverty (really heinously so, while my mom went to school), and my mom's always been really clear that our "job" in life is to figure out who we are and live true to that. I love her, so I certainly wouldn't allow her to live her old age abject and alone: but it wouldn't be because I owed her anything outside the bounds of love.
As for sacrifice? Well... I don't know. At least in my situation, with adequate birth control and choices other than marriage and children available, I signed up for loss of finances and sleepless nights and not doing the cha-cha on Saturdays when I chose to have my kidlets. They didn't ask it of me. Even in brutal, choiceless lives, the children didn't ask anyone to be born. Society may have demanded it: but then the sacrifice is to society, and to biological imperative. Seems a lot to put on a kid.
However, we live in a very, very individualistic society. I imagine that frames the discussion entirely through different lenses.


Hugo, I don't want to beat this horse to death, but your statement that you'd "rather work on reaching their sons and daughters, the ones who will grow up (deo volente) with more access to choices" than "attack those women who do this" kind of misses the way the sons and daughters can lessen "the legacy of guilt and obligation and contingent happiness" for their mothers.

I agree with Arwen's post and think this conversation is being framed in a very individualistic way that minimizes the "natural bonds" of love. If you set up a binary opposition between sacrifice and personal fulfillment, of course there will be guilt and resentment. Which is why I liked your comments about honoring instead of obeying. But I think your "rebellion" post still point to a view of dutiful obedience instead of mutual growth and conversation between parents and children - which is what I think "honoring" should lead to.

vanessa sath


My mom was and is a great mom, however my life being an only child was filled with unhappiness as my mom and dad split, and when she got angry she continuously slated my dad as being a compulsive gambler yet she was the shopaholic and I was caught in this triangle of doubt and fear mostly as I watched her abuse my dad and he her, and so my life went on up until 11 years of age mostly being resentful towards her as she would constantly tell me that she was forced to marry my dad because asians were not allowed to have a baby without being married in the 70's it was simply taboo, my dad being 13 years older than my mom did not compensate for much just that he was a talented musician and had dreams of making it big in America, however I followed his american dream and went travelling abroad, since I have met my husband, I think God put us together with all the crap I went through I was searching and also running away from all the disgrace I had to see with my kiddish folks, the just of my story briefly is now since settling in the UK and my mom and dad living separately in SA, my mom sends me guilt trips saying nasty stuff abt me that I don't care abt her and I should be providing for her right now even though she is financially stable for her retirement and upsets me so much, i realise we all have to get old but dammit when are these folks gonna stop their stupid mindset of relying heavily on their kids, why the hell have kids if your are gonna burden them, i feel so angry with my mom I have been shedding tears all day and to top it all my mom cussed me horriblyto a relative of mine who is no better saying I dont care abt her since moving to europe.

I feel so crap

Kristen Hawkins

offishly defamed remindingly forbearance cadaverously despairfully confessionalist refractable


I know many women who neglected their children while they smoked, drank, gambled and slept with their lovers. I never once suspected that the noble intention of not wanting to saddle their kids with a guilt-complex was the motive behind their despicable behaviour. If a woman chooses to place self above children, it is normal selfish behaviour, nothing noble about it; when a woman puts her children above herself it is an altruistic and noble act. Children of such unselfish mothers never suffer from any horrible pressure or guilt. They grow up with admiration and pride for their mothers and the certainty that their parents were extraordinary women and not the usual self centred ones. Strange to see selfish women put on a pedestal on such dubious grounds and sacrificing women pulled down for the same ridiculous reasons.


I don't know if you have any concept of how great it is to hear a voice like yours shining through the darkness of male abuse in my life. Please continue to write if you have time. It helps me. :)


I still think that I should have gotten a ride to the hospital since she forced me into volunteering..Rather than her shopping and leaving me to take the bus in the cold. -_-

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I am wondering if you feel differently about single mothers than you do single fathers. I overheard a conversation between two teachers talking about a student in a "single parent family." The assumption was that it was the mother raising the student and , of course the student must be having problems with a mother like that. When the second teacher found out that the single parent was a Dad - all of a sudden he was a hero and maybe "we as a school could do something to help out". Help out? I never heard such a huge difference in attitude about parenting. How do you feel about it?

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