Who is a Legitimate Mother: Part III. “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

Women accept diminished value in part because we are in an inferior bargaining position. The glass ceiling still looms. Men are at the highest levels of business, they decide who to pay what. And why would a company pay a woman as much as a man when they know darned well they can get the same (or better) labor for less? Ironically, companies often support unequal pay by declaring that men have families to support, ignoring the fact that many households are headed exclusively, or primarily, by women.

Of course they pay women less! If industry paid us comparable wages, we might be able to support our families and undermine the economic superiority of those in power. This is not to say that men do this on purpose but that our social structure encourages it on a subconscious or semi-conscious level. In response, in the 70s, second-wave feminism developed consciousness-raising groups, a watered down version of which exists in diversity and corporate sexual harassment training today.

The beauty is in the details.

American society has a pressing interest in maintaining the constructs that decide who is a legitimate mother (read a legitimate woman), and who is not. Social conservatives often bemoan the loss of the traditional family unit (which, by the way, is a local structure that doesn’t precisely apply in every society). The traditional American family unit is a male head-of-household model with wife and children following at his heels. Rarely do such households include more than two generations, parents and children, or more than one family unit as in communal living.

Who does this structure serve? And how does this impact our children? And why does it matter?

It matters because understanding the structures in which we operate is critical to ensuring that our children grow and prosper. It matters because for too long families have lived in isolationist, hierarchical fashion, with the man as king of the castle with privacy as the supreme law. What happens behind the closed doors of the home, stays behind closed doors. No one, save the government and only when there is clear evidence of a crime, may peer into the inner workings of the family unit. It matters because so long as we are silent about our families, we are powerless in the world. It matters because as the mother goes, so goes the child.

We know this through the many studies that show a correlation between maternal health and infant health as well as economic indicators that tie women’s poverty to children’s poverty. Children of mothers who are de-legitimated (because of marital status, poverty, education, or mere gender) endure the social sufferings of their mothers. Thus, the child of a single woman of color is less likely to be honored, educated, and raised to his or her full potential than is the child of a white married woman. This child is far more likely to receive all the benefits and protections society can offer while other children are less valued and less supported. What happens to these castaway kids?

We know the answer intuitively, as well as objectively. These children are the have-nots of the world; they are the ones most likely (though by no means guaranteed) to lose heart, to be abused, to drop out, to become abusers, to be incarcerated, to be put in foster care, to have their parents’ rights terminated. In short, by ignoring the pressures on the mother, we perpetuate the ills of the child and thus the ills of society and the world. American society aims the energy of its wrath at the mother and her “badness” for having had a child and failing to live up to a social expectation; rather than question the origin and legitimacy of this expectation, or directing its energy to promote the well-being that mother/child pair.

Society goes as the children go. We only harm ourselves and our children’s future by not being fully aware of the structures that determine our roles, rules, and outcomes. Our children will grow to repeat them, often in unhealthy ways. Our daughters will be consigned to smaller lives than they are capable of and will stretch out against those constrictions in ways that don’t serve them. Our sons will be deprived of female partnership in all its powerful aspects; feminine wisdom, intuition, multi-tasking, cooperation, nurturance, health and healing, endurance to name but a few. Our men will continue to be separated from the feminine, a lonely place to be for sure. Our society will continue to fail to fulfill the promise of the founding fathers and mothers, and to be embroiled in unbalanced global resource conflict (but more about that in another post). Our children will have to deal with the crippling effects of social isolation, intolerance, dissociation, and economic inequality.

Ultimately, both men and women are responsible for the world our children receive. At the very least, we should understand it and be able to describe the visible and invisible forces at play so our children can understand what they’re inheriting.

The next time you see a mother and experience a judgment about her, think deeply about the social constructs in your mind that give that judgment energy. Ask whether the judgment is legitimate, rather than whether she is legitimate.

What do you think?

Next up, more about how women can shape our experience through consciously building our life structures!


Many thanks to the presenters at the first Motherhood Conference (sponsored by DU, University of Dublin and Whittier law schools) for their insight into the history of motherhood and tireless work in feminism–of which I have been woefully ignorant for too long–Rickie Sollinger, Kris Miccio, Penelope Bryan to name just three. Deep gratitude to my law school professors who have rounded out my understanding of the world, and sometimes left me picking my jaw up off the floor; Penelope Bryan, Rebecca Aviel, Jan Laitos, Nancy Ehrenreich, Catherine Smith; and to my sisters who have gone before me: Linda, Kathy, Mary, Anne, and Mimi.


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