Dr Nicholas Herriman
First published on New Matilda on 10 May, 2013.
Mother's Day is on Sunday. I’m gonna talk about mothers but I’m not gonna cry.
As we know, if a talk show host wants to get some tears, the sure-fire technique is to ask, “What was your relationship like with your mother?” We all have mothers (in a minimal biological definition at least). Some of us also are mothers. Others are husbands, parents etc of mothers.
What is the most common type of mother, cross-culturally? One contender would have to be the doting mum. She is the intrusive, overprotective, embarrassing, guilt-tripping mother. She most often crops up in comedies — George Costanza's mother Estelle in Seinfeld is my favourite.
It's easy to pass these characters off as being just for laughs, but deconstructing the topic of the “Jewish mother”, from its (arguable) origins in a New York anthropological study conducted in 1940 by the American Jewish Committee, to modern comedy, was the topic of a 2009 book by Joyce Antler.
Ray’s and Robert’s mother in Everyone Loves Raymond is a similar character to Estelle Costanza. Alhough the show is about an Italian-American family, the Jewish-American creator Phil Rosenthal explains:
All Italian and Jewish families seem to be exactly the same to me. All problems are solved with food, and the mother never leaves you alone. To me this was a source of great humor — the matriarchal rule, which seems to be dominant not just in Jewish and Italian cultures, but as we are finding out from all the letters we get from around the world. We get letters from India saying, 'That’s my mother'.Although a common trope, it is not universal. What we might translate as “mother” is constructed differently in different cultures. Anthropologist Andrew Beatty described this while doing fieldwork in Indonesia, where a Mexican soap opera — Maria Mercedes — was on TV. The slogan for Maria Mercedes was “madre solo hay una” — you’ve only got one mother.
The expression refers to the mother as the one who gave birth to you, but as Beatty notes, this idea did not gel with local conceptions. In many parts of Indonesia it is quite reasonable to give your child to another childless couple, be it neighbours or relatives. In fact these neighbours have a valid claim on your child — you would be selfish if you kept it. Many such children have, in effect, two mothers.
This suggests being a mother is different in various cultural contexts. The “soccer mom” of the 1990s was unemployed, fiercely devoted to kids and their healthy upbringing. She took her position after driving her SUV over the “supermom” of the 1980s, who had it all — job, family, and lots of shoulder padding in her jacket.
What about the noughties? I think Kaz Cooke’s book Up the Duff summarised the mother for that decade. This mother is cool, savvy, unromantic, practical, and witty. And this book is the guide to become one. It does not happen naturally — it happens culturally. The supermom, soccer mom and the noughties mum could be contrasted with the contemporary mother in Indonesia. She is the eternal essence of nurturing and nourishment; responsible for children’s moral and religious upbringing.
It is easy to just dismiss these different ways of being a mother as quaint differences. It is more difficult to see what they really imply: that the experiences of mothers are socially constructed.
More confronting is the suggestion that we can never be fully in charge of defining who we are. For instance, most people define themselves in relation to what it is to be a mother — they have one and they might be one. But as Sydney University’s Tai Peseta observes, you never really own our experience of motherhood; it is rather structured in terms of ideas such as “working mum”, “super-mum”, “doting mum” and so on.
All accounts of reality are marred or embedded in discourse. Even if you consciously avoid seeing yourself in relation to one such type of mother, you are still forced to define yourself against these terms. In other words, you cannot avoid it. Happy Mother's Day!
Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on iTunes U.