The Gorgon’s Head: Mothers and “Selfishness”

Certain epithets can immobilize us, accusations that lock down our brains with shame and make us feel we’ve been turned to stone. For many men in this culture, I suspect, being called “weak” has this effect. For women, the charge that’s supposed to stop us in our tracks is “selfish”.

Remember the Greek myth of Medusa, the most famous of the Gorgon sisters. (If they were Destiny’s Child, she’d be Beyonce.) Anyone who beheld her terrible visage, wreathed in snakes instead of hair, would be turned to stone. The “hero” Perseus managed to defeat her by holding up his mirrored shield before her face. While she was immobilized by the sight of herself, he cut off her head, which later made a handy weapon whenever he needed to petrify someone else. Wikipedia tells me that according to some versions of the myth, Medusa was originally a pretty hot number, but the goddess Athena punished her with ugliness after the sea-god Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. Victim-blaming has a long history. Hence my scare-quotes around “hero” above. Reiter’s Block is a no-rape-myths zone.

I think of Medusa these days when the word “selfish” gets thrown into discussions of women’s choices regarding parenting. Like the reflection in Perseus’s shield, a hateful image of ourselves is held up to deflect us from confidently following our instincts about what is right for our bodies and our personal relationships.

Six years ago, when I decided not to try any infertility treatments but skip straight to adoption, I struggled with insecurity that I wouldn’t be a sufficiently committed mother, because there were some physical invasions I would not endure in order to have a baby. I sometimes felt that people were withholding sympathy for our childlessness because I hadn’t really tried everything. Later, when one of the adoption agencies we worked with was pressuring me into psychiatric interventions that were actually dangerous to my mental health, I believe I allowed them to gaslight me for too long because they slapped the “neediness” label on my efforts to direct my own treatment. (Fortunately, in attempting to disprove their charge that I lacked empathy, I went through the volunteer training for our local domestic violence shelter, and figured out that my so-called personality disorder was really PTSD from emotional incest. Thank you, feminist consciousness.) 

Other women get selfishness-shamed around motherhood in other ways. Those who do go through assisted reproduction treatments are sure to hear criticism at some point that it’s selfish to expend resources adding to our overpopulated planet when there are “so many adoptable children needing homes”. (Not true, by the way, but that’s another story.) Conservatives chastise women who choose not to raise children, saying they’re selfishly putting personal fulfillment ahead of the altruistic devotion that our society needs. Double that scorn for women who have abortions. Yet, birthmothers who place children for adoption face insensitive remarks like, “I don’t see how a woman could give up her own baby, she must be so unfeeling!”

We’re all familiar with the “mommy wars” around child-rearing choices, too. Career-oriented feminists scold women who drop out of the workforce to raise children; they’re letting down the team. If women employ childcare so they can return to work, they’d better be prepared to show they need the money; heaven forbid they should have ambitions of their own. Attachment-parenting fanatics preach that co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and constant physical contact are necessary to give children a secure sense of parental love. (I read one mommy-blog where her two-year-old insisted on sitting on her lap while the mom used the toilet, and she was afraid to disrupt their attachment by asking for some privacy.) But, watch out that you don’t become a “helicopter parent” who overinvolves herself in her children’s lives in order to meet her own need for control and significance.

Gee, you’d almost think that women weren’t supposed to have selves…

Last year I began working with an Inner Bonding therapist to heal PTSD and false beliefs from a traumatic childhood. Based on this framework, I’ve come to believe that mothers trigger perceptions of “selfishness” in so many people, regardless of which choices the mother is making, because people are unconsciously angry about their own unmet childhood needs. Someone who had distant and unfeeling parents may view working mothers harshly, while someone who had smothering and needy parents may have a similar disdain for stay-at-home mothers. It’s speculative, but it’s been borne out by sad experiences with former friends. What I know of their personal history correlated with the particular ways they tried to side with my baby against me. By comparison, true friends (some of whom had equally painful childhoods) came in with the assumption that supporting the mother’s well-being helped the child and vice versa, not that motherhood was a zero-sum game of needs.

Again extrapolating from personal experience, I think the accusation of selfishness stops us in our tracks because so many women have suffered some kind of abuse–the ultimate act of selfishness–be it sexual assault, domestic violence, or spiritual domination and mind control. The last thing we want is to bear any resemblance to the person who used us so cruelly.

How about, as mothers or mothers-to-be, we practice saying, “This is what works for me and my family. It’s okay that other things work for other people.” Let’s also give ourselves permission not to answer questions when we sense that the inquirer doesn’t really want to learn something new, but instead is waiting to judge and refute our reasons as soon as she learns what they are.

Motherhood is authority. Whatever abuses of power we’ve seen, we can learn how to exercise authority with maturity and compassion. Growing up is an act of self-care that is also the key to unselfish parenting.

If Mama ain’t happy…ain’t nobody happy.

(Image courtesy of this link.)

Poem by F.G. Mulkey: “Shore Leave”

Winning Writers subscriber F.G. Mulkey recently shared the good news of his poetry publication with us, and has also given me permission to reprint this poem on the blog. “Shore Leave” was published in the inaugural issue (Summer 2012) of Clockhouse Review, the literary journal of Goddard College.

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Shore Leave
by F.G. Mulkey

The nightingales are sobbing in
the orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
have long been breaking others.

–W.H. Auden

someone stands at the end of a pier.
knowing that somebody is out there somewhere;
on the edge of a late night yellow fog,
sheltering waves with only the sound below
where vows were once scratched in wet sand,
captured then cleansed by tidal pools on the mend:

it is law like love which governs
each sailor’s tale, splashed in mermaid luck,
as the lighthouse protects on lucent waves
in persistent sweeps, keeper of a coastline warning,
flashing the way home protecting a rocky doom,
safe passages from temptation, forward-back again.
it is love like law
that demands drowning time with memories,
when breezes fueled flight of driftwood sparks,
and the smell from smoke and salt dazzled senses
and imperfection was abandoned by sand and foam,
forgotten in perfect paradise, keeping a lover
alone with a calendar, page after page.
distant oil rigs dagger skyline of gray on gray,
a bed turned down and without body warm,
morning washes bayou rain uphill, porch lights expect
the tumble home and routines will be routinely done.

Monday Random Song: “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails”

Oh, right, I have a blog? Apologies, constant readers, for the infrequent posting. I’ve been keeping my number-one resolution for 2013 to re-start work on the Endless Novel, as well as writing the occasional schmaltzy poem and nurturing the Young Master.

Since traditional children’s music makes me think of murderous clowns, I lean heavily on the Episcopal hymnal and Christian pop songs to entertain us while we are working on our pureed peas. Often, I wind up pondering and/or questioning the theology behind the catchy lyrics. From time to time, I will share these reflections with you, my blog followers. (You’ll have to get your own baby food, though. I recommend Earth’s Best chicken mango risotto.)

Today’s song is the Southern Gospel classic “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails“, performed in this YouTube clip by Greg Treadway and Andy Price. In it, the speaker recounts his vivid dream of crucifying Christ, which brought home to him how great a sacrifice Jesus made for his sins. Episcopalians will be familiar with this theme from the Lenten hymn “O Sacred Head“.

I’ve always struggled with this thought-experiment of identifying with Christ’s killers. I can appreciate the need to reflect on the seriousness of my sins and the magnitude of God’s mercy. This terrible limit case — God would even forgive us for killing Jesus — shows that no sin is beyond repentance. Such a hope can lead us out of self-involved despair and into true transformation.

On the other hand, I grew up in a home where emotional manipulation reigned, where I as a child was blamed for an adult’s depression and psychosomatic illnesses, in order to control my behavior and reinforce my gratitude for her so-called unselfish love. It is hard to feel the difference, sometimes, between “I Dreamed I Drove the Nails” and the stereotypical “guilt trip”. Why does God’s goodness require my self-abasement as contrast?

As I have become more attuned to abuses of power within Christianity, my understanding of Jesus has become more this-worldly and political. Now, songs like the ones above also make me wonder: Shouldn’t we focus on our actual sins and their real victims instead of a thought-experiment about something that never literally happened?

If the “real” wounded party is Christ, and lucky us, he forgives us, we may neglect making amends in the real world. This thought-experiment carries the potential for self-aggrandizing, self-pitying guilt that puts the sinner rather than the victim at the center of the story. Identification with the perpetrator then becomes a dysfunctional way to cement the Christian community’s bonds, like a gang where one has to murder someone to be a member.

Why not imagine one’s self into other roles in the story, like Veronica and Simon who tried to help, or Peter who cut off the soldier’s ear? Or, maybe one hasn’t actually done anything nearly as bad as crucifying Christ. “Sin inflation” creates a false moral equivalence that prevents the church from taking abuse seriously. It instills excessive guilt in people who then can’t speak up about wrongs done to them.

As I remember it, St. Paul exhorts us to imagine ourselves as crucified with Christ, a lot more than he recommends the perspective of the crucifiers. And when he does the latter, it’s because he actually did persecute and kill Christians, and was forgiven by his human victim, Stephen, not only by God.

I would love to hear from my readers about where the “I crucified Christ” trope originated. Is it Biblical? Where do you find support for it in Scripture?