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  • Writer's pictureAshley Hommersom

The Invisibility of Mothers


As the leaves change colour, and the cold starts to set in, I realise that May is again upon us. Mother’s Day is just around the corner. A day ever-present on the commercial and marketing calendar, with seemingly every retail outlet going into overdrive with their loved-up images and advertisements of mothers being loved and adored by children, families and, seemingly, society as a whole. It is endearing, maybe because it is so infrequent that mothers are the focus of our attention in this way, but for the very same reason, it also has a sense of disingenuousness about it. These images lead us to believe that mothers are continuously valued and celebrated and that they are always happy, joyful, loving, nurturing, and safe well put together women, who are the cornerstone of our society. Whilst aspects of this are true, at least in my opinion, the oversimplification and depiction of the ‘perfect mother’ is frequently hurtful and harmful for many.

 

I would like to note that throughout his piece I refer to women and mothers, which encompasses cis women as well as all people who identify as female. The identity of ‘mother’ is separate from the role of ‘mothering’ (the act of caring for and nurturing another) which can be done by a person other than a mother (biological or not and female or not).

 

As I continue to sharpen my therapeutic lens to focus more on mothers, the experience of motherhood, and how society shapes expectations and identities, it has become glaringly obvious how much we actually tend to make mothers and mother-figures, along with their varied and diverse experiences, invisible.

 

We live in a society where women are expected to want to have children, and to have children ‘at the right time’ (too young and you’re reckless and immature, too old and you’re being selfish). Yet, we also value and prioritise female empowerment, girl-bosses, and individual success and achievement; and still judge women when they choose not to become mothers, questioning their personal values, ‘womanly qualities’, and role in our society. We want women to step into their power, but simultaneously demand they self-erase by becoming all-sacrificing mothers, destined to be pushed to the periphery of social worth and value, invisible. How far have we really come from the historic policies that inhibited married women from working outside of the home for a wage, pre-emptively assuming they will then be of no further use to the economic growth of the country when they inevitably have children?

 

The making invisible of mothers is a cultural doing, and starts from a young age. We socialise our girls into being a ‘good girl’, which is synonymous with not making a fuss, being cooperative, not having or displaying big and uncomfortable feelings, not having or voicing wants or needs of their own, and making sure everyone else is happy and tended to, to the sacrifice of self. This is then perpetuated by the messages that we spread in popular and social media about the ‘good mother’ who is always happy, fulfilled, and does and is everything for her children. We see mothers only as important when it relates to or impacts how they are raising their children (think of the mother-blaming culture). Academic literature on early childhood is filled with the roles that mothers can and ought to play, in relation to their children, but there is a noticeable scarcity in the academic literature about the study of motherhood, maternal identity, and wellbeing (again, perinatal/maternal mental health is often pitched as something that needs to be prioritised because of how it impacts children, not because mothers are worthy humans in and of themselves, and deserving of good mental health as individuals).

 

If you are a mother who has given birth yourself, you might recall the experience of antenatal care, which focused on you (albeit, positioned as the all-important host for your growing baby), and medical professionals were concerned and interested in how you were doing. However, the moment you embark on the birthing journey, your wants and needs can disappear into the background, and it becomes all about the baby. All too often I have heard stories of traumatic births being minimised and silenced with “at least you have a healthy baby”, as if the woman’s experience does not even feature.

 

We continue to make mothers invisible in the early days, weeks, and months, by asking new mums “how is the baby?” instead of “how are you?”. We perpetuate this invisibility when we discount a mum’s need for rest, recovery, nourishment, and support, and instead expect her to be a good host to visitors, and bounce back to her usual self and pre-pregnancy body, as quickly as possible, repulsed by any lasting trace of pregnancy on the female form.

 

Invisibility of mothers has gone to the extreme where we expect, sometimes even demand, women to engage in intensive mothering practices like they don’t work, and work like they don’t mother. In certain sectors, women have even become accustomed to hiding the fact that they are mothers from their employers and colleagues. We expect mothers to do it all, perfectly, but without any village, social infrastructure, or support to speak of.

 

We perpetuate maternal invisibility by praising and celebrating selflessness, as if women are beings without needs of their own, for others to consider. Bueskens, a motherhood studies academic, psychotherapist and author, identified that “we [as Western women] have been freed as women, but constrained as mothers” (2018). The freedoms we have gained through women’s rights movements still seem to dissolve when we become mothers. Even the best-intended couples unconsciously slip back into gendered stereotypes and roles when children come along; mum is responsible for the practical care of the children, she generally carries most, if not all, of the mental load and the emotional labour, and becomes the default first point of call when children need something. If she works, she is generally the one who takes leave when a child is unwell, and more frequently the one to book and take children to appointments and extra-curricular activities.

 

There is a lack of representation of maternal stories, told from the perspectives of mothers, resulting in a lack of understanding of the critical role that mothers play in our society. This in turn, leads to a lack of support for mothers. The absence of ‘the village’ that mothers of generations gone by might have known, has disintegrated, primarily due to a devaluing of mothering work. And I use the word ‘work’ deliberately because mothering, the act of caring for and raising a child, is laborious and skilful demanding of academic value, recognition and importance, not a gendered innate or intuitive way of being and behaving.

 

We continue to see high figures of reported perinatal mental health*, with 1 in 10 women experiencing depression during pregnancy and this increases to 1 in 7 women in the first year after giving birth. Anxiety is also hugely prevalent during and after pregnancy, with 1 in 5 women reporting experiencing feeling anxious during early years post-partum. By making mothers’ stories invisible, and perpetuating the social stigma of how women and mothers ‘should’ be, we are turning a blind eye to the diverse realities of motherhood, leaving women feeling alone, guilty, and as if there is something wrong with them. Imagine how we might support mothers and families differently if rather than seeing perinatal mental health difficulties as an individual flaw, or personal shortcoming of ‘the perfect mother’ we recognised that it is at least partly a result of how our society is structured, which makes mums invisible and devalues the mothering role.

 

Here I would also like to highlight that by making the diverse experiences of motherhood and mothers invisible, so too we are making many experiences of being mothered, invisible. For many years I have worked with people who have a strained and turbulent relationship with their mother, who might not have been able to keep them safe when they needed it most (albeit regularly due to circumstances or choices beyond their control) or indeed been the source of direct harm. For them, Mother’s Day can bring up many confusing, contradicting, and complex feelings, ranging from anger and sadness, through to grief and despair. Their stories are not visible, their experiences minimised (“because surely a mother couldn’t cause such harm”), and yet the impacts are long-lasting and life-altering. So, if this is you, and your experience of being mothered does not match with the loved-up Mother’s Day ads, please know that although this piece does little more than mention you, I see you. You are important, and your story does matter.

 

So, yes, Mother’s Day offers us an opportunity to bring mothers into focus and celebrate them for the immense responsibility that they have. But, don’t let it stop there. If society could see mothers and value mothering for the huge role, responsibility, and source of social activism that it is – raising our next generation – every day of the year, we would be better equipped as a society to support mothers in their roles. We would have better infrastructure in place for mothers to access professional and non-professional supports (free of stigma and judgement), enable mothers to build their version of a ‘village’, to transition back into the paid workforce with greater recognition and ease if they so wish to do so, to live fulfilled lives that acknowledge and tend to their innate human needs and wants beyond and outside of their mothering role.

 

Whilst mothers are known for “all they do for others”, acknowledging and celebrating only this, keeps mothers stuck in invisibility and eroded of self-identity. So, this Mother’s Day, I invite you to consider ways in which you can make mothers, and their diverse experiences, more visible. This might be by asking a mother or mother-like figure in your life something about themselves, their wants, their needs, their dreams, and desires, in their mothering role, as well as beyond it.

 

 

* Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) (2023). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline


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