I’ve been watching Away, a new Netflix series starring Hilary Swank as Commander Emma Green who leaves her teenage daughter and husband for a three-year mission to Mars. The series highlights many themes, but the one I’d like to explore is: Are mothers as free as fathers to prioritize their career goals?
In Away, you watch Emma wrestle with her desire to be physically and emotionally present for her daughter, her internalized gender role stereotypes about what it means to be a “good mother,” and her lifelong goal of going to Mars. In my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, the idea of a mother leaving her family in the care of the father or another woman while she went off to fulfil a goal or take a break was unthinkable. Even though most women today juggle paid employment and caring for their family, the sexist thinking that mothers are not as free as fathers to prioritize their goals is alive and well, including in the therapy office.
Sexism in the Therapy Office
Motherhood is “still prone to being demarcated as a selfless, sacrificial role. From long before our grandmother’s day, women’s lives have been regarded as an all-consuming caregiving role that doesn’t allow women an identity of their own (The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, Rosjke Hasseldine).” I heard this sexist thinking come out of my therapist’s mouth only four years ago. The therapist I was seeing at the time was female. She had a Women’s Studies degree and she called herself a feminist, but all this seemed to have little influence on how she saw me as a mother.
As I talked about needing to give myself permission to step away from being the all-available mother so that I could focus solely on myself, she looked horrified. She asked me what my husband thought of this and whether I no longer wanted to be my children’s mother. You would think that my children were young. They weren’t. My children are adults, and I spent most of my adulthood supporting my husband’s career and taking care of my children.
Women Are People First
The sexism, and I would add the fear, that silences the truth that mothers are people first is ever-present. Phyllis Chesler writes in Women and Madness:
Most women experience the male’s physical or emotional abandonment of his family or children as either cruel or cruelly necessary. He may be a “louse”—or a “victim” of harsh job realities. His behavior is human. However, the female’s similar abandonment of her family—for any purpose—is viewed as “unnatural” and “tragic.” The female’s social role is still a biological one: as such she is seen as transgressing against nature when she attempts to change her social role (p. 332).
As I write in The Mother-Daughter Puzzle, and teach in my Mother-Daughter Attachment Training Course, women will never be free or equal until a mother’s agency and personhood is recognized and honored.
The irony about a mother’s lack of freedom to claim her life is that it doesn’t ensure her emotional availability. In my family, selfless, sacrificial mothering was a badge of honor my mother and grandmother wore proudly, without understanding the harm it inflicted on them and their mother-daughter bond. Even though my mother was physically present, she wasn’t emotionally available. My mother could not be emotionally present because no one had been emotionally present for her. In my generational family, women do the listening and caring, and women are not expected to need to be heard, cared for, or nurtured.
By patriarchal standards and human development theories like Attachment Theory, my mother would be blamed and shamed for her lack of emotional availability. My father, however, would not be shamed for his inability to be emotionally present because fathers are not expected to be nurturing. Patriarchal human development theories that reinforce traditional gender role stereotypes teach us to direct our hurt and anger toward our mother more than our father; and worse, they make mothers responsible for the father’s lack of emotional availability or abandonment.
A Daughter’s Reality
As a mother-daughter therapist I hear daughters of all ages share their deep hurt about their mother’s lack of physical or emotional presence. A daughter’s need for her mother is real and vitally important for her emotional wellbeing; but I also wonder whether some of the anger daughters feel toward their unavailable mother is culturally instilled by patriarchal beliefs and human development theories that treat the mother as the font of all nurturing.
A daughter’s understandable anger isn’t the only reality. It stands right next door to the mother’s reality and how society doesn’t support mothers. When mothers, not fathers, are expected to provide all the nurturing, mothers receive a disproportionate amount of blame when children of all ages feel uncared for and neglected.
Watching Hilary Swank’s character prioritize her dream of going to Mars over staying at home with her daughter, I am reminded of all the dreams and talents that have been lost in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations. I wonder what our world might have been like today had these women been allowed to realize their dreams and talents. What political and environmental decisions would these women have made?
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com