Like many celebrity divorces, the split of Sophie Turner and singer Joe Jonas has been accompanied by a flurry of rumours. It was reported that the breakup happened because the Game of Thrones actress “likes to party” whereas “he likes to stay at home”.
It is not surprising that these comments hit a nerve. Many mothers (and other parents, such as non-binary parents who are seen as mothers), far less famous than Turner, have had their own experiences of shaming.
The parents who make use of childcare and hear comments like: “Why do people have children when they don’t mean to raise them?” Or the observation that you are “so lucky” that the father of your children has agreed to “babysit” so you can attend work drinks. This was evident in the Turner-Jonas discourse too, with Jonas painted as caring for the couple’s children “pretty much all of the time” in recent months.
The practice of mum-shaming – criticising mothers for their parenting styles or choices – is centuries old. In 1762, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held women who did “deign to breastfeed their children” responsible for all society’s problems. Social media has made it easier to shame mothers from behind a screen.
My work in the philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood tries to understand why all this happens. I identify mistakes in society’s thinking about motherhood and show how they contribute to the pressure that mothers experience.
There is a gendered double standard inherent in many mum-shaming comments, where fathers are likely to be praised for parenting that would be seen as the bare minimum for a mother.
But fathers can also suffer from assumptions that they are not capable of caring for their children. This may well contribute to barriers to men taking time off work for caring responsibilities.
The conflicting ideals of motherhood
Depictions of motherhood in popular culture often communicate the idea that the mother who sacrifices everything for her children is the best kind of mother. Like many aspects of parent shaming, there is a contradiction here: mothers who don’t work are often looked down on, as are mothers who work “too much”.
Petra Bueskens, an expert in motherhood, psychoanalysis and social and political theory, argues that modern mothers are caught between two conflicting ideals of individual freedom and self-sacrificing motherhood.
And these ideals depend on one another: the original free individuals were men, who were able to be free precisely because their wives and mothers were taking on all caring responsibilities. Women claimed equality with men as individuals, but the expectations of motherhood remained.
Despite the problems she identifies, Bueskens’ conclusion is hopeful. Her book contains case studies of mothers finding ways to navigate the contradictions between freedom and care. Bueskens even argues that recognition of these contradictions might transform society.
What’s more, sacrifice by mothers is seen as a good thing for their children. But this might not be true.
Respecting mothers’ choices
I’m a bit wary of justifying women’s choices by appealing to the positive effect on their children. If women matter in their own right, then we should not need to do this. Having said that, claiming your own identity does send a positive message to your children, especially if those children are girls.
Research suggests that having a mother who works can have long-term benefits for children. It is also important to tell our children that mothers are entitled to have interests that aren’t either family or work-related.
As outside observers – and even other parents – we must notice and be very suspicious of inclinations to judge individual mothers. We should ask ourselves whether we would react the same way to a father. If not, it is possible that we are being influenced by these unfair ideas about motherhood.
Parents are also likely to be judged even more harshly if they do not fit the image of a “typical” or “good” mother or father, such as parents who are older, younger, disabled or from an ethnic minority.
Ideally, I would like to help improve the way society treats parents. In the meantime, it can be helpful for parents to recognise their individual experiences as part of a larger pattern. This can help them feel less alone and to make informed decisions about how to respond.
Getting the balance right between our own needs and our children’s needs is tricky. Stopping mum-shaming is just the start.