A Mother By Any Other Name By Catrina Chatelain
I am, like many I assume, still hurting over the tragedy from Friday. I ache inside thinking about those beautiful babies. Sleep does not come easily, and I find myself waking from nightmares, with my mind coming to rest on the thought of Nancy Lanza. While I have an infinite amount of sorrow for the parents of the children lost, I feel empathy for Ms. Lanza in the most palpable manner. Nancy Lanza to me represents what I truly believe the experience of motherhood in our culture to be: an exercise in isolation.
It starts the moment our pregnancies are revealed, the pitting of society against women and their choices in how to live the role of Mother. ‘Why aren’t you still working out you’re only seven months pregnant,’ to ‘Oh, you’re still working out and you’re seven months pregnant?’ Why are you having a drug-free, natural labor’ to ‘why are you scheduling a c-section?’ ‘Why aren’t you breastfeeding?’ to ‘Why on earth are you still breastfeeding a two year old?’ ‘Two hours of TV? Well clearly that’s too much’ ‘No TV? Why so strict?’ And so it goes, with little chance of ever ending. No matter what choice you make, what decision you come to, no matter how big or small, there are a hoard of people out there, more than eager to point a finger and judge. So quick on the draw are we to give our unsolicited opinions of why we’re right and every other mother out there not doing it our way is wrong, and probably deserves whatever is coming to her. Not only are we gleefully relaying to strangers why and how they’re screwing up their children, we do not spare our sisters, our friends, our co-workers from our withering judgments either. We live and die by what has to be the biggest insinuation in our culture: You are a bad mother.
The inevitable outcome of all this passing of judgment and finger pointing is a separation, a withdrawing from one another in attempt to protect us from the derision that often comes when anything beyond having the perfect child and being the perfect mother is revealed. Those who struggle in their role as mother (as we are all apt to at various times throughout our lives) far too often struggle alone in secret and silence. Some have shared challenges previously only to be burned by the hateful charge of being an inadequate parent; some stay silent in fear of having the charge levied against them. Some simply feel embarrassment from being merely human, and not the superhero-mom that this American culture of ours say we all should be. Women with children who have special needs that perhaps are not easily discernable to the eye are often hesitant to discuss that challenge openly. The stigma of having a “problem child” can leave a mother facing the rigors of such a challenge alone, having been deserted or shunned by family and friends alike who may be uncomfortable being in close proximity with a disorder that is difficult to understand, or again, allowing prejudices to change the dynamics of a relationship with the mother. The every day realities and responsibilities of caring for any child, being one deemed as “normal” or a child with special needs (be those needs physical, developmental, emotional, or behavioral) can serve as the force that separates mothers from others as well.
I know that there are men out there doing the same work, living very similar parenting experiences as mothers; I don’t mean to ignore that. I myself have a wonderfully engaged husband who is a true partner in parenting our children. However, the reality of our culture is that parenting expectations for men are considerably lower than those for women. It’s a rare thing to hear men in a tit-for-tat conversation picking another father apart because he didn’t co-sleep with his infant (or because he did). They usually are not shaming each other for the occasional late pick up from little league, or for having a child who has a mental illness. Our culture generally does not point the same finger at Dad that is pointed at Mom. How many pundits have you heard criticizing Adam Lanza’s father for parenting choices compared to the rapidly increasing criticisms of his mother’s choices?
We talk a good game in this country, having in recent years incessantly repeated the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but I can’t help but look at the story of Nancy Lanza that is being told and wonder, where was her village? According to reports, Ms. Lanza was the sole caregiver to her special needs 20-year-old son, Adam. Adam’s father and she had divorced, and off Dad went to a new life with a new wife, supposedly having not spoken to his son in two years. Ms. Lanza’s older son lives in another state, also reportedly having not spoken to his troubled brother in two years. During an interview with Ms. Lanza’s brother he stated that he had not seen his nephew in eight years. I don’t mean to pass judgment on these family members, and obviously I don’t know these people personally or the why and how of their circumstances, but it appears that Nancy Lanza dealt with her son and his challenges for the most part alone. Raising a healthy, “normal” child is one of the greatest challenges in life, and doing it as a single parent puts you in the exceptional category. I cannot imagine what one must endure to raise a child with special needs as a single parent.
I think about how as a mother you make decisions to the best of your abilities, with the highest hopes that the result of those decisions are positive and beneficial to your child’s well-being. But when they don’t turn out as planned and hoped for, the devastation of having done something that impacts your child negatively is one of life’s most difficult consequences to live with. I can’t help but feel great sorrow and regret for Ms. Lanza in her decision to bring guns into her child’s life. We can stand outside the horrific carnage her son caused and very easily see that such a decision was poor at best, and from this view it is the easiest of all actions to judge and blame. Although I cannot imagine coming to the same conclusion about the role of guns in my household or in my children’s lives, I can understand her thinking behind the motive. Having grown up with guns as an integral part of her life, it is reported that she believed that teaching her son how to properly shoot and handle guns was necessary, and an excellent way to teach him a responsibility that would double as a confidence booster as well. As a mother, my heart breaks for her, having the destiny of making such a grave mistake, and it resulting in the biggest nightmare that a parent can have: your child going out into the world and reeking havoc on society. I am sorry for Ms. Lanza that her decision indirectly caused the deaths of so many, including her son’s and her own.
I wish that we could put an end to the practice of constantly judging women in their roles of mother. I’ve lived in France as well, and my perception of how mothers are regarded in that culture in comparison to the American culture is markedly different. To me, it seems that in France women are seen as women first, and their role as mother is just another aspect of who they are, like their profession and political views and sexuality, but in America, it seems as if once a woman becomes a mother that role instantly shifts to the defining factor of who she is, and all of her other aspects line up behind that. Being viewed as a woman first leaves you room to have faults and be human, while being perceived as a mother above all else seems to leave you constantly falling short of some contrived societal idea of what a mother should be.
Women are more powerful now than they’ve ever been at any other time in the history of this country. My hope for the New Year is that we utilize that power to finally recognize the damage that we are doing by holding ourselves to these ridiculously impossible standards of what a “good” mother is and work to change our ways for the better. The constant judging and tearing apart of each other has got to end. The shame from having challenging experiences in raising children needs to go away. A mother with a child who is mentally ill or exhibiting bad behavior or experiencing whatever outside the realm of “normal” should not be accused of causing the problem, and should not have to be isolated because of the problem either. We need to support each other in our mothering; our children need it, and our society needs it too.
I will go to bed tonight with the faces of those lovely children in my head, and with prayers in my heart for their devastated parents. I hope to sleep tonight peacefully, free of the sorrow and fear that have haunted my dreams since Friday. I am sure that my last thoughts before I drift off will be of Nancy Lanza, and of what I can do to bridge the separation I’ve felt for so long between myself and almost every other woman I know, all of us doing the best we can in the hardest role life has to offer.