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What to do about the overly-motherly mother?

March 23, 2010 at midnight
Updated March 22, 2010 at 10:23 p.m.


Q: Help me. My wife and I have been married for about 10 years. We have one child, a 3-year-old boy. Ever since our son was born, our marriage has slowly slipped away as she has become more and more absorbed into motherhood. She dotes on him constantly, talks to him constantly, praises him for every little thing he does, and does things for him he's perfectly capable of doing for himself. If I bring up the fact that our marriage is becoming an illusion, she gets very angry at me, accusing me of having no appreciation for the demands of motherhood and so on. I don't see many demands except those she is putting on herself. What can I do?

A: A couple of months ago, following a talk I gave in Georgia, a woman told me she had been offended by my many references to mothers who are enmeshed in their children's lives. These women, when I talk to them about this issue, and if they are able to bring some degree of objectivity to the conversation, admit that they have virtually abandoned their marriages. The offended woman felt that I was "putting it all on women."

In a sense, I am. During the past 40 years, since the advent of what I call "psychological parenting," the role of the adult female in the family has morphed considerably: once primarily a wife, now primarily a mother. In the process, "mother" has become infused with pressure, stress, anxiety and guilt. The typical female parent - if I can get her to relax her defenses concerning the subject - tells me that she feels lots of pressure from her peers to "perform" in certain public ways in order to validate her motherhood. The interesting thing is that they nearly all say this. Obviously, therefore, the peers who are applying (and simultaneously submitting to) this performance pressure are all of them (rare exceptions noted).

The performance in question involves putting one's child at the center of one's attention and scurrying about in a constant quest to raise the bar of expectation on all the other mothers, who are all doing the same.

So, at speaking engagements, I say to my audiences, who average 60/40 to the female side of life, "Raising children is the most stressful thing a woman will do in her adult life, more stressful than running a major corporation." And then I ask, "Anyone disagree?" When no one disagrees, and no one ever has, I up the ante: "Raising children has become bad for the mental health of women. Anyone disagree?" No one has ever disagreed. I go on to ask, "Why are women submitting to this? Certainly this is more oppressive than a glass ceiling or having other professional doors irrevocably shut. No?" No one disagrees.

In the 1960s, women decided they would no longer stand for being limited in any arbitrary way. In the new millennium, women submit to arbitrary limits as soon as they have children. In the 1960s, women complained about men treating them as if they were mere objects. Forty years later, women allow their children to treat them as mere objects. In the 1960s, women began demanding a new kind of respect. Today, women teach their children that women exist to solve their problems and fetch. And yes, there are laudable exceptions, but this seems to be the clear norm.

Consequently, you are by no means the first male to bemoan the problem and ask how his marriage can be salvaged. Perhaps you might dare to begin by putting this column on the counter next to a dozen roses. As for the complaint of that woman in Georgia, indeed, if this is going to be changed, women are going to have to decide, as they did some 40 years ago, that they've had enough. In this case, however, men are looking forward to it.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.

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