The Rebel Girl: Not the Hallmark Version

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Catherine Sameh

Like most holidays celebrated in the United States, the commercialization of Mother’s Day arouses our deepest mythic conceptions and hides the reality of daily life, in this case, for most mothers today. Though feminist activism and scholarship has done much to reveal the truth behind the June Cleaver facade, cultural attachments to a vision of the ideal mother remain, making us all vulnerable, to some degree, to Hallmark’s version of how things should be.

What is the reality for mothers and their children in the United States today? In her compelling book, Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and Their Children in the Other America Valerie Polakow provides some chilling statistics from the Children’s Defense Fund’s 1991 report, The State of America’s Children. One out of four infants, one out of five children, and one out of two single mothers live in poverty. In 1989, fifty-two percent of poor families were headed by single mothers. As the impoverishment of women and children deepens, attacks on welfare — in the guise of “reform” — proliferate. In 1990, the highest welfare grant a family of three received was $367 per month, or fifty-five percent below the poverty level.

Against these grim facts, the persistent view that individual women are to blame for their — and their children’s — plight serves to block any real changes in public policy and ideology that might bring women and children permanently out of poverty. The deeply held stereotype of women on welfare as lazy and uncaring continues to mask the starkly opposite truth that the mere survival of poor women and children demonstrates a resourcefulness and integrity unknown to those of moderate or surplus means.

While poor mothers are penalized for having children, poor women, particularly women of color and young women, who want children are strongly encouraged — and now more frequently forced — to forgo, temporarily or permanently, their capacity to bear children through sterilization, Norplant or Depo Provera. Upper-income women, on the other hand, are encouraged to have children by any means necessary.

The reality of life for most mothers is far more complex than any Mother’s Day propaganda reveals. Even for privileged women, the burden of caring for children still falls largely on their shoulders, and the ultimate fate of their children rests in their hands. And poor or not, lesbian women who have or desire children receive nowhere near the societal support their heterosexual counterparts do. In addition, the fact that motherhood is still so closely tied to the notion of what it means to be a woman makes life for women who choose never to bear children full of particular complexities and struggles.

A real celebration of motherhood would require some very radical changes in both ideology and policy. Until we have, at the very minimum, universal, community-controlled health and child care, decent jobs, affordable housing, and shared responsibility for children between men and women, the equation of motherhood with honor and dignity remains perhaps the biggest lie of all.

ATC 50, May-June 1994