Myrna, Mira and the rise of performative mothering

Women bowing on stage after a concert

Yesterday I wrote about the way that mothering has changed between fictional grandmother Myrna and her fictional granddaughter Mira.

Myrna assumed that her child would turn out fine without any special effort. Mira assumes her child will be a fat, unhappy, failure unless she interposes herself between him and the myriad risks she imagines he faces.

The ultimate irony is that while Mira imagines her grandmother as oblivious to high stakes of childrearing, Myrna managed to raise the happy successful adult that Mira dreams of creating with a massive amount of effort.

This difference reflects a fundamental change in the way that we view both risk and our reaction to it. Myrna was not unaware of the risks her child faced, but she didn’t believe that she could control them. Mira, on the other hand, is hyper-aware of the risks her child might face and believes that her primary purpose is to identify and manage those risks.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Mira is a stylist of motherhood, selecting from parenting identities and practices to present a meticulously crafted mothering persona designed for gaze of other mothers.[/pullquote]

For example, Myrna fed her son John canned vegetables while Mira prepares Jace’s food herself from organic produce that she sources at specialty markets. Myrna did not know or worry about toxins; Mira is obsessed with protecting her child from toxins, including toxins that are purely imaginary.

But there is another critical difference between Myrna’s experience and Mira’s. The intervening half century has witnessed the rise of performative mothering. A mother used to be something you were; now it’s something you do, hence the term “mothering.” And you do it under the gaze of other mothers, micro-branding yourself by your choices, and disseminating a carefully curated portrayal through social media, artlessly seeking validation through the “likes” of strangers.

When it came to raising John, Myrna might have feared the judgments of her mother and mother-in-law but she did not particularly fear the judgment of her peers since they were all doing the same thing. Everyone went to the hospital to have a baby; everyone was unconscious at the moment of birth; everyone bottle fed. For better or for worse, there was incredible uniformity in parenting practices.

Mira, in contrast, faces not merely the judgment of her peers, but she actively submits herself to the judgment of the larger world by engaging on Facebook. Mira is a stylist of motherhood, selecting from parenting identities and practices to present a meticulously crafted mothering persona designed for the gaze of other mothers.

In theory Mira carefully choreographed the experience of Jace’s birth because unmedicated vaginal birth is “better” for the baby; in truth she choreographed it to demonstrate to other mothers that she is a “natural” mother. That’s why she was so devastated when her birth did not go according to plan.

In theory Mira starved her baby because breastfeeding is “better” than formula feeding; in truth she let Jace suffer to preserve her natural mothering “cred” in the view of other mothers.

In theory Mira has created a alternative vaccine schedule because it is “better” for Jace; in truth she consulted other mothers extensively in order to “perform” natural mothering for the delectation of her peers.

Moreover, Mira hired other professionals, like a midwife and a doula, who understood — and therefore reinforced — the notion of mothering as a performance staged for the gaze of other mothers.

As Markella Rutherford and Selina Gallo-Cruz explain in Great Expectations: Emotion as Central to the Experiential Consumption of Birth:

… [T]he midwife’s role is critical … because she is fluent in the alternative symbolic orientations to and understandings of natural birth … [She] also provides her association and emotional support either by sharing beliefs about the experience or by affirming the woman’s right to assign her own unique beliefs to birthing. This seemingly simple service of association and presence is a critical social need in the context of extraordinary experiences and rites of passage that depend a shared cultural consensus for their significance.

While a midwife may have a medical function in addition to her role in confirming the performative nature of birth, a doula has no function beyond the permformative aspect of birth. Women hire doulas for the primary purpose of relentlessly reminding them of the image they wish to craft and bolstering the imperative to perform when pain or exhaustion threaten the mother’s commitment to the performance. Toward that end relieving pain with an epidural is framed as “giving in” and a C-section is framed as a failure.

While a lactation consultant has a medical function in addition to confirming the performative nature of exclusive breastfeeding, she also serves as a goad to ignoring the suffering of both baby and mother in an effort to continue the performance. Simply hiring her protects the mother from the judgment of her peers since a lactation consultant can give her “permission” to supplement with formula or stop breastfeeding altogether on medical grounds.

The rise of performative mothering explains the distrust engendered between natural mothering advocates on the one hand and obstetricians and pediatricians on the other hand. Most obstetricians and pediatricians are not fluent in the requirements of performative motherhood and are therefore not supportive of sacrificing the baby’s health and wellbeing for the express purpose of crafting an image designed for consumption by other mothers.

In contrast, quacks and charlatans like Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bob Sears are successful precisely because they are fluent in the language of performative motherhood and are willing to countenance and even bless anything, no matter how dangerous, in the pursuit of micro-branding and image curation.

Finally, the performative nature of contemporary motherhood requires fabricating an endless series of threats to children that can only be ameliorated by mothers.

Perinatal mortality, infant mortality, and child mortality are at historic lows. Vaccine preventable diseases have been nearly vanquished. Rates of sudden infant death syndrome are falling. Congenital defects like heart disease can be treated. Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are rare. Foods and medications are safer than ever because of government oversight.

In other words, while Mira worries far more about her child than Myrna did, the actual threats to Mira’s child are smaller than those that Myrna’s child faced. But you’d never know that if you are part of the natural parenting culture, where motherhood is performed as the management of a never ending series of risks.

  • Lisa

    Amen to all of this. Get over yourself and let the kid grow up.

  • Ayr

    This reminds me of a FB post I saw recently of an acquaintance from HS, she recently went back to work after having her second child and posted a picture of her breast pump with full bottles on her desk at work next to her calendar and other sundry work items. Her caption was along the lines of, ‘Working mom, breast pumping at work, women’s power.’ And there were so many people that applauded her for mothering the right way, and telling her what a great job she was doing, and what a great example she is to everyone. And all I was thinking, ‘Ewww, I don’t want to see your breast milk. And how is this women’s power when you are you rubbing it in everyone’s faces and basically jumping up and down waving your arms saying look at me.’ It’s attention grabbing and performative motherhood at it’s best. I don’t post anything on social media, no pics of my son, no updates, not even his name, because being a mother is not a competition about who does it best, it’s about raising a stable healthy tiny human to adult hood. If they are still breathing at the end of the day, you’ve done good.

    • rational thinker

      You are absolutely correct, did anyone tell her that most working moms don’t have jobs that can support pumping while at work.

      • Ayr

        God no! They were all, ‘Oh how thoughtful of you!’, ‘What a wonderful mother you are!’ There is no way anyone would tell her that. Everything about performative mothering is self-righteous and ignorant of the needs and struggles of others.

  • H1N1

    Wonderfully lucid logic and acerbic writing. What a sad commentary on the times we seem to be living in !

  • rational thinker

    I remember when I had my first baby being advised by doctors, nurses and even reading in pamphlets for new moms that if you feel you are getting too stressed out with the baby to put baby in crib and leave the room for 5 minutes. That’s was good advice it gives an overwhelmed or stressed out mom the chance to calm down and collect herself. If a mom did this today she would probably get a visit from cps.

    • Heidi

      I think that advice is still given to prevent shaken baby, but I’m sure there are those that scoff at such advice and say a good parent would never lose their calm with a colicky baby when they may be sleeping 2 or 3 hours a night on a good night.

      • guest

        My pediatrician gives this advice at every well baby check-up as well as asking about getting regular breaks from the baby by having others watch/care for them. All the advice ultimately benefits baby if the parent doesn’t lose their cool, but it feels like the pediatrician actually cares about how the whole family is doing. They also give lots of examples of how they survived their own kid’s babyhoods, I think to make new parents feel less like they are failing if they need a break.

    • Ayr

      Our pediatrician still gives that advice, it helped a lot when I was a new mother and trying to figure out what each cry meant. I still use that advice, if my toddler gets on my nerves and I am at the point of screaming at him, I walk to my bedroom and close the door.

  • AnnaD2013

    Being a mom requires a lot of things that performative motherhood isn’t. You have to be able to put the true good of your child in the forefront when making decisions.. Performative mothering puts the mother and her outer image at the forefront when making decisions.

    Note: it is perfectly healthy to put your needs before your child’s. However, that is not What performative mothering does. Performative mothering, similar to being a “martyr mommy,” allows women to unrepentantly show off their “perfect” mothering decisions and their “perfect” children to the echo chamber of other martyr mommies who do it the same way. They shame mothers who choose to formula feed, to cry it out, to go back to work, and to use disposable diapers into silence.

  • sagebrush

    Long time reader here, but first comment. A bit off-topic, but wantsd to share something positive. Just had baby #3 at same hospital as baby #2 2 years ago. Two years ago, that hospital (only major hospital in a 100 mile radius) was starting on the BFHI and I was dreading hearing the rhetoric this time around (especially after being given a lecture on skin to skin during pre registration). Well, I was pleasantly surprised. No more mentions of BFHI. All about safe sleep now. The nurses were very happy to take the baby in the nursery for a few hours so I could rest. As baby was ravenous and my milk hadn’t come in, I asked the nurses for formula which was given promptly and without questions (one of the nurses even said that was the best thing for baby!). I even heard the IBCLC consultant share her concerns with another nurse about a mom who refused to supplement. Just wanted to share!

    • Who?

      Congratulations on the baby, glad to hear they hospital has moved to kinder, more sensible and safer practices.

    • Excellent! The hospital I used made a similar move between the births of my second and third babies. I think something of a revolt against BFHI is brewing.

    • Madtowngirl

      Thank you for sharing! I have many of the same concerns as I’m days from delivering my second at a hospital that previously boasted about being BFHI. I’m hoping my experience is more like yours this time around.

    • demodocus

      Wonderful for hearing this!

    • AnnaD2013

      Congratulations on your baby! So glad the hospital is following sensible & safe feeding and sleeping practices!