Performative Mothering: College Admissions Edition


The recently revealed college admissions bribery scandal is, of course, a story of money and privilege. But there’s an aspect that’s receiving less attention even though it may be more important. The scheme is the inevitable result of contemporary mothering philosophy — performative mothering — that treats children as maternal props from birth.

According to the Washington Post:

The Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people — including two television stars — with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with lackluster grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities.

The allegations included cheating on entrance exams and bribing college officials to say certain students were athletic recruits when those students were not in fact athletes, officials said…

The public face has become two celebrity mothers, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Raise the child you have, not the one you wish you had.[/pullquote]

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were accused of paying $500,000 in bribes so their two daughters would be designated as recruits for the University of Southern California rowing team — even though they were not part of the team. That helped the pair get into USC, according to the complaint.


Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 — disguised as a charitable donation — to the Key Worldwide Foundation so her oldest daughter could participate in the scam. A confidential informant told investigators that he advised Huffman that he could arrange for a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took it. She ended up scoring a 1420 — 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier, according to court documents.

But for me the detail that is most telling is that there is no evidence that the children actually wanted what the mothers schemed to get them. Unbeknownst to the children, they were being used as props to enhance the women’s image of themselves as mothers.

Loughlin’s daughter Olivia, a social media star in her own right, has made it very clear that she doesn’t care about her education:

In April 2017, she tweeted, “it’s so hard to try in school when you don’t care about anything you’re learning,” but the apathy peaked about a month before she was set to enroll at USC in September. She posted a YouTube video in which she admitted she “didn’t know how much” school she would attend. She told her followers she hoped she would “try and balance it all,” and said she was looking forward to “game days” and “partying,” but didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about the experience.

Which raises the questions:

Why couldn’t Loughlin raise the child she had?
Why did she try to make her into the child she preferred?
Simply put, why did she treat her daughter like a prop instead of a person?

The answer, at least in part, can be found in the rise of performative mothering.

As I recently explained, 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 — you perform it — micro-branding yourself by your choices, and disseminating a carefully curated portrayal through social media, artlessly seeking validation through the “likes” of strangers.

I write about the role of performative mothering in childbirth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting and vaccination, but I’m well aware that it extends throughout childhood, up to college and possibly even after that.

In 2019, we are immersed in a culture that believes there is a best way to give birth, the less medical intervention the better. But birth is not “one size fits all.” Some babies are harmed and some even die because — in an effort to mirror the ideal — their mothers refuse lifesaving medical interventions. The baby is just a prop in the mother’s birth performance.

We are immersed in a culture that believes that there is a best way to feed a baby: breast is best. But infant feeding is not “one size fits all.” Breast is not best for every mother and every baby, yet mothers are pressured into literally starving their babies (sometimes leading to permanent brain injuries and death) to continue to breastfeed. The baby is just a prop in the mother’s performance of breastfeeding.

The performative aspect is particularly prominent in breastfeeding promotion, including the emphasis on enforced breastfeeding in hospitals, enforced rooming in, and the near hysteria surrounding public breastfeeding. Lactivists, professional and lay, are obsessed with the public performance of breastfeeding under the gaze of other women.

In 2019, we are immersed in a culture that believes that there are best places to go to college. But education is not “one size fits all.” A college that may be best for one child, may the wrong place for many others. USC is a great institution for some children, but it can be a disaster for an uninterested child unqualified to attend. No matter. Loughlin viewed her daughter as a prop for her performance of motherhood, not a person with needs and desires of her own.

The mothers, indeed all the parents, in the bribery scheme stand to pay significant legal and financial penalties for their unlawful behavior, but they face another penalty that may have greater long term costs. These mothers will have to explain to their children why they treated them as props, wishing them to be something they were not, and paying people so they could perform their mothering to the rest of the world.

There is a lesson here for mothers of children of all ages: raise the child you have, not the one you wish you had.