Performative Mothering: College Admissions Edition

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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.

Raise the child you have, not the one you wish you had.

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.

And:

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.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    It’s well and good to connect the phenomenon of the prestigious college rat race and the extreme behavior it seems to inspire among the most privileged (which extends beyond this event) to performative mothering but, um, don’t most of these kids have fathers too? Maybe they delegated the task of cheating to get Junior into The Right College to their wives because kid-related stuff tends to be mom’s job, whether it’s honest or criminal. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t part of it. And the entitlement and privilege-hoarding this all represents goes so far beyond performative mothering. I don’t want this to be just one more way to blame mothers for everything. I doubt they were flying solo. And yet, while I’m hearing plenty of hate directed at the kids, most of whom didn’t even know their parents were doing this, it’s pretty much radio silence when it comes to the fathers. They own bad parenting too.

  • Banrion

    I’m sorry, there is no way to this have happened “unbeknownst” to the intended student. They had to post for fake pictures participating in these activities, they had to sit for interviews with the school, they had to play along for the scheme to work. These are entitled brats who have been raised to believe that because they have money they don’t have to put in any effort for anything.

    Are they brats because of their parents’ decisions in child rearing? Yes. But these now ADULT students are just as involved in the lies and cheating as the wallets behind them.

    • rational thinker

      The one girl did not even seem to want to go to college at all. Normally I would not defend any entitled little brats, but if you have a mother like that even if you are 18 you had better listen and do what you are told to make mom look good or else and that is the sad part.

      • Banrion

        Yes, just like their parents they chose what is comfortable over what is right. Even before she was in college OJ there had 1M instagram followers, so she had her own income separate from her parents purse strings. But it’s easier to just do what mommy wants and not have to think or work for herself.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        She also has a dad…

    • E.C.

      In some of the articles, they mention that parents had the option of having their child’s SAT answers corrected with or without the child’s knowledge. Some of the parents chose not to tell the child. Those are the students I feel bad for, the ones who studied hard and thought they’d brought up their own score.

    • Lisa Cybergirl

      Reportedly, some “athletes” did not pose for fake pictures – they had their faces photoshopped onto stock photos of young people participating in a sport.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      There were a range of crimes committed and some of them could easily be done without the kids’ knowledge. Some clearly could not be.

  • AnnaPDE

    I’d give these mums a bit more credit for good intentions.

    Apparently, at least in the actresses’ cases, we’re talking about people who didn’t go to university themselves, and want their kids to get the kind of “good” education that they see as the basis for a successful, good life. They’re doing whatever they can to set up their kid’s long-term well-being, even if said kid is clearly spoiled and would rather just keep up their short term non-plan of wasting mum and dad’s money and posting duck face photos on the ‘gram.

    Not that I’d agree with the approach of bribing your children’s way into university, or that it would actually do the kids any good, but I don’t see any bragging or similar that would indicate they did it as a status symbol.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Here’s the dumb part about what they did: If you have a half a mil laying around, instead of using it to bribe some fancy college, stick it in a trust and give it to your kid when they graduate from State U.

      I can tell you, a degree from State U and and half a million dollars will go a lot farther than a degree from USC and no cash in hand.

      It’s like the parents who drop hundreds of thousands of dollars sending their kids to the best athletic club teams and camps, because they hope to get an athletic scholarship, because, you know, “it’s an investment.” But if they just took that money and put it in a 529 account, they could easily pay for college without any athletic scholarships.

      • demodocus

        besides, the odds of getting an athletic scholarship are tiny. The kids who deservedly get one (as opposed to these kids) generally don’t need all the rigamarole. Except maybe tennis, because that sport is ridiculously expensive from what PBSNewsHour tells me.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          Make no mistake about it, most sports are ridiculously expensive these days to play through club. And for sure, you can significantly improve your chances of getting a scholarship through the right channels and club teams.

          But those costs are huge, and it’s just easier to save the money

          • BeatriceC

            Sports in general are expensive. My middle is back to figure skating. He’s not aiming to be competitive, just for fun, and maybe aiming for performing groups like Disney on Ice. But still, the money I dump into it makes my checking account cry. It’s worth it if the child likes what they’re doing, but I get your point about not being worth it if the only reason is to get scholarships.

      • rational thinker

        Have you ever seen that documentary trophy kids? I think that is what its called, anyway it shows 5 different kids and how much the parents pressure them to be the best athlete. It shows a lot of degrading of the kids and mental abuse the parents carry out on them, its sad.

      • AnnaPDE

        The half million dollar one is plainly a rubbish financial decision, but also an exception.
        The typical customer was paying around $15-20k to cheat on the SAT and entrance tests instead, which makes much more sense financially.

    • Daleth

      at least in the actresses’ cases, we’re talking about people who didn’t
      go to university themselves, and want their kids to get the kind of
      “good” education that they see as the basis for a successful, good life

      These parents HAVE successful, good lives despite not having gone to college. So I don’t think that’s the mindset. I think they’re so high-class now that they would be embarrassed to tell their friends that their kid is at community college or not going to college at all.

      And I don’t think good intentions count for anything if the message you’re sending your kids is this: “You’re such a shmuck, such a loser, we both know you could never accomplish this yourself. So don’t even bother trying; just let us handle it for you.”

      I’m sure that’s not what these parents were trying to tell their kids, but that actually is the message this sends. Not, “You can do it, honey! Try hard and you can do anything,” but “If you tried this yourself you’d fail, so let us get it done for you.”

      • AnnaPDE

        They’d be idiots though to rely on the remote chance that their kid will be as 1-in-1000 fortunate as they were. They’re probably aware how many fellow aspiring actresses didn’t make it. And then they look at their kid and see this spoiled little idiot who thinks that “influencer” and “vlogger” are something you can live off long-term, and have difficulty scribbling something that passes as letters, and know just how wrong this can go.

        Sure, the way they’re going about ensuring that their kid has a solid basis is completely counterproductive on many levels (not least the one you point out), but I doubt it’s purely trying to look good. If it were, they’d be less obviously inept at getting it done.

        • Daleth

          They’d be idiots though to rely on the remote chance that their kid will be as 1-in-1000 fortunate as they were

          Oh, not at all. Their kids are already 1000 times as fortunate as they were, because they’re the kids of wealthy, famous Hollywood actors. There are plenty of Hollywood dynasties that suggest (as common sense would also suggest) that it’s much easier to become a movie actor/director/executive if one of your parents already is.

          I mean seriously: Drew Barrymore of the multi-generational Barrymore dynasty; Gwyneth Paltrow, daughter of actor Blythe Danner and director Bruce Paltrow; Angelina Jolie, daughter of actors Marcheline Bertrand and Jon Voight; George Clooney, the nephew of Rosemary Clooney; Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis; Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher; Liza Minelli, daughter of Judy Garland and film director Vincent Minelli; Isabella Rosselini, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini; Rashida Jones, daughter of a TV actor and Motown mogul Quincy Jones; Mariska Hargitay, daughter of 50s bombshell Jayne Mansfield; Matthew Broderick, son of TV actor James Broderick…

          The list goes on and on and ON. And of course, there’s crossover between different parts of showbiz. Famous 1980s drummer/singer Phil Collins’ daughter, Lily Collins, is a well-known young actress. Paul McCartney’s daughter Stella is a famous fashion designer. And so forth.

          Show biz is to a large degree a hereditary job. The same is true of a lot of jobs — I can’t even count the number of hotshot big-firm lawyers I’ve known whose parents were lawyers, judges or prosecutors too. And I know how that happens, because I’ve overheard older elite-firm partners casually discussing their latest efforts to get their kids into the pipeline: “I told [client, the general counsel at a huge Fortune 500 company] my son was looking for an internship this summer,” etc.

          So these kids are about as far as it’s possible to be from starting at ground zero or operating on a level playing field with other kids their age.

          • rational thinker

            Youre right. I was going to say something about this earlier. It really pisses me off that hollywood is that way. Miley cyrus would probably be working at burger king, but daddy is famous. My son is going to film school after he graduates he wants to be a director and screenwriter and already has written 2 movie scripts but Hard work and earning the career does not seem to matter anymore. It almost makes me think twice about paying for film school.

          • Daleth

            I know, right???

            If you don’t have infinite cash for film school and/or he VERY WISELY doesn’t want to go deeply in debt, I wonder if he could get the experience and connections he needs by studying in LA, but at a community college:

            https://www.lacitycollege.edu/Academic-Departments/Cinema-TV/Department-Home

            http://www.smc.edu/AcademicPrograms/Communication/Pages/Film-Production.aspx

            Maybe he could do an associate’s degree there for something like $6000/year, while getting way more experience than he could possibly get in any other city, and then once he has CA residency and a portfolio, transfer to UCLA’s film school at in-state tuition rates (currently under $13k/year) or Cal State Northridge (about the same).

          • rational thinker

            We live in NJ so he is gonna try to go to a film school in new york cause its close and they have some of the best film schools in the country, After he finishes we have discussed maybe trying to find work with a film company in Canada. We figure it may be easier to get started in the industry with a Canadian company.

  • Who?

    This subject makes me sad and even a bit angry.

    We saw a lot of performative parenting when my kids were growing up.

    It seems to stunt their growth as individuals, and sometimes the only way they ever grow up is to completely cut off. Which of course their parents do for them if they fall too far from the tree.

    The big thing the ones who don’t get beyond it learn is that appearances are everything-never mind what’s going on behind closed doors, the show must go on. Any wonder that generation love Instagram and Facebook (or whatever has replaced them)-their entire valuable life experience is tied up in what the world thinks of them. Any wonder they are also into botox and fake tan and whatever other ‘beauty’ horrors are available, since how they appear is actually how they are.

  • rational thinker

    I have known kids that were forced to do so many activities just so mom could brag, and none of them turned out well. That’s why I was determined to never force anything on my kids and I have a great relationship with my son as a result. I have always made sure to encourage his interests and not mine.
    A few months ago I had an argument with my son, I don’t remember what it was about but a few hours after he came to my room to say something to me. He said “mom I know even though we have arguments sometimes I just want to tell you that I am glad you are my mom. I think you are a great mom and I love you. I have seen other kids parents and I am just happy I got you”. After 17 years of parenting hearing him say this was ALL the validation I needed. In the end no matter how many mommy blogs you frequent the only person who can judge your mothering skills is your child.

    • Cartman36

      OMG! I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! My kids are too little for this kind of insight but hopefully I will get the same validation when they get older. I am a big believer that I gave my kids life so they could live it. I want them to pursue the things they are passionate about and find their own place in the world.

      Also, I saw that one of Lori Laughlin’s daughters said she only wanted to go to college to party. My kids can join the military and do all the partying they want in a barracks room like their Dad and I did when we were young. If I am paying for school, you are there to learn not party.

      • rational thinker

        Yes that girl made it pretty clear she is using college as a social event, that mindset and behavior pisses me off. I look at it this way you are taking up a spot as a student to do nothing but party. Then that means that another person who wanted to go to that school to learn wont get in cause all spots have been filled, not sure if all schools work that way but some do and its a shame. A literal waste of space.

    • Zuul

      I like how Dr. Tuteur phrased it, asking why these mothers couldn’t raise the children they had, instead trying to make them into someone else.

      That is a wonderfully sweet about your son. I hope I have as good of a relationship with my kids someday.

  • attitude devant

    Thanks for this one. Spot on.

    I sort of thought this didn’t really relate to me until my mid-20s daughters (who did very nicely without any help from me) were outraged and announced thtat they feel cheated out of a chance to play on a level field.

    I wonder what you thought of the Stanford student and Olympic cyclist who committed suicide. Some have called that ‘death by overachievement.’

    • fiftyfifty1

      That cyclist’s death was so sad. It does sound like she had an extreme driven/perfectionistic/overachieving personality type to the point where even her Olympic coaches said she stood out compared to the other Olympians. The severe cases I’ve seen of this personality type often seem inborn; the pressure isn’t coming from the family. Nobody in the family, least of all the kid, knows how to find the “off switch.” The kid has never learned to set limits, and the parents haven’t either because the kid has always melted down when they tried, often going back to toddlerhood. I see this personality type a lot with eating disorders. It’s a tough one.

    • Empliau

      Don’t forget that the poor girl had a severe concussion in December and had headaches afterward – her first suicide attempt was in January. Severe pain can change your life for the worse, and I have heard (not an expert) that depression can follow concussion.

  • mabelcruet

    Given that these students are all 17/18 years old, and there wasn’t such a huge push for breast feeding 17/18 years ago, maybe for these mothers bribery of officials and falsification of exam results is their way of making up for the huge IQ drop and the dreadfully deprived start to life their poor formula fed children suffered?

    /sarcasm….