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.