Why Is It (Still) the Mother’s Fault?: A Response to Catherine Deveny

Last week, we had an impassioned response to Catherine Deveny’s Lunchbox/Soapbox decrying ‘helicopter parents’ in favour of ‘70s parenting’. Here, novelist and mum Jessie Cole gives another side to the story – examining why some mothers feel such an oppressive sense of responsibility for their children’s well-being. She asks: How – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault?

Image: Jessie Cole

I live in a small town way out in the country where – it’s true – debates about helicopter parenting are pretty rare. Here packs of sunburned kids ride helmetless around our winding roads, the wind blowing through their sweaty hair, the sun reflecting off their freckled faces. They ride to the local waterholes where they leap from rope swings, flying through the air like amateur circus performers, not a parent in sight.

And yes, excepting the odd hospital admission, usually they are fine.

But despite their general robustness, when I watch my sons ride off into the distance I do worry about their heads, their skin, and their pre-manhood bodies. I worry because I love them, and children, in all manner of ways, are vulnerable.

When my first baby was four months old I was sitting on the grass at the local playgroup – the little guy on my lap – when he stopped breathing and turned blue. It seemed he was choking, but I couldn’t find the offending object by scooping around in his mouth. Patting on the back produced nothing. Seconds passed. Perhaps a minute. My baby wasn’t breathing. A more experienced mother came to my aid, giving him the baby version of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, and he vomited up a piece of leaf smaller than a five cent piece. I cried for an hour, hiccupy and inconsolable. How could I think I could raise a child when I couldn’t even keep him safe from the threat of miniscule leaf segments?

The weight of the responsibility hung heavy about my neck. And, of course, that was just the beginning.

When Catherine Deveny decries helicopter parents and all their associated neuroses, she avoids the very persistent reality for many mothers: that of an oppressive sense of responsibility. Does she really assume this arises in a vacuum? That these ‘competitive’ and ‘annoying’ super-mums are singly playing out their varying degrees of neediness or ‘abandonment issues’ – blindly – to the detriment of their children?

Because that is a very harsh call.

I suspect if we dug a little deeper we’d find that mothers feel responsible for every facet of their child’s development because everyone else thinks they are responsible too.

The bigger question for me is – how – in the giant, multifaceted and complicated society we all inhabit – can everything still be the mother’s fault? No wonder those highly qualified over-achievers are trying so hard to be the best mothers they can when the pressure is so undeniably huge, when their child’s ‘outcomes’ rest squarely on their shoulders.

But the irony is that mothers can never do right. Try too hard and they are creating ‘dysfunctional co-dependence’, slack off a bit and they are charged with neglect.

And yes, I was a child of the 1970s. I too got driven around in a car with my dad chain-smoking, all the windows up. Heck, I even ate catfood. Didn’t everyone? But nowadays I think we are all a bit more savvy to the effect our childhoods have on the people we become.

I too want my kids to be brave, resilient, optimistic and independent. So by all means let’s discuss it: benevolent neglect, quality boredom, and independence as a result of parental indifference. Funny, yes. A great tagline. And maybe it’s a good starting point. I know that when I imagine my boys flying through the air on that rope swing I am simultaneously terrified and exultant, but the joy of it wins out in the end.

I just wish in these discussions we could stop throwing out barbs and get to the heart of it.

Jessie Cole's son with a broken arm - 'all just part of the game' of parenting.

Jessie Cole's son with a broken arm - 'all just part of the game' of parenting (supplied)

In a culture saturated with mixed messages aimed at children, where the average age a child views pornography is 11 and gender stereotypes dog their every move, where making healthy food choices is bamboozling even for the educated adult, where we are force-fed instant gratification as a way of life but becoming good at anything still takes energy and effort, where a lack of resources sets some of us up for significant disadvantage, where fear-mongering is a large part of the political landscape, where environmental destruction looms always on the horizon, where technological addiction and a multiplicity of anxieties are rife among our numbers. Where broken arms, cracked heads, fractured feet, black eyes, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, school sores, cellulitis, teeth abscesses, asthma, allergies and learning difficulties are all just part of the game. (And, yes, between them my kids have had them all!)

Why – in this confusing and hazardous climate – is everything still the mother’s fault?

When I see those helicopter parents anxiously hovering, I try not to judge them. Instead, I imagine the terrible weight of responsibility our culture hangs about their necks. They are the gatekeepers, and if things go wrong they will be held accountable. And I think of that tiny segment of leaf that nearly blocked my baby’s windpipe.

How can we help mothers be resilient in the face of so much risk?

Portrait of Jessie Cole

Jessie Cole’s work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, Island Magazine and the Big Issue. This year sees the publication of her debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town.

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