No-Fault Motherhood. What do you think? How’s that for a concept?
It’s no secret that I watch select reality television. I take it with a grain of salt, aware that ratcheting up drama for the cameras is a must, and editing shapes our perceptions. Still, I find food for thought in these exaggerated examples of human interaction – including the way we pay lip service when expedient, and never make real changes.
Not sure what I mean?
How about “I’m sorry” when we’re not, “I understand” when we don’t, or “That’s my fault” in an act of conjured contrition… Isn’t this standard vocabulary that tumbles from the mouths of our favorite characters, not to mention most American mothers?
Haven’t we all settled for the mechanical mea culpa, fully aware it’s only lip service?
Mothers Making Excuses, Mothers Taking Blame
In my “tenure” as a mother, I’ve taken my share of hits. Most of them have been a barrage let loose by yours truly. I’ve blamed myself for events in which I shared responsibility, as well as those which were beyond my control. In other words, like many mothers, I’ve had a tendency to make excuses for others (including my kids), while swallowing a dose of ill-conceived and self-directed fault-finding.
Over the years, I came to realize that taking blame where it doesn’t belong is counterproductive. Even if feeling fault and contrition is real, if it’s excessive or misplaced, it tends to freeze us in a powerless state, rather than activating our ability to make changes in the future.
Don’t American mothers give blame or take blame? Better to take a lesson from those French mothers “bringing up bébé?”
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa
Guilt can be a useful emotion, but drowning in it (or wielding it as a weapon) is anything but.
My own mother was the Queen of Mea Culpa, especially later in life. Any attempt at discussion could result in a teary refrain of “It’s all my fault” or “I’m a terrible mother.”
Neither statement was true and neither was a constructive response to attempts at opening up potentially productive conversations. Isn’t “All-Fault Motherhood,” real or proclaimed, as silly a concept as “No-Fault Motherhood?”
Nothing is so simple, none of us operates in a vacuum, and becoming a mother myself showed me just how complex and challenging the parenting role is. But damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Carrying the burden of blame in name?
Not helpful, not helpful, not helpful!
Deflecting Issues with Pat Phrases
Thinking back to the denial illustrated in a recent episode of LA Shrinks, in which an abusive father excuses himself with something akin to “I did my best,” I also consider my mother’s tendency to resort to “it’s all my fault.”
The result is similar. It’s clear she was attempting to shut down the conversation. There was no process of working to understand her part in a situation; on the contrary, the knee-jerk “my fault” response was a barrier to empathy, much less exploring our past or working to improve our relationship.
Most of us recognize that lip service is appropriate at times. We use it to smooth things over in a potentially explosive situation, and when social convention requires it. We also sense the scenarios in which examining motives and behavior is the better choice, and without that examination, there’s little hope of real progress.
Giving Lip Service to “Accountability”
Ironically, we pay a great deal of lip service to accountability – without actually exercising accountability.
According to Dictionary.com, accountability is
the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable [to someone or for some action].
If we’re answerable or liable, doesn’t that imply some followup action or consequence – something other than wallowing, stagnating, or repeating a refrain of “my fault” or “so sorry?”
We try to teach our children to be accountable. We try to model this behavior as parents. We relate the importance of accountability – owning up to our words, our actions, and their consequences. We talk a good game, without fully understanding that words alone are the antithesis of the concept itself.
Lessons for Mothers
Mothers in particular take refuge in “it’s all my fault” when a child acts out, when a teenager makes a costly mistake, when a son or daughter doesn’t get into college, when a young adult exhibits a value system we may not approve of, or any number of other incidents or events. It’s an unfair distribution of blame, where blame achieves little and prevents learning.
I will grant that women (especially) seem to seek “lessons” from hardships. Perhaps it’s cultural conditioning to find that silver lining, and if so, I’m all for it – as long as it isn’t avoidance: confronting real issues, or perpetuating bad habits and harmful behaviors.
Can we agree that our tendency to go to extremes resolves nothing, be it deflecting responsibility for results beyond our control, or taking responsibility for outcomes in which we exercised only a measure of contributory impact?
No-Fault Motherhood? Gender, Excuses, and Accountability?
Hardly. But on Reality TV as in real reality, in my observation and experience, men are less likely to take ownership for what they haven’t caused. Again, in my observation and experience, women – American women in particular – are quick to pronounce words of fault and blame, especially when it comes to motherhood.
This wasn’t the case 30 years ago or more; in our earnest enthusiasm for doing right by our kids, we’ve gone too far. We’ve weakened our capacity for absorbing the complexity of family situations, we’ve worn ourselves out with worry (for many reasons), we’ve bought into cultural hype that tells us we’re not doing enough and we’re not doing it right.
But it would be unfair and inaccurate to single out any one factor as cause, just as we cannot point to ourselves in isolation.
Women Saying Yes to a Clear Lens
I don’t believe we should tell every truth, dissect every move, or abandon the social niceties that allow us to navigate minor bumps and steer ably to our essentials. But women need to take off the Blame Blinders, reject the finger-pointing, and view life through a clearer lens.
We learn nothing from “I did my best” with no followup, just as we accomplish nothing with “It’s all my fault” and the resulting inertia. What if we opted for more substantive credos or dispensed with credos altogether? If we truly seek lessons and takeaways, can’t we dig deeper, be circumspect in our judgments, and trash the sound bites that prevent constructive conversation, real understanding, and a shot at doing better?