Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

Mother's Day Thoughts: What's Funny, and What's Not?

Myths, Humor, and "Jokes" about Mothers

Posted May 06, 2011

As Mother's Day approaches, I thought I would post here a piece that I wrote several years ago. It was published online at on May 15, 2007. Don't you love the title of the website? Go to the site, and look at what's up there now. They have a lot of important and fascinating work. As you will see just after the title of my piece for, they provide a list of publications that have rejected articles and letters to the editor that then publishes. Incidentally, the figures referred to about who does the housework and childcare have hardly changed since 2007.

Before you read it, I want to tell you something I remembered today. When my book, Don't Blame Mother, first appeared, a journalist from one of the major women's magazines called me. For their Mother's Day issue, they wanted to report "The Best Advice My Mother Ever Gave Me" as told by numerous interviewees. They knew I had just written this book. I replied, "When you said that, a response immediately popped into my head, but could you do me a favor? Before I tell you what it is, I'm just curious to see what my mother would say. Could you please call me back in five minutes?" She agreed. I called Mother - Tac Karchmer Caplan - and told her what the journalist wanted to know. Her immediate answer: "Don't wait till you're old to say what you think." "Perfect!" I said. "That's exactly what came to my mind!" When the journalist called back, I told her what had just happened. I heard her sigh. She was disappointed. "That's not really what we were looking for," she said. "We were looking for things like how to keep mascara from running." Mother, I like your advice the best! Thank you. And Happy Mother's Day. (Mother is now 87 and still saying what she thinks.)

After the reprinted article below, I make a suggestion about what to give your mother for Mother's Day.

Mocking Mom:
Joke or Hate Speech?

Written by Paula J. Caplan, submitted to 
The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe,
Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Journal Constitution,
May 14, 2007.

Imagine: a stand-up comedian says, "I've gotta tell you about this Black guy," and people in the audience roll their eyes and guffaw... just because the comedian said, "Black guy." We would recognize this as racism. But when a comedian says, "I've gotta tell you about my mother," and people roll their eyes and guffaw, we don't usually recognize this as "momism," prejudice against mothers.

Despite increased awareness of the damage done by nasty comments about women in general, those who make such comments about women who are mothers do so with impunity.

The mocking and blaming of mothers are committed by many who would not dream of telling a generally sexist "joke" and would protest if someone else did so. But replace the word "women" with the word "mothers," and anything goes. Mothers - and stepmothers and mothers-in-law - are considered legitimate scapegoats, and when anyone objects, as I regularly do, I hear, "Oh, but you don't know my mother!"

If that stand-up comedian says, "I've gotta tell you about my father!" the audience waits to hear what's funny. Simply being a father does not put one in an easily scapegoated group; simply being a mother does. Why is the bumper sticker that reads "Mother-in-law in trunk" considered hilarious, and if it's so funny, where is there no "Father-in-law in trunk" sticker?

Why do audiences laugh uproariously when I observe, "No one ever says, ‘Thanks, Mom, for the week's worth of nourishing and tasty meals and the great job of dusting the furniture'," but wait silently for what comes next when I say, "Does anyone ever say, ‘Thanks, Dad, for the great work you did on the lawn'"? Except on Mother's Day and greeting cards, the thought of praising women for mothering work strikes us as funny. Why? Because it is unimaginable in a way that praising men for being good fathers is not.

After 20 years of doing research, clinical work, teaching, and writing about mothers, it recently struck me: Mother-blame is often hate speech. So is the mockery of mothers. That sounds melodramatic; we realize we put mothers down but don't consider ourselves frankly hateful. Hate speech, though, is vilification of a person because of their membership in a demeaned group and is aimed to shame, silence, intimidate, and otherwise control its targets. Here is one common example: A major television network producer called me last week, because she was doing a "light, funny" piece about "meddling mothers."

Mothers are expected to love and protect their children nonstop, but caring, conscientious mothers are often labeled as meddling, intrusive, and controlling or are simply ignored. So of course they feel ashamed, silenced, intimidated. The most extreme and terrifying consequence of the hatred of mothers is that the leading cause of death of pregnant women in America is murder, usually by their male partners.

I worked in a clinic where no therapist described any mother as good: They described mothers as either intrusive, smothering, and overly emotional or cold, rejecting and - if the child was male - castrating.

How do demeaning, blaming, and name-calling affect mothers? The same way they affect anyone: Mockery causes shame, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. And because mothers are blamed for anything that ever goes wrong with their children, other effects include intense fear, anxiety, self-monitoring, and exertion to the point of chronic exhaustion, because a mother's worst nightmare is her child being harmed. For more than two decades, nearly every mother I meet has acknowledged constantly judging herself, wondering whether she is intrusive and smothering or cold and rejecting. It is virtually impossible to locate the narrow band of behavior that seems acceptable for mothers.

How did it come to this?

For centuries, mothers have been expected to meet impossibly high standards and to do so without expressions of appreciation and without credit for success, although they have usually been the only ones blamed when anything bad happens to their children.

Empirical studies of therapists' articles in clinical journals have shown how far clinicians, regardless of their sex, often reach in order to blame mothers. Even the kinds of information they provide about patients' fathers often differs from what they provide about mothers: One professional reported that the patient's father was 36 and a bricklayer, while the mother was 34 and "nervous." And as a prominent radio host once said on-air just before interviewing me when, as a misbehaving young boy, he was taken to a psychiatrist, who asked what was wrong. He told the psychiatrist that his father beat him; but soon, said the host, the psychiatrist had him blaming his mother rather than his father.

Not long ago, mothers were expected to teach their daughters to be sweet, passive, and selfless and to support their sons' striving for independence, assertiveness, and achievement. They were also expected to be perfect role models for their daughters, showing how to be unfailingly good wives, mothers, and housekeepers.

With the women's movement's Second Wave, the entry of increasing numbers of women into the paid workforce, and the rise of Martha Stewart, expectations for mothers have only increased: Now, they also have to teach their daughters to be assertive and achievement-oriented and nevertheless avoid being threatening to men who have traditional ideas about women. Mothers are expected to execute flawlessly the tasks of wives, mothers, and housekeepers while also holding down a paid job...and do it all with ease and calm. Mothers who protest these superhuman standards are likely to be called selfish, ungrateful, whiny, or strident.

Myths about mothers that pervade our culture, some casting mothers in a negative light (Bad Mother myths) and some setting impossibly high standards, so that mothers look bad because they fail to meet them (Perfect Mother myths). It is fascinating that some myths are mutually exclusive, such as the Perfect Mother myth that "Mothers naturally know everything about raising happy, healthy children" and the Bad Mother myth that "Mothers cannot raise happy, healthy children without lots of help from experts." Such mutually exclusive myths serve the function of keeping mothers scapegoated: With a myth for every occasion, everything mothers do can be used to support the claim that they are deficient.

All of this happens in a social and political culture that has limited high-quality, affordable daycare; underpays women relative to men; and penalizes parents of both sexes when they leave work to care for ill children: Women are "not truly committed to their job," and "What kind of man takes time off work to care for a kid?!" Furthermore, despite the spate of books on "The New Man," the average father living with wife and children still does less than one-third of the child- and household-related chores, and many of those are the more visible, less daily and monotonous kind (getting the car repaired, changing light bulbs). Compounding mothers' difficulties is the myth that women have achieved equality in all respects and the only reason men don't do half the housework is that women are too controlling to "let" them. This makes the contemporary mother, who tends to believe that she is failing everyone - her children, partner, parents, employer, workmates, friends - feel as crazy and inept as Betty Friedan's unhappy housewives of the 1970s: What's wrong with me, that I am so unhappy, frustrated, and absolutely exhausted?

In a society that truly values mothers, mockery and vilification of them would not be considered acceptable and certainly not funny. In such a society, the myths of motherhood would be recognized as unfair, crazy-making obstacles to the essential work of raising daughters and sons.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., is a clinical and researcher psychologist and the author of The New Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. She will teach "Myths of Motherhood" at Harvard University this fall. [I did teach that course there, as I had at the University of Toronto years before.]

One of the interesting aspects of Paula Caplan's Op-Ed piece is that in its original usage-coined by writer Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers (1942)-"momism" connoted a mother's overbearing smothering of a child, and the excessive attachment of a child to a mother, according to the Wordsmith website. The online Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus offers "overshielding" and "overprotection" as synonyms for "momism." Paula Caplan's reappropriation of the term points to the momism within Wylie and subsequent authors' definition of "momism."


May 6, 2011: For Mother's Day, you might want to consider giving your mother the gift of talking with her about at least one of the myths about mothers that make it difficult for mothers' work to be respected and for mothers to feel good about what they do. It's often helpful for mother and offspring to explore together the ways that societal myths about mothers have affected their relationship and can be illuminating for both.

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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