In 1948, Anna Jarvis died in a sanitarium in Pennsylvania after a long and fruitless campaign to excise Mother’s Day from the American calendar. She had in fact founded Mother’s Day herself four decades earlier, even convincing President Woodrow Wilson to officially proclaim a national observance on the second Sunday of every May. Soon after that success, a dismayed Jarvis began to lobby against what she saw as the deep betrayal of commercialization. “The telegraph companies with their ready-made greetings, the florists with their high-pressure campaigns and the awful prices, and the candy manufacturers and greeting card manufacturers have made a lucrative racket out of my ideas,” she complained, furious that Americans were placating their mothers with chocolates instead of respect.
I have been a mother since 2007, but for the first 13 years of parenthood, my husband and I mostly abided by what I thought of as our mutual nonproliferation treaty with respect to parent holidays. May 2020 was different. I gathered my family (I mean, gathered was our default mode at the time, but I at least made everyone look up from their screens) and announced that Mother’s Day was back on the family calendar, and I expected some fuss to be expended. We were all home, worried and tetchy; the social contract had been breached and it really felt like moms had been left holding the bag. The pandemic laid bare an American predicament: When a society insists that caring is for suckers, someone has to play the fool. Or, as a headline in the New York Times put it: In an emergency, “Americans Turned to Their Usual Backup Plan: Mothers.”
Four years after Anna Jarvis died, sociologist Erving Goffman published a short essay on rackets that she might have liked. It had a killer title, too: “On Cooling the Mark Out.” In a criminal enterprise, he explained, one guy has to be a “cooler,” the person whose job it is to convince the victims of scams or extortions that they should not put up a fuss. “In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators’ point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business,” he wrote. Goffman was ultimately interested less in the mafia than the metaphor, observing that when people are exploited, the world has predictable ways of convincing them to go along. “Sometimes the mark is ‘kicked upstairs’ and given a courtesy status such as ‘Vice President,’ ” he observed. “In the game for social roles, transfer up, down, or away may all be ‘consolation prizes.’ ”
From Jarvis on down, Mother’s Day is a celebration that inspires its purported honorees to reflect on the very nature of a consolation prize: on who is being consoled, and why they need it. Some thoughts are fleeting—the illusory spa day once again swapped out for brunch with the in-laws—and others more existential. As the daily work of COVID precautions has ebbed over the last year, the sense of breach has nonetheless flowed. Instead of reproductive rights, or affordable child care, or safe schools, mothers in 2023 can have the constitutional right to travel (maybe), a breast pump, and a pamphlet on active shooter drills to practice at home.
Which brings me to the mother/sucker. According to the marketing materials, becoming a mother is a cultural achievement, a self-actualization that secures one’s place in the community. The promise of motherhood in the abstract is a promise of love, obviously, but also of status. Moms get a lot of reverential lip service to that end—literally, even: “You talk to your mother with that mouth?” The depth and richness of the intrinsic rewards of motherhood are real; I have two children, and they are the core fact of my adult life, and the center of my moral universe. But the social and political rewards, paid out erratically in Hallmark cards and IOUs, come up consistently short. Every mom thanked for being “such a saint” knows the whisper of “sucker” trails quietly behind.
This phenomenon is of particular interest to me, because for the last 15 years, I have been researching and writing about the complicated relationship that Americans have with the prospect of playing the fool. By some accounts, the research on feeling suckered offers a consistent story across behavioral domains: the sharp aversion to being conned is a cultural imperative and a motivational force. But I meant it when I said that the American relationship with playing the sucker is complicated—and one inexorable complication is women with children. American society has always relied on its “backup plan,” namely, the willingness of tens of millions of mothers to make concessions again and again without ever walking away from the bargaining table.
A ready array of cultural narratives promise that achieving motherhood has recognized and rewarded social value, so it’s counterintuitive to think about mothers as low-status—especially considering the suspicion with which women without children are often treated. But the social science evidence suggests that attributions of foolishness are endemic to motherhood. In 2004, three social psychologists published an article called “When Professionals Become Mothers, Warmth Doesn’t Cut the Ice.” They had randomly assigned research subjects to read a scenario about either Kate or Dan, a telecommuting worker from New Jersey. Subjects read that Kate or Dan was a consultant with an MBA and six years of experience. Depending on which version of the study they saw, the subjects also learned that Kate or Dan was a new parent.
The researchers wanted to know how parenting status would affect perceptions of Kate or Dan. They asked participants to rate each profile on a series of traits related to competence (capable, efficient, skillful) and warmth (good-natured, sincere, trustworthy), and to answer questions about whether they would want to hire and promote the consultant.
The results? When Dan had a child, he was seen as just as competent as before, but now warmer. When Kate had a child, she too was rated as warmer, but the softening came with a price. The increased attributions of kindness brought slightly decreased attributions of competence. The mere fact of parenthood made her seem less capable and efficient—and, as a result, significantly less hirable or promotable, a finding that did not hold true for men.
But wait, it gets worse! Attributions of incompetence actually come full circle: Being a mother makes you seem worse at being a consultant, but being a woman makes you seem worse at being a parent. In a separate study of perceptions of “parenting effectiveness,” psychologists found that even when mothers get credit for doing more physical and emotional caretaking, their parenting is still more likely to be judged as wanting as compared to similarly situated fathers. All of that credit adds up to very little purchasing power, respect-wise. There is a reason that the go-to psychoanalytic trope is “Tell me about your mother.” Moms! They’re always doing it wrong!
One of my favorite jokes, and surprisingly apropos, is from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.
Calvin is negotiating with his neighbor, Susie, whom he has asked to dare him to eat a worm; she has provisionally agreed, and the question is whether he is going to be paid up front or only on completion. She tells him it’s on completion or no deal, and he grumbles, “Man, you’d think the guy eating the worms would be calling the shots.”
“Usually, if you’re calling any shots at all, you’re not eating worms,” she replies.
When I returned to teaching after my second maternity leave, I took a borrowed breast pump into my office—my private office, with a lock on the door, literally the best-case pumping scenario—to embark on a new chapter of work/life balance. It was there that I caught a glimpse of what I can only describe as a deep existential disrespect. As I unpacked the parts, I was overcome with certainty that no one would ever, ever ask my husband or my male colleagues to do anything like pumping. Removing my shirt at work, and then hooking myself up to a machine, but maybe checking my email at the same time so I’m still productive, but also discreetly, because it’s a little gross to people? Ah, I see, I’m eating the worms.
The breast pump is a lifesaver, literally and figuratively, for many nursing parents and their children. It is a genuine scientific advance—but it’s not for mothers per se; it’s a way for them to do two kinds of labor at once. (As with Mother’s Day itself, there is a real sense that the moms might benefit, but capitalism always wins.) Nonetheless, there is a shared understanding that these pumping mothers are supposed to offer their service with a beatific smile, or a quick eyeroll at most. Adrienne Rich, feminist poet and essayist, wrote of early motherhood, “Patriarchy would seem to require not only that women shall assume the major burden of pain and self-denial for the furtherance of the species, but that a majority of that species—women—shall remain essentially unquestioning and unenlightened.”
Rich, mother of three sons, wryly took stock of one affectionate jab while traveling in France.“Vous travaillez pour l’armee, madame?”—Do you work for the army, ma’am?
There are online social media empires devoted to the exposition of basic social facts of American motherhood, not to mention the whole history of feminist theory. But in the everyday, it can feel hard to articulate the crux of the hustle. Even the mildest protest gets a disingenuous rebuke: “Are you saying you don’t love your children???” (I am literally never saying that. The kids are the best part. But in my limited experience, if you’re arguing that you do love your children, you’ve already lost control of the narrative.) Or, less hostile but more rhetorically plausible: “You’re the one who wanted kids so badly. You chose this.”
Indeed, in the United States, motherhood is a social good until women ask for support, at which point motherhood is a personal choice. In a surprising array of contexts, women are accused of leveraging parenting status to extract everything from better shifts at work to American citizenship. They might use pregnancy to trap a man. They might use paternity claims to procure child support. They might have children just for the extra welfare benefits. In other words, there is widespread suspicion that women might cynically use the moral imperative of motherhood to sucker others into paying their way.
These cultural parenting questions—who gets policed, who gets the benefit of the doubt, who gets credit, who gets blame—are even more stark at the intersection of gender, gender identity, parenting status, class, and race. Women of color are subject to more oppressive reproductive control and are more likely to be separated from their children by the state. For many years, the rhetoric of welfare has been a set of racist warnings about women, especially Black women, scheming against the working righteous by having children. As my colleague, sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts, wrote in 1993, “Underlying the current campaign against poor single mothers is the image of the lazy welfare mother who breeds children at the expense of taxpayers in order to increase the amount of her welfare check. In society’s mind, that mother is Black.” She was not speaking abstractly; in the mid-1990s, Clinton’s welfare reform permitted states to impose family caps on benefits on the apparent theory that poor mothers were having extra children specifically to work the system. The saintly matriarch takes up a lot of space in the cultural imagination, but the accusation that, Actually, women will use their reproduction to game the system does the dirty work.
I am not the first person to complain about a mother’s work—never done!—or to point out the double standards for men and women raising children. But the specific saints/schemers innuendo is a rhetorical choice with an underappreciated social function: it warns us who deserves trust, or disdain, or pity, or rejection. When mothers are martyrs who agreed to the raw deal, or scammers just trying to get “special favors,” their claims can be safely ignored without stepping off the moral high ground.
There are quotidian delights and deep joys in motherhood that I could not have fathomed, intrinsic rewards beyond what I hoped. So it seems petulant to say that I’m annoyed that I only got these amazing kids when I was under the impression I’d also be getting, like, a status upgrade. Executive Platinum Parent. But if anyone’s asking, yes, thanks, that would be great. In the pre-flight lounge they’d ideally be serving guaranteed paid parental leave and affordable child care, not to mention reproductive freedom.
I know that I have been extraordinarily privileged, not only in the range of parenting choices available to me but in the fact that motherhood was achievable, and that it was a wanted and welcome status. That has never been true for everyone, and the Dobbs decision has ensured that it is true for fewer people this year than last. I am lucky that I get to experience my parenting choices as intentional, and I am vain enough to also think of them as moral. But there is a sucker’s puzzle at the heart of mothering. I am party to a set of parenting deals that I believe I should take, that I know I will take again. I’d like better options, but I’ll keep coming back either way. As such, I’m a perfect mark. Fool me once, twice, three times—who’s counting?
Partially adapted from FOOL PROOF by Tess Wilkinson-Ryan. Copyright © 2023 by Tess Wilkinson-Ryan Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins. Publishers. Reprinted by permission.