Yes, It’s All Your Mom’s Fault (and, No, It Isn’t)

Mommy dearest and son

Chapter 8: The Mistaken Choice
Or, Mommie Dearest

For those of you just joining us, we’re blogging Betty Friedan’s classic, The Feminine Mystique, now in its 50th year. Welcome to the table. So kind of you to find time in your schedule; I know you’re so busy these days. Can I get you something cold to drink? Those crescent rolls you like? Is that steak a little tough? Let me just get in there and…

Why am I talking like Sophie Portnoy? Because in chapter 8, Friedan tackles that favorite strategy of armchair therapists everywhere: Blame It On Your Mom. Turns out your mom is responsible for all your adorable neuroses, she’s just not responsible for being responsible. Society!

First, this mistaken choice thing. Friedan reminds us of a world in which women, or “pushovers of the mystique,” were making the choice to return or stay home. Because it was, though it clearly pains Friedan to say it, a choice, and a choice that filled a need—or so women thought. The American spirit was exhausted by two world wars. In the void grew a real urgency for love—both maternal and romantic, sometimes a confusion of the two—and sex. Home was a comfort in an uncertain, sometimes unimaginably ugly world. Returning GIs wanted their mothers—or the care and comfort their mothers represented—and so mothers are what they married. Women, too, were tired of wartime loneliness and afraid of missing their chance at love and family. In short, it was easier to retreat than to forge ahead. And so, the new national purpose shifted from the war front to the home front, from the ideological to the personal.

War didn’t have answers but psychology did, and its answer was: Your Mom. Behind every GI rejected for or discharged from military service for psychological reasons, suddenly, there was a mother to blame, an overbearing, shrewish woman who’d created a neurotic man-baby. Some of these mothers, born in the late 19th century, were overbearing, shrewish women, understandably frustrated by their closely circumscribed roles. These were not, however, the women of the late 1940s, and yet, as “American women,” this younger generation was suddenly faced with the same recrimination. Pile on the questionable studies (including early Kinsey reports that the more education a woman had, the less able she was to orgasm—conclusions later reversed) and headline-hungry media, and the consensus became that a woman’s education, independence, and career ambitions harmed her children.

The takeaway: Women, go home and love your kids more, fulfill your feminine destiny, and happily devote every waking moment of your life to giving them your full attention. But this proto-helicopter parenting is what created little monsters like the one who told a researcher that his mother would always butter his bread until his wife did it for him. Psychiatrist David Levy called it “maternal overprotection,” produced when a mother’s energies were blocked from “other channels of expression.” As instructed, mothers were absorbing their children’s identities into their own, and it wasn’t just hurting the moms, it was hurting the kids too. In less clinical terms, moms needed to get a life.

Friedan brings up a telling point: The psychologists who were noticing this trend were more concerned about the effect on boys than on girls. Boys, after all, needed to grow up to be independent and assertive. Girls, however, could pass from identity-dependent need of mother-love to need of husband-love to need of child-love fairly seamlessly. For a boy, it was a story of worrisome neurosis, for a girl, one of healthy adjustment. And it took this crisis with our sons to see the crisis of our women.

Lest I be so discouraged that I donate all my eggs and buy a houseboat in the Caribbean, on page 238 I’m reminded how far we’ve come since Friedan’s writing: “No one has ever been blacklisted or fired for an attack on ‘the American woman,’” she observed in 1963. Recently the chief technology officer at Business Insider was fired for sexist and otherwise unsavory tweets made over the past three years, and he’s just the latest in a long list of men put on the defense for being offensive. No longer are women the easy target.

Women of the late ’40s and ’50s were faced with a choice, and they made it. We know who sold it to them and why, but what was the sell? Find out in chapter 9.


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