"I don't get no respect..." Rodney Dangerfield
What is a mother's role or value in American society?
Or, to word this question more specifically, as Dana Heller does in her work, Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture
(1995), has the position of motherhood been adequately critiqued? Feminists themselves often seem at a loss to describe the work and value of a mother. Heller contends that “it remains the task of an emergent feminist social critique to address the ambivalence toward the Oedipal mother” (76). And yet, that work remains to be done; at present, motherhood remains an uneasy site both in text and culture.
While the debates on the state of the American family and their values appear to treat all members of a family, often the question really being asked concerns only one member: “What is a mother’s proper role?” Certainly women’s roles have become more diverse in the past few decades; more women than not now combine careers and motherhood. While women “have come a long way” in terms of their cultural value, it may be the very diversity of contemporary women’s roles that creates their “value.”
How valued, even yet, is the actual work of a mother? To use the classic Oedipal configuration, does a mother still lack power (in Freud’s terms) and the access to language (in Lacan’s terms)? Dana Heller’s study depicts the difficulty inherent in any sort of static definition of “family” but sees, despite the trend toward de-Oedipalization in modern culture, the pervasiveness of the “family romance” outlined by Freud. Heller sums up Freud’s analysis of the mother’s role in the family romance as one that remains ambivalent—only the mother can know the “secret of paternity”—and de-valued since Oedipal dynamics work to silence the mother.
In Freudian configuration, since the mother cannot access the symbolic order and phallic power, this site of power and language belongs to the father alone who thus occupies “the privileged site of origin and social meaning, while it constructs the mother as a voiceless and potentially deceptive enclosed space where mysteries of multiple voices are encoded in a language no one can read” (Heller paraphrasing Freud 32–3).
In this analysis the mother’s language emerges as irrational babble, her maternity arouses distrust, and her work remains outside of the public/cultural—and therefore valued—sphere. To construct the question in dangerously general terms—motherhood’s various social and ethnic experiences cannot be conflated—does modern culture now value motherhood and the work of mothering? Heller sees our attitude toward mothers as one still riddled with ambivalence, a combination of “maternal idealization and contempt” (76). Though caring for children definitely involves "work," this occupation still merits no mention on a résumé. modified from a prior publication