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The Humiliations Of Motherhood

An illustration of a mother with two crying children.

A few days ago my two-year old asked to ride on my back ("Horsey!") while we were on Skype with her grandparents. She climbed onto my back and we started to plod around the living room. "I wonder how mummy feels about being a horsey?" asked my mother-in-law.

"Don't worry," I replied. "Compared to other humiliations of motherhood, this is nothing."

Take, for instance, a flight from San Diego to San Francisco when the little one (we'll call her O) was about 20-months old. By that point we were all seasoned travelers – O had flown to Montreal, Boston, Chicago and Australia, all without incident. We were (naively) undaunted by the upcoming flight.

When we got onto the plane, we discovered a 2-year-old girl across the aisle from us who had her own seat.

O did not have her own seat; she was on my lap, with dad on one side and the privileged 2-year-old's grandmother on the other. Immediately O demanded her own seat and wouldn't sit down. The grandmother tried to help by pointing out how nicely her granddaughter was sitting down (in her own seat!), which only made things worse.

The scene unfolded as you'd expect: wailing toddler, ineffective attempts at soothing and distraction by incompetent-seeming parents, dirty looks from neighbors. Yet, during the full duration of the 90-minute flight, I didn't once experience humiliation. I was fully absorbed in tending to unhappy O.

The humiliation came later, when I was waiting in the jetway for a stroller, as every other passenger from the flight walked by. One woman came up to me and said, "Don't worry, you're not a bad mom! And you'll never see these people again."

She meant well, but the underlying assumptions were clear: that everyone walking by identified me as the bad mom, that I should be relieved that they were all – and would remain – strangers.

Of course, even that was a small dose of humiliation on the Motherhood Humiliation Scale. We all read about the 3-year-old who got kicked off an Alaska Airlines flight, and I won't even comment on the indignities of childbirth.

Is humiliation an inevitable consequence of tending to little people with strong wills, loud voices, low impulse control and poorly-tamed bodily functions? Or is motherhood special – the perfect storm of unrealistic societal and personal expectations meeting the harsh realities of tantrums and unrestrained bodily fluids?

Being empirically minded, I decided to collect some data. Google returned about 48.6 million combined results for the search terms "mother humiliation" and "motherhood humiliation." An equivalent search with "father" and "fatherhood" yielded 41.6 million, or about 86 percent of the motherhood humiliation tally.

Now this doesn't prove that mothers are disproportionately the victims of humiliation. They may sometimes be the causes, or simply share their humiliation stories more often. Google counts can also be fickle – not really a solid basis for sweeping conclusions.

Yet I think there's something behind the motherhood-humiliation connection. Beyond the physical demands of motherhood (Ayelet Waldmann describes the "various frustrations and humiliations of pumping"), the ideals of motherhood are especially brittle when it comes to imperfections (consider the ideals sociologist Sharon Hays associates with "intensive mothering").

Finally, there's the fact that mothers often perform a disproportionate share of the everyday, thankless tasks of parenting. E.D. Howe tells us that "The greatest humiliation in life, is to work hard on something from which you expect great appreciation, and then fail to get it."

Any day now, I'm sure my little one will thank me for all those horsey rides. But in the meantime, I might just volunteer her father the next time she asks.

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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