In a tradition just as American as Mother’s Day and apple pie, we are often blaming mothers for our nation’s social ills. Historically, low-income, immigrant, and nonwhite mothers have served as easy scapegoats for tough problems like poverty, delinquency, unrest, and “lawlessness.” The recent viral media fixation on Toya Graham, the Baltimore “#MomoftheYear” demonstrates that this trend is in full force. Ms. Graham was caught on video trying desperately to pull her 16-year-old son away from the Baltimore protests. Later, Ms. Graham admitted to reporters that she had “lost it” and was in shock when she was slapping him saying, “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” In other words, she did not want another young black man to lose his life to racial profiling.
And, who could fault her? Unfortunately many Americans can, relying on stereotypes that expect too much from individual mothers. For example USA Today repeated a tweet that read, “If she raised her son better, she wouldn’t have needed to do that.” And even when the New York Post retorted to support her actions, they similarly relied on these exaggerated notions of personal responsibility, “What Baltimore Mom and Baltimore Son illustrate is the forgotten truth that societal problems begin in the home. More often than we tend to admit anymore, problems can be solved there, too.”
In my own research on mothers raising kids with the burgeoning numbers of invisible disabilities – from ADHD to emotional, behavioral, and higher functioning autism spectrum disorders – I heard many such stories of blaming individual mothers. We have thankfully progressed past the 1950s and 60s when autism was believed directly caused by cold and withholding “refrigerator mothers.” But I discovered that mothers now are criticized if they are not relentlessly tracking down the best treatments, schools, medications, and services to maximize their vulnerable child’s development. We find it easier to shame mothers raising kids with invisible disorders — to send the problems back home to be solved — rather than face the impact of our nation’s disordered economy and lack of opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, I found that single mothers report receiving the most blame from school personnel, healthcare providers, and sometimes from child protective service workers. I spoke with three white single mothers who had received complaints against them of possible child abuse or neglect when their kids were disruptive or aggressive in school. Yet each of these mothers was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, and two were even happy about the support they received from social workers investigating their “broken” homes. It was only the one black single mother who had her struggling daughter removed from their home. They were only reunited after two years of family court supervision. She told me, “I think that’s what really shocked them, too . . . that I have not missed one social service meeting, one school meeting, one group home meeting. I was at every court-order thing. I guess it took them two years to realize I was a dedicated parent.”
Mothers raising children of color also knew that their children’s disruptive or unruly behavior would be framed through racial lenses. Like Toya Graham, mothers I met raising black sons feared the pernicious stereotype of “dangerousness” that leads to disparate rates of suspensions, expulsions, school failure, and, consequently, the frustration boiling over on the streets of Baltimore. One African American mother, an accomplished professional, feared this was happening to her son even at the age of 6. He was, she explained, very tall for his age, as well as active and impulsive. She hoped the ADHD diagnosis would protect him, but maintained constant vigilance at his private school, where in previous years, “two young black boys . . . I don’t think they were even in the first-grade yet . . . were asked to leave the school.”
It is hard to see how the struggles faced by mothers of young black sons in Baltimore — or the constrained options confronting mothers I met raising children with invisible, brain-based disabilities –have either been created or can be solved at home. Following this Mothers’ Day, let’s stop the mother-blame.