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The radio commercial starts off with the lilting strains of a fife, and then the announcer’s smooth masculine voice begins: “It’s morning, and another day. There are kids to get dressed, breakfast to be made. The bus is coming. As usual, just a few minutes sooner than it should. But for a few moments between the sound of your alarm clock and the first shout of a waking child, you have a little time to sit with a cup of MJB, and think of what this is all about. What it’s about is what it’s always been about. Big people helping little people to be big themselves one day. It’s not easy. It never has been. But then your mother managed to live through it, didn’t she? Besides, when you really think about it, what else could you possibly do that could ever be so important?”22
This commercial exemplifies the message that our society sends both tacitly, and not so tacitly, to women. Mothering is the most important thing you can do. Even if it isn’t easy, even if you don’t want to do it…your mother did it, and so should you. Nothing else you might aspire to could possibly be as important as raising children.23
This message can be so pervasive as to completely undermine a woman’s desire to pursue a career and financial independence. It is a subtle form of subterfuge which can coerce a woman into “voluntarily” abandoning her career path, instead “choosing” to devote her personal resources to fulltime parenting. And women receive this message from all corners of society: the media, school, the press, and even from their own friends and families. Kathleen Gerson explains that among other factors, lack of parental and social support may force a woman to abandon her hopes of joining a male-dominated profession.
It is these same societal, social and familial pressures which keep a woman trapped in the maternal bonds once there. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious then in the area of custody. The stigma associated with not having custody, as a woman, can be unbearable. There is a nearly universal assumption that if one is a single mother without custody, one must have been the worst kind of mother imaginable, either to have lost custody against such stacked odds, or to have voluntarily given up one’s child. After all, everyone knows that the maternal bond is natural and ever- present. To act inconsistently is to be aberrant indeed.
Mothers Without Custody, a support group for non-custodial mothers, speaks eloquently to the problems facing their members in our society:
“REACH – outward, upward, but never backward, for looking back is filled with “woulda, coulda, shoulda’s”, none of which were possible back then. Looking forward allows us the opportunity to grow, to move ahead in our lives, to take control of our futures. Reach out to other non-custodial mothers so they can learn from both the pain of our experiences, as well as from the lessons we have learned.
TEACH – others about the issues facing the non- custodial mothers. Educate the public at every opportunity to help break through the stigma faced by MWOC’s. Teach not with anger but with integrity and information.
LEARN – more about yourself, what you want for yourself, where you want to be in the future. Learn more about non-custodial parenting so that you can be the best possible mother to your child(ren) given your own set of circumstances. Learn so that you can share your information with others.
LOVE – unconditionally. Let go of your self-guilt and work towards building your own self-esteem. Give yourself permission to love yourself so that you can be free to love (and even forgive) others. Give your child(ren) the gift of your unconditional love so they can give it to themselves and others.”24
Why is it that there is such a strong stigma attached to mothers who don’t have custody of their children, while there is no such stigma directed towards non-custodial fathers? This is a direct result of maternal bondage, of the myth that mothers, and only mothers, are supposed to be nurturing and ‘maternal’. A myth which has been perpetuated in our society, to the detriment of women, for far too long.
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21 See Footnote 14.
22 MJB radio spot, courtesy McCann-Erickson Advertising and KKSF radio, San Francisco.
Question: 23 Lest the reader be misled by the apparent gender-neutrality of this radio spot, the companion television commercial with identical voiceover features a woman, with no man in sight.
24 “Mother to Mother: the Newsletter of Mothers Without Custody”, Vol 12, No. 2, 1.