Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein raises powerful questions about the responsibilities of scientists to consider the impact of their inventions on the world.
Sci-fi thriller I Am Mother is due out on Netflix tomorrow. My husband and I saw it at Sundance this year and it’s a fantastic philosophical movie. It raises all kinds of philosophical questions about abortion, reproduction, enhancement, population policy, and many others. After we’d seen it, my husband and I couldn’t stop talking about it.
I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, especially by revealing the ending, but one set of core issues posed by the film concern what makes for ideal mothering. What is ideal mothering? Can there be a plausible ideal theory of mothering or only theories of good mothering in different contexts? Is ideal mothering desirable, or is “good enough” mothering better, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott argued? Recent philosophers and popular commentators have answered these questions very differently, so I thought I’d give you some of these answers to think about before you see the film.
First, there’s the mother as carer. In her classic book Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (1989), Sara Ruddick used the practice of mothering to develop a seminal version of feminist care theory. Ruddick outlines the virtues of mothering, among them reasonable control, humility, cheerfulness, and cooperation. Exploring how these virtues can be located between excesses such as domination and deficiencies such as self-abnegation, Ruddick tried to rescue a feminist account of mothering from self-sacrifice and sentimentality. She further argued that the virtues developed in mothering were politically relevant for peace-seeking.
Among the important criticisms of Ruddick’s work was that it reflected the experiences of privileged women in supportive, egalitarian relationships. Black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins argued that motherhood must be analyzed contextually. When race and class are brought into focus, assumptions such as economic security and the privileged ability to pursue autonomous self-realization free of patriarchy are revealed. Instead, themes such as survival, disempowerment, and identity come to the fore when mothering is viewed from the standpoint of the lived experiences of Black mothers.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton’s image of mothering: “it takes a village.” Clinton also judged that mothering takes place in social contexts. Her point, however, was the importance of social supports for children and families: good schools, police and fire protection, safe streets, and nurturing environments. Children, according to Clinton’s father, also need “shovels”—the skills to dig themselves out of trouble—a point in obvious tension with her rejection of rugged individualism in favor of the village.
And “tiger mothering,” popularized by Amy Chua, whose daughters were never allowed to have sleepovers, play video games, have play dates, or get any grades lower than an “A.” Nor were they ever engaged in crafts, which, in Chua’s judgment, lead nowhere. Instead, they practiced the violin or the piano hours a day and made sure they were at least two years ahead of their grade in math. Chua’s book was met with vehement criticism: was her approach to parenting really child abuse? Claiming she wasn’t stereotyping but she was self-parodying, Chua extolled the virtues of strict “Chinese” parenting over lax “Western” child rearing.
For one final image, there’s the current controversy over free-range parenting. Mothers have been arrested for leaving their children in the car for a few minutes while they run into a convenience store for snacks, for letting their children take public transportation by themselves, or for allowing their children to play in the local park without adult supervision. Defenders of free-range parenting argue that children need to learn independence and that helicopter parenting sets children up for failure. Utah recently garnered national attention by enacting a statute that specifically protects parents from being criminally charged for letting their children play in the park or walk home from school by themselves. In this controversy, too, context matters: defenders of free-range parenting assume the safe streets of Hillary Clinton’s village, not schools or streets beset by gun violence.
You may guess from my account of these versions of mothering that I don’t think there’s a single adequate account for all circumstances. I’m a “partial compliance” theorist: someone who thinks that accounts of justice must incorporate features of the actual world, such as whether people are mostly acting justly or whether a society is characterized by significant structural injustice. Mothers facing racism, economic hardship, food insecurity, guns in the streets, or recurring trauma must cultivate very different skills than mothers who are affluent professionals with access to private schools and reliable health care. All, however, face complex questions about what is in the best interest of their children (the supposed standard for custody determinations in the US) and the extent to which they should privilege the interests of their children over their own interests, the interests of others in their family and community, and concerns for the world at large.
After you’ve seen the film, here are just a few more questions to think about: is "Mother” in the movie an ideal or even a good parent? For her world, or for any world? And, could this film have been called I am Parent or I am Father? Enjoy the evening, along with a good bottle of wine!