Defeating the Devouring Mother: Jordan Peterson and Motherhood #5

When Parenthood Sucks

hugues-merle-the-poor-motherRecently a Hollywood director, Duncan Jones, tweeted out a rather depressing, and all too prevalent, view of parenting. “I have two kids, 2.5 and 9 months; the are exhausting, frustrating, and life-destabilizing.  They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but its HARD and not obviously a good choice in life. This is where people feel compelled to say, ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world!’ But you know, of course I would reconsider!  Its exhausting! It banal!…What it is, is that it is. And they are mine. Hopefully they will turn out okay.”

Now as frightening as this tweet is, especially considering it was applauded as courageous by many, it is an honest representation of the now-mainstream view of parenthood.  I really enjoyed Ben Shaprio’s breakdown posted below.*

Due to the material ease of life in modern times, we have the luxury of selfishness. Producing an heir used to be important enough to tear down religions and nations.  As life becomes easier, our priorities shift, our own importance grows, often at the expense of children. Our choices are now focused on our own perceived happiness rather than creating a posterity.  Today children are a choice, and one that often disappoints. But why? Isn’t motherhood supposed to be ultimately fulfilling? Why are so many mothers fed up and so many children unprepared for adulthood?

The Burden of Ease

This weekend I discovered the root cause of our current plague of joyless parents and unprepared children: modern dentistry. I had a horrific toothache.  The pain was excruciating, especially when my pain meds wore off. Luckily, I have an Endodontist friend who did a root-canal Monday morning. I am now recovered, only slightly traumatized from the experience.  Now, I want you to picture yourself as a new mother in the Middle Ages. After a painful birth, you are handed your precious newborn. You gaze upon her sweet innocence and it dawns on you that multiple times in this child’s life she will have an agonizing toothache and – with no pain relief – have her teeth torn out of her jaw. Now, do you think you would worry about your kids school-master being too strict?  Do you think you would escort your 10-year-old son to fetch water? You have much bigger worries than that. Hopefully you are more concerned with strengthening your kids against the agonies of life. Our female progenitors knew full well there was no protecting their children.

Because of our lives of relative comfort, we mothers naively think maybe we can protect our kids. So instead of, as JP says, “facing the challenge of life forthrightly”, we worry about them hurting themselves cutting the lawn, or we allow them to waste hours in front of video games – subverting their preparation.  As JP says, “You can’t protect your children, you can only make them strong, and then they can protect themselves.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages.  No one appreciates Novocaine more than I do. I don’t think it was good to send 15-year-olds off to war and I doubt most Dark Age mothers were model parents.  But I do think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Rather than raising hardened toothache-ready children, we are raising children unequipped for the intrinsic difficulties of life.  Evidence suggests that incoming college students today experience greater levels of stress and psychopathology than at any time in the nation’s history. They might not have to fight in the Crusades but they do need to succeed in life, develop relationships, and confront threatening ideas and people.  Our children encounter trials our ancestors never faced – such as attempting to maintain integrity and virtue in the face of Twitter and internet porn.  

In our modern times, kids have become sovereign. Since the introduction of birth control, we are having fewer children and later in life – and that increases their value and our ability to hover.  In the past, there was no rearranging your life for kids; they had to contribute and fall in line. This does not fit in with our modern view of the “compassionate mother”. A good mother protects and selflessly serves her children, right? As my previous post (#1) stated, I do believe a mother should sacrifice for her children. I believe how and why we sacrifice can mean the difference between enjoying motherhood and regretting it.

When motherhood feels like a burden it may be our own doing. The other day I was at my son’s soccer game.  One of the boys was put in as goalie and his mother spent the next 30 minutes on the edge of her seat screaming instructions at her son – “Get the ball out of there!  Stand in the middle of the goal!” It was truly exhausting to watch. She was completely frantic. After that kind of effort, I have no doubt she went home and took a nap. Why?  What good was done?

Mothers as Artists or Gardeners?

When we are handed our precious newborn, we see in them limitless potential.  We may think of them as a blank canvas – the life and experiences we create for them working together to produce a masterpiece.  However, this perspective can put undue pressure on parents to be artists; one wrong stroke and the masterpiece is ruined.  This also assumes that children come into the world as a blank canvas – but their nature comes with them.  We parents can have a remarkable influence on our children but their personality and interests are their own.   

A more appropriate metaphor and mindset might be to view our child as a seed – of unknown variety.  We are the gardeners, responsible for nourishing our young sapling. We take extra care as it puts down roots.  As the plant grows, we consistently watch for weeds and add nourishment. However, as it matures, if we continue to shield our tree from the wind and rain, it will actually prevent the development of strong roots. Strong roots are made in adversity. Our seed may grow into a orange tree or a palm tree but the strength of the tree is dependent on our nurturing as well as its own experience persevering in the storms of life.

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The Ying/Yang of the Devouring Mother

Jordan Peterson calls pathological version of motherhood the “Devouring Mother”.  This mother devours her children’s potential along with her own fulfillment. JP focuses a lot on the danger of the overprotective mother, protecting her children out of their own competence.  However, I would like to add another, and seemingly opposite, proclivity of the Devouring Mother that JP rarely mentions: neglect. Neglect is equally destructive to children and does, in fact, result in the same ill-prepared and unhealthy young adults.  The Neglectful Mother abdicates her responsibility of clearing the weeds from impeding the growth of her young seedling. Her children are left mentally unprepared for the challenges of life. Overprotective and neglectful devouring mothers live in each of us.  They are the ying/yang of motherhood.

What’s interesting is that as bad as over-protection and neglect seem, they are necessary as well.  There is a place for protection and there is a place for neglect in proper parenting. A 6 month old desperately needs to feel safe in the arms of her mother.  A 10-year-old boy needs to be “neglected” so in his boredom he can think deep thoughts or construct forts in the woods. However, used improperly, protection and neglect can make motherhood unbearable. One may, in fact, lead to the other. Push too hard one way and there will be recoil.  Overbearing Mom quickly burns out from a hard day of unproductive micromanaging and control. Guess who’s there to give her a break? Neglectful Mom. All this imbalance and misplaced priorities lead to the sentiment of the Hollywood director, “Of course I would reconsider having kids.”

Devouring the Roots – Over-protection

Our culture needs to rethink our concept of a “good mother”. Often we see the ideal mother as a kind-hearted woman endlessly concerned for and serving her children.  However, this mother often ends up producing shiftless little monsters with no respect for her. This is the bad side of women’s “agreeable” nature. This is compassion turned to vice.

Jordan Peterson often speaks of this Oedipal Mother complex. Freud described the danger a smothering mother can do to her children (clip 6 minutes).

In an interview with Former Australian PM, John Anderson, he said, “Look, you have to understand that you are a danger to your children no matter what.  You can let them go out in the world and be hurt, or you can overprotect them and hurt them that way. Here’s your choice, you can make your children competent and courageous or you can make them safe. But you can’t make them safe because life isn’t safe.  So if you sacrifice their courage and competence on the altar of safety then you disarm them completely and all they can do is pray to be protected.”

The problem is that we mothers HATE to see our children suffer. It is our biological urge to protect them. Sometimes women take their role as protector of infants too far and make motherhood much harder than it needs to be. When mothers extend the timeline of compassion beyond its necessary borders it impedes competence-building time.  We don’t want to make infants out of our children.

Modern moms unnecessarily complicate life. Babies can be an incredible burden if we make them that. We can let them sleep in our bed and disrupt our romantic life. We can buy every contraption possible for their clueless benefit, draining our resources. We can give-in to our toddler’s every irrational demand to avoid a tantrum, creating an unlikable child. These “compassions” result in a child who drains our good-will. When my husband and I lived in Hawaii as poor college students, we had a tiny apartment on the North Shore. When we had our first child his possessions included: one laundry-basket crib, 5 pair of PJs, and a pacifier. He was the chunkiest, happiest baby I have ever seen – and easily fit into our meager budget and lifestyle. In my experience, babies need very little other than loving and unselfish parents. If we give them much more than that, we are creating our own burden.

There is also another kind of overbearing mother though – and if we are honest we are all guilty of it – controlling. A lot of controlling behavior is passed off as a virtue.  “Let me make that sandwich for you sweety”, says the mother looking to maintain her spotless kitchen. Your child’s development is more important than your clean house. Jordan Peterson says you should never do anything for your child that they can do for themselves, even if it means waiting 10 minutes for your toddler to get her pants on. You sacrifice time and expectations but the reward is that the child actually matures. My 6-year-old still puts his shoes on the wrong feet literally 75% of the time. Did I think at this point he would have mastered it? Yes. But doing things for our kids actually keeps them from learning. Jordan Peterson said in a recent video, “For knowledge to be your own you have to integrate it with your own experience. You have to see how that applies to your own case and then have a story to tell about it. “ We must find the answers within ourselves for them to belong to us.  If we shield our children from potentially difficult lessons, we are keeping them from integrating this knowledge into their own character.

Children love making their own way and resent mothers who hover. My 4-year-old daughter gives me a death stare if I attempt to buckle her seat belt.  My physically-capable son wants to climb the tree unhindered by my warnings. Kids know they are better off doing it themselves.

The Encouraging Mother – Producing Resilience

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In our day of “Snowflake” young adults, retreating to their safe spaces and coloring books at even the hint of tribulation, we need to get serious about building resilience in our children.  “A resilient person is capable of standing up to things in the face of fear and moving forward voluntarily, convinced of their own competence and ability to prevail,” JP. The idea of “building” anything in our children sounds like a lot of work.  However, the unexpected surprise of motherhood is that less is often more, particularly in teaching our kids resilience.

Jordan Peterson’s Rule 11 is, “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding”. For me that translates to: don’t interfere with the fight breaking out in the front-yard football game over pass interference.  JP says parents must have a certain dimension of “detached harshness”, allowing for the development of independence and unchecked mistake-making. Creativity and learning only happen when kids make mistakes and resolve them independently. Having mom around greatly reduces the chances of that.  Sometimes it is difficult to know when our presence is needed. The question I try and ask myself is, “Is my involvement helping or impeding my child from learning a lesson.” I am surprised by how often the honest answer is that the child is better left alone. This is a step in the right direction towards more joyful mothering; managing the trifles of a child’s life makes mothers want to just disengage entirely.

Although our modern children have vastly different worries than those our ancestors, and are missing fewer teeth, there are still a multitude of fears and hurdles in front of them. Fortunately, when we overcome one trial, we gain the courage to face others.  As JP says, When you face a fear forthrightly “you don’t become less frightened, you get more courageous, which is way better than being less frightened because there are lots of things to be frightened of, so if you are more courageous that does the trick.” The tribulations faced by the children of the Dark Ages likely strengthened them for the responsibilities of adulthood.  Today, we should allow our children to face and even seek-out challenges, teaching them to return to us for encouragement.

Devoured by Weeds – Neglect

I do have sympathy for parents like this Hollywood director; his kids are so young and little kids are hard.  It’s more difficult to find fulfillment in the early duty-filled days raising young kids. As JP said, “If mothers didn’t fall insanely in love with their babies they would throw them out the window.”  However, if we are patient in the early years and attempt to build a strong relationship with our children, the blossoming of our little trees is truly glorious to behold.

If we let selfishness drive us to neglect our responsibility, weeds of vice and addiction will quickly build up around our children and choke their potential.  These weeds are become increasingly prevalent as modern society degenerates. Everyone else is letting their boys play hours of Fortnite and their girls waste life on Instagram;  can it really be that bad? Yes. I won’t site the studies here, but I believe we need to be rebels against a culture that is intent on producing the narcissistic and addicted. But some may say, “Isn’t that overprotective of you? – you can’t protect your children from our culture, you must socialize them into it.”  I believe that it is parents’ responsibility to shield our young children from the “weeds” that could damage their soul and lead to bad habits and possible addiction. As my children get older, if I have passed values on to them, I am confident they will use their reason and courage – built through personal experience – to be rebels against the destructive elements of our modern age.  

The Encouraging Mother –  Building a Pristine Relationship

Selfishness is the common lot of man. However, having a child is God’s way of pushing us out of our natural state.  Suddenly, with our God-given love, we push our selfish desires aside and re-prioritize our lives. This can be a painful process. It is more difficult for some that others (as the Hollywood director demonstrates).  Some people can take things too far and make their children supreme, inadvertently turning them into narcissists. The balance is found when we shift our priorities and make the sacrifices needed to produce competent and virtuous children. This “reorienting” process will not be as painful as one required to produce a “masterpiece” child of our own creating.

If you are not enjoying spending time with your kids, you are doing something wrong.  JP says, “You need to keep your relationships with your kids pristine.” This stuck with me. I have found applying it makes motherhood easier.  This may seem counter-intuitive since keeping something pristine is difficult. But because of the sovereignty of the relationship, I know I need to let everything else go. It is impossible to maintain a “pristine” relationship while simultaneously criticizing children’s every imperfection, or while micromanaging the dream of getting them into Harvard.  My focus is the relationship above all else. This does not mean I give my children their way for the sake of the relationship, quite the opposite.  Children who don’t have boundaries don’t respect you, and that is no relationship at all.  But I do accept them for the “variety” they are, orange tree or palm, and replace previously-held expectations in exchange for appreciation of their unique traits.

The truth is, it doesn’t take much. JP weeps when he explains how little encouragement people actually need, but often don’t get. I don’t need to be involved in the daily minutiae of my children’s lives.  The key is to keep our limited interactions optimal and meaningful. As we do this, our children will grow in character and moral fortitude. As we parents attempt to improve ourselves, we can let our example do much of the teaching for us.   

Check Our Motivations

Why did we decide to be mothers, considering that we now have the luxury of that decision? Do we want our children to leave as capable young adults, or subconsciously want to keep them near us always? Do we want to be gardeners, tending a growing tree for the greater good of mankind?  Or are we attempting to selfishly paint a masterpiece for our own glory? If our attitude is the later, we will very shortly become frustrated with parenting. If we attempt to make our child’s life a work of art, it would be folly to include suffering in the landscape. When the underlying desire for children is selfish, we quickly get disenchanted with the often-selfless reality of the undertaking.  

As a woman of faith, I firmly believe that my children were sent to me for a reason.  I believe God choose me as their mother to help them fulfill their unique propose. I have many failings and there is much my children will have to learn from other sources.  However, I have unique talents and sharing them with my children brings me so much joy. My son and I watch WWII documentaries together; my daughter and I plan adventures. As I attempt to use my God-given talents and interests to raise my children, I notice something miraculous start to happen. As my children grow, I see myself less as their gardener and more as a fellow tree, growing beside them and experiencing the peace and storms of life together.  

Motherhood as Joy

We need to defeat the Devouring Mother in us all.  Let’s stop attempting to shield our children from the difficulties of life. Let’s stop retreating into selfishness in the face of self-imposed expectations of motherhood. Let’s allow the trials of life to be the teacher of competence.  Let’s have our love, talents, and “pristine” relationships do the work in developing our children’s character. Let’s let-go of the rest.   And then, when it comes time for our children to face the toothaches and pains life, their mother will have prepared them well.  

Inspirational clip from Jordan Peterson on parenting and potential.

*I appreciate hearing any impressions or criticism you have of this article.  I genuinely want to produce something that is helpful to parents and your input is helpful in that production.  Please follow The Philosophy of Motherhood on Facebook or this blog and share with your friends if you think they would benefit.  Thank you.

Allyson Flake Matsoso

26 thoughts on “Defeating the Devouring Mother: Jordan Peterson and Motherhood #5

  1. What a fantastic read. Thank you so much for your insight. I just discovered your blog recently and I look forward to every single email. Thank you.

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  2. Thursdays are my new favorite day of the week…thank you for taking the time to record your thoughts on a public forum. As I read and consider what you say, I am inspired to make changes that will benefit my family. Much love to you!

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  3. exceptional blog thank you Allyson, I am reading Maps of Meaning at the moment so very on point. I have shared on my FB page recommending reading for all parents.

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    1. The Poor Mother by Hugues Merle and the last one is by Edmund Blair Leighton A Little Prince Likely in Time to Bless a Royal Throne – I love his stuff and have put one of his in a previous post. I need to remember to always name the pictures at the end of the posts.

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  4. Thank you so much for this post! And for writing the others, your thoughts are exactly what I need. As a new mother, I often find myself torn between different aspects of motherhood and sometimes it seems I am just being thrown about the experience. Reading your words reminds me of what kind of a mother I wish to be.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post! And for writing the others, your thoughts are exactly what I need. As a new mother, I often find myself torn between different aspects of motherhood and sometimes it seems I am just being thrown about the experience. Reading your words reminds me of what kind of a mother I wish to be.

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  6. I appreciate this article. Defining the boundary line between overly protective and too permissive is difficult though. It is easy to sight obvious errors in either direction, but I struggle with parsing some things. With my oldest child I tend to lean toward older expectations of manhood beginning at age twelve. I recognize his need to be challenged by other men and to have real responsibilities placed on his shoulders. However, I think 12 is too young for his mind to be fully exposed to the darkest parts of human nature. I suppose that over the span of childhood, exposure to risk and the awareness of evil should be a process akin to inoculation. Hope we get the balance right!

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    1. I believe a mother altering her direction with each child is the sign of a good mother. Some kids need innocence a bit longer than others. I also rarely expose young children to darkness myself – and often protect them from it in early years (scary movies, horrific crimes or current events) however I do explain and instruct when they themselves encounter it. Your son is lucky to have an intentional mom who thinks of these things. I appreciate you reading.

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  7. Great read, very interesting and thought provoking…Thank you for taking the time to write down and share your thoughts. Personally, i’m young and wont have children for some time…but i’d like to think that for every new parent there is also a new philosophy of parenting/parenthood… and on top of that…each new philosophy/method/whatever-you-wanna-callit will evolve overtime.

    I’d like to hear how you would distinguish the “Weeds” from the “toothaches”. It is hard for me to see the difference….given that there is a difference, i initially want to say that you can only shield them from weeds for so long. Seems like acknowledging and discussing a parent’s concern about the “weeds” with their children is important. Maybe discussions are better than straight “shielding” (im not exactly sure what you mean by “shielding”)

    I’d also like to hear more about what a “pristine” relationship means to you. and, How might we maintain that Pristine relationship?

    Also, what are the difficult conversations that will be Challenging for you to discuss with your children as they mature and learn more about the world? (Death? Sex? Drugs? Ect.?)

    Thanks again for your insights into motherhood / Parenthood.

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    1. Thanks for reading. I will try and answer as conscisely as I can. Weeds are distractions/addictions/bad habits that can inhibit a child’s moral and mental development. It’s true that eventually it is not a parents place to shield your children but I certainly believe a young child needs to be protected from destructive elements. For example my sons friends will stay up till all hours playing video games. They played sports and explored the outdoors when they were younger but because video games are now made to be so addictive they are often more rewarding to kids brains than outdoor activity. I am very grateful we have shielding our son from video games. He is a very good athlete now and had has a variety of interests and a dynamic personality. Kids who sit in front of electronics all day have a difficult time with interpersonal skills. I define “toothaches” as the trials and hardships that are inherant to life that children should not be shielded from but should be counseled in how to handle appropriately.

      In terms of pristine. I would say it relates to your last question as well. To keep my relationship to the point where the trust, love, and acceptance between us makes no conversation difficult. A few of my kids have very different personality from my own and so it has been a challenge to navigate the relationship to keep it pristine. It takes effort but I always need to know that my relationship can stand the test of time and circumstance. As for difficult conversations – I don’t think anything is difficult if you start young enough so it is never awkward. I speak about sex and death and drugs in an age-appropriate way all the time to my kids. Kids understand way more then we realize and really don’t need to be talked down to. Thanks so much for reading!

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      1. Ps. Now my son is ten and has had time to see how his friends have been negatively affected by video games he has no desire to play them often. He has developed his own self regulation.

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  8. That’s a wonderful response, thank you for taking the time to write that out.

    Gaming is an interesting topic. I sorta hate to go on this tangent but here it is…I myself love gaming. I can absolutely acknowledge that they have been designed to be addicting, and one must be able to develop the self control of putting the controller down. That can be hard for some people, particularly people facing depression.

    Like most things in life, gaming is something that has negative and positive consequences. Personally I am Very thankful for experiences, relationships, and skills that i developed through gaming…. although, I do not wish spend all of my time gaming. I am also very thankful for the experiences, relationships, and skills that i have developed through my climbs, hikes, and my time in the back country. I do not want to spend all my time hiking and living in a tent. That would also hold me back in many ways. Im also thankful for sports, school, my career…. but i do not wish to be a workaholic. These are All very valuable to me and my development, all in very different ways. I think your son is wise to not play them too often. Seems like he will be a very well rounded and thoughtful man. I’m sure you’ve had some useful talks about the negative consequences of being a gaming addict. I guess we ought to take most things in moderation.

    Thanks again, and please keep writing! Sorry for the long comments, it is really just my quick train of thought!

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    1. No problem. I see that there is value in video games. I have just seen too many negative affects when the habit is started at a young age and crowds out other potential interests. It can also be a cause of contention between children and parents. A lot of it depends on the personality of the child – some children are more likely to overuse it than others. But as you said, moderation in all things. But part of the joy of parenthood is you get it do it in your way and and share your passions with your children.

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