Empty Altar Essays: The Sacrificial Mother


Patriarchy has taught us to devalue the caring, nurturing, emotional work of motherhood. Capitalism has taught us to define work as production. White Supremacy has taught us that white women are at once fragile and superior and that women of color are at once unbreakable and inhuman.

And so we learn that these things that exhaust us are not ‘real work’. We learn that we should be grateful for the smallest amounts of help from our partners. We learn to devalue the domestic work that mothers do and to scoff at the idea of mothers needing help with this work, especially mothers of color. This is the base, the DNA from which The Sacrificial Mother springs.

She is the ideal. She is the mother who will finally and absolutely be blessed as THE GOOD MOM. She will be secure in the knowledge that she did everything right and she will live a life free of blame, shame, and disregard.

She is a chimera, an impossibility, constantly changing but always perfectly correct. She easily adapts to every bit of new information on child rearing, health, and nutrition. She gives the perfect amount to her children, her partner, her friends, her family. She is the quintessential giving machine.

And because our world is what it is, she is also young, straight, white, cisgendered, able bodied, married, educated (but not too), and fully employed (but not career-driven). She volunteers, she crafts, she makes money, she loves sex with her husband only and her desire level is a perfect fit for his.

The farther away you are from this ideal, the more your mothering is judged by society at large and the harder your mothering journey is in general. The particulars will be decided by your own intersections and by those of your mother and your matrilineal line.

It isn’t just us and it isn’t just today. The Sacrificial Mother as we know her now has been shaped by every generation before us, whether they knew that’s what was happening or not. Every stereotype about womanhood plays into this one. Every idea about gender, about sexuality, about worth, about race, about class - they all come together here. She may also wear a face specific to your race and culture. Mothers of color are frequently judged against a cultural Sacrificial Mother and a white/western Sacrificial Mother.

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