A Distorted Concept of the Motherhood

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Bertens’ defines the female stereotype as either “an immoral or dangerous seductress, a dissatisfied shrew, cute but helpless or an unworldly, self-sacrificing angel”. For much of the twentieth century, the cultural stereotype was that all women should become mothers, and that they should be completely happy and content in that role, a stereotype has been ingrained and perpetuated within society to this day. To say that Shriver succumbs completely to any of these stereotypes would be incorrect, as the construction of Eva Khatchadourian challenges the idea that all women should become mothers, due to her reluctance to have a child and the grief that it brings. Shriver makes it clear that in condemning a mother for their child’s actions, you are imposing the idea of “perfect motherhood”. This imposition then creates unrealistic expectations, providing a distorted concept of motherhood. 

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Shriver’s choice to present the story from Eva’s perspective as a woman and mother also challenges the stereotype, as Eva is able to express her own feelings and thoughts, which largely go against the grain of the stereotype. Although, Eva does somewhat assume the form of what Bertens’ describes as a “dissatisfied shrew” after the results of “Thursday,” this is the result of the patriarchal society’s view of what a woman should be and do. The stereotype of the “self-sacrificing angel” which although Eva certainly succumbs to, highlights the deeply rooted cultural ideology towards women and motherhood. Eva ultimately realises she is not to blame for Kevin’s actions, despite the cultural tendency to shame women, allowing Shriver to challenge the expectation that all mothers must be conventionally perfect, fit the stereotype of a woman, and are ultimately to blame for their child’s actions.

Shriver’s Eva is independent, successful in her business and happily married when she chooses to have children, which appear as good circumstances in terms of child rearing in the modern day. However, Eva continuously expresses how she has never experienced any desire to bear children-“For years I’d been awaiting that overriding urge I’d always heard about” and then stating that she was “worried there was something wrong…something missing.” The adjectives “wrong” and “missing” suggest that Eva feels as if she is lacking in her “womanhood” by not having children, highlighting Eva’s internalisation of the idea of the perfect woman and mother, one who happily bears and raises children, an idea that is perpetuated by society and inflicted upon all women within it. Eva does not resist motherhood in its entirety, however she fears the patriarchal construction of it, as it refuses a life outside of selflessness and sacrifice- “I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story.” Shriver seemingly suggests Eva only resists becoming a mother due to the patriarchal construction of motherhood by society, which has created the unrealistic and distorted concept of a happy and “natural” mother figure, with motherly instinct and immediate love for their child. Without the patriarchal construction of motherhood, Eva’s feelings towards motherhood may have been different. 

Through this, Shriver directly challenges the patriarchal society and exposes the pressures put upon women within it. Shriver’s utilisation of the first person narrative enables the admission of Eva’s feelings and thoughts as a woman and mother, which go against the grain of societal norms implies that women experience thoughts and feelings that challenge these norms, and that they should not be shunned for this. Furthermore, the grief and pain that Kevin causes perhaps serves to suggest that if a woman does not feel as if she wants to have children, she should not feel as if she must conform to society’s standards and do so.

However, Eva does seem to fit the stereotype of the “self-sacrificing angel” that Bertens’ suggests, by giving up her life as an independent and working woman to take care of her children. Although, contextually, during the 80s, the idea of women working became a somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Shriver thus presents the reader with the conclusion that this is incredibly difficult for a mother-as Franklin and many husbands simply expect their wives to give up working life, despite societal shifts regarding working women, as the social ideology surrounding women and mothers as housewives was deep rooted within society. “Although women make up two fifths of the labour force…in no western society is paid work outside the home considered desirable. Survey data suggests a substantial minority of American men oppose their wives working”. Shriver therefore, although succumbing to this stereotype, also somewhat exposes the ingrained societal expectations of women during the 80s-although it was becoming more acceptable to be a woman in work, women were expected to sacrifice this for their family.

Moreover, Eva does seemingly assume the stereotype of what is identified by Bertens as the “shrew”. The shrew represents a non-conforming woman within society and is thus deemed as “ill-tempered”. Eva becomes an outcast in society after the events of “Thursday” and is then condemned for her son’s actions, as society deems it her responsible for not correctly mothering Kevin. She becomes an unmarried older woman without children, the stereotype known as a “spinster”. However, Bertens’ statement that the-“desired effect… (of this stereotype) is a perpetuation of the unequal power relationships between men and women”, is less convincing in Shriver’s case. Kevin’s own perspective of Eva’s trial is that it was “totally bogus,” and that the premise of suing a mother for raising him was just as absurd for kids suing their parents “because they came out ugly.” Although Eva is shunned for Kevin’s actions, Shriver makes it overtly clear that that it is ridiculous to blame a mother for a child’s actions. Instead, she suggests the patriarchal society is to blame for Eva’s turnout, as she fell victim to societal pressures that led her to become a mother, and it is society that has wrongfully condemned her to shame. This is supported by Badinter’s idea that women seeking to escape the role of mother were subject to moral condemnation and women who could not or would not conform to the expectations for good mothers were also condemned. This arguably serves to underline and resist the societal constructions surrounding womanhood, not perpetuate them as Bertens’ suggests.

The ideology of “perfect motherhood”

Eva’s realisation that she is not to blame further deconstructs the ideology of “perfect motherhood” and mother blame. Her realisation comes from her visit to prison, when speaking to another mother, who asks why Kevin did it, to which Eva replies, “I expect it’s my fault. I wasn’t a very good mother”, the mother then states “It’s always the mother’s fault…nobody ever say his daddy’s a drunk, or his daddy not home after school…don’t you let the saddle you with all the killing…it’s hard to be a momma… I’m sure you try the best you could.” To which Eva squeezes her hand-“so hard and so long that she must have feared I might never let go”. Here, Shriver exposes how female guilt stems from the societal pressure to be “perfect” in terms of motherhood, yet this is an unrealistic and fictitious concept imposed to shame women, as little of this blame is ever put on the father- Franklin is never considered to be at fault. This links to Almond’s idea that “The guilt produced by the pressure on women to be all-loving and all-giving toward their offspring takes a powerful toll as women fail in their attempts to fulfil impossible standards of mothering, they feel angry and disappointed with themselves.”Which I largely agree with, as Eva’s guilt stems from what she considers to be her “failures” as a mother. Although Eva feels the societal pressure to blame herself, she rejoices in the release of her guilt here. The condemnation of mother blame and female guilt here by Shriver challenges these patriarchal concepts and calls for change in regards to the way society treats women and mothers alike.

Although unconventional in the eyes of society, Eva also displays the behaviours of a conventional mother in that after the events of “Thursday”, at the end of the novel, she states “After three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting…I love my son.” Here, she displays the unconditional love that characterises the mother figure, after previously resisting and defying what society constructs to be as such. It is interesting that society condemns Eva whilst she fits the conventional stereotype of a mother, standing by her son and loving him unconditionally, and that this is perhaps the reason that they shun her. Here, perhaps Shriver hints at the constrictions surrounding motherhood and womanhood- you can never fit society’s ideals perfectly and do right in the eyes of society, especially as a woman and mother.

In conclusion, Shriver’s construction of Eva, a woman who possesses both unconventional and conventional attributes, serves to highlight how although women often fit the stereotype in one way or another, they often go against this stereotype at the same time, as all women are different, and society’s idea of what the “woman” should be is far too constricting. Shriver challenges the societal view that all women should want to have children and that “perfect motherhood” exists, as in Eva’s attempts to fit these stereotypes, she is condemned to her life as a shrew/spinster. Shriver utilisation of the shrew/spinster, unlike as Bertens’ suggests,-“the desired effect… (of the stereotype) is a perpetuation of the unequal power relationships between men and women”, only underlines the need for societal change in regards to the perpetuation of them. 

Although Eva also assumes the form of the stereotypical “self-sacrificing angel” this underlines the ingrained patriarchal views that society not only held in the twentieth century, but also today. Eva’s realisation that she is not to blame only further criticises the idea that mothers are solely responsible for their children, and underlines the patriarchy surrounding motherhood. Therefore, Shriver greatly challenges the female stereotype, and when Shriver conforms to it, it largely exposes the patriarchal society that we live in, not perpetuate it.  

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