OPINION: Patriarchy doesn’t stop at the dinner table

Two abstract purple figures face each other, one larger than the other.
(Sarah Flemming • The Student Life)


In high school, I distinctly remember making my best friend sit through the mind-numbingly slow, nearly three-hour film “Boyhood.” Although I was watching the film for the second time, I particularly loved how the story portrayed a dysfunctional family dynamic throughout a child’s adolescence. As a younger viewer, I didn’t notice how the often absent father’s fun and carefree demeanor contrasted with the tension of the mother’s search for security and stability as a single parent

It occurs to me now that family dramas, centered around single or divorced parents, tend to illustrate family dynamics in a very consistent manner: the father as the outlet for freedom and the mother as the recipient of resentment, assigned the role of antagonist. As psychologist Bonnie Burstow writes: “Often father and daughter look down on mother (woman) together. They exchange meaningful glances when she misses a point. They agree that she is not bright as they are, cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother’s fate.” And indeed, in “Boyhood”, the main character’s sister has this dynamic with her father. 

Exposure to media that paints this image coupled with this stark assessment has me asking: Why do we find it easy to blame the female figures in our families rather than the male ones?

To me, the answer is found in a social construct — specifically, the role we assign to mothers following childbirth. The person who carries and gives birth to a child becomes the one responsible for their development. Unfortunately, that same accountability falls upon mothers when mistakes happen. 

This extends to temperament. A mother births a child and is expected to show warmth, show commitment. If a mother doesn’t sufficiently fulfill this role, she’s cold, abnormal, unwomanly. There’s an unwritten rulebook, a set of standards mothers have to meet. This opens the door for animosity from children. A Washington Post article on the topic notes, “mother-blaming also hurts psychology and society by preventing us from looking with fully open eyes at the total range of causes for children’s unhappiness and psychological problems.”

In families consisting of a mother and father figure, different parenting styles are to be expected. It becomes another story when, for every fast-food run one parent does, the other has to work twice as hard to get a fraction of the gratitude. It’s unfair that due to the way we understand gender roles, mothers must feel the burden and guilt of not measuring up to the people their children want them to be. 

It is important to recognize that this dynamic is not the same for everyone. I know for some of my peers, their fathers carry the load that their mothers cannot. But as someone who has fallen prey to the conventional parent-dynamic trap, I can say a shift in mindset is feasible. It is really a matter of seeing things as they are. 

Take note of how you measure praise and criticism for your parental figures. Ask yourself, do you get easily bothered by one parent more so than the other? By exempting father figures for inadequacy and redirecting blame to mother figures, is it easier to misdirect our anger? The cultural narrative we ascribe to teaches us that maternal characteristics include empathy and sensitivity. Do we, as children, exploit this social construct?

Another great way to reframe your understanding of gender roles in the context of your family is simply to talk. Communicate with the parental figure who, more often than not, might be the recipient of your own anger and frustration; talk about the root of your feelings, and make an effort to listen to the strain they might be enduring. In order to make sense of dysfunction, ask each other where your sentiments are coming from, and how and for whom you intend them to be shared.

Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, indie music and making Pinterest boards.

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