Monday, 16 May 2016

Tactless Compliments, Motherhood Edition

Tactless Compliments, Motherhood Edition

Mother's Day was over a week ago, but I just celebrated it with family yesterday, so mothering is on my mind a bit more than usual.

I've been thinking about a compliment to mothers I've seen shared with some frequency on Facebook. You may likely have seen it, too.

It gets attached to sentimental pictures of mothers and children, or perhaps flowery text on a warm background. The text goes:

"I hear a lot of people say how they would hate to turn out like their mother. If I became half the woman my mom is I would be so grateful."

Usually, it's followed up by a declaration of love for the sharer's mother.

I'd like to unpack this meme a bit. (Parenthetically, I'm going to use the first-person plural pronoun a lot, even though this meme's text is not particularly applicable to gender-"normative" males such as myself. This is because the themes the meme deals with are universally applicable.)

Here's a typical example of the meme in action:

Leaving out the concluding declaration of love, the meme is divided into two sentences. I shall examine them in reverse order.

Sentence the Second
The second sentence in this "praise one's own mother" meme is actually pretty straightforward: "If I became half the woman my mom is I would be so grateful".

Leaving aside the fact that the sentence positively screams for a comma after "is", it's a bit of a compliment: setting up one's mother as an exemplar of womanhood, and making a self-deprecatory comparison to reinforce the set-up.

Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with seeing others as examples to follow, or believing oneself falls short of that example - it's one of the ways we can work to improve ourselves as we go through life. But I think anyone who shares this meme is selling themselves a little short.

Most of us on the Internet are young or even middle-aged adults, meaning our mothers are usually middle-age or older (if they are even still alive). This means that our recollection of our mothers is coloured when we share these sorts of memes by the fact that they have more experience as parents, less immediate control over our lives, and more disposable income and free time on account of no longer parenting. (For mothers we are praising posthumously, their death and absence colours our recollection even further.)

Lacking any especial insight to their inner lives, we probably aren't thinking of how they might have felt when we were infants, and they were grappling with exhaustion, recovering from childbirth, perhaps having issues with breast or bottle feeding, sleeping, and so on. We might remember disagreements, friction, and fighting during our teen years, but not really know their side of it.

All that is to say that it's not necessarily the case that any given meme sharer can reasonably expect to turn out to be only "half the woman" they perceive their mother to be.

Sentence the First
The first sentence in this meme is, on its own, doesn't really say much. "I hear a lot of people say how they would hate to turn out like their mother."

While this is doubtless true, as far as it goes, it comes across as being a bit weaselly. My own personal experience is that very few people who are not adolescents would actually suggest they would hate to turn out like their mothers unless they (the mothers) possessed some deep personality flaws, or were perhaps neglectful or even abusive. (If you frequent the blogs of survivors of far-right, reactionary-authoritarian, "Christianist" (as it were) parents, you'll see a lot of this sort of thing. Elsewhere, not so much.)

Putting Them Together
Because of this, I find combining the two sentences together adds a layer of meaning that positively rankles: "I hear a lot of people say how they would hate to turn out like their mother," the meme-sharer declares (by way of sharing the meme). "So what?" we might ask. But by contrast: "If I became half the woman my mom is I would be so grateful." Implied in the conjunction of the two sentences is that the meme-sharer is setting up a contrast between (presumably) herself and those people who are so ungrateful as to "hate to turn out like their mother".

In the vast majority of cases, I don't think that the people sharing this meme are consciously setting out to bely the often very good reasons people find little to recommend or emulate about their mothers, or to despite such people by setting up a contrast which makes them seem like ingrates. Nevertheless, the net effect of the meme, taken as a whole, is to do just that.

In short, for all its apparent, cloying sepia-toned sentimentality, this "praise one's mother" meme ends up being rather negative on the whole: the sharer negates her own qualities in the act of praising her mother, and she negates the experiences of those who have good reason not to praise their own mothers, however unconsciously.

The Fine Art of Tact in Compliments
All that is to say that this meme ends up being something of a tactless compliment, which might seem an oxymoron. But all the same, here we are looking at one.

With respect to this meme, or the general act of complimenting one's mother, applying a little tact would suggest we just pay a compliment: no self-deprecation or belittlement of others (however unwitting) is required.

So if you're fishing for something positive to say about your mother, dear reader, why not give this meme a pass? Just write that she's amazing, or awesome, and that you love her.

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