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Kathleen Barlow
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Anthropology, Central Washington University

Hiding the ‘bad mother:’ Disguise and displacement in everyday mothering among the Murik of Papua New Guinea

In Murik society, articulated views of mothering are often idealized versions, but the activities of mothers reveal the impossibility of completely fulfilling such ideals. Some necessary but less benign aspects of mothering reveal contradictions within the ideal of mothering. Mothers find it hard to be totally indulgent, to provide every kind of good food, and to remain patient and admiring, at the same time that they fulfill their charge to teach children how to behave properly. Sometimes children’s behavior is frustrating to mothers, and sometimes, for very good reasons, mothers also frustrate children’s desires and even become angry at them. Murik women have special strategies for concealing these moments and feelings, and for deflecting punitive, withholding or angry behavior away from themselves. Spirit figures, other adults, women who fulfill the roles of joking partner and “big” women provide ways to disguise and displace the negative aspects of mothering. In striving to fulfill contradictory and multiple demands on them as persons, women as mothers employ distinct strategies in relation to these alters. Their actions contribute to an habitus of mothering that includes resources for coping with failures of the maternal ideal. In the long run, both “good” mothers and “bad” mothers are integral components of Murik ideas about moral behavior and, I would argue, of its motivational underpinnings.
February 11, 2004
12:00 pm
Haines 352

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