Do we unfairly blame mothers when things go wrong?

The spectre of the ‘bad mother’ has been haunting the British headlines in the last few weeks. As it often does…

The tabloid press have had a field day over Karen Matthews, the mother of alleged child kidnap victim Shannon Matthews. She’s been formally charged with child neglect, but hasn’t there been a hint of relish in reports about her unconventional family (she has seven children by five different fathers)? Also, Karen’s house has had to be boarded up to protect it from vigilante mobs.  

The mother of murder victim Scarlett Keeling has also taken a hammering. The government of Goa, where Scarlett died, accused her of negligence, and bloggers and journalists have been critical of her decision to leave her daughter staying with friends while she travelled.

Do you think we are too ready to criticise mothers when things go wrong? Do women get the blame for family breakdown while their feckless husbands don’t? And do we expect mothers to live up to unattainable ideals?

28 Responses to “Do we unfairly blame mothers when things go wrong?”

  1. 1 farooqk
    April 11, 2008 at 14:11

    i think we tend to blame whoever we can, whenever we can, for anything and everything that goes wrong.
    However, id definitely say that its important for parents, not just mothers, to keep an eye on what their kids do. Considering social roles, where i come from, a man is responsible for the family’s finances, a woman takes care of the household and its members. These responsibilites are to be shared though as much as possible. A mother has greater responsibility to the direct caretaking of her children, however, this is not an obligation a man is free from either. So i guess its safe to say that both parents should be held accountable, rather then just the mother…

  2. 2 steve
    April 11, 2008 at 14:36

    Sometimes I feel that these mothers want attention more than they want the crime to be solved. Sometimes they actually commit the crime, and then go to the press, to get attention. Right now, if a woman reports a missing child, goes to the press asking for their help, I have a feeling the police will start viewing her/spouse as suspects quicker than they have in the past, because more nad more of these have been done by the parents. It’s rather amazing what lengths people will go to get attention these days.

  3. April 11, 2008 at 15:02

    The mother is the essential and the most responsible for her children. If something went wrong with the children, the first thing that comes to mind is the mother, what is her role in her children’s lives. The father has a big role too but not as much as the mother. I have a little girl that I take care of 95% of her needs, her father only helps when I ask for some.

  4. 4 George USA
    April 11, 2008 at 15:24

    In a professional capacity I have seen mothers of five with five different fathers.

    The woman always has some form of dysfunction, but still has love for her children and in her own mind is a good and caring mother, usually working some low wage job and cares for her children the very best she can.

    Such a woman is no threat to anyone in general, usually working so many hours she has no time for much mischief aside from the trivial relations which impregnate her.

    The best treatment is to speak to her as a responsible adult, guide and teach life and parenting skills which are missing, offer nonjudgmental support within the context of the professional interaction but in no uncertain terms state when some action or reasoning is not working and not acceptable, offering practical steps to go forward.

    The best friend on earth for women in this situation is a mature Christian woman as a mentor.
    The mentor can deal with issues the professional person cannot and expand a support network.
    Learning to function in life is the goal.

    The more interaction of the children in school activities, Church, Scouting, and youth group, the better.
    They love their mother but learn missing components from adults outside the home.

  5. 5 Sandra Patricia, Colombia
    April 11, 2008 at 16:21

    Hello, WHYS team and everyone! 🙂

    The role of mother and father are different in the grown-up of the kid: however, I don’t think that all the responsibility in on the mother’s shoulders, as I understood Hiam Chipman said. Of course they are going to be a bit more attentive in supplying all their children’s needs, specially affectional, but it does not mean the father’s responsibility is less. Both have to be in charge of the discipline, the teaching of values and the affection the children needs.

    About more specific cases, it’s necessary to see the circumstances they happened. Parents often make mistakes, as children do. But is it necessary to critisize the way they educate or support their children just for one single incident – which unfortunately can be serious -? In the case of mothers who bring up their children all alone and cannot be with them the whole day, is it fair to blame them? Every mother – and father, if there is – has to make sure her/his children are in the best possible conditions, but it’s not fair to blame them everytime something wrong happens because some things can be out of their reach. In some other cases, parents are irresponsible because, for example, they have many children knowing they cannot support them as they should, or make they live under inappropriate circumstances, even living in danger. In those situtuations we can talk about recurrent mistakes that should be penalized.

    Being parents is a big and complex responsibility… And society should support them. As George said, today we have Christian communities that help children with the values they need to learn to live in a society. Anyway, mothers who bring up their children all alone need more support from her other relatives, school and the rest of the community.

  6. 6 Janet T
    April 11, 2008 at 16:53

    So mothers are now responsible if their child gets kidnapped or murdered?

    What else? Are mothers now responsible for global warming? The war in Iran? Genocide in Darfur?

    I think the kidnapper or murderer is the one responsible for their crime, and trying to blame the mother (even a “bad” mother) is just a way of making of us feel better about our lives.

  7. 7 steve
    April 11, 2008 at 17:22


    In some cases, yes. If you are grossly negligent, you are complicit. Imagine a woman leaving her child alone in the front yard of a registered pedophile. Pretty stupid move? Thought she didn’t get him to kidnap the kid, her actions are so irresponsible that she should be punished, so as to discourage others from being so irresponsible and careless. Actually in that scenario it would be recklessness and not negligence I would think, which is even worse.

    You know, there are all sorts of rules that are meant to protect kids. Child seats in cars. Some places are banning smoking in cars that have children, etc. The reason why they have rules like that is because some parents are careless with their kids. Nobody is saying that in all cases of kidnap or whatever that the mother had been careless, but in some, they are. When they are, they should be punished like any other negligent person should.

  8. 8 Chuck Paugh
    April 11, 2008 at 17:53

    I think that we need to be blaming parents MORE when things go wrong and hold them equally accountable criminally when an underage child commits a crime because we have had a complete breakdown in the family with parents abrogating responsibility for their children to the government and public schools.

  9. 9 George USA
    April 11, 2008 at 17:57

    Janet T-

    You are exactly right.

    I repent for flapping my lips on observations when the question is really the witch hunt around this case

    not the mother.

  10. 10 Laura in Minneapolis
    April 11, 2008 at 17:57

    I agree with steve, there are laws that support children because some parents are abusive and/or negligent. Some mothers and fathers are simply not good mothers and fathers in an extreme and repeated way (think of the infamous case of “Genie,” the little girl that was locked in a room for the first 13 years of her life.) Laws are in place to make sure it is known that the simple reasoning, “They are MY children,” does not justify abusing those children.

    That being said, I think we are a little hard on mothers, much of which comes from mothers themselves. However, a lot of women are under enormous pressure to “Do it All.” She feels she has to work full time and be a mother full time. She must balance PTA meetings, and soccer games with board meetings and power point presentations.

    And that’s in the middle/upper-middle class picture. In the working class, often mothers are not only working to support their family while trying to keep their kids out of trouble, but they’re often doing it alone. I suggest the book, “Everyday Courage,” as it discusses wonderful research about this very issue.

    As always, I think we need to bestow upon fathers the same amount of accountability that we bestow upon mothers.

  11. 11 steve
    April 11, 2008 at 18:10


    I agree with much of what you say, however we cannot ignore reality. Many women chose irresponsible men for the drama, so they’re going to be single mothers, and are going to be on their own. In other cases, men tend to simply work a lot more and hence cannot be around. It depends on the lifestyles. I know some women who make substantially less than their husbands, work a lot less, so the husband is at work, and she has to do the driving, making dinner, watching the kids, and is resentful of it, however if they didn’t “have” to have the McMansion, then he wouldn’t need to work all the time, or have the BMW.. It’s really about lifestyles. Also I know a guy whose wife divorced him, but she was so crazy he actually got sole custody, and he works a low paying job, but always finds time to take care of his daughter. Everywhere he goes, she goes. He’s doing a very good job of it, he’s sacrificed much, he used to be a deejay, would go to clubs often, now he simply doesn’t anymore because he knows where his responsibility is, and he’s not at all resentful of it.

  12. 12 Janet T
    April 11, 2008 at 18:30

    ok I’m not advocating abuse or neglect or reckless endangerment, and god knows if we could have laws against stupidity, way more people would be locked up to prevent them from harming themselves or others- but I have a cousin that has 4 kids, ages 8-15- she WILL NOT let them play outside in their front yard by themselves, go anywhere alone etc… to the point where she is (I think) maniacal about this- the reason??? (Because I had to ask)- she said whenever anything goes wrong and something happens to a kid, people always say’ Where was the Mother? and no one is going to say that about me” While I understand her point, I think it is overboard, but this was her personal take on the current state of the media. Look I have 2 kids, I know how hard and relentless mothering can be. I have given up sleep, vacations, showers alone, and sometimes sanity for my kids. I would not harm a hair on their heads and think that people who do harm kids should be summarily executed, or exiled from our planet. But still- why always the mother?? (My cousin is married to the father of her kids; he doesn’t seem worried about “where was the Dad??”) Is this ever going to be equitable?

  13. 13 steve
    April 11, 2008 at 18:45


    Given that single mothers are common, or given that many women with kids don’t work, and the vast, vast majority of men work, it’s just fact that women spend more time with the kids, hence why people and the media will immediately think “where was the mother”? If men could have kids, it would be “where was the father?” and the roles were reversed, there were single fathers, and men didn’t work as much…..

    It’s just the way the world works. As for your cousin, maybe there’s some situation, maybe he works a lot. I know a guy who stupidly is considering marrying a woman who is divorced and has several kids, and she absolutely demands he work a job that pays at least $200,000, which means he will be working a lot. If she’s then upset that she has all the household responsibilities including caring for the kids (let’s even for this, pretend it was his kids, though they aren’t) it’s hard to have your cake and eat it too. If she demands he makes tha tmuch money, and has to work that much to make the money, she cannot complain that she’s expected to be around the kids, so people don’t ask “where’s the dad”. of course not all situations are like this, but given so many women are single mothers, or so many don’t work, or don’t work full time, they simply have the ability to be around the kids more and hence when they aren’t, people ask “where was the mother?”

  14. 14 Laura in Minneapolis
    April 11, 2008 at 18:45

    Your friend sounds like a great and responsible father, bravo to him! It’s a great example of why we need to look at custody rulings as a whole, and perhaps discuss the consequences of giving the children to women much more often than to men. If it hasn’t been made clear already, I’m for equality in EVERY sense of the word. My own dad was a stay-at-home father of sorts (my mom worked during the day, he worked the night shift for the first 8 years of my life), and this rather atypical way of childrearing worked out for my family very well.

    I’m not sure about the choosing irresponsible men for the drama bit. While I agree women should take more responsibility for their lifestyle choices, own those choices and work to change them, It sounds like you’re once again blaming women completely for their predicaments. There is blame to share in that (and most) situations. Don’t not rob men of their responsibility there.

    Also, again I don’t think it’s only the wife saying “GO TO WORK! I need this, and this, and that.” Doesn’t the husband also want status symbols like a fancy car and nice house, perhaps even more so?

    Lastly, some women are very happy to be housewives. But for a woman who was once apart of the workplace, she could become resentful of staying at home (whether she chose to do so or was pressured into it.) And I can see why, it’s BORING.

    We’re once again going off on a tangent though… oh well 🙂

    Laura in Minneapolis

  15. 15 Laura in Minneapolis
    April 11, 2008 at 18:48

    Janet, I couldn’t agree more. You rarely hear, “where were the parents?” Mothers are held to a different standard than fathers- and to the detriment of all parties involved.

    Laura in Minneapolis

  16. 16 ghada
    April 11, 2008 at 19:14

    Protection is the most important thing that parents owe their children ,so the are both blamed if something wrong happens and not the mother only.But what makes all to look at the mother for blaming is that she is the closer to her child,s heart, she spends more time with him ,and she has more affection over him,so she is regarded to be the more responsible.

  17. 17 Ana Milena, Colombia
    April 11, 2008 at 19:40

    Hi! 🙂
    If mothers are to blame when things go wrong, why don’t we then blame parents, mass media, school, church, our neighbours, etc.? Because they do have an incidence in the child’s behaviour, as well.

    So if a child comes to be a brilliant person with wonderful qualities and amazing skills, should all the compliments go to the mother?

    See you!

  18. 18 Will Rhodes
    April 11, 2008 at 21:39

    Nope I don’t blame the mothers, or fathers, or the child – I do blame those who bring irresponsible legislation that stops parents being parents.

    So I blame the government on this one – they should have kept out of peoples lives instead of trying to micromanage everything in society.

  19. 19 Emile Barre
    April 12, 2008 at 12:09

    Yes. The reason is simple: mothers are still expected to be principally responsible for raising children. As long as this dinosaur idea remains dominant “problem children” will continue to proliferate.

  20. 20 Erik Simmons
    April 13, 2008 at 03:03

    I believe that the increase in working mothers has resulted in an increase in juvenile delinquency in my country St.Lucia. Mother no longer want to stay home to ensure that children are disciplined and taught right from wrong. Modern day parents tend to leave their children home alone or with a babysitter who would not do a satisfactory job in the up bringing of the child. i would know this because i am 17 years old an my mother works allot and i would sometimes be left home alone. But i am responsible enough to know what behavior is expected of me but most young people here think differently.

  21. 21 farooqk
    April 13, 2008 at 12:56

    if a woman has 5 kids, no husband and no college education, she really cant do much for her kids. After a 12 hour shift, youre bound to make all too many mistakes with your children. Its important for us to realize the damage today’s lifestyle does to our youth. Men and women have both forgotten the meaning of compromise, hence finding it impossible to live together. Alcohol and drug abuse doesnt help the system much, more women get pregnant, more men cheat on their wives, all too many of them beat their wives and what not. The end result is a very disturbed generation coming our way. The problem is that nobody wants to take responsibility, nobody wants to open their eyes and see that the way things are, isnt the way things should be. Make one change, if that is the best you can do, change yourself. Thats a start right there.

  22. 22 ghada
    April 13, 2008 at 21:34

    If the mother is responsible, it does not mean that she can lead the whole family alone without a husband.The father and mother form together the basic pillars of bringing their children up in a good way,because every one has certain role.However,there are a lot of mothers who braught up very disciplined children without a husband and without a college . they are considered ,eith all respect ,idealists.

  23. 23 Ana Milena, Colombia
    April 14, 2008 at 15:11

    Hi! 🙂
    I agree with you, Will and Ghada. First of all, why does the government allow all these events? Well, it’s out of control for them, it’s simply because they can’t deal with everything. Are they – or mass media – charging all the responsibility to mothers?
    So families don’t need fathers. I’ve even heard of mothers who are blamed because their children have nothing to eat. Keeping in mind Emile’s comment, the typical point of view is that mom’s responsibility is bringing the kids up whereas the father’s mission is working to have money, food and a house. Again, why should the mother be guilty becasue of that?

    Oh! One more thing: the fact tht mothers have to go work is not a choice anymore: this situation’s taking place because our society and current necessities demand it. Sometimes, mothers cope with the whle responsibility. In other occasions, such as in my country, having only the father work isn’t enough.
    Is it a reason to blame mothers, then?

  24. 24 viola anderson
    April 14, 2008 at 21:10

    Well, it’s so easy, isn’t it? No thinking is required or action needed other than to condemn the mothers, especially when, of course, there are neglectful mothers out there. It’s all part of our expectation that becoming mothers releases some factor in women that should transform them into our ideal of motherhood. It doesn’t, much as we would like it to. The word “mother” is not synonymous with the word “saint”.

    If a community sets an impossibly high standard for motherhood, then, yes, that community does unfairly blame them when they don’t meet that standard and get caught at it because their children come in harm’s way

  25. 25 ikechukwu
    April 15, 2008 at 09:43

    Mothers have a responsibility to impart community building values to their children. Society has a responsibility aid single mothers with education and funds because improper upbringing is the center-point at which communities begin to fall apart.

  26. 26 Jens
    April 18, 2008 at 18:27

    i blame my mother-in-law for all the evil things she has done to her daughters. i have never seen a woman as self centered and egotistical as her. if there was a nomination for the world’s worst mother she would be in the running for it.

  27. 27 Dennis
    May 12, 2008 at 00:01


    Dennis from Madrid, United States of America

  28. 28 Bite me
    February 11, 2009 at 13:34

    People NEED to blame women for all their problems. They always need a convenient scapegoat. Men are always their to take the CREDIT of raising children, while it’s women doing the REAL work of raising them. Blaming single mothers just is yet another way of degrading/abusing/putting down women. I would question the sanctimonious haters who blame single mothers. Obviously the mothers in their two-parent families failed at some point,huh? (sarcasm)

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