I was flipping through the May 2014 issue of Working Mother Magazine the other day and landed upon a small article about a working mother’s recent “faux pas”: on a “crazed morning” she accidentally packed her bag of tampons in her 7-year-old son’s camp bag and took her son’s snack to work with her. Not only did this mistake leave her son without a snack for the day but also with an “inappropriate” item in his camp bag. The article, titled “The Big Switch,” told of this mother’s horror when she realized that she packed tampons in her son’s camp bag. It told of the constant agony and mortification she felt in just thinking about what might happen at school if anyone found the tampons in her son’s bag. She called her friends and they laughed, offering no advice. She braced herself for the end of the day but, when the end of the day came, she found out that her son had received a special treat of Oreos at school because he had no snack. Her son arrived home happy and unphased. The story ends without us finding out whether the son ever even realized that he had tampons in his school bag. We are also left to think, “Phew, disaster averted.”
Mothers naturally make mistakes all of the time (indeed, it’s maybe one of the things we do best!). However, this mistake was high stakes because it challenged an important social norm: a concealment norm. Women should not let anyone know that they menstruate and they should definitely not involve and/or show kids the evidence. This mother worried for her son’s potential willingness to “share” his knowledge of the tampons in his bag among his friends. She envisioned moments within which everyone at camp would know that she had packed tampons in her son’s bag and was concerned about potential repercussions. This mother worried that camp counselors might even call Protective Services if they found out about the tampons in her son’s bag, and that other parents might find out and complain as well. She knew there could be real consequences….but there weren’t consequences. In fact, in the end, this mistake seemed trivial. Perhaps the son saw the tampons and didn’t think they were a big deal, or perhaps he never saw them.
When we go against concealment norms and “show” to others that women/moms menstruate, we realize exactly how powerful those concealment norms are. This mother spent an entire day on the edge of her seat, unable to engage in her paid work, worried about what would happen to her son and to her because of this mistake. She thought about all of the possible problems and solutions, and engaged in quite a bit of emotional work trying to deal with the fact that she had made this mistake. This illustrates exactly how much work women invest in the concealment of menstruation, how much time and energy it entails yet also how fragile concealment is over time. Women must continually engage in concealment (and also be ready to do damage control) to make certain that menstruation can remain hidden.
This is also a story about how working mothers are constantly negotiating whether they are “good” mothers. This mother provides lots of excuses for why the “big switch” happened – everything from having deadlines at work to being a single mother. Thus we see another set of social norms at work as well in this story: social norms about who is a “good” mother. According to our social norms, there is only one kind of good mother at the end of the day: the mother who does not make mistakes. How silly is that? The ending of the story even seems to suggest how silly these motherhood norms might be, because the son turned out just fine — tampons didn’t hurt him, nor did his lack of snack.
In the end, this small story is just one more representation of the tightropes that women walk, and the impossible demands that social norms place on women. Let it be known that women menstruate and that mothers make mistakes. No social norm has the power to discount those facts.