Today is Mother’s Day, a day when people remember the myriad ways in which their mothers fed, watered, clothed, nursed, supported, tolerated, and (generally) raised them. It’s time to spring for some overpriced pastel-colored flowers, organize a brunch, select a candle or spa package, cobble together a breakfast in bed, and give thanks to the person that tradition and patriarchy has designated as the parent who does the majority of childrearing and household labor (with my apologies to those fathers who do their part and/or solo parent). Some people, however, don’t have the kind of mother who inspires warm feelings and they’re not alone.
Arguably the poster girl for bad mothers is Medea, the antihero of the Greek playwright Euripides’ eponymous play. According to Greek mythology, Medea was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and the granddaughter of the sun god Helios. She features in the story of Jason and the Gold Fleece in which she plays a central role in Jason’s success. In Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica, Medea promises to help Jason reclaim his inheritance and throne if he agrees to marry her afterwards. It is largely thanks to Medea that Jason is able to complete the otherwise-impossible tasks that her father sets for him. Subsequently, Medea and Jason marry and (if this was a different kind of story) should have lived happily ever after.
According to all the sources Jason casts aside Medea for Glauce, the daughter of the King of Corinth. Euripides, however, gives us a drama in which, in a jealous love-filled rage, Medea kills not only Glauce (via poisoned dress) but all of her and Jason’s children. In the play it’s not an easy decision for her: it is simply the only way for her to seek vengeance on the man who had betrayed her. Like so many other ‘bad mothers’ of history she is depicted as having traditional ‘masculine’ personality traits like intelligence. Emma Griffiths, a classicist at the University of Manchester, argues that Medea’s categorization as a witch and powerful intellectual force puts her at odds with ancient conventions about the role of women. And it’s worth noting that there are plenty of other ancient stories about Medea that make her seem more like a lovestruck young girl or talented healer, than a crazed killer.
Sisygambis was the mother of the fourth century B.C. Persian King Darius III. We don’t know much about her birth or upbringing, but she may have been the daughter of Artaxerxes II of Mnemon. Most of our information about Sisygambis pertains to her mistreatment of her son and her great attachment to Alexander the Great.
On Nov. 5, 333 B.C., Alexander the Great and his armies defeated Darius III at the Battle of Issus. After the battle Sisygambis, along with Darius III’s wife and two daughters, were captured and became prisoners of war. Many conquerors might have executed the women immediately but instead Alexander went to visit them and treated them with kindness and honor. From this point onwards Darius’s relatives were kept with the baggage train that followed the Greek army. When Darius was eventually killed, Alexander sent the body to Sisygambis for burial and mourning. According to legend she was unfazed and reportedly said “I have only one son [meaning Alexander] and he is king of all Persia.” The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus writes that she was unable to forgive her son for abandoning them after the Battle of Issus. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Alexander visited her many times over the years, called her mother, and brought her gifts. Whether it was inability to forgive or just plain old Stockholm syndrome, her actions seem by modern standards a little cold. By contrast when Alexander himself died, she turned herself to the wall, refused to leave her rooms, and refused to accept food. She died of grief four days later.
Wu Zetian (624-705 A.D.) was the consort of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty. Having briefly been a consort to his father, Emperor Taizong, she met Gaozong at the Ganye temple where—according to the conventions governing childless concubines—she was supposed to have spent the rest of her years as a Buddhist nun. She defied tradition, however, when Emperor Gaozong found her there and decided to bring her back to court. During the 650s now-consort Wu began to gain increasingly more power and influence. In 652 and 653 she gave birth to two sons, neither of whom were potential heirs to the throne because that right belonged to the son of another concubine, Consort Liu. Should the Emperor’s wife, Empress Wang, have sons of her own they would have become the new heirs.
Not to be deterred, Wu Zetian found other ways to surpass her rivals. In 654 she gave birth to a baby girl, who died shortly thereafter. Wu accused Empress Wang of murder. Eyewitnesses came forward and alleged that Wang had been close to the baby’s room around the time of its death. Wang found herself in a difficult position and was later removed as empress. There are a variety of theories about why the baby died: one maintains that the lack of ventilation at the palace coupled with the use of coal led to death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Another maintains that the child died from SIDS or asphyxiation. Others have argued that perhaps Wang, who (as a childless woman) was politically vulnerable, really did kill the baby. The most popular and traditional explanation, however, is that Wu herself strangled that girl and used the occasion of her daughter’s death to acquire more power for herself. In 655 she became the new empress and, according to traditional histories, later poisoned her son Li Hong in 675. Upon her husband’s death, she became empress dowager and regent. From 690-705 she ruled as empress regnant of the Zhou dynasty, making her the only officially recognized empress regnant of China in more than 2000 years.
George Washington’s Mom
In comparison to the other women listed here, Mary Ball Washington was actually pretty great. She was just more of a passive-aggressive nuisance than a monster and should be credited with raising (and making) the first president. She was born in 1708 and orphaned by the age of 13. She acquired four stepchildren after her marriage at the age of 23 and went on to have five more with her husband, Augustine. She was widowed by 35 and went on to raise her children alone while running Ferry Farm, the family property. In The Double-Edged Sword: How Character Makes and Ruins Presidents Robert Shogan notes that a playmate of Washington’s recalled being “ten times more afraid” of Mary than any of his other parent’s mothers. When George became president in 1789 and arrived at Fredericksburg, Virginia to tell his mother she responded not with celebration, but by telling him that she was dying. (And you thought your parents didn’t celebrate your achievements).
The incident was merely the cherry on the top of a long history of embarrassment and guilt-tripping. At one point during the Revolutionary War she asked the House of Delegates for better accommodations, forcing George to write a hastily composed letter urging them not to give her any money. After her death he would write that “She has had a great deal of money from me at times… In short to the best of my recollection I never in my life received a coper from the estate and have paid many hundreds of pounds… to her in cash.” Arguably, the worst part is that throughout the Revolutionary War and despite her requests for money she was a vocal supporter of King George III. Of course every woman is entitled to her political beliefs, but it was a considerable embarrassment to her son.
In the case of most of these famous historical women the legends about their ‘bad parenting’ seem attached to their political ambition. The subtext here is that women are either good nurturers or ruthless politicians, but they cannot be both. The dichotomy plays into gendered stereotypes about female ambition, intelligence, and nature. Additionally, it’s worth asking why we fixate more on ‘bad mothers’ than we do ‘bad fathers,’ especially when there’s no shortage of kings and emperors that executed their own children, siblings, and mothers? In the judgmental eyes of historical records and the unforgiving court of public opinion, women do have it harder and this is even worse if they happen to be women of color. All the same, next time you’re feeding your kids candy for breakfast or feel that you’re not cutting it in the parenting stakes, bear in mind that it could be much, much worse.