This paper seeks to understand the social power of maternal shame, using a framework that integrates feminist criticism of contemporary motherhood ideologies with philosophical theories that discuss shame in the broader context of visual perception. By using Lionel Shriver’s (2005) novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, the paper illustrates how shame operates in the interplay between the socio-cultural, gendered ideals of motherhood and mothers’ representations of these ideals. Specifically, the paper suggests that today’s mothers operate under a social gaze that expects them to meet the cultural and moral standards of “good” motherhood. This internalized societal judging gaze and the perception of failing to meet these standards are often the source of maternal shame. In line with philosophical accounts which focus on the primacy of vision in shame, I argue that empathy (“seeing with the eyes of the other”) is the most powerful antidote to shame. While shame is induced by a judging gaze, empathy develops through connected gazes, each acknowledging the other’s subjectivity. Locating shame within a socio-cultural context can provide invaluable insights for psychological research and practice that pay critical attention to positionality, reflexivity, and the power relationships inherent in contemporary motherhood.
- social expectations
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Gender Studies
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
- Psychology (all)