The (Jewish) Madonna Complex
“You’re going to be a great mother someday!” These words have followed me everywhere.
I’m sure many women have heard them before, perhaps after babysitting, caring for a younger family member, or making sure a drunk friend gets some food in their stomach. The phrase “You’re going to make a great dad!,” has much lighter connotations; usually it means that the speaker has a proclivity for truly awful dad jokes, rather than a seemingly innate ability to look after another human being.
While the phrase may seem harmless, “You’re going to be a great mother someday!” not only assumes that young women are interested in becoming mothers but also positively reinforces a nurturing behavior, causing women to prioritize the well-being of others at the cost of caring for themselves.
Despite the fact that I don’t want children, I myself have always felt the need to care for groups of friends, especially groups of male friends. In high school, my friends referred to me as “Mama Jew,” a term that affectionately combined my nurturing aspects with my tokenized identity as one of five Jewish students at my high school. At the time, this did not make me feel uncomfortable; I took pride in my role as the “Mom friend,” an identity which has followed me into college.
During my freshman year, I had two close male friends who lived in a suite with four other boys. Without being asked, I would clean up after they went out, vacuum their floors, bake for them, and make sure they went to our local health center to get their flu shots. Jokingly they would call me “Mom,” which was spot on. Caring for these boys was instinctual, but I consciously took pride in the ways that I supported my friends’ well-being.
My own room was a mess, the carpet was never vacuumed, and I barely ate the food that I baked. Despite my own self neglect, taking on an extreme form of nurturing for these friends felt completely normal. They were “my boys,” despite the fact that they were grown men.
I thought of my own mother, who would come home at the end of the day after spending eight hours sitting at her desk or teaching, and would clean our kitchen and do our laundry and feed us. I thought about how much added stress that was for her—and I’m not saying she didn’t complain! “I do everything around here!” reverberated throughout our house, pots slamming into cabinets, silverware banging against the stainless steel of our sink. But I also remember occasions when I was older, when my mother would have to leave for an evening meeting and I’d say, “Mom, don’t worry, I can make dinner tonight.” To which she’d respond, “Really, it’s no trouble to do it. I don’t mind.”
I, like my mother, insist that housework relieves stress, and in many ways, this is true. But why? Why does taking on these tasks seem like a relief, instead of a burden?
In many ways, the answer is rather simple. We are taught from a young age to “treat others how you would like to be treated.” Yet in doing so, we forget to treat ourselves the same way. Delving deeper, we are faced with the societal imperative as women to strive for sacrificial motherhood.
In academia, this all-consuming maternal role is sometimes referred to as “The Madonna Complex,” a term which draws roots from the longstanding veneration of the Virgin Mary within the Catholic Church. Emulating the Madonna confines women to the singular role of Mother; the assumption being that a nurturing personality can only be found through selfless motherhood. Sacrifice is consequently rewarded because it is culturally foundational to the performance of maternity.
While the Madonna Complex is inherently Christian, I see this same performance of selfless motherhood within the all too familiar stereotype of Jewish mothers as overprotective, over-nurturing, and overly anxious beings. Caricatures of them abound in movies and on TV: Louise Schmidt from New Girl, Naomi Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or Bobbi Wexler from Broad City. As with many stereotypes, there is some truth to this one. My own Jewish mother emanates anxiety. I just took a trip to New York City to visit some friends, and she asked me, repeatedly, “You won’t take the subway alone at night, right?”
While this is not just a “Jewish” thing, I think there is something to be said about layers of intergenerational trauma that have affected how Jewish women deal with their motherhood. I asked my mother about this and her insightful response blew me away. Speaking of her own mother and grandmother, she reflected, “The Jewish mother loves her children more than anything else, and in this, she wants a better, easier life for her children than she had. Whether that is as origin to our Jewishness, or as learned behavior in the face of bias and antisemitism, it imprints on our mother role and repeats across generations.”
I think this inherited anxiety has bled into my own behaviors as well: the need to care for my friends, to make sure they get home safely after a night out, to make sure they’re taking care of their health and well-being, even though I may not always be taking care of mine.
The (Jewish) Madonna Complex in some ways feels inescapable. I don’t want children, but I do want to care for other human beings. Is this instinct, or a learned behavior? Perhaps a little bit of both. Either way, such behavior is worth evaluating in relation to one’s own wants rather than those placed upon us by a society that is oriented towards the nuclear family. And while it is not wrong to teach children to care for other people, we must also teach them to care for themselves as well.
So, next time you lovingly refer to your female friend as the “mom friend,” think about the larger systems and structures in play, and maybe remind her that neither her gender, nor her nurturing behavior, holds her responsible for everyone else.