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“Mom” must die

A provocative new book exposes the tyranny of “new momism”

The Mommy Myth:
The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women

Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels
Free Press, 2004

A few years ago -- in the winter of 2000, to be exact -- I wrote an article about the proliferation of expert advice to mothers on the World Wide Web. I'd reached the conclusion that the “new media” (as we called it back then) was just as culpable as the “old media” in perpetuating unrealistic cultural expectations about women, mothers and mothering. I saw an insidious image coming to the fore in media representations of motherhood, an unfortunate creature I described as the “New Model Mom.” If you’ve ever thumbed through the pages of a popular women’s magazine, you know her -- she’s the athletically slender, well groomed, perennially smiling woman with attractive, easy-going children who are content to amuse themselves with a stimulating assortment of non-messy developmentally-appropriate activities and have a perfectly balanced diet (they especially like veggies and organic fat-free tofu cut into animal shapes or little smiley faces). There she is in an family advice article in the current issue of Parenting magazine, jumping gleefully on an unmade bed with her preschooler while – get this – wearing a lampshade on her head. There she is again in a product advertisement, artist’s brush in hand, painting a watercolor landscape while the blond baby at her feet happily stacks wooden blocks on a spotless white carpet.

Even with my cynical worldview, it looks like these gals have a pretty enviable lifestyle. If I thought buying upscale baby gear and ascribing to some crackpot’s advice on how to become the ultimate mom would transform my life into a maternal paradise where cleanliness, tranquility and merriment reign supreme, I’d definitely fall for it. But like I said, I’m a cynic. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but those mothers aren’t real, and the kind of motherhood you see in mainstream magazines and on TV doesn’t exist – not in the good old U.S.A., not anywhere on planet earth.

If you don’t believe me, you’d better run out and grab a copy of Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels’ new book, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. If you do believe me, that’s an even better reason to read this clever and provocative book. Not only do Douglas and Michaels attack the ascendancy of the deplorable “new momism,” they fill in the back story of the changing political tides that reinvigorated the idealization of intensive motherhood just as women were finally breaking free of traditional gender roles.

But don’t expect some boring treatise on the cultural conflicts of motherhood and the disastrous social consequences of the steady rightward drift of U.S. politics. With a jaundiced eye turned to the gritty reality of mothering, Douglas (whose earlier book, Where the Girls Are, explores the influence of mass media on the formation of the women’s movement in the 1970s) and Michaels wisecrack their way through an examination the evolving image of motherhood in the media in the final decades of the 20th century. Chapters cover the mainstreaming of feminist ideas about women’s rights, panic generated by mid-80s media hype about imminent threats to children in and outside the home, and the profusion of celebrity mom profiles that raise doubts about the maternal qualifications of average, normal mothers who might be deluded enough to think it’s perfectly OK to love your kids in an average, normal way.

Unfortunately, there are a few points in the book where the authors’ smart-ass style and non-stop pop culture references obscure the importance of what's being said. Happily, most of the book -- and its core message -- survives the authors’ sardonic wit intact. But unless the reader is paying close attention, the fact that The Mommy Myth is also a very scholarly work might escape notice. (This is probably intentional, given the publishing world’s contempt for serious works about mothering and motherhood. Though Douglas and Michaels may have had legitimate concerns about coming across as too academic, a real bibliography would have been a nice touch.)

The Mommy Myth offers a short course in the historical development of a new, highly intensified cultural ideal of motherhood -- “the new momism.” Douglas and Michaels reclaim the term “momism” from Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942), a vitriolic diatribe against the American way of life which vilified mothers for bringing up their hapless sons to be spineless sheep instead of manly men. According to The Mommy Myth, the new and improved version of momism “insists that the formation of a child into a successful, happy person is exclusively the handiwork of one person: ‘Mom’. Mom-- however lofty her own hopes for herself, and whatever her financial circumstances, whatever embattled neighborhood she lives in, however scarring her own upbringing, however lousy her educational options-- must simply make the right choices. If she doesn’t, too bad for her kids, and for her.”

The rules of play for the new momism are spelled out in media messages that invite mothers to compare their flawed human lives to unrealistic and unattainable ideals of motherhood. Those who might be tempted to see through the fallacy of it all are regaled with news reports emphasizing the unspeakable tragedies that await children whose mothers dare to deviate from the One True Path of momism. Douglas and Michaels go beyond analyzing prime examples of the new momism in broadcast and print media to muck around in the unwholesome stuff lurking below the flimsy plastic face of the New Mom. This (surprise!) turns out to be the conservative-led cultural movement to breathe fresh life into our old foe, the patriarchy. As Douglas and Michaels emphasize in their chapters on the “war” on welfare mothers and the defeat of popular legislation for publicly-funded child care, so far the bad guys are winning.

The Mommy Myth lays out the ugly details of how the hell we ended up living in an extremely wealthy nation that lacks basic social programs to support working families, and why no one seems to care. As a woman who came of age during the high point of the second wave, I’ve had ample time to ruminate over what happened in the 1980s to derail the bright promise of the women’s movement and why, by the time I started my own child-bearing adventure in the early 1990s, popular representations of motherhood were so boldly incompatible with real life. How did “feminism” become the most reviled “f” word in the American vocabulary? How did the issue of state-supported child care become so politically poisoned that the new breed of mothers’ advocates won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole? Why is middle-class mothering tied to such a distinctively warped ethic of over-consumption? Why do work and family still conflict when employed single parents and dual-earner couples are overwhelmingly the norm?

Why does our culture constantly up the ante on motherhood so women who mother can’t possibly respond to their own needs and ambitions and fulfill the needs of their children in the same lifetime? Or, as Douglas and Michaels write, “In a society where autonomy and success go hand in hand, isn’t it a little bit suspicious that successful motherhood requires relinquishing one’s autonomy to a sometimes dangerous, always preposterous view of women and children?”

So I welcomed The Mommy Myth as an expose of the deadly combination of regressive thinking and collective angst that’s pressing contemporary mothers back into a neo-traditional mold of motherhood. But this book might be even more illuminating for mothers in the so-called “opt out” generation, and for young mothers who support gender equity but remain reluctant to self-identify as feminists. It is not, however, a book that will appeal to everyone; if you consider yourself a conservative -- even a compassionate one -- The Mommy Myth will probably make your blood boil.

Douglas and Michaels outline the beginning and middle of a continuing saga of the cultural reconstruction of motherhood in “postfeminist” America. And they supply a possible ending, although I had a hard time appreciating the hackneyed humor that dominates the concluding chapter (my apologies to the authors, who I think are brilliant, but Ann Crittenden has been telling that Survivor joke for years – so go ahead, laugh it up, but at least go for something original). The Mommy Myth suggests that a better future for mothers depends on taking motherhood as we know it apart and piecing it back together in a way that supports civilized things like shared parenting and gender equality, and a welfare state that actually helps mothers, fathers and children lead more secure lives instead of making matters worse. The starting point is recognizing and resisting the new momism, loud and clear, whenever and wherever we find it. From there, we can begin to imagine how we might cultivate the collective consciousness necessary to mobilize a progressive mothers movement and tie up the loose ends of the feminist agenda.

To short-circuit the power source of the “mommy myth,” every mother who dreams of social change must drop the pretense that motherhood can be perfect if mothers just do and feel and think the right thing at the right time. Mothers need to start telling it like it is -- to each other and whoever else will listen. Because the truth about motherhood -- the whole truth, and nothing but -- will make you free.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
February 2004

Also of interest:

On Salon:
The mommy mystique
Interview with Susan J. Douglas, co-author of The Mommy Myth

WAMU FM: The Diane Rehm Show
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Webcast of an interview with Susan Douglas.

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