did you become interested in representations of mothers and motherhood
as a subject for formal study?
DJ & DS: As
mothers ourselves, we experience the tensions of balancing work
and family. We are enmeshed in the myths of motherhood that create
cultural ideals about who is a “good mother” and who
is not. On days that we went into the office, we felt guilty, crying
as we left our young children at childcare. On other days, we stayed
home, watching the clock, waiting for each painful minute to go
by, calling a spouse at the office, waiting desperately for an
adult to walk through the front door. To answer our own questions,
we decided to research motherhood, how it is perceived by popular
culture (through magazines) and then later through interviews with
other mothers of young children.
did you target popular women’s magazines for your research?
Which magazines did you focus on, and why?
DJ & DS: Women’s
magazines target women between the ages of 25-45. Women are confronted
with magazine messages in their homes, doctor’s offices,
and grocery stores. For mothers who are seeking affirmation as
they negotiate the most dramatic identity transformation of their
adult lives, magazines are one source of information. Whether mothers
model the maternal expectations of these magazines or use them
as sites of resistance, magazines impact us as we negotiate our
own mother-identity in relation to the maternal expectations of
For our study, five magazines
were selected based on the highest circulation for mothers (Good
Housekeeping, Family Circle), for parents (Parent’s
Magazine), and for working mothers (Working Mother, Family
Fun). The entire content of four issues of each of these publications
over the 12-month period of the study comprised the sample for
analysis. Eighteen hundred thirty one text units (articles, side
bars, letters, advertisements, columns, etc.) were analyzed.
one of your recent projects, you systematically analyzed the
occurrence of conflicting messages about the qualities and capabilities
attributed to mothers – for example, you evaluated sections
of text to determine if the content represented mothers as either
competent or incompetent in the domestic or public sphere. What
were your key findings?
DJ & DS: We
investigated the cultural stereotype that employed mothers are
incompetent in the domestic sphere, and that at-home mothers are
incompetent in the public sphere. To our surprise, employed mothers
were not presented as incompetent in the domestic sphere. At-home
At-home mothers were
presented as incompetent 34% of the time (compared to only 4% of
all employed mothers). For example, at-home mothers are quoted
in magazines saying, “I got up to put the bottle in the warmer
and put the phone in the warmer instead,” or “I had
slipped the new diaper on without removing the old one. She’d
been sitting in the same soggy diaper for hours.” Mothers
were presented as competent in both public and private spheres
in less than 10% of all depictions of mothers. Representation of
mothers as competent in public sphere alone (this means outside
the home, yard or car) was less than 1%. An at-home mother reading
women’s magazines is presented with a conundrum: magazine’s
perpetuate expectations of domestic success yet represent at-home
mothers as incompetent in achieving this success.
a second project, you examined how the ideology of motherhood – either
the traditional ideology of selfless motherhood or non-traditional
ideology that is more favorable to mothers’ participation
in the paid workforce – is transmitted through popular
women’s magazines. Based on your findings, how would you
describe the prevailing ideological model of contemporary motherhood?
What signals does this send about how mothers should look, think
DJ & DS: We
found that women’s magazines perpetuate a traditional motherhood
ideology: Mothers are White, at-home and consumed by domestic tasks.
Women of Color are represented in these magazines in the work force,
but not as mothers. This sends a cultural message that White children
are privileged; they alone are worthy of full-time at-home mothers.
Census figures indicate
62% of mothers are employed. Yet, employed mothers are represented
in only 12 % of the mother-related content in these magazines.
When employed mothers do appear, their presence in the public sphere
is presented in conjunction with their pursuit of domestic success.
The message seems to be that one must be an exemplary mother to
justify employment outside the home. Imagine portrayals of men
having to establish their paternal success in public sphere contexts.
At-home mothers are almost
always presented in domestic pursuits (89% of all at-home mother
portrayals present the mother in the home, yard or car, compared
to only 45% of employed mother portrayals). When mothers are presented
in any activity outside the home it is almost always an employed mother.
What this means is that
the expectations presented in the popular culture of magazines
persist in presenting the “ideal American mother” as
White, at-home, and removed from involvement in public issues.
In effect, a traditional motherhood ideology is preserved, and
those who fall outside of the “cult of good motherhood” – on
the basis of race, employment status, or community involvement – are
suspect. Foucault (a modern social critic) talks about how cultural
power is preserved by privileged classes by creating role expectations
that can only be fulfilled by the dominant group, thereby ensuring
the failure of non-privileged groups. This raises the questions,
how does the representation of American mothers as White, at-home
and fully fulfilled by domestic pursuits affect mothers who are
not-White, employed, or otherwise defined by multiple identities
also looked for representations of mothers’ emotional experience
in magazine content – why did you decide to evaluate the
aspect of maternal feeling as part of your study, and what did
DJ & DS: We
were intrigued with the maternal bliss myth -- that motherhood
is to be the joyful culmination of every woman’s desires.
This myth attributes unhappiness and dissatisfaction to the failure
of the mother. We were also intrigued with the popular representation
of employed mothers as tired, guilty and busy. In our study we
found at-home mothers were portrayed as unhappy, not proud, and
confused/overwhelmed more often that employed mothers. Yet, employed
mothers were not presented as tired, busy and guilty any more frequently
than at-home mothers. In a paradoxical way these representations
create dependence in both employed and at-home mothers. Employed
mothers are happy and proud, but are underrepresented, suggesting
that it is the rare woman who can make this work. At-home mothers
are frequently represented, but are portrayed more often as unhappy
and confused, which may in effect make them more dependent upon
the magazines for expert opinions and advice. For at-home mothers,
the maternal bliss myth is perpetuated: “Unhappy? Dissatisfied?
Buy a magazine and a few products and you too will be a happy,
successful woman and mother.”
trends did you observe concerning references to mothers’ sense
of self? How often were mothers represented as owning or acting
on personal interests that were completely unrelated to children
DJ & DS: Selflessness
is presented in magazines as a maternal virtue. In women’s
magazines, non-mothers are motivated to do or buy things to be
good to self. Employed mothers are encouraged to do or buy things
to combine self and family needs. At-home mothers, by contrast,
are encouraged to do or buy things to be good mothers. Only 3%
of all at-home mother representations encouraged them to do something
to be good to self.
When we analyzed mother
identities, we found that 31% of the at-home mothers are presented
with no self-identity information (e.g., no reference is made to
character or personal interests). At-home mothers are represented
with a uni-dimensional identity defined by serving others in 62%
of their portrayals. In contrast, employed mothers are presented
with multiple identities 70% of the time.
The representations of
mothers, with a primary focus on an identity other than mother
occurred in only 8% of all mother portrayals. This reinforces a
cultural message that mothers’ independent roles are a threat
to good mothering. It is possible for magazines to present at-home
mothers with independent interests and identities outside of family
responsibilities; it is also possible to construct advertising
or editorial motivations that promote an idea because it is good
for a mother and her family. But magazines don’t.
your study, how often were mothers depicted as politically engaged
or actively pressing for social change?
DJ & DS: There
are plenty of opportunities for magazines to portray mothers involved
in social and political change in their communities. Yet the magazines
we analyzed focused on introspective, self-related content, to
the neglect of global and social issues. The results of our study
show that mothers are still confined to the home. At-home mothers,
in particular, were not associated with knowledge or influence
outside the home; indeed, they were not even seen outside the home.
We also found that the
flow of information in these magazines is uni-directional. Less
than 2% of magazine content depicted information flow from the
private to the public sphere (e.g., a woman using her mother experience
in the workplace, or using her mother position to advocate for
policy changes). The lack of representation of mothers’ involvement
or even appearance in the public sphere, and an absence of examples
of private sphere influence on public sphere policy, may affect
a reader’s ability to engage the public sphere where social
there a significant difference in the way employed mothers and
at-home mothers were represented in the content you examined?
DJ & DS: The
most dramatic contrast is that employed mothers are presented in
less than 10% of all mother presentations, but are presented as
competent and happy, and at-home mothers are presented in 90% of
all mother presentations, but are frequently presented as incompetent
When we analyzed how
mothers were depicted interacting with their children we found
that at-home mothers were most frequently presented as providers,
protectors and playmates. This provider role perpetuates a traditional
female stereotype that love and nurturance is conveyed through
food. The protector role justified the restriction of mother and
children from the “dangerous” public sphere. The playmate
role reflects a neo-traditional perspective that places the children,
rather than the father, as the raison d’etre of the family.
The traditional nature
of these roles is apparent when we see how employed mothers are
depicted interacting with their children. Employed mothers are
portrayed less frequently than at-home mothers as necessity providers,
and twice as frequently as loving nurturers. This is consistent
with a nurturing parent ideology that focuses less on parental
authority and discipline and more on development of self-esteem,
individualism, and social responsibility. Employed mothers were
also depicted interacting with their children while working, thereby
demonstrating multiple identities (either through home-work or
employment) in addition to their mother-identity. While employed
mothers are presented in a positive light, the employed mother
reader quickly realizes her short-comings. The “good mother” as
created by women’s magazines provides “Welcome Home
Brownies” for her children and does not expose her child
to public sphere daycare.
popular media is notorious for fueling the crossfire in the “mother
wars” – the reported friction between mothers who
participate in the paid workforce and those who don't. Beyond
high-profile feature articles with titles like “Mom vs.
Mom”, does your research suggest that women’s magazines
also send more subtle cues about the clash of traditional and
DJ & DS: The
Mommy War rhetoric makes mothers defensive; it undermines our confidence
and makes us second-guess our mothering. Lacking confidence in
our mothering abilities, we are vulnerable to marketers selling
parenting expertise -- i.e., women’s magazines. Specifically,
we found that less than one percent of mother-related magazine
content addressed any facet of ambivalence about work-family balance.
The refusal to even acknowledge that women are passionately committed
to and/or conflicted about their employment/at-home decision makes
work-family choices a non-issue. Since mothers are not allowed
to acknowledge this ambivalence, they often make the decision to
work or stay-home, and then become entrenched in defending their
position. With mothers fighting each other and second-guessing
their competence and roles, social change that would benefit all
families -- quality childcare, flexible work, co-parenting, and
tax benefits for at-home mothers -- is ignored.
publishers are in the business of selling magazines -- is it
likely that they promote certain representations of mothers and
motherhood because they believe it improves the market for their product?
DJ & DS: Market
potential at first seems like a plausible explanation, yet it cannot
account for the facts. Employed mothers represent a viable market
in numbers and income, and are the majority of mothers, yet they
are underrepresented in women’s magazines. Women of Color
are also a viable market; market research indicates that African-American
women spend more than White women on consumer goods, high-end merchandise
and new products. One might argue that these magazines target White
Women and it is, therefore, not surprising to find a lack of representation
of Women of Color. This argument doesn’t hold up, however,
because Women of Color are represented in 40% of the portrayals
of women in the workplace. Why do these same magazines not portray
Women of Color as mothers? As for at-home mothers, we could speculate
that their portrayal as incompetent makes them more dependent upon
the expert advice offered in these magazines.
do you think is the potential impact of the prevalence of mixed
messages about mothers and motherhood in popular media?
DJ & DS: The
women’s magazines analyzed present messages that cumulatively
promote particular mother identities and then summarily condemn
the promoted identity. For example at-home mothers are targeted
with messages for domestic success yet are portrayed as incompetent
in the domestic sphere. These no-win doublebinds set mothers up
for failure; mothers experience guilt and feelings of inadequacy
no matter what they do.
Combined with messages
that restrict mothers from participation in the public sphere,
these messages undermine the power of mothers to change the conditions
that bind them. The messages undermining the self-efficacy of
at-home mothers, and the lack of representation of employed mothers,
help us to understand how we have arrived
at the current Mother Wars. If mothers were empowered by the culture to feel
confident in their abilities and roles they would not be defensive and feel
the need to justify their personal decisions by denigrating the choices of others.
you plan to develop this line of research further?
DJ & DS: We
are writing a book based on interviews with 100 mothers. The
book, To Work or Not To Work: What Every Mother Needs to Know
Before She Decides to Work, Work Part-Time, or Stay At Home,
presents a balanced view of the pros and cons of each decision
to help a mother make an informed choice and develop strategies
for how to best live out that choice. In this book we dare to broach
the politically incorrect possibility that our work/family choices
do affect our children, our sense of self, and our marriages. We
suggest that there is no “right answer” -- as promoted
by the rhetoric of the Mommy Wars -- rather, there is only an answer
that is right for you.