The mommy mystique

A new book faults the media, politicians and all those perfectly coiffed celebrity moms for making mothers feel like dirt.

By Amy Reiter
February 20, 2004 2:14AM (UTC)
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When Jennifer Lopez holds forth, as she often has, on how she won't really feel complete until she births a few babies, or when new mother Sarah Jessica Parker proclaims, as she recently has, that her infant son is a "wonderful burden," whatever that means, are the mothers of America getting hosed?

Susan J. Douglas, who with Meredith W. Michaels has co-authored the buzz-gathering book "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women," thinks so. And it pisses her off.


"If you're like us -- mothers with an attitude problem -- you may be getting increasingly irritable about this chasm between the ridiculous, honey-hued ideals of perfect motherhood in the mass media and the reality of mothers' everyday lives," Douglas and Michaels write. "And you may also be worn down by media images that suggest that however much you do for and love your kids, it is never enough."

Using dual tools -- fantasy and fear -- the media has created a standard for mothers that is wholly impossible to live up to -- and spawned a generation of guilt-plagued, anxious mamas who are far worse off than their mothers before them.

"The Martha Stewartization of America, in which we are meant to sculpt the carrots we put into our kids' lunches into the shape of peonies and build funhouses for them in the backyard" has set the women's movement back decades, say the authors, both of whom balance careers in academia and motherhood.


Douglas and Michaels dream of a day when the mothers of the world rise up, raise their fists at their televisions and at Catherine Zeta-Jones looking fit and well-rested as she snuggles her latest nanny-nurtured bundle of joy on the cover of People magazine and yell, "Give me a %$#$% break."

A modest dream, to be sure. In fact, some might call it a bit pat or naive. After all, it's hard to see how talking back to your TV and shouting from the rooftops will change much. But Douglas, a feminist, insists that "naming and denouncing the enemy" is a "crucial" first step, noting the galvanizing power of Betty Friedan's 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique," and the consciousness-raising movement it helped spawn.

During a recent visit to New York, Douglas sat down with Salon to discuss the corrosive effect of the media on mothers' self-esteem and her contention that the small acts of rebellion she prescribes will lead the way to a mothers' movement of epic proportions.


In "The Mommy Myth," you talk a lot about a trend you call the "new momism." What exactly is it and why is it so pernicious?

The "new momism" is an extremely romantic and demanding myth of the perfect mother in which the standards for success are so high that no woman can achieve them. People then say, "Well, what about June Cleaver? What about the '50s, isn't this the same?" And if it was the same, that would be bad enough. Who wants to go back to 1956? But it's actually worse. I mean, June Cleaver was not expected to drill the Beaver with algebra flashcards when he was 6 months old. June Cleaver was not expected to drive 10 hours round trip to a soccer match. June Cleaver wasn't expected to home-school and, by the way, look sexy the whole time doing it. So even June Cleaver couldn't meet these standards today, which are absolutely through the roof. So it's actually different from the '50s: It's more intense.


How did we get here?

First of all, the media discovered that the family was changing in the late '70s, early '80s, and children became a big story. But endangered children became an even bigger story, and so you got these media panics. You got sensationalized stories about children in danger: razor blades in Halloween candy, pajamas that caught on fire by themselves almost, day-care centers staffed by Satanists and pedophiles. That was all out of proportion to the risks that real children were facing, but it made mothers terrified to let their kids out of their sight. So fear was important.

The other thing was fantasy. Again, the media responded to women when we were looking for role models. Who's a better role model, in some ways, than a celebrity mom because celebrity mothers were working outside the home, but they were having children. So we got the explosion in the '80s of the celebrity mom profile, something you just didn't see in '70s women's magazines.


What's so bad about the celebrity mom profile?

They create this impossible ideal of motherhood. You know, I had a kid that didn't sleep. She got up at 4:30 and was up for the day, so I'd be at the supermarket at 7:30 in the morning, exhausted -- I'd already been up for hours -- in my husband's sweat pants, the only thing that fit, sweat shirt covered with spit-up, hair that hadn't seen a comb in two days, a kid screaming. I'm at the checkout line and there's some celebrity mom saying, "Motherhood is sexy." There she is, her perfect hair, her perfect makeup, no spit-up -- her kid's even made up, you know? The inside of her house is decorated in white furniture. She's got a perfect, doting husband. And you're there, like, "What is wrong with this picture?"

But it laid out a fantasy that a lot of us wanted to enter. A fantasy of a world where you could work and enjoy your children and it would be easy and stress free. Who doesn't want to go there? This fantasy of course helps sell magazines. But the norms and the standards for motherhood that are in these celebrity mom profiles are also completely impossible. Occasionally you get the reference to the SWAT team of nannies and personal assistants who are making this woman's life possible. But for mothers who don't have the SWAT team, it's a different story.


What about the role of race in all this? While the book primarily focuses on white middle- and upper-middle-class mothers, you mention that the "new momism" is something of an exclusive white club and that women of color have been portrayed as the anti-new-mom.

At the same time that the celebrity mom was going through the roof in the media, so was the welfare mother. There were awful attacks on welfare mothers from the right. Welfare mothers were supposedly responsible for everything wrong in America: [drugs, crime, loss of productivity.] And of course most of the welfare mothers that we saw in the media were African-American women. The stories were sensational, they were newsworthy, so they got focused on. And everybody thought, Oh my god, welfare is comprised entirely of African-American women who come from three generations of welfare families and who refuse to work and are neglectful of their children. The number of welfare mothers who came from several generations of welfare mothers, in real life? That's a tiny fraction of welfare mothers.

It's such an awful stereotype. I think one of the worst things that emerged from the '80s was the stereotype of the African-American mother as a bad mother. Because of course we didn't see middle-class African-American women, of which there are some, by the way, who love their children and are fabulous mothers. Look, we're all in this together. If there are poor women whose children aren't getting enough to eat, they're going to crappy schools, they're learning a way of violence very young, that's not just a heartbreak for them, it's bad for us as a society, and it's morally wrong.

To highlight the contrast, you give a great example in the book of how Christie Brinkley is never described as having "three children by three different men," but if she were a black woman on welfare, she would be.



Can we really blame the media for our sense of maternal inadequacy and anxiety?

We can blame the media and marketing. Mothers and kids really got discovered in the '80s and '90s, when niche marketing took over. Kids started getting divided into ever and ever smaller niches and there's a load of products that you're supposed to buy for each developmental stage. And if you don't by them, your kid's left in the dust. If you fail to buy a Leap Pad or Einstein Junior or the correct teething ring, 20 years from now, your kid will be working at the Dunkin' Donuts and the other kids will be CEOs.

Politics have also played a big role. In the '80s and beyond, the far right really slammed working mothers and single mothers, really sought to guilt-trip them under the frame of "family values," which by the way had nothing to do with supporting everyday families. And of course they were central to blocking anything resembling federal support for decent day care; paid maternity leave, which sounds scandalous in this country, but you know every other civilized country has paid maternity leave, some for up to a year; decent public schools; after-school programs; healthcare for everybody, including for little kids so parents don't have to worry about that. So mothers, rightly, looked around and they saw institutions collapsing all around them. And of course, what's a mother going to say? "I've got to pick up the slack." Mothers have been revered in rhetoric, but reviled in public policy.


You mention the vilification of the working mother by the far right. Do you see politicians on the left addressing the plight of these mothers at all?

I don't hear any of the Democratic candidates [for president] talking about women's issues. We had the so-called soccer mom in '96, whose vote people wanted to get. But they are not talking to us -- and they should be. I really think mothers are realizing that politically we have not been seen as citizens. We've only been seen as consumers, not as a constituency. And that's got to change.

Have you ever been to Denmark?



Oh, god. It'd break your heart. They have made a choice as a culture that's very different than the choices we've made as a society. Their choice has been work is work and family is family -- and family matters. So everybody leaves work between 4 and 5 o'clock. Everybody. Dads, moms. They go home and spend time with their families. You have a child, a baby nurse comes to your house once a week for, like, six weeks. So if you're not sure what you're doing, she helps you. Is their tax rate about 50 percent? Yeah. Would Americans put up with that? Probably not. But we can do a lot better than we're doing now. And once you see a culture in which there's really a commitment to family that makes it possible for fathers and mothers to work, it's a revelation.

It sounds great.

Well, you know, Japan, France, Norway, Sweden, they all have day-care centers for little kids, and they regard it not as a special interest for working mothers: They regard it as an investment in the future of the country because it's an investment in kids. If a kid goes into day care or nursery school when he or she is 2 or 3, by the time they get to kindergarten, they know their colors, they often know the alphabet, they've learned how to share with other kids, they've painted -- all these cool things that are so enriching developmentally. Why don't we think that that's important? We should.

How did mothers get so disenfranchised?

I think they've been too busy dealing with their lives to notice or to take action. But there's an incipient mothers movement going on in this country. You can feel it. You can hear it. Women are joining organizations like the Motherhood Project, the Motherhood Movement and MOTHERS (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights). There are Web sites going up: the Welfare Warriors, the Children's Defense Fund, Ann Crittenden's Web site. Mothers are saying, "I've had it." And this is true of stay-at-home mothers as well as working mothers.

In the book you talk about the "Mommy Wars" the media has created between "stay-at-home moms," which you point out is a friendly term, and "working mothers," more formal and distant.

Right. I think it's a big red herring. Of course there are tensions and differences between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers. But the media has suggested that they have become mutually exclusive categories. You know, stay-at-home mothers have often been working mothers in the past. Working mothers have sometimes been stay-at-home mothers. We move back and forth between these categories. And in my limited experience, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers bail each other out all the time. We carpool together, we watch each other's kids. There's been a real divide and conquer in the media. We're supposed to be involved in this big catfight instead of saying, "What happened here?"

Are we mothers at all culpable here? Is it really Sarah Jessica Parker's and Catherine Zeta-Jones' fault that we're feeling so stressed out?

Look, images in the media don't come from Mars. It's not like somebody manufactures them out of some alien material. They come from what's in our culture. And people who work in the media are not all evil. Mass media is filled with all kinds of people, many of whom mean well -- a lot of women work in the media too.

But there have been a series of very heavy-duty commercial pressures on television shows, on magazines, that have to do with selling products, that have to do with making women feel inadequate. After all, if you don't feel inadequate, why are you going to buy the next product. It's very important for selling things.

And if you talk to women who work in magazines, for example, or women who produce TV shows, they'll tell you how they feel besieged by this stuff, too, but they have to put out certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of idealized images. Then these scare stories come out and they gain traction. And so what happens to the regular mother is that she sees in the media a construction of what seems like the norm. "Oh, if it's in the media, everybody must believe it. If Kathy Lee Gifford can have this very high-powered job and still read the Bible to Cody and look beautiful all the time, then those are expectations that I guess everybody has of me."

Should we really be basing our self-images on TV talk-show hosts and sitcom characters?

Well, it's not what we should do, but it's what does happen. The mass media is a kind of giant Home Depot of identities that colonizes our most basic hopes and dreams and fears about who we are as people, and as mothers.

But I think that we need to look to each other more to validate who we are. We need to use our common sense and just say, "This feels right to me. End of story. No, I'm not baking you 40 blueberry muffins at 10 o'clock at night so you can bring them in for snacks tomorrow. We'll go to the store tomorrow to buy something."

Are we presented with any realistic examples of motherhood in the media?

When "Roseanne" came on, the mothers of America said, "Thank you!" That show flew to the top of the ratings because it took the schmaltz out of motherhood. And I think "The Osbournes" took the schmaltz out of family values. And "Married With Children" was another one. A lot of people hated that show, but it was a huge hit. Why? Peg Bundy was the absolute anti-mom. She wouldn't do anything. It was funny, because it was a relief.

The book is funny, but it's also angry. Are you angry? Should we be?

Yeah, we should be angry. We're not supposed to be angry. We're supposed to be all sweetness and light and understanding. Well, where did that come from? You know, if mothers had never gotten angry in this country, there would never have been social change, including, I might note, widows' benefits in the 1930s. We wouldn't have child labor laws if mothers hadn't gotten mad. Birth control would be illegal if mothers hadn't gotten mad. So yeah, it's time for mothers to get mad. I don't know why mothers are not all opening their windows and saying, "I'm not gonna take it anymore."

We have been completely let down by our government, and many of us have been really let down by our places of employment. There are still so many companies with no day care, no flextime, incredibly punishing hours. It's so hard to work 60 hours a week and be a mother. I mean, it's hard enough to work 40 hours a week and have a child. So I think mothers have every, every right to be angry. There are plenty of other interest groups much smaller than mothers who, because they got angry, got what they wanted.

So what's the solution?

The most important first step is to rip the veneer off the Mommy Myth. It's important for mothers to get together and talk back to and make fun of these ridiculous ideals in the media, and the book tries to lay out some examples of how to do this.

What happened with the women's movement in the 1970s is that, once women began to see through the "Feminine Mystique," which was a crucial first step, they then got political. They did start agitating for child-care centers and equal pay and we made a lot of progress as a result of that.

I think it's time for mothers to get more political, and that is not as time-consuming as you might think. If every mother who has access to a computer spent five minutes, sat down and wrote an e-mail to her presidential candidate of choice, her congressional and senatorial candidates of choice, and said, "Excuse me, what are you going to start doing for mothers and children?" And if millions of mothers did that and kept doing that, I think the political agenda might change. Mothers' voices have to be heard. But what the women's movement taught us is that first you have to see things differently. First you have to see what's keeping you down, and once you do that, then you can move ahead politically. I think that's already starting to happen for mothers. Why shouldn't we have the same things that European women have? We deserve it!

Amy Reiter

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