Plus, receive recommendations and exclusive offers on all of your favorite books and authors from Simon & Schuster.
The Mommy Myth
The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Table of Contents
About The Book
The Mommy Myth takes a provocative tour through the past thirty years of media images about mothers: the superficial achievements of the celebrity mom, the news media's sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the staging of the "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and the onslaught of values-based marketing that raises mothering standards to impossible levels, just to name a few. In concert with this messaging, the authors contend, is a conservative backwater of talking heads propagating the myth of the modern mom.
This nimble assessment of how motherhood has been shaped by out-of-date mores is not about whether women should have children or not, or about whether once they have kids mothers should work or stay at home. It is about how no matter what they do or how hard they try, women will never achieve the promised nirvana of idealized mothering. Douglas and Michaels skillfully map the distance traveled from the days when The Feminine Mystique demanded more for women than the unpaid labor of keeping house and raising children, to today's not-so-subtle pressure to reverse this thirty-year trend. A must-read for every woman.
Imagine it's Mother's Day, and you are being taken out to one of those god-awful brunches where you and hundreds of other mothers will be force-fed runny scrambled eggs and flaccid croissants by way of thanking you for the other 364 days, when instead of the brunch you get "Mom, you shrank my sweater in the dryer and I need a new one by tomorrow," or "All the other mothers will be at the hockey banquet," or, simply enough, "I hate you. You never listen to me! I wish you weren't my mother!" As you walk toward the restaurant, you notice broadsides posted on the telephone poles all over town. They begin, "Today, one day of the year, America is celebrating Motherhood, in home...church...restaurant...candy shop...flower store." Obvious enough. But then the tone changes. "The other 364 days she preserves the apple pie of family life and togetherness, and protects the sanctity of the male ego and profit. She lives through her husband and children." Now things get more radical. "She is sacrificed on the altar of reproduction....she is damned to the dreary world of domesticity by day, and legal rape by night....She is convinced that happiness and her lost identity can be recovered by buying -- more and more and more and more."
Or a bunch of women are handing out flyers. They are titled "Notice to All Governments" and then demand "Wages for Housework." (Yes!) They read: "We clean your homes and your factories. We raise the next generation of workers for you. Whatever else we may do, we are the housewives of the world. In return for our work, you have only asked us to work harder." As a result, "we are serving notice to you that we intend to be paid for the work we do. We want wages for every dirty toilet, every painful childbirth, every indecent assault, every cup of coffee, and every smile. And if we don't get what we want, then we will simply refuse to work any longer." The result? "Now you will rot in your own garbage." The broadside ends with "We want it in cash, retroactive and immediately. And we want all of it." Oooo-weee. Don't you think this would make Mother's Day a lot more, well, interesting?
The poster described above actually appeared in Cleveland on Mother's Day, 1969, courtesy of The Women's International Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH, founded in 1968 with the express purpose of staging outrageous and often very funny profeminist actions). "Wages for Housework" was a feminist broadside as well, one of many that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s denouncing the fact that housewives and mothers were overworked, underpaid, and very much underappreciated.
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, millions of women across the country, many of them mothers, stood up for themselves, and demanded to know why women, and housewives and mothers in particular, were second-class citizens, consigned to financial dependence on men, relegated to do housework that was necessary, endless, yet looked down upon, and why women were deemed to be the only gender who should give up everything in exchange for raising children. Young women started wondering why they should get married at twenty-one, let alone eighteen, if that meant getting chained to the diaper pail all the sooner. Simply put, motherhood became political.
Welcome to the Women's Liberation Movement, which was, for those involved, lots of hard work, scary, exhilarating, dangerous, exasperating, infuriating, and fun. "Fun?" you ask. "Weren't feminists these grim-faced, humorless, antifamily, karate-chopping ninjas who were bitter because they couldn't get a man?" Well, in fact the problem was that all too many of them had gotten a man, married him, had his kids, and then discovered that, as mothers, they were never supposed to have their own money, their own identity, their own aspirations, time to pee, or a brain. And yes, some women indeed became bad-tempered as a result. After all, no anger, no social change. But to see that you had common cause with other women, to fight for your rights, to believe that you could change the world, your very own future, and that of your kids -- all this was bracing, invigorating. So we want to unearth from the graveyard of history the brazen, outrageous, passionate things that women dared to say about motherhood and child-rearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s so we can see how far mothers have and have not come since those heady, rebellious days.
As outlandish as the expectations are today surrounding intensive mothering, they are hardly the fault of feminists. Feminists never said, "Hey, great, mothers are working ninety hours a week as it is, let's add a forty-hour-a-week job on top and not ask Dad to do an iota more than he's already doing." Feminists were the ones who tried to make motherhood less onerous, less lonely, less costly to women. Look at Gloria Steinem's hopes for the future, printed in U.S. News and World Report in 1975. She predicted, "Responsibility for children won't be exclusively the woman's anymore, but shared equally by men -- and shared by the community, too. That means that work patterns will change for both women and men, and women can enter all fields just as men can." Well, we're not there yet, but if you are a mother and have your own salary, let alone a job you find remotely rewarding, a day care center near you, after-school programs, maternity leave (however stingy), a daughter who gets to play soccer or basketball, a partner who understands that making lunches, finding baby-sitters, and taking the kid out in the stroller are not entirely your responsibility, and if you stay at home and see this as a choice and not an edict, then your life as a mother has been revolutionized by feminism.
Nonetheless, one of the reasons so many women say "I'm not a feminist, but..." (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as antifamily and antimotherhood. Since we are feminists and mothers (and married, too, to men we actually like), and in point of fact know lots of unabashedly doting mothers who are also feminists, a question persists: How, exactly, have these stereotypes been sustained?
Sometime in the 1980s, in what we imagine to be a deep, subterranean grotto filled with stalactites, bats, and guano, a coven of men and women came together with an apparent simple mission: to rewrite the history of the women's movement and distort what feminists said and did. We'll call this group the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda (CRAP). The high ministers of CRAP have included -- but have hardly been restricted to -- Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Christina Hoff Sommers, Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson, John McLaughlin, and George Will, to name a few. Because they were always invited to hold forth on political talk shows, or hosted their own (sponsored by GE, or cures for male-pattern baldness, or God), they got to rehearse the CRAP version of history on a regular basis, which is how you turn something that is false into something everyone starts to take for granted as true. The CRAP version of women's history was essential to the promotion of the new momism, because the alleged evils of feminism made the new momism seem all the more reasonable, natural, inevitable, and just plain right. Of course, millions of women see through the CRAP line and would rather leave the planet for a space station than inhabit a world designed by Pat Robertson (who, we remind you, blamed September 11, 2001, on feminists and other evildoers, like gays). But the CRAP line has nonetheless sustained major misconceptions about feminism.
Let's see how successful CRAP was, by administering the patented "Full o' CRAP" quiz. What was the very first thing feminists attacked in the late 1960s and early 1970s? If you answered "motherhood," that is the correct CRAP answer. (If, however, you said "patriarchy, the fact that women made fifty cents to a man's dollar, widespread discrimination against women in education and employment, and the assumption that the only things women's tiny little brains were capable of handling was scraping cradle cap off their kids' scalps," then maybe you were around in 1970 or have read some real history and know what actually happened.) Who did these feminists hate the most? The correct CRAP answer is "stay-at-home moms" followed closely by "children." (Now, don't go saying things like "Wait -- I remember Gloria Steinem insisting that housewives were getting ripped off because they did so much invaluable work that was unpaid," because that does not fit into the official CRAP story.) This is the World According to CRAP, a view and a history that CRAP has sought -- with considerable success, we might note -- to super-glue to what passes for our national "common sense." CRAP put forth two versions of the antifamily feminist man-hater. The first -- Limbaugh's feminazi -- is the never-married, child-loathing battle-ax in steel-toed boots. The second is the overly ambitious careerist who may, indeed, have kids, but neglects them in favor of her work. At the core of both versions is their alleged hatred of kids and of "real" mothers.
Let's just briefly sample a typical CRAP offering. In 1999, CRAP sent forth one of its high ministers, Danielle Crittenden, queen bee of the notoriously antifeminist Independent Women's Forum, with her very own CRAP history, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, to much media fanfare. (Danielle should never be confused with the fabulous Ann Crittenden, whose 2001 book The Price of Motherhood is must reading for every parent, male or female, in the country, and for anyone who has a say in policies affecting parents and children.) The book is a primer on the importance of the new momism. The "us" in Danielle's title refers to twenty- and thirty-something women, and "our mothers" refers to women who in the 1960s and 1970s got "taken in" by feminism. Even though these fem-bots excoriated motherhood, they decided to have children anyway. ("Why?" remains one of the innumerable mysteries of the book.)
According to Crittenden, young women today are deeply unhappy and confused because they ignored the siren song of the new momism and instead followed the really bad advice of their feminist mothers, who allegedly told their girls to forget marriage and motherhood. Instead, feminist mothers supposedly insisted that happiness only comes to those who climb the corporate ladder by impaling men's balls on their Ferragamo heels. (We are both card-carrying members of the feminist axis of evil, and we know of no mothers of twenty- and thirty-something daughters who have said, "Honey, I definitely do not want grandchildren. I want you to get that promotion and work seventy hours a week instead of sixty.") Having heeded their feminist mothers' advice, these loser young women have "postponed marriage and childbirth to pursue their careers only to find themselves at thirty-five still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight." (No mention of the fact that once you remove the 10 percent of guys who are gay, and the other 30 percent who are snorting wasabi till they puke because they saw it on Jackass, the pickings can be slim.)
How did Crittenden determine that most women in America are miserable because they have failed to embrace the new momism? Instead of talking to actual, real women, she scanned the previous thirty years of women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, and concluded that "...my contemporaries are even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Valium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s." Not only that, but "the unhappiness expressed in the magazines' pages [is] the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs." If she checked out a less glitzy source, Statistical Abstract of the United States, she would have to confront the fact that 80 percent of women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four in the 1990s had married at least once, and that the figure rises to 86.5 percent for women aged thirty-five to thirty-nine. True, some of these women divorce and don't remarry immediately, but the specter of an entire generation of women with "no husband in sight" is not borne out by what scholars refer to as "numbers." (This is hardly statistically valid, but none of the college women we meet in our classes ever want to go back to 1957. It, like, scares them.)
So let's get back to the actual feminists, not those of the CRAP imagination, and remind ourselves why they might have, for example, handed out leaflets at the New York City Marriage License Bureau that asked, "Do You Know That, According to the United Nations, Marriage is a 'Slavery-Like Practice'"? To review briefly, in the late 1960s, men got paid more than women (usually double) for doing the exact same job. Women could get credit cards in their husband's names but not their own, and many divorced, single, and separated women could not get cards at all. Women could not get mortgages on their own and if a couple applied for a mortgage, only the husband's income was considered. Women faced widespread and consistent discrimination in education, scholarship awards, and on the job. In most states the collective property of a marriage was legally the husband's, since the wife had allegedly not contributed to acquiring it. Women were largely kept out of a whole host of jobs -- doctor, college professor, bus driver, business manager -- that women today take for granted. They were knocked out in the delivery room, birth control options were limited, and abortion was illegal. Once women got pregnant they were either fired from their jobs or expected to quit. If they were women of color, it was worse on all fronts -- work, education, health care. (And talk about slim pickings. African American men were being sent to prison and cut out of jobs by the millions.)
Most women today, having seen reruns of The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best, and also having heard of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the bestseller that attacked women's confinement to the home, are all too familiar with the idealized yet suffocating media images of happy, devoted housewives. In fact, most of us have learned to laugh at them, vacuuming in their stockings and heels, clueless about balancing a checkbook, asking dogs directions to the neighbor's. But we should not permit our ability to distance ourselves from these images to erase the fact that all women -- and we mean all women -- were, in the 1950s and '60s, supposed to internalize this ideal, to live it and believe it.
Friedan's pathbreaking book identified one of the most important things feminists would denounce in the 1970s: the subject position of the happy housewife. Today we acknowledge that women inhabit many identities throughout the day, and they can be in conflict with each other, so we are constantly negotiating among them. But what the feminine mystique exposed was that all women, each and every one of them, were supposed to inhabit one and only one seamless subject position: that of the selfless, never complaining, always happy wife and mother who cheerfully eradicated whatever other identities she might have had and instead put her husband, her children, and the cleanliness of her house first. Once you grew up, you were supposed to encase yourself in this subject position as if it were a wetsuit, and never take it off. This asphyxiating and disciplining subject position might best be called Moms "R" Us, or MRS, the wife/mother, made familiar to all of us in the tele-person of June Cleaver and Donna Reed. It is important that we remind ourselves of the tyranny of the role of the MRS, because it was what feminists attacked as utterly oppressive, and because, under the guise of the new momism, it has risen, phoenixlike, and burrowed its way once again into the media and into the hearts and minds of millions of mothers.
According to the feminine mystique, an MRS didn't work outside the home, she loved caring for all children because she had a wired-in maternal instinct, she was confused by and thus uninterested in current events, she loved to polish chair legs and darn socks, she didn't understand the difference between drive and reverse, and she lived to serve men because they were superior. The MRS also had to appreciate the importance of Buying and Having Things; so the MRS didn't just think about her kids and husband, she was to think about them in relation to consumer goods. Inside the brain of the MRS, according to this gender ideology, you would not find any thoughts about the meaning of life, world peace, finding a cure for polio, let alone feelings of resentment, anxiety, depression, boredom, envy, frustration, or anger at a husband who might, on occasion, spend half his salary on beer for the guys and a "friend" named Lola. This enforced masquerade of the MRS was meant to be so consuming that, just like Yul Brynner in The King and I, you could never get out of character, not till you died.
That was the ideology, anyway. In "real life," by 1955, there were more women with jobs than at any point in the nation's previous history, and an increasing number of these were women with young children. By 1960, 40 percent of women were in the work force. Many of these were white middle-class women, and almost half were mothers of school-age children. One out of five had children under the age of six. The ranks of professional women grew by more than 40 percent during the 1950s, faster than any other category except clerical work. The figures were even higher for African American women. Yet everywhere these women looked in the media, the only self they were meant to inhabit, the only one even acknowledged, was the white MRS. By naming the "problem that has no name," Friedan opened the floodgates to what would soon become a tsunami of increasingly focused resentment and anger, namely, the women's movement that began in earnest in the late 1960s. Women didn't just attack the practices and results of discrimination. Until they also named the subject position of the MRS, and the expectations around it, as despotic, women themselves would not be able to see what else might be possible. Women didn't just need more equitable treatment. They needed the scales to fall off their eyes. Enter consciousness raising, one of the most important innovations of the women's movement.
Recently a student of ours, not known for his historical acuity, began his term paper with the following claim: "Sometime around 1968, a lot of things were happening." The kid did have a gift for understatement. Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not seek reelection, Martin Luther King Jr., killed, Robert Kennedy killed, police riots at the Chicago convention, escalation of the Vietnam War, feminist demonstrations at the Miss America pageant, indeed added up to "a lot of things...happening." Few were more revolutionary than feminism. Previously forbidden questions now proliferated with a vengeance. Why were men automatically the "head" of the household, on everything from credit applications to the forms used by the U.S. Census? Why should housework and child-care be women's exclusive responsibility? Did having a uterus really mean you loved scrubbing toilet bowls, and having a scrotum meant you couldn't even see dirt? Why should women have to take their husband's names when they got married, thereby symbolically eradicating their previous identity? Why should men be the only wage-earners in a family, with the women utterly dependent on him for everything, having no money of her own? Since housewives put in something like ninety-hour work weeks, shouldn't they get some kind of compensation? Feminists offered answers that today seem, by turns, fantastical, utopian, defiant, and right on.
The mass media's condescending treatment of the women's movement has been well documented, so no need to replay all the moronic commentary by Frank Reynolds on ABC and even Uncle Walter on CBS. Howard K. Smith on ABC news -- just to pull one edifying example out of the archive -- denounced feminism on the air because it might bring an end to the miniskirt, "the biggest advance in urban beautification since Central Park was created in Manhattan." Time complained -- erroneously -- that the movement "has not produced much humor" and noted that Kate Millet didn't wash her hair enough. You get the idea. And despite the fact that a host of feminist activists, including Betty Friedan, were wives and mothers, the media singled out as "leaders" those -- Kate Millet, Germaine Greer, and especially the telegenic Gloria Steinem -- who were either unmarried, childless, or both. So even with the movement's emphasis on a host of issues affecting mothers and housewives, the dominant image of the liberated woman was "independent, unmarried and...childless."
Having said that, what is remarkable is how much of the feminist critique of traditional family and marriage arrangements quickly migrated from the smokin' mimeograph machines of women's groups to the pages of Time, Glamour, Redbook, and even The Saturday Evening Post, albeit often in watered-down form. Feminist attacks on Dr. Spock, on the enforced primacy of children in women's lives, and on the inequities of housework (why did Mr. Clean only accost mom when that was dad's egg yolk annealed to the stove?) were, at the time, close to scandalous; thus they were newsworthy. And millions of women -- and even some men -- formed a ready, eager audience. Because the women's movement did not occur in a vacuum, but in fact drew oxygen from the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the counterculture, when challenging the "accepted" way of doing things was everywhere, many people, and even the media -- especially women's magazines -- were receptive to quite revolutionary challenges to an institution even as "sacred" as the family. And while studies show that, in the early twenty-first century, men are not, indeed, doing half the housework or half the childcare, there has been a revolution in fatherhood, launched by feminism.
To look at the documents generated during the height of the women's movement is, especially if you were alive back then, like waking up from a coma and remembering what made the women's movement so exhilarating and made so many women feel, well, so alive. Given the sexist dreck in the mainstream media, feminists felt they needed to produce their own alternative media to express their common outrage and, in fact, to help women see that they were part of a slightly different, but quite large, imagined community: that of fuming, livid women who had simply had enough. Highly recommended bedtime reading, for example, is Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement. Curl up with it after your child has told you at 9:00 P.M. that he volunteered to bring four dozen blueberry muffins to school the next morning and you have, for the seventeen billionth time, washed your husband's stubble-studded shaving cream drips out of the sink because, well, he just doesn't see them. Behold, for example, a "Mother's Day Incantation" offered by WITCH.
Your family wants to thank you
For your martyrdom.
After all, without you
No real work would get done.
While Hubby challenges the world
His wonders to perform
You cook his meals, clean his home
And keep his bedside warm.
Your children are your challenge,
In them your dreams are sown.
You've given up your own life
And live for them alone.
Now look upon your daughter
Will she too be enslaved
To a man, a home, a family
Or can she still be saved?
This is your real challenge --
Renounce your martyrdom!
Become a liberated mother
A woman, not a "mom."
In "Women of the World Unite -- We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Men!," the feminists Carol Hanish and Elizabeth Sutherland admitted, "Yeah, flirting is fun." Then they added, "A man opens a door for me, I thank him, he smiles -- and electricity ripples through us both. A year later I'm flushing out a diaper and he's opening other doors." Many women back then hooted in delight over stuff like this. CRAP would like women today to think that the women's movement was some dreary, humorless, forced march of angry women with hairy legs and cold hearts. What they don't want women to remember, and want younger women in particular not to know, was that exposing patriarchy was, while certainly dangerous, also -- let's face it -- a blast.
So what did women start to propose as alternatives to the MRS that altered the existing common sense about marriage and motherhood? There were two broad challenges to motherhood that swirled through the culture in the 1970s. The first was that parenthood and marriage had to be reformed and made much more equal, for the good of everyone. These ideas blew into the mainstream media with the ease of dandelion fluffs. The second was that motherhood had become such a prison for women that they had to break out and never go back to business as usual. These ideas were more radical, and while they were not, in the end, widely embraced, they did prompt millions of women to postpone having children until they felt they had at least begun to crawl out of the hole of inequality.
As underground critiques, position papers, poems, and broadsides circulated around the country, the Manhattan-based Women's Liberation Movement decided to strike at the heart of the media machine that gained its profits from the subject position of the MRS, Ladies' Home Journal.
In what became one of the most famous actions of the early movement, several hundred feminists walked into the offices of the Journal on March 18, 1970, to make some suggestions for changes in it and all women's magazines. During what ended up being an eleven-hour sit-in, the women asserted that since LHJ was a magazine for wives and mothers, the magazine should actually take motherhood seriously and establish an on-site childcare center for its employees with preschool children. They suggested to the magazine's less-than-amused editor, John Mack Carter, that the magazine, since it was supposedly for women, be run entirely by women, and that "the magazine seek out nonwhite women for its staff in proportion to the population." In response to these and other demands (like a minimum wage and more worker participation in editorial decisions), Carter, who had been bristling under his necktie for pretty much the entire eleven hours, said he'd give the women an eight-page insert in the August issue of the magazine.
In between articles titled "How Good Is Your Marriage?," "The Midi -- And How to Wear It," and "The Beauty Guide to Eyeglasses," and printed on crappier, less glossy paper, came ideas and sentiments no doubt quite new to many Journal readers. One sidebar was titled "Housewives' Bill of Rights" and demanded (on behalf of the housewives feminists supposedly hated) paid maternity leave, paid vacations, free twenty-four-hour childcare centers, social security benefits for housewives' years of labor, and health insurance (none of which we yet have). One reason these feminists issued such demands was that they themselves actually were housewives and mothers, another point we're not supposed to remember. In "Help Wanted: Female. 99.6 Hours a Week. No Pay. Bed and Bored. Must be Good with Children," they wrote "We have no respite. Our only vacation comes when we're totally incapacitated, when we're in the hospital for an operation or having a baby." They made women consider the perpetuation of such inequities in the future. "Our sons could be businessmen, welders or astronauts, but our daughters will be housewives, the only workers who labor merely for bed and board." Adding insult to injury, "we are not only not paid for our work, but are considered less than human because we perform it....We are granted the title of 'just housewife' and, if we try to dignify it a little bit by calling ourselves 'homemakers,' we sense that we are on shaky ground." They noted how all too many husbands came home and smirked, "What have you done all day?" They then added, in language that was a tad jarring next to "Clairol Brings You Happiness!," "We are domestic slaves. It's a fate that awaits us when we are born female."
They were slaves when they gave birth, too. In another Journal submission, "Babies Are Born, Not Delivered," a new mother documented the humiliations of going to a maternity ward in 1970. Remember, this was before women and their partners went to birthing classes, before partners were allowed anywhere near the delivery room. The woman described having her pubic hair shaved off (a common procedure back then that was utterly unnecessary for birth), being wheeled into a room all by herself, and being told by a resident exactly when she would actually have the baby. When she felt the baby coming, she was told she was mistaken and that she would have to wait for when the doctor could tend to her. Just when she was about to deliver, an anesthesiologist appeared and gave her a spinal, even though she protested, and the doctor then pulled the baby out with forceps. "Women are, as a group, capable of effecting change that would make the system responsive to us rather than continuing as victims of the system. But until the time comes when we do gain control over our bodies, remember this, my sister: they really couldn't do it without you." At the end of the insert was a guide on how to start a consciousness-raising group, with the addresses of women's groups from around the country.
Throughout all of these pieces, one thing is especially striking: the mode of address to the reader. Unlike the accusatory tone of some of the ads ("There's a good chance our douche cleanses and deodorizes better than yours") or the condescending you-don't-know-anything tone of the advice columns ("How to Say No to a Child Without Guilt"), all of which involved an I-you or us-you division between authority figure and dumb supplicant, this mode of address suggested power, collective power. The mode of address, beginning with "Hello to Our Sisters," rested on a collective "we," we who are unappreciated, we who are underpaid, we who have babies and raise them, we who will resist and fight together, we who will smash the MRS, we who will speak truth to power. The constant use of the imperial and empowering "we" throughout the essays made you feel strong as you read them, made you feel other women rising up and that if you wanted to, you could rise up with them. This collective "we" was active, it was fed up, and it exposed gender roles as social constructions that were not "natural" but had been made. This "we" was angry and wasn't gonna take it anymore. This "we" took the ideological straight-jacket of the MRS and simply tore it to shreds. And as even this brief review shows, it was a "we" centrally concerned about the economic and cultural discrimination against housewives and mothers.
By 1972, a group of determined feminists had decided that mimeographed position papers, books, and one guest appearance in Ladies' Home Journal were not adequate to give expression to women's experiences in a male-dominated world: They needed a monthly magazine. If a young woman today, who had not been alive in 1972 and had simply taken at face value CRAP's version of women's history, discovered an old pile of Ms. magazines, she would be taken aback -- shocked, probably -- at how dedicated the magazine was to improving the lot of housewives, mothers, and children. We both remember turning first to the letters to the editor, where women of all ages and situations flooded the magazine with letters recounting their personal encounters with the daily grind of sexism. The magazine virtually exploded with passion. They described what Jane O'Reilly famously called, in her instant classic "The Housewife's Moment of Truth," their "click" moments, the precise occasion in which a woman comes to see that her private anxieties, anger, and despair are not personal failings but are understandable responses to the off-the-wall expectations of patriarchy. A "click moment" was that instant when a woman realizes she's being treated like a doormat.
I thought that most of my clicks were behind me, but tonight, as I cleared the table, I had a new one. I was complimenting myself (since no one else had) on a meal I'd gone to some trouble to prepare. I began to wonder why so many of us wait trembling for "the verdict" at every meal; why my mother and so many others risk antagonizing their families by asking outright if everything is okay.
I decided it's not just neurosis. We really know they're judging even when they don't say so. Housewifing is an occupation in which every single waking act is judged by the persons who mean the most to you in the world. Is the house clean? Is the food good? Are the children well-behaved?
A thousand times a day our contracts come up for renewal. No wonder our nerves are shot.
During its first several years of publication, Ms., that supposed bastion of mother-hating, antifamily propaganda, featured articles in almost every issue dedicated to helping mothers and their kids. Sample articles include "Job Advice for 'Just a Housewife'" (November 1973), "New Help for Mothers Alone" (February 1974), "How the Economy Uses Housewives" (May 1974), "Surviving Widowhood" and "Must We Be Childless to be Free?" (October 1974), a special section called "Kids in the Office, and What-Else-Is-New with Child Care" (March 1975), "How Hospitals Complicate Childbirth" (May 1975), and a special section on mothers and daughters (June 1975). In addition, Ms. published "Stories for Free Children" every month that mothers could read to their kids. The magazine devoted its entire May 1973 issue to the topic "Up with Motherhood." Feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, for example, while acknowledging (but not dismissing) that there were a few feminists who saw children as the bane of women's existence, pointed out that "The rest of us, scores of feminists of every age, race, marital status, and sexual persuasion are talking seriously, thoughtfully, and candidly about motherhood." She insisted that "We care deeply about children whether we have our own or not. We work to improve educational curricula, child-care facilities, health services, and the childbirth experience. We are saying that men are parents, too; that fatherhood need be no less important or time-consuming than motherhood....Truly, feminists are talking about choice: about making the decision to become pregnant and choosing a motherly role that is right for ourselves and our children."
Feminist proposals to make marriage and child rearing more equitable, whether first appearing in mimeo sheets or Ms., had a powerful impact on the 1950s and '60s versions of intensive mothering. In 1970, Alix Kates Shulman, a wife, mother, and writer who had joined the Women's Liberation Movement in New York, wrote a poignant account of how the initial equality and companionship of her marriage had deteriorated once she had children. "[N]ow I was restricted to the company of two demanding preschoolers and to the four walls of an apartment. It seemed unfair that while my husband's life had changed little when the children were born, domestic life had become the only life I had." His job became even more demanding, requiring late nights and travel out of town. Meanwhile, it was virtually impossible for her to work at home. "I had no time for myself; the children were always there."
Neither she nor her husband was happy with the situation, so they did something radical, which received considerable media coverage: They wrote up a marriage agreement, which was widely circulated in feminist circles. Read it and weep. In it they asserted that "each member of the family has an equal right to his/her own time, work, values, and choices....The ability to earn more money is already a privilege which must not be compounded by enabling the larger earner to buy out of his/her duties and put the burden on the one who earns less, or on someone hired from outside." The agreement insisted that domestic jobs be shared fifty-fifty and, get this girls, "If one party works overtime in any domestic job, she/he must be compensated by equal extra work by the other."
The agreement then listed a complete job breakdown, which included, "Waking children; getting their clothes out, making their lunches, seeing they have notes, homework, money, passes, books, etc.," and "Getting babysitters, which sometimes takes an hour of phoning," and even "Calling doctors, checking out symptoms, getting prescriptions filled, remembering to give medicine, taking days off to stay home with sick child; providing special activities." In other words, the agreement acknowledged the physical and the emotional/mental work involved in parenting, and valued both. At the end of the article, Shulman noted how much happier she and her husband were as a result of the agreement. In the two years after its inception, Shulman wrote three children's books, a biography, and a novel. But listen, too, to what it meant to her husband, who was now actually seeing his children every day. After the agreement had been in effect for four months, "our daughter said one day to my husband, 'You know, Daddy, I used to love Mommy more than you, but now I love you both the same.'"
To the delight of many wives (and the discomfiture of many husbands), the April 28, 1972, issue of Life (of all places!) featured a six-page cover story on the marriage agreement. Redbook published it under the editors' title "A Challenge to Every Marriage" and received more than two thousand letters in response, most of them supportive. U.S. News & World Report printed a sample contract in 1973. By 1975 Time reported that there were then at least fifteen hundred different versions of marriage contracts being used. "Husbands commonly waive their legal right to determine where the couple will live," noted the magazine without a hint of surprise and "agree to do half of the household chores." (There wasn't much coverage of what we assume came to be massive male breach-of-contract violations in that department.) Nonetheless, newsmagazines described fathers learning to cook and doing most of the "routine cleaning, washing and shopping." By 1978, Glamour -- yes, Glamour -- featured an article on how to write your own contract. The sociologist Marvin Sussman, who studied the proliferation of marriage contracts in the mid-1970s, predicted that "in the next ten years" they would become so widespread that they would become "the form of marriage law." (Ah, the seventies.) The marriage contract may seem quaint today, but imagine if most men actually signed them -- and abided by the fifty-fifty childcare and housework provisions!
Also newsworthy, and presented as an outcome of feminism, was the rise of the househusband. He stayed home, watched the kids, and mopped the floors while his wife worked or went to school. Often these stories served to corroborate feminist critiques of the housewife's situation. "I can't wait to get out of the house and get back to work," one such husband told Time in 1974. "I love my son Adam, but I can see how taking care of a kid can drive a woman up the wall." This article also noted that such role reversals often strengthened marriages and a father's ties to his kids. In "When Dad Becomes a 'House-Husband,'" we learned that "This father stayed home to take care of the kids, and the whole family flourished."
Letty Cottin Pogrebin profiled five househusbands, one of whom was, believe it or not, Ted Koppel. He and his wife had four kids, she had moved nearly a dozen times because of his job, and now she wanted to return to law school. So Ted took nine months off and took care of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and the kids, and reported how it made him reassess the housewife's work. "[O]ne day after I'd finished mopping the kitchen floor, [my wife] came home from school and walked all over it. I started yelling, 'Take off your shoes, you're tracking up my floor!' -- a sentence I'd heard her yell a hundred times. A light went off in both our heads....I realized how unfair it is to put the total burden of a house and kids on one person." What often happened was not that the husband suddenly said, "Okay, dear, I'll wash the floor too" (although some did), but that both spousal units agreed that housework was a drag and that they'd both do as little as possible. (These were the notorious "dark years" for Mr. Clean.)
Childcare experts also took it in the chops. Jo Ann Hoit, in her stinging critique of Dr. Spock, noted how he might speak of the concerns of "parents," but when there was a problem it was always the mother's fault, and always her responsibility to fix. Spock's gesture toward suggesting that fathers might have some responsibilities too in raising their kids was this: "I don't mean that the father has to give just as many bottles or change just as many diapers as the mother. But it's fine for him to do these things occasionally. He might make the formula on Sunday." Hot damn! So, noted Hoit sarcastically, while Dad's duty was to hold down an eight-hour-a-day job, "motherhood remains a twenty-four-hour job with no nights or weekends off."
The feminist pronouncement that often shook up men -- and many women -- the most was the assertion that the labor of housewives was worth a lot of money and they were getting screwed because they were paid nothing and thus building up no credit in Social Security. Gloria Steinem, in her lectures around the country, insisted that despite media stereotypes and misreporting, the movement was not just for working women, "as if that excluded housewives," she chided. She then added with emphasis, "In fact, housewives work harder than anyone." Steinem asserted that the housewife should be paid, and then cited Department of Labor statistics that put the value of her work somewhere between $8000 to $9000 a year, because that's what it would cost her husband to pay for her services, "not including on and off prostitution," a famous quip that invariably produced nervous titters in the audience. These remarks weren't restricted to college students or women's groups -- ABC aired them in January of 1972 on the nightly news, and she repeated them on late-night talk shows where, yes, feminists used to be invited to chat.
Within two years, even the readers of McCall's saw a similar analysis. One article suggested that the next time you were at a party, you ask the wives what they thought they were worth "in dollars and cents" to their husbands. Then, ask the husbands the same thing. Despite how "offensive" such a question might be to "middle class sensibilities," the article reminded readers, "Marriage is a bargain in which a woman gives her domestic services in exchange for support by a man" and the entire economic base of marriage was "lopsided and wobbly." Citing a study actually done by economists at the Chase Manhattan Bank, McCall's noted that by the time you totted up what it would cost a man to hire a cook, laundress, nursemaid, chauffer, and gardener, he'd be shelling out about ten grand a year (or about $38,000 in 2003). The article then indignantly noted that a wife who devotes seventeen years to cooking, cleaning, and child rearing was not entitled to any Social Security but that nuns were. Even The Saturday Evening Post, which was by 1977 a vestigial media organ, a throwback to maybe 1952 (if not 1932), featured an article by Clare Booth Luce, "Equality Begins at Home." Luce, prominent wife of publishing magnate Henry Luce, also argued that marriage was unequal, that in many states women legally had the status of "unpaid servant," that the work of housewives and mothers was now worth about $20,000 a year. But since they weren't getting paid what they were worth -- or anything, for that matter -- many were now entering the workforce. When a feminist critique of marriage entered the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, it was safe to say that a new sensibility was afoot.
Ms. insisted that mothers and their children were political constituents who had the right and the duty to make feminist demands upon their government. "The American Child-Care Disgrace" (May 1973) suggested that there was something quite perverse about a country that poured billions of dollars into nuclear submarines but not a penny into a life raft for children of working mothers. Maureen Orth lambasted Richard Nixon for a nearly overnight abandonment of his commitment, announced in 1969, to "provide all American children an opportunity for healthy and stimulating development during the first five years of life." By 1971, Nixon claimed that there was no demonstrated need for a national child-development program, and worse yet, that such a program was antifamily. It was no wonder then that working mothers were, as Ms. put it, "...reluctant to admit that they need help and reluctant to demand that some of their tax dollars go toward childcare. As long as the American mother has feelings of guilt and is unable to see childcare as more than a personal problem, the politicians will continue to ignore her and the basic rights of her children." But Nixon aside, this thing called "childcare," unheard of to most women in the mid-1960s, also began to circulate as a crucially important innovation.
Not surprisingly, many women's liberation organizations around the country began fighting for day-care centers in their communities, which included establishing cooperative nurseries, pressuring employers to found on-site centers for working mothers, and lobbying city, state, and federal governments to provide more funding for day care. Some women staged "child-ins:" Together they brought their kids to work to dramatize their need for day care. Day care was not only about helping working mothers. Feminists wanted to help housewives, too, to give them a break from the 24/7 of motherhood. Many feminists also believed, especially given the already proven success of the Head Start program, that quality day care, with its schedule of activities, curriculum, and exposure to preschool teachers and other children, would be for many children a welcome supplement to staying home with mom all the time. They attacked the notion that day care was somehow a "necessary evil," needed for those women who "had to work," instead of a great opportunity for early childhood education.
As Louise Gross and Phyllis Taube Greenleaf put it in "Why Day Care?" (1970), "We would like to assert that day-care centers in which children are raised in groups by men and women could be as important for the liberation of children as it would be for the liberation of women." They envisioned (sigh) centers with sexually integrated staffs who were paid decent salaries and who encouraged boys to play with stuffed animals and dolls if they wanted and girls to play with toy saws and trucks.
Some feminists, of course, went much further than demanding twenty-four-hour day-care centers and compensation for housework. There were radical feminists who insisted that women's reproductive biology was a principal source of their enslavement to men. Here was the charge: It was precisely because women had to bear babies for nine months and then nurse them that they could never ultimately enjoy equality with men. Only when everything -- including childbirth -- was equal, would women stand a chance. Their attacks on pregnancy, in the context of today's insistence that waddling around for over half a year encased in the equivalent of seven Michelin extra-wides is "sexy" and "energizing," will seem loony, even anti-woman to some. "Does anyone wish to try to hold that the blood-curdling screams that can be heard from delivery rooms are really cries of joy?" asked Ti-Grace Atkinson with typical wryness. "Pregnancy is barbaric," asserted Shulamith Firestone. (She actually got to say that on national television.)
It turns out that there were women who did not think Firestone was off the wall. In 1970 thousands of women found themselves reading Firestone's book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, in which she argued very persuasively that the inferior economic and social condition of women would persist unless they were freed "from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available." How would this be achieved? Firestone proposed that big research and development dollars be invested in the design of artificial wombs, the only way, she insisted, to truly liberate women. In the meantime, mothers should be compensated for their reproductive labor (which may sound nuts to Americans but actually happens in most European Union countries), and men should participate fully in the rearing of children. Firestone argued, audaciously, that children themselves would benefit by being cut loose from a notion of childhood that prolonged their own dependency, especially on parents who would very likely pass their own neuroses onto the vulnerable psyches of their kids. To top it all off, Firestone insisted that the nuclear family must be cast aside in favor of households that foster the liberation of women and children by de-emphasizing "blood ties" and having all the adults raise all the kids. You know, kind of like a kibbutz.
In other words, Firestone's work was filled with ideas that in the United States today would seem bizarre even on Star Trek. On the one hand, as we look back at this from the vantage point of the hypernatalist early twenty-first century, Firestone's vision of artificial wombs freeing all women from pregnancy seems really naïve and a denial of the importance of women's bodies. On the other hand, there is no doubt that she was right. If men could have babies too (and could nurse them!), or if all babies were gestated in artificial wombs, there would indeed be the basis for the still deferred revolution in gender roles and sexual equality in the country. Pregnancy is so romanticized in the early twenty-first century that many women may find the idea of an artificial womb chilling. But think about it -- the fetus goes in a perfectly nourishing, unstressed, temperature controlled environment and you get to continue jogging, drinking coffee, drinking wine, eating what you want and maintaining your same clothing size while avoiding sciatica, vomiting, varicose veins, bloating that makes your ankles vanish, heartburn, and hemorrhoids the size of Texas. Isn't this just a tad tempting?
To many, especially to young women who, above all, hoped to escape the fate of their own mothers, motherhood seemed to be the ultimate trap. Unable yet to imagine how the mother/child relationship could exist outside the confines of man-dependent domesticity, the initial feminist resistance to motherhood was perfectly understandable. In the 1970s, many women began to defer having children until they were older, and many young feminists wondered whether they should have kids at all. As the writer Ellen Willis put it, many young feminists had decided not to have children, either ever or for the time being, "because we felt that motherhood, under the present conditions, was incompatible with our priorities." She added, "[O]ur system of child-rearing lays on mothers an enormous responsibility that by rights should be shared by fathers and the community at large. Just as many mothers resent this inequitable burden, I resent the fact that I can't have children unless I'm willing to assume it....For me, as for the rebellious mother, the answer is political change."
Not surprisingly, there were those who made the case, as Jeffner Allen put it in her quaintly titled essay, "Motherhood: the Annihilation of Women," that motherhood must be "evacuated" as one would evacuate a town in advance of an approaching army. Any concessions to motherhood, she argued, would inevitably put women right back under the thumbs of men. To be sure, arguments like these are not without their difficulties, but they insisted that motherhood -- valued in the text of Hallmark cards but no place else, exceedingly costly to women both financially and emotionally, while highly beneficial to men -- had to be rejected in its 1950s form. Thus, such arguments, however extreme they might seem today, really did prompt many women, especially young women, to ask whether the price of motherhood was worth it. And it is true that there were feminists who, as a result, felt that having children was tantamount to acknowledging that you had succumbed to the brainwashing of a male-dominated society.
But there were also feminists like Jane Alpert, an unlikely candidate for mother-of-the-year given that she was wanted by the FBI on charges of conspiracy to bomb federal offices. Alpert requested, from her underground hideout, that Ms. publish her 1973 article "Mother Right," which argued that the family should be reshaped "according to the perceptions of women." "Mother Right" was closely read and controversial -- it drew more reader reaction than any other piece the magazine had published to date. (The February 1974 issue devoted seven full pages to the letters that poured in.) In direct opposition to Firestone, Alpert insisted that motherhood was the source of female power and should be harnessed in service of women's liberation. "[A]s we begin to define ourselves as women, the qualities coming to the fore are the same ones a mother projects in the best kind of nurturing relationship to a child: empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended, inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally," she argued. Because motherhood "cuts across economic, class, race and sexual preference, a society in which women were powerful by virtue of being mothers would not be divided along any of these lines."
The positive qualities associated with motherhood, then, should not be abandoned or dismissed; rather, they could change the world. Or to put it another way, Alpert argued that the very traits that have been essential to child rearing and housekeeping and that have kept women in their place are actually enormous strengths that give women the power (and the responsibility) to make society more caring and humane. So here was the central question she raised. Should women come to think of themselves as people, not all that dissimilar from men except in how they had been socialized, and thus reject their own socialization as passive, nurturing, and empathic and simply behave more like men and pursue male goals and occupations? Or, conversely, were women, precisely because they could and did bear children, naturally more inclined to be nurturing, pacifistic, empathic, and cooperative and thus should claim these traits as distinctly female and use them to try to change a male world that was too competitive, individualistic, and destructive? (This latter position would come to be called "essentialist.") This debate has hardly been resolved -- it still surrounds us and informs debates about gender equity today.
The main point about all these articles, books, and broadsides is this: Far from dismissing motherhood as dull and old-fashioned, something to be cast aside on the road to self-fulfillment, the women's movement engaged the subject of motherhood with both passion and rigor. Feminists simultaneously embraced motherhood and condemned it, and motherhood itself surfaced as an object of real and legitimate ambivalence. Feminists insisted that motherhood actually be given its due, as the work of a fully formed, though highly constrained, individual human. They debated, in all sorts of forums, about the extent to which motherhood gave women a particular moral authority that they should use to assert more political and economic power, or whether motherhood, as currently institutionalized, always kept mothers disempowered, voiceless, oppressed.
Perhaps the most moving and inflammatory analysis of motherhood to appear during this period was Adrienne Rich's enormously influential Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), which won the National Book Award. When we were young women, we and everyone we knew read the book, and some of us gave it to our mothers, a gesture not always greeted with the same delight that flowers or bath oil evoked. "When we think of motherhood, we are supposed to think of Renoir's blooming women with rosy children at their knees, Raphael's ecstatic madonnas," Rich wrote. "We are not supposed to think of a woman lying in a Brooklyn hospital with ice packs on her aching breasts because she has been convinced she could not nurse a child...of a girl in her teens, pregnant by her father...of two women who love each other struggling to keep custody of their children against the hostility of ex-husbands and courts. We are not supposed to think of a woman trying to conceal her pregnancy so she can go on working as long as possible, because when her condition is discovered she will be fired without disability insurance....Men have spoken, often, in abstractions, of our 'joys and pains.' We have, in our long history, accepted the stresses of the institution as if they were a law of nature." But she saw motherhood as a patriarchal institution imposed on women "which aims at ensuring that...all women -- shall remain under male control."
Rich, who had been recognized as an important "woman poet" (for whatever that was worth at the time), recounted her own experience as the mother of three young boys. Instead of proposing, somewhat optimistically, that motherhood would be so much better if there were just marriage contracts and day-care centers, Rich cut to the everyday experiences of raising kids and said, simply, motherhood can be hell. The first chapter of the book begins:
My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance....I love them. But it's in the enormity and inevitability of this love that the sufferings lie.
By exposing her own ambivalence -- and the book was a brave and powerful act of exposure -- Rich launched a scathing critique, not of mothers or of motherhood itself, but of the institution that it had become. Rich demanded that we acknowledge not only the hard labor that mothering required, but also its emotional, cognitive, and psychic demands as well. Instead of taking women's willingness to mother for granted by seeing it as nothing more than a hormonal inevitability, Rich made clear how utterly remarkable women are for persevering under oppressive conditions. "Motherhood has been penal servitude," she announced. "It need not be." Having begun the book with a wrenching confession, Rich ended with a utopian exhortation:
We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console and alter human existence -- a new relationship to the universe....This is where we have to begin.
Feminists didn't just take on motherhood; they took on child rearing, too, and sought to write stories and songs for kids, and develop new advice and guidelines for nonsexist parenting that would produce a whole new generation of liberated boys and girls. Today, with Barbie selling as briskly as ever and the World Wrestling Federation Smackdowns some of the most popular programming for adolescent boys, it seems impossible that anyone would be so wet behind the ears as to try to develop a project dedicated to eliminating sexism from child rearing. Imagine, for example, that Julia Roberts had a brainstorm and gathered together Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Jordan, Pink, JayZ, the Dave Matthews Band, and Raffi to produce a kids' album and TV show that celebrated gender equality and racial harmony. This seems so naïve today (and unnecessary, according to postfeminism). But their 1970s counterparts did just that.
In 1972, Marlo Thomas, star of the hit sitcom That Girl, put together Free to Be You and Me, a kids' collection of songs, stories, and poems designed to undermine what was popularly known as "sex-role stereotyping." The album sold five hundred thousand copies and was nominated for a "best album of the year" Grammy. (In 1972 Helen Reddy won a Grammy for her song "I Am Woman" in which she proclaimed, "I am strong, I am invincible." Three decades later we got Britney Spears singing, "Hit Me Baby, One More Time." But we digress.) The album featured performances by a range of stars, including Diana Ross, actor Alan Alda, Broadway star Carol Channing, comedian Mel Brooks, singer Harry Belafonte, and football star Rosey Grier, a three-hundred-pound defensive tackle for the New York Giants, who weighed in with "It's All Right to Cry," a song licensing boys to let the tears flow. The record became the basis for an ABC-TV special, and in 1974, McGraw-Hill published a book by the same name. All profits from sales of Free to Be went to the Ms. Foundation (and later to an off-shoot, the Free to Be Foundation) to fund projects that "help children grow up free." As an antidote to pop culture's girls-wear-pink, boys-shoot-bazookas address to the country's pint-sized consumer, the songs and stories invited kids and their parents to imagine a world in which the co-liberation of children and women opened doors, stirred the air, and freed the soul from insidious social constraints. The title song (in true American spirit) celebrated the convergence of individuality and togetherness. It urged children to come together and invited them to a place "Where the children are free...And you and me are free to be you and me."
The songs' messages were unambiguous: Inside each and every one of us, there is a person chomping at the bit to throw off the shackles of gender and become, well, a person. In "William Wants a Doll," a boy is teased mercilessly by his peers for wanting a "doll to have and hold" so that he can grow up to be a good father. Though his own parents try to rid him of his perversity (his father gives him a bat and ball), his grandmother comes to the rescue. And it turns out that a kid can be good at baseball and have a doll at the same time. The poem "Housework" ridiculed advertisers' insistence that women increased their self-esteem by scrubbing toilets, and suggested that everyone (including Dad and Junior!) should pitch in at cleaning time. Perhaps even more subversive, it revealed that the happy housewife in the commercial was smiling because "she's an actress. And she's earning money for learning those speeches that mention those wonderful soaps and detergents." In the song "Parents Are People," kids could sing along with "some mommies are ranchers or poetry makers or doctors or teachers or cleaners or bakers....Yes, mommies can be almost anything they want to be."
For the blink of an eye, we were permitted, even encouraged to think that the gendered rigidity of childhood was a thing of the past, that the current generation of children would initiate a new world order. Wearing their striped Oshkosh overalls, bowl cuts and Afros, girls and boys would march together into a land where dads changed diapers, moms changed tires, and nobody made bombs. The Emmy-winning TV special cemented Free to Be's reputation as the holy grail of liberation. How could anyone have resisted the ingenue Michael Jackson, in his trademark Jackson Five outfit, singing that he didn't care what you looked like and, more to the point, he liked his looks just fine. It didn't matter if you were pretty or if you were tall. He reassured kids "We don't have to change at all." Ah Michael, see what happens to you when you drift away from feminism?
In a nutshell then, the women's movement in all its forms succeeded in shattering the assumption that all women had to, as it were, assume the position of the MRS. Consciousness-raising worked. But whatever constitutes a culture's common sense is never permanent: It is fought over, it evolves, re-forms, and, yes, it regresses. This is why the CRAP assault is so important to watch: Maybe if you tell another story, or try to get people to forget that certain things happened in the first place, people will think that those "other" people in the past -- in this case feminists -- were crazy, stupid, mean, selfish, or all of the above and that what they tried to achieve in the end makes zero sense at all. So think where we would be today if feminists had had some real policy victories -- if the day care bill Nixon vetoed had instead been passed, if paid maternity and paternity leave became the national standard, if men accepted, as a given, that they were equally responsible (and we mean equally) for the raising of kids, if homemakers got some compensation for raising kids and keeping house. (Where you would be, probably, is Denmark.)
Feminism was -- and remains -- a revolutionary movement. Once feminists disrupted the common sense about motherhood and the family, the mainstream media had to respond. The feminine mystique was out -- but what was in? From One Day at a Time to Dr. Spock, the media would struggle with this question. Meanwhile, intensive mothering, with a stake in its heart, lay dormant, waiting patiently for new soil and for the night to come.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels
Introduction: The New Momism
It's 5:22 P.M. You're in the grocery checkout line. Your three-year-old is writhing on the floor, screaming, because you have refused to buy her a Teletubby pinwheel. Your six-year-old is whining, repeatedly, in a voice that could saw through cement, "But mommy, puleeze, puleeze" because you have not bought him the latest "Lunchables," which features, as the four food groups, Cheetos, a Snickers, Cheez Whiz, and Twizzlers. Your teenager, who has not spoken a single word in the past four days except, "You've ruined my life," followed by "Everyone else has one," is out in the car, sulking, with the new rap-metal band Piss on the Parentals blasting through the headphones of a Discman.
To distract yourself, and to avoid the glares of other shoppers who have already deemed you the worst mother in America, you leaf through People magazine. Inside, Uma Thurman gushes "Motherhood Is Sexy." Moving on to Good Housekeeping, Vanna White says of her child, "When I hear his cry at six-thirty in the morning, I have a smile on my face, and I'm not an early riser." Another unexpected source of earth-mother wisdom, the newly maternal Pamela Lee, also confides to People, "I just love getting up with him in the middle of the night to feed him or soothe him." Brought back to reality by stereophonic whining, you indeed feel as sexy as Rush Limbaugh in a thong.
You drag your sorry ass home. Now, if you were a "good" mom, you'd joyfully empty the shopping bags and transform the process of putting the groceries away into a fun game your kids love to play (upbeat Raffi songs would provide a lilting soundtrack). Then, while you steamed the broccoli and poached the chicken breasts in Vouvray and Evian water, you and the kids would also be doing jigsaw puzzles in the shape of the United Arab Emirates so they learned some geography. Your cheerful teenager would say, "Gee, Mom, you gave me the best advice on that last homework assignment." When your husband arrives, he is so overcome with admiration for how well you do it all that he looks lovingly into your eyes, kisses you, and presents you with a diamond anniversary bracelet. He then announces that he has gone on flex time for the next two years so that he can split childcare duties with you fifty-fifty. The children, chattering away happily, help set the table, and then eat their broccoli. After dinner, you all go out and stencil the driveway with autumn leaves.
But maybe this sounds slightly more familiar. "I won't unpack the groceries! You can't make me," bellows your child as he runs to his room, knocking down a lamp on the way. "Eewee -- gross out!" he yells and you discover that the cat has barfed on his bed. You have fifteen minutes to make dinner because there's a school play in half an hour. While the children fight over whether to watch Hot Couples or people eating larvae on Fear Factor, you zap some Prego spaghetti sauce in the microwave and boil some pasta. You set the table. "Mommy, Mommy, Sam losted my hamster," your daughter wails. Your ex-husband calls to say he won't be taking the kids this weekend after all because his new wife, Buffy, twenty-three, has to go on a modeling shoot in Virgin Gorda for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and "she really needs me with her." You go to the TV room to discover the kids watching transvestites punching each other out on Jerry Springer. The pasta boils over and scalds the hamster, now lying prostrate on the floor with its legs twitching in the air. "Get your butts in here this instant or I'll murder you immediately," you shriek, by way of inviting your children to dinner. "I hate this pasta -- I only like the kind shaped like wagon wheels!" "Mommy, you killded my hamster!"
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. 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. The love we feel for our kids, the joyful times we have with them, are repackaged into unattainable images of infinite patience and constant adoration so that we fear, as Kristin van Ogtrop put it movingly in The Bitch in the House, "I will love my children, but my love for them will always be imperfect."
From the moment we get up until the moment we collapse in bed at night, the media are out there, calling to us, yelling, "Hey you! Yeah, you! Are you really raising your kids right?" Whether it's the cover of Redbook or Parents demanding "Are You a Sensitive Mother?" "Is Your Child Eating Enough?" "Is Your Baby Normal?" (and exhorting us to enter its pages and have great sex at 25, 35, or 85), the nightly news warning us about missing children, a movie trailer hyping a film about a cross-dressing dad who's way more fun than his stinky, careerist wife (Mrs. Doubtfire), or Dr. Laura telling some poor mother who works four hours a week that she's neglectful, the siren song blending seduction and accusation is there all the time. Mothers are subjected to an onslaught of beatific imagery, romantic fantasies, self-righteous sermons, psychological warnings, terrifying movies about losing their children, even more terrifying news stories about abducted and abused children, and totally unrealistic advice about how to be the most perfect and revered mom in the neighborhood, maybe even in the whole country. (Even Working Mother -- which should have known better -- had a "Working Mother of the Year Contest." When Jill Kirschenbaum became the editor in 2001, one of the first things she did was dump this feature, noting that motherhood should not be a "competitive sport.") We are urged to be fun-loving, spontaneous, and relaxed, yet, at the same time, scared out of our minds that our kids could be killed at any moment. No wonder 81 percent of women in a recent poll said it's harder to be a mother now than it was twenty or thirty years ago, and 56 percent felt mothers were doing a worse job today than mothers back then. Even mothers who deliberately avoid TV and magazines, or who pride themselves on seeing through them, have trouble escaping the standards of perfection, and the sense of threat, that the media ceaselessly atomize into the air we breathe.
We are both mothers, and we adore our kids -- for example, neither one of us has ever locked them up in dog crates in the basement (although we have, of course, been tempted). The smell of a new baby's head, tucking a child in at night, receiving homemade, hand-scrawled birthday cards, heart-to-hearts with a teenager after a date, seeing them become parents -- these are joys parents treasure. But like increasing numbers of women, we are fed up with the myth -- shamelessly hawked by the media -- that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and that if you don't love each and every second of it there's something really wrong with you. At the same time, the two of us still have been complete suckers, buying those black-and-white mobiles that allegedly turn your baby into Einstein Jr., feeling guilty for sending in store-bought cookies to the class bake sale instead of homemade like the "good" moms, staying up until 2:30 A.M. making our kids' Halloween costumes, driving to the Multiplex 18 at midnight to pick up teenagers so they won't miss the latest outing with their friends. We know that building a scale model of Versailles out of mashed potatoes may not be quite as crucial to good mothering as Martha Stewart Living suggests. Yet here we are, cowed by that most tyrannical of our cultural icons, Perfect Mom. So, like millions of women, we buy into these absurd ideals at the same time that we resent them and think they are utterly ridiculous and oppressive. After all, our parents -- the group Tom Brokaw has labeled "the greatest generation" -- had parents who whooped them on the behind, screamed stuff at them like "I'll tear you limb from limb," told them babies came from cabbage patches, never drove them four hours to a soccer match, and yet they seemed to have nonetheless saved the western world.
This book is about the rise in the media of what we are calling the "new momism": the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet. The term "momism" was initially coined by the journalist Philip Wylie in his highly influential 1942 bestseller Generation of Vipers, and it was a very derogatory term. Drawing from Freud (who else?), Wylie attacked the mothers of America as being so smothering, overprotective, and invested in their kids, especially their sons, that they turned them into dysfunctional, sniveling weaklings, maternal slaves chained to the apron strings, unable to fight for their country or even stand on their own two feet. We seek to reclaim this term, rip it from its misogynistic origins, and apply it to an ideology that has snowballed since the 1980s and seeks to return women to the Stone Age.
The "new momism" is a set of ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented in the media, that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your reach. The new momism is the direct descendant and latest version of what Betty Friedan famously labeled the "feminine mystique" back in the 1960s. The new momism seems to be much more hip and progressive than the feminine mystique, because now, of course, mothers can and do work outside the home, have their own ambitions and money, raise kids on their own, or freely choose to stay at home with their kids rather than being forced to. And unlike the feminine mystique, the notion that women should be subservient to men is not an accepted tenet of the new momism. Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist insistence that woman have choices, that they are active agents in control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy. But here's where the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a "real" woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a "mom" and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa with Donna Shalala. Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: It both draws from and repudiates feminism.
The fulcrum of the new momism is the rise of a really pernicious ideal in the late twentieth century that the sociologist Sharon Hays has perfectly labeled "intensive mothering." It is no longer okay, as it was even during the heyday of June Cleaver, to let (or make) your kids walk to school, tell them to stop bugging you and go outside and play, or, God forbid, serve them something like Tang, once the preferred beverage of the astronauts, for breakfast. Of course many of our mothers baked us cookies, served as Brownie troop leaders, and chaperoned class trips to Elf Land. But today, the standards of good motherhood are really over the top. And they've gone through the roof at the same time that there has been a real decline in leisure time for most Americans. The yuppie work ethic of the 1980s, which insisted that even when you were off the job you should be working -- on your abs, your connections, your portfolio, whatever -- absolutely conquered motherhood. As the actress Patricia Heaton jokes in Motherhood & Hollywood, now mothers are supposed to "sneak echinacea" into the "freshly squeezed, organically grown orange juice" we've made for our kids and teach them to "download research for their kindergarten report on 'My Family Tree -- The Early Roman Years.'"
Intensive mothering insists that mothers acquire professional-level skills such as those of a therapist, pediatrician ("Dr. Mom"), consumer products safety inspector, and teacher, and that they lavish every ounce of physical vitality they have, the monetary equivalent of the gross domestic product of Australia, and, most of all, every single bit of their emotional, mental, and psychic energy on their kids. We must learn to put on the masquerade of the doting, self-sacrificing mother and wear it at all times. With intensive mothering, everyone watches us, we watch ourselves and other mothers, and we watch ourselves watching ourselves. How many of you know someone who swatted her child on the behind in a supermarket because he was, say, opening a pack of razor blades in the toiletries aisle, only to be accosted by someone she never met who threatened to put her up on child-abuse charges? In 1997, one mother was arrested for child neglect because she left a ten-year-old and a four-year-old home for an hour and a half while she went to the supermarket. Motherhood has become a psychological police state.
Intensive mothering is the ultimate female Olympics: We are all in powerful competition with each other, in constant danger of being trumped by the mom down the street, or in the magazine we're reading. The competition isn't just over who's a good mother -- it's over who's the best. We compete with each other; we compete with ourselves. The best mothers always put their kids' needs before their own, period. The best mothers are the main caregivers. For the best mothers, their kids are the center of the universe. The best mothers always smile. They always understand. They are never tired. They never lose their temper. They never say, "Go to the neighbor's house and play while Mommy has a beer." Their love for their children is boundless, unflagging, flawless, total. Mothers today cannot just respond to their kids' needs, they must predict them -- and with the telepathic accuracy of Houdini. They must memorize verbatim the books of all the child-care experts and know which approaches are developmentally appropriate at different ages. They are supposed to treat their two-year-olds with "respect." If mothers screw up and fail to do this on any given day, they should apologize to their kids, because any misstep leads to permanent psychological and/or physical damage. Anyone who questions whether this is the best and the necessary way to raise kids is an insensitive, ignorant brute. This is just common sense, right?
The new momism has become unavoidable, unless you raise your kids in a yurt on the tundra, for one basic reason: Motherhood became one of the biggest media obsessions of the last three decades, exploding especially in the mid-1980s and continuing unabated to the present. Women have been deluged by an ever-thickening mudslide of maternal media advice, programming, and marketing that powerfully shapes how we mothers feel about our relationships with our own kids and, indeed, how we feel about ourselves. These media representations have changed over time, cutting mothers some real slack in the 1970s, and then increasingly closing the vise in the late 1980s and after, despite important rebellions by Roseanne and others. People don't usually notice that motherhood has been such a major media fixation, revolted or hooked as they've been over the years by other media excesses like the O. J. Simpson trials, the Lewinsky-Clinton imbroglio, the Elian Gonzalez carnival, Survivor, or the 2002 Washington-area sniper killings in which "profilers" who knew as much as SpongeBob SquarePants nonetheless got on TV to tell us what the killer was thinking.
But make no mistake about it -- mothers and motherhood came under unprecedented media surveillance in the 1980s and beyond. And since the media traffic in extremes, in anomalies -- the rich, the deviant, the exemplary, the criminal, the gorgeous -- they emphasize fear and dread on the one hand and promote impossible ideals on the other. In the process, Good Housekeeping, People, E!, Lifetime, Entertainment Tonight, and NBC Nightly News built an interlocking, cumulative image of the dedicated, doting "mom" versus the delinquent, bad "mother." There have been, since the early 1980s, several overlapping media frameworks that have fueled the new momism. First, the media warned mothers about the external threats to their kids from abductors and the like. Then the "family values" crowd made it clear that supporting the family was not part of the government's responsibility. By the late 1980s, stories about welfare and crack mothers emphasized the internal threats to children from mothers themselves. And finally, the media brouhaha over the "Mommy Track" reaffirmed that businesses could not or would not budge much to accommodate the care of children. Together, and over time, these frameworks produced a prevailing common sense that only you, the individual mother, are responsible for your child's welfare: The buck stops with you, period, and you'd better be a superstar.
Of course there has been a revolution in fatherhood over the past thirty years, and millions of men today tend to the details of child rearing in ways their own fathers rarely did. Feminism prompted women to insist that men change diapers and pack school lunches, but it also gave men permission to become more involved with their kids in ways they have found to be deeply satisfying. And between images of cuddly, New Age dads with babies asleep on their chests (think old Folger's ads), movies about hunky men and a baby (or clueless ones who shrink the kids), and sensational news stories about "deadbeat dads" and men who beat up their sons' hockey coaches, fathers too have been subject to a media "dad patrol." But it pales in comparison to the new momism. After all, a dad who knows the name of his kids' pediatrician and reads them stories at night is still regarded as a saint; a mother who doesn't is a sinner.
Once you identify it, you see the new momism everywhere. The recent spate of magazines for "parents" (i.e., mothers) bombard the anxiety-induced mothers of America with reassurances that they can (after a $100,000 raise and a personality transplant) produce bright, motivated, focused, fun-loving, sensitive, cooperative, confident, contented kids just like the clean, obedient ones on the cover. The frenzied hypernatalism of the women's magazines alone (and that includes People, Us, and InStyle), with their endless parade of perfect, "sexy" celebrity moms who've had babies, adopted babies, been to sperm banks, frozen their eggs for future use, hatched the frozen eggs, had more babies, or adopted a small Tibetan village, all to satisfy their "baby lust," is enough to make you want to get your tubes tied. (These profiles always insist that celebs all love being "moms" much, much more than they do their work, let alone being rich and famous, and that they'd spend every second with their kids if they didn't have that pesky blockbuster movie to finish.) Women without children, wherever they look, are besieged by ridiculously romantic images that insist that having children is the most joyous, fulfilling experience in the galaxy, and if they don't have a small drooling creature who likes to stick forks in electrical outlets, they are leading bankrupt, empty lives. Images of ideal moms and their miracle babies are everywhere, like leeches in the Amazon, impossible to dislodge and sucking us dry.
There is also the ceaseless outpouring of books on toilet training, separating one sibling's fist from another sibling's eye socket, expressing breast milk while reading a legal brief, helping preschoolers to "own" their feelings, getting Joshua to do his homework, and raising teenage boys so they become Sensitive New Age Guys instead of rooftop snipers or Chippendale dancers. Over eight hundred books on motherhood were published between 1970 and 2000; only twenty-seven of these came out between 1970 and 1980, so the real avalanche happened in the past twenty years. We've learned about the perils of "the hurried child" and "hyperparenting," in which we schedule our kids with so many enriching activities that they make the secretary of state look like a couch spud. But the unhurried child probably plays too much Nintendo and is out in the garage building pipe bombs, so you can't underschedule them either.
Then there's the Martha Stewartization of America, in which we are meant to sculpt the carrots we put in our kids' lunches into the shape of peonies and build funhouses for them in the backyard; this has raised the bar to even more ridiculous levels than during the June Cleaver era. Most women know that there was a massive public relations campaign during World War II to get women into the workforce, and then one right after the war to get them to go back to the kitchen. But we haven't fully focused on the fact that another, more subtle, sometimes unintentional, more long-term propaganda campaign began in the 1980s to redomesticate the women of America through motherhood. Why aren't all the mothers of America leaning out their windows yelling "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"?
So the real question is how did the new momism -- especially in the wake of the women's movement -- become part of our national common sense? Why have mothers -- who have entered the workforce in droves at exactly the same time that intensive mothering conquered notions of parenting -- bought into it? Are there millions of us who conform to the ideals of the new momism on the outside, while also harboring powerful desires for rebellion that simply can't be satisfied by a ten-minute aromatherapy soak in the bathtub?
There are several reasons why the new momism -- talk about the wrong idea for the wrong time -- triumphed when it did. Baby boom women who, in the 1970s, sought to enter schools and jobs previously reserved for men knew they couldn't be just as good as the guys -- they had to be better, in part to dispel the myths that women were too stupid, irrational, hysterical, weak, flighty, or unpredictable during "that time of the month" to manage a business, report the news, wear a stethoscope, or sell real estate. Being an overachiever simply went with the terrain of breaking down barriers, so it wouldn't be surprising to find these women bringing that same determination to motherhood. And some of us did get smacked around as kids, or had parents who crushed our confidence, and we did want to do a better job than that. One brick in the wall of the new momism.
Many women, who had started working in the 1970s and postponed having children, decided in the 1980s to have kids. Thus, this was a totally excellent time for the federal government to insist that it was way too expensive to support any programs for families and children (like maternity leave or subsidized, high-quality day care or even decent public schools) because then the U.S. couldn't afford that $320 billion appropriation to the Pentagon, which included money for those $1600 coffee makers and $600 toilet seats the military needed so badly in 1984. (Imagine where we'd be today if the government had launched the equivalent of the G.I. bill for mothers in the 1980s!) Parents of baby boomers had seen money flow into America's schools because of the Sputnik scare that the Russkies were way ahead of the U.S. in science and technology; thus the sudden need to reacquaint American kids with a slide rule. Parents in the 1980s saw public schools hemorrhaging money. So the very institutions our mothers had been able to count on now needed massive CPR, while the prospect of any new ones was, we were told, out of the question. Guess who had to take up the slack? Another brick in the wall of the new momism.
The right wing of the Republican party -- which controlled the White House from 1980 to 1992, crucial years in the evolution of motherhood -- hated the women's movement and believed all women, with the possible exception of Phyllis Schlafly, should remain in the kitchen on their knees polishing their husband's shoes and golf clubs while teaching their kids that Darwin was a very bad man. (Unless the mothers were poor and black -- those moms had to get back to work ASAP, because by staying home they were wrecking the country. But more on that later.) We saw, in the 1980s and beyond, the rise of what the historian Ruth Feldstein has called "mother-blaming," attacks on mothers for failing to raise physically and psychologically fit future citizens. See, no one, not even Ronald Reagan, said explicitly to us, "The future and the destiny of the nation are in your hands, oh mothers of America. And you are screwing up." But that's what he meant. Because not only are mothers supposed to reproduce the nation biologically, we're also supposed to regenerate it culturally and morally. Even after the women's movement, mothers were still expected to be the primary socializers of children. Not only were our individual kids' well-being our responsibility, but also the entire fate of the nation supposedly rested on our padded and milk-splotched shoulders. So women's own desires to be good parents, their realization that they now had to make up for collapsing institutions, and all that guilt-tripping about "family values" added many more bricks to the wall.
But we are especially interested in the role that the mass media played, often inadvertently, and often, mind you, in the name of helping mothers -- in making the new momism a taken-for-granted, natural standard of how women should imagine their lives, conceive of fulfillment, arrange their priorities, and raise their kids. After all, the media have been and are the major dispenser of the ideals and norms surrounding motherhood: Millions of us have gone to the media for nuts-and-bolts child-rearing advice. Many of us, in fact, preferred media advice to the advice our mothers gave us. We didn't want to be like our mothers and many of us didn't want to raise our kids the way they raised us (although it turns out they did a pretty good job in the end).
Thus, beginning in the mid-1970s, working mothers became the most important thing you can become in the United States: a market. And they became a market just as niche marketing was exploding -- the rise of cable channels, magazines like Working Mother, Family Life, Child, and Twins, all supported by advertisements geared specifically to the new, modern mother. Increased emphasis on child safety, from car seats to bicycle helmets, increased concerns about Johnny not being able to read, the recognition that mothers bought cars, watched the news, and maybe didn't want to tune into one TV show after the next about male detectives with a cockatoo or some other dumbass mascot saving hapless women -- all contributed to new shows, ad campaigns, magazines, and TV news stories geared to mothers, especially affluent, upscale ones. Because of this sheer increase in output and target marketing, mothers were bombarded as never before by media constructions of the good mother. The good mother bought all this stuff to stimulate, protect, educate, and indulge her kids. She had to assemble it, install it, use it with her child, and protect her child from some of its features. As all this media fare sought to advise mothers, flatter them, warn them and, above all, sell to them, they collaborated in constructing, magnifying, and reinforcing the new momism.
Here's the rub about the new momism. It began to conquer our psyches just as mothers entered the workforce in record numbers, so those of us who work (and those of us who don't) are pulled between two rather powerful and contradictory cultural riptides: Be more doting and self-sacrificing at home than Bambi's mother, yet more achievement-oriented at work than Madeleine Albright. The other set of values that took hold beginning in the 1980s was "free-market ideology": the notion that competition in "the marketplace" (which supposedly had the foresight and wisdom of Buddha) provided the best solutions to all social, political, and economic problems. So on the job we were -- and are -- supposed to be highly efficient, calculating, tough, judgmental and skeptical, competitive, and willing to do what it takes to promote ourselves, our organization, and beat out the other guys. Many work environments in the 1980s and '90s emphasized increased productivity and piled on more work, kids or no kids, because that's what "the market" demanded. Television shows offered us role models of the kind of tough broads who succeeded in this environment, from the unsmiling, take-no-prisoners DA Joyce Davenport on Hill Street Blues to Judge Judy and the no-nonsense police lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order. So the competitive go-getter at work had to walk through the door at the end of the day and, poof, turn into Carol Brady: selfless doormat at home. No wonder some of us feel like Sybil when we get home: We have to move between these riptides on a daily basis. And, in fact, many of us want to be both women: successful at work, successful as mothers.
Now, here's the real beauty of this contorting contradiction. Both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers get to be failures. The ethos of intensive mothering has lower status in our culture ("stay-at-home mothers are boring"), but occupies a higher moral ground ("working mothers are neglectful"). So, welcome to the latest media catfight: the supposed war between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Why analyze all the ways in which our country has failed to support families while inflating the work ethic to the size of the Hindenburg when you can, instead, project this paradox onto what the media have come to call, incessantly, "the mommy wars" The "mommy wars" puts mothers into two, mutually exclusive categories -- working mother versus stay-at-home mother, and never the twain shall meet. It goes without saying that they allegedly hate each other's guts. In real life, millions of mothers move between these two categories, have been one and then the other at various different times, creating a mosaic of work and child-rearing practices that bears no resemblance to the supposed ironclad roles suggested by the "mommy wars."19 Not only does this media catfight pit mother against mother, but it suggests that all women be reduced to their one role -- mother -- or get cut out of the picture entirely.
At the same time that the new momism conquered the media outlets of America, we also saw mothers who talked back. Maude, Ann Romano on One Day at a Time, Erma Bombeck, Peg Bundy, Roseanne, Brett Butler, Marge Simpson, and the mothers in Malcolm in the Middle and Everybody Loves Raymond have all given the new momism a big Bronx cheer. They have represented rebellious mothering: the notion that you can still love your kids and be a good mother without teaching them Origami, explaining factor analysis to them during bath time, playing softball with them at six A.M., or making sure they have a funny, loving note in their lunch box each and every day. Since 1970, because of money and politics, the new momism has conquered much of the media, and thus our own self-esteem. But it has not done so uncontested. The same media that sell and profit from the new momism have also given us permission -- even encouraged us -- to resist it. However, it is important to note that much of this rebellion has occurred in TV sitcoms which, with a few exceptions, offer primarily short-term catharsis, a brief respite from the norms in dramatic programming, the news, and advice columns that bully us so effectively.
Okay, so men and kids -- well, some kids, anyway -- benefit from the new momism. But what do mothers get out of it besides eyebags, exhaustion, and guilt? Well, because of how women have been socialized, a lot of us think the competitive, everything-has-a-price mindset of the workaday world is crass, impersonal, and callous. Many of us, then, want our homes to embody a rejection of a world that celebrates money and screwing over other people, in part because we know all too well how that world has screwed over women and children. So, it's not surprising that many women are seduced by ads, catalogs, and TV shows that urge us to turn our homes into softly lit, plug-in scented, flower-filled havens in a heartless world. The new momism keeps us down by demanding so much of us, but keeps us morally superior because through it we defy a society so driven by greed and self-interest. Plus, many of us, having left a child home in the care of a man to return to find the kid eating Slim Jims and marshmallows for dinner, and the floor covered with spilled Coke, dirty socks, and guinea pig excrement, have concluded that men can't do it, so we shut them out and do it ourselves. We resent men for not helping us more, but also bask in the smugness that at least here, in this one role, we can claim superiority. So through the new momism women acquiesce to and resist good, old-fashioned sexist notions of how the world should work.
There are already bleacher loads of very good, even excellent books attacking the unattainable ideals surrounding motherhood, and we will rely on many of them here. But while many of these books expose and rail against the cultural myths mothers have had to combat -- putting your child in day care proves you are a selfish, careerist bitch, if you don't bond with your baby immediately after birth you'll have Ted Kaczynski on your hands, and so forth -- they have not examined in detail, and over time, the enormous role the mass media have played in promulgating and exaggerating these myths.
We want to fill this gap, to examine how the images of motherhood in TV shows, movies, advertising, women's magazines, and the news have evolved since 1970, raising the bar, year by year, of the standards of good motherhood while singling out and condemning those we were supposed to see as dreadful mothers. We want to explore the struggle in the media between intensive mothering and rebellious mothering, and consider how it has helped make mothers today who we are. This imagery may have been fleeting, and it may have been banal, but it told common, interlocking stories that, over the years, evolved into a new "common sense" we were all supposed to share about motherhood, good and bad. This imagery has also provided us with a shared cultural history of becoming mothers in the United States, yet we may not appreciate the extent to which this common history has shaped our identities, our sense of success and failure as mothers, and the extent to which it ties us together through mutual collective memories. So instead of dismissing these media images as short-lived (and sometimes even stupid), let's review how they have laid down a thick, sedimented layer of guilt, fear, and anxiety as well as an increasingly powerful urge to talk back.
We've chosen to start roughly around 1970, for several reasons. This was when the women's movement burst onto the political scene as one of the biggest news stories of the year, and one of the central tenets of the movement was to critique how existing models of marriage and motherhood trapped millions of women in lives they found frustrating and in economic arrangements that were deeply unfair. At the same time, the soaring divorce rate was producing an unprecedented number of single- parent households, 90 percent of them headed by women. The "stagflation" of the 1970s -- roaring inflation combined with rising unemployment (which Gerald Ford cleverly sought to combat by distributing "Whip Inflation Now" buttons to the citizenry) -- also propelled millions of mothers into the workforce. In 1970, only 28.5 percent of children under age six had a mother working outside the home. By 1988, the figure had jumped to 51.5 percent. Nor was the idea of having children then as surrounded by the occluding, spun-sugar romance that encases it today. In a widely reported survey done by Ann Landers of fifty thousand parents in the mid-1970s, a rather mammoth 70 percent said that if given the choice to do it again, they would not have children; it wasn't worth it.
In the 1970s and later, it was clear that the media would have to respond to this crisis in the 1950s common sense about motherhood. After all, some women (and men) welcomed these changes while others hated them. In fact, in the 1970s various TV shows, women's magazines, and movies incorporated the feminist challenge to motherhood in their wisecracking mothers and tales of self-discovery. Yet by the 1980s, the media began to backtrack. The result? An ever-expanding, thundering media avalanche of anxiety about the state of motherhood in America.
To give you an idea, let's look briefly at the news, which has played a much more central role in policing the boundaries of motherhood than you might think. Few books have reviewed the enormously influential role the nightly news played in shaping national norms about motherhood -- revisiting Good Housekeeping or The Cosby Show makes sense, but the news? Yet it is in the news that we can track especially well the trajectory of the new momism. Most people don't get (or want) to look at old news footage, but we looked at thirty years of stories relating to motherhood. In the 1970s, with the exception of various welfare reform proposals, there was almost nothing in the network news about motherhood, working mothers, or childcare. And when you go back and watch news footage from 1972, for example, all you see is John Chancellor at NBC in black and white reading the news with no illustrating graphics, or Walter Cronkite sitting in front of a map of the world that one of the Rugrats could have drawn -- that's it.
But by the 1980s, the explosion in the number of working mothers, the desperate need for day care, sci-fi level reproductive technologies, the discovery of how widespread child abuse was -- all this was newsworthy. At the same time, the network news shows were becoming more flashy and sensationalistic in their efforts to compete with tabloid TV offerings like A Current Affair and America's Most Wanted. NBC, for example, introduced a story about day care centers in 1984 with a beat-up Raggedy Ann doll lying limp next to a chair with the huge words Child Abuse scrawled next to her in what appeared to be Charles Manson's handwriting. So stories that were titillating, that could be really tarted up, that were about children and sex, or children and violence -- well, they just got more coverage than why Senator Rope-a-Dope refused to vote for decent day care. From the McMartin day-care scandal and missing children to Susan Smith and murdering nannies, the barrage of kids-in-jeopardy, "innocence corrupted" stories made mothers feel they had to guard their kids with the same intensity as the secret service guys watching POTUS.
Having discovered in the summer of 2001 that one missing Congressional intern and some shark attacks could fill the twenty-four-hour news hole, the cable channels the following year gave us the summer of abducted girls (rather than, say, in-depth probes of widespread corporate wrongdoing that robbed millions of people of millions of dollars). Even though FBI figures showed a decline in missing persons and child abductions, such stories were, as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter put it, "inexpensive" and got "boffo ratings." It goes without saying that such crimes are horrific and, understandably, bereft parents wanted to use the media to help locate their kidnapped children. But the incessant coverage of the abductions of Samantha Runnion (whose mother, the media repeatedly reminded us, was at work), Elizabeth Smart, Tamara Brooks, Jacqueline Marris, and Danielle van Dam terrified parents across the country all out of proportion to the risks their children faced. (To put things in perspective, in a country of nearly three hundred million people, estimates were that only 115 children were taken by strangers in ways that were dangerous to the child.) Unlike mothers in the 1950s, then, we were never to let our children out of our sight at carnivals, shopping malls, or playgrounds, and it was up to us to protect them from failing schools, environmental pollution, molesters, drugs, priests, Alar, the Internet, amusement parks, air bags, jungle gyms, South Park, trampolines, rottweilers, gangs, and HBO specials about lap dancers and masturbation clubs. It's a wonder any women had children and, once they did, ever let them out of their sight.
Then there were the magazines. Beginning in the 1980s, and exploding with a vengeance in the '90s, celebrity journalism brought us a feature that spread like head lice through the women's magazines, as well as the more recent celebrity and "lifestyle" glossies: the celebrity mom profile. If any media form has played a central role in convincing young women without children that having a baby is akin to ascending to heaven and seeing God, it is the celebrity mom profile. "Happiness is having a baby," gushed Marie Osmond on a 1983 cover of Good Housekeeping, and Linda Evans, at the peak of her success in Dynasty, added in Ladies Home Journal, "All I want is a husband and baby." Barbara Mandrell proclaimed, "Now my children come first," Valerie Harper confessed, "I finally have a child to love," and Cybill Shepard announced, "I'll have a fourth baby or adopt!" Assaulting us from every supermarket checkout line and doctor's and dentist's offices, celebrity moms like Kathie Lee Gifford, Joan Lunden, Jaclyn Smith, Kirstie Alley, and Christie Brinkley (to name just a few) beamed from the comfy serenity and perfection of their lives as they gave multiple interviews about their "miracle babies," how much they loved their kids, what an unadulterated joy motherhood was, and about all the things they did with their kids to ensure they would be perfectly normal Nobel laureates by the age of twelve. By the summer of 1999, one of People's biggest summer stories, featuring the huge cover headlines "BOY, OH BOY," was the birth of Cindy Crawford's baby. The following summer, under the headline "PREGNANT AT LAST!" we had the pleasure of reading about the sperm motility rate of Celine Dion's husband, information that some of us, at least, could have lived without. In 2003 Angelina Jolie claimed that her adopted baby "saved my life." The media message was that celebrity moms work on the set for twelve hours a day, yet somehow manage to do somersaults with their kids in the park, read to them every day, take them out for ice cream whenever they wanted, get up with them at 3:00 A.M., and, of course, buy them toys, animals, and furniture previously reserved for the offspring of the Shah of Iran. These were supposed to be our new role models.
In the women's magazines in the early 1970s, advertising focused on the mother and her alleged needs -- whether for hand cream, hair dye, toilet cleaners, or tampons. Anacin, for example, announced "Mother of 5 Active Children Tells How She Relieves Her Nervous Tension Headaches." (Ditch the kids with a sitter and head for Cozumel with Denzel Washington?) Rarely were mothers and children pictured together as some beatific unit. Ads showed mom spraying the kitchen with Lysol, or smiling in a field of daisies because she'd just used a fabulous Clairol product. When babies were pictured, they appeared alone.
But by 1990, images of children were everywhere, and there was a direct address from the ad to you, the mom, exhorting you to foresee your child's each and every need and desire. No doubt copywriters had read Dr. Spock's latest pronouncement that mothers had to "anticipate wishes which [the baby] can barely recognize let alone formulate." "Giving your kids a well-balanced meal when you're busy is no fun and games. Until now," proclaimed Banquet, a maker of frozen meals for kids. The gleeful face of a cherubic child beamed out from the ad, which informed us that this new "kid cuisine" featured a special "FunPak" with "puzzles and games that help kids learn about history, space exploration, and all kinds of interesting things." Or you could "Help your children get free 'Learning Tools for Schools' with Scott Paper purchases." By saving the special apple seal from Scott paper products, you, Mom, could help your child's school get microscopes, audio/visual equipment, "and more" to "help your children prepare for the environmental and educational challenges of the future." "Put a song in their hearts!" urged Disney as it hawked its sing-along videos, telling moms to "give your kids the magic of music." Mothers learned that "your child will travel in style" with the new carrying case loaded with Legos, which "makes every trip a journey into imagination."
The new momism, then, was also promoted through the toys and myriad other products sold to us and our kids. Coonskin caps and silly putty were just not going to cut it anymore. The good mother got her kids toys that were educational, that advanced gross and fine motor skills, that gave them the spatial sensibilities and design aptitude of Frank Lloyd Wright, and that taught Johnny how to read James Joyce at age three. God forbid that one second should pass where your child was idle and that you were not doing everything you could to promote his or her emotional, cognitive, imaginative, quantitative, or muscular development. And now mothers and children in ads were pictured in poses that made the Virgin Mary in the pietà seem neglectful. Dazzling, toothy smiles about to burst into full throaty laughter defined the new, characteristic pose of the truly engaged, empathetic mom as she hugged, held, nursed, and played with her kids, always with joyful spontaneity. The classic image was of a new, beaming mother, holding her baby straight up in the air and over her face, and smiling into its little elevated eyes, cheerfully unaware of the rather common infant behavior such an angle might produce: projectile vomiting.
All these media suggest, by their endless celebrating of certain kinds of mothers and maternal behavior and their ceaseless advice, that there are agreed upon norms "out there." So even if you think they're preposterous, you assume you'll be judged harshly by not abiding by them. In this way media portrayals can substitute for and override community norms. You know, when our kids say "all the other kids get to do it" we laugh in their faces. But when the magazines suggest, "All the other moms are doing this, are you?" we see ourselves being judged by the toughest critics out there: other mothers. Mothers who had thrown their TV sets out the window could still absorb all this through talks with friends, relatives, other mothers, and, most aggravating of all, their own kids.
At the heart of the new momism is the insistence that mothers inhabit what we in the academy would call the "subject positions" of our children as often as possible. (In the parlance of childcare experts, this means always climbing inside your child and seeing the world only and entirely through his or her eyes.) We like to think of ourselves as coherent and enduring selves, but we are just as much a composite of many, often contradictory identities or subject positions. The media, which bombard us with TV shows, movies, catalogs, ads, and magazines, serve as a kind of Home Depot of personas to draw from and put on, providing a rapid transit system among many identities. "It's Sunday afternoon -- shall I be Cindy Crawford or Joan Crawford?" (The kids pray for the former, and usually get the latter.) Surrounded by media morality tales in which we are meant to identify first with one type of woman and then another, women have gotten used to compartmentalizing ourselves into a host of subject positions, and this is especially true for mothers.
But to crawl inside our kids' own skin and heads, to anticipate and assume their subject positions, too, so we will know exactly how they will feel two hours from now and what they will need to make them feel loved, cherished, bolstered, stimulated -- how did we get sucked into this one? And to do this we have to appreciate each and every more finely grained stage of child development so that we know exactly where in the kid's evolution to place ourselves. Yikes.
And have you noticed how we've all become "moms"? When we were kids, our mothers would say, "I have to call Christine's mother," not "I have to call Christine's mom." Our mothers would identify themselves to teachers as so-and-so's mother. Today, thanks in part to Dr. Laura ("I am my kid's mom") and Republican pollsters (who coined the term "soccer mom" in 1996), we hear about "the moms" getting together and we have become so-and-so's mom. "Mom" -- a term previously used only by children -- doesn't have the authority of "mother," because it addresses us from a child's-eye view. It assumes a familiarity, an approachability, to mothers that is, frankly, patronizing; reminiscent, in fact, of the difference between woman and girl. At the same time, "mom" means you're good and nurturing while "mother" means you're not (note the media uses of "celebrity mom" versus "welfare mother" and "stay-at-home mom" versus "working mother"). "Mom" sounds very user-friendly, but the rise of it, too, keeps us in our place, reminding us that we are defined by our relationships to kids, not to adults.
Because the media always serve up heroes and villains, there had to be the terrible mothers, the anti-Madonnas, the hideous counterexamples good mothers were meant to revile. We regret to report that nearly all of these women were African American and were disproportionately featured as failed mothers in news stories about "crack babies," single, teen mothers, and welfare mothers. One of the worst things about the new momism is that it is like a club, where women without kids, or women deemed "bad" mothers, like poor women and welfare mothers, don't belong. It is -- with a few exceptions, like Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show -- a segregated club.
At the very same time that we witnessed the explosion of white celebrity moms, and the outpouring of advice to and surveillance of middle-class mothers, the welfare mother, trapped in a "cycle of dependency," became ubiquitous in our media landscape, and she came to represent everything wrong with America. She appeared not in the glossy pages of the women's magazines but rather as the subject of news stories about the "crisis" in the American family and the newly declared "war" on welfare mothers. Whatever ailed America -- drugs, crime, loss of productivity -- was supposedly her fault. She was portrayed as thumbing her nose at intensive mothering. Even worse, she was depicted as bringing her kids into the realm of market values, as putting a price on their heads, by allegedly calculating how much each additional child was worth and then getting pregnant to cash in on them. For middle-class white women in the media, by contrast, their kids were priceless. These media depictions reinforced the divisions between "us" (minivan moms) and "them" (welfare mothers, working-class mothers, teenage mothers), and did so especially along the lines of race.
For example, one of the most common sentences used to characterize the welfare mother was, "Tanya, who has ______ children by ______ different men" (you fill in the blanks). Like zoo animals, their lives were reduced to the numbers of successful impregnations by multiple partners. So it's interesting to note that someone like Christie Brinkley, who has exactly the same reproductive MO, was never described this way. Just imagine reading a comparable sentence in Redbook. "Christie B., who has three children by three different men." But she does, you know.
At the same time that middle- and upper-middle-class mothers were urged to pipe Mozart into their wombs when they're pregnant so their kids would come out perfectly tuned, the government told poor mothers to get the hell out of the house and get to work -- no more children's aid for them. Mothers like us -- with health care, laptops, and Cuisinarts -- are supposed to replicate the immaculate bedrooms we see in Pottery Barn Kids catalogs, with their designer sheets and quilts, one toy and one stuffed animal atop a gleaming white dresser, and a white rug on the floor that has never been exposed to the shavings from hamster cages, Magic Markers accidentally dropped with their caps off, or Welch's grape juice. At the same time, we've been encouraged to turn our backs on other mothers who pick their kids' clothes out of other people's trash and sometimes can't buy a can of beans to feed them. How has it come to seem perfectly reasonable -- even justified -- that one class of mother is supposed to sew her baby's diapers out of Egyptian cotton from that portion of the Nile blessed by the god Osiris while another class of mother can't afford a single baby aspirin?
So who the hell are we, the authors, and what biases might we bring to this tour down motherhood's recent memory lane? Well, we are of a certain vintage -- let's just say that if we were bottled in the 1960s, we'd be about to go off right about now. So we have lived through the women's movement and its aftermath, and, between the two of us, have been raising kids from the 1970s to the present. That does not mean we are authorities on child rearing (just ask our kids), but rather that we've seen very different takes on motherhood put forward and fought over, different fads and standards come and go. While neither of our lives comes close to those of Cindy Crawford or Kathie Lee Gifford (no nannies, no personal assistants, no cooks, no trainers, no clothing line named after either one of us, no factories in Paraguay), we are nonetheless privileged women. We live near excellent daycare centers and schools, we have health insurance, and we benefit from the advantages that come automatically with being white and heterosexual. So we have not stood in the shoes of mothers who don't have live-in partners, health insurance, or decent day care, who live in dangerous neighborhoods and substandard housing, who have to work two crappy jobs so they can feed their kids, or who have faced custody battles simply because they're lesbians. We can hardly speak for all, or even most mothers.
We can, however, replay the dominant media imagery that has surrounded most of us, despite our differences, imagery that serves to divide us by age and race and "lifestyle choices," and seeks to tame us all by reinforcing one narrow, homogenized, upper-middle-class, corporately defined image of motherhood. We speak as mothers who succumb to and defy the new momism. And our main point is this: Media imagery that seems so natural, that seems to embody some common sense, while blaming some mothers, or all mothers, for children and a nation gone wrong, needs to have its veneer of supposed truth ripped away by us, mothers. For example, while there have been "zany" sitcoms about families with "two dads" or a working mom living with her mother and a male housekeeper, the white, upper-middle-class, married-with-children nuclear family remains as dominant as a Humvee, barreling through the media and forcing images of other, different, and just as legitimate family arrangements off to the side. We want to ridicule this ideal -- or any other household formation -- as the norm that should bully those who don't conform. After all, as any mother will point out, the correct ratio of adult-to-kid in any household should be at least three-to-one, a standard the nuclear family fails to meet.
The new momism involves more than just impossible ideals about child rearing. It redefines all women, first and foremost, through their relationships to children. Thus, being a citizen, a worker, a governor, an actress, a First Lady, all are supposed to take a backseat to motherhood. (Remember how people questioned whether Hillary Clinton was truly maternal because she had only one child?) By insisting that being a mother -- and a perfect one at that -- is the most important thing a woman can do, a prerequisite for being thought of as admirable and noble, the new momism insists that if you want to do anything else, you'd better prove first that you're a doting, totally involved mother before proceeding. This is not a requirement for men. The only recourse for women who want careers, or to do anything else besides stay home with the kids all day, is to prove that they can "do it all." As the feminist writer (and pioneer) Letty Cottin Pogrebin put it, "You can go be a CEO, and a good one, but if you're not making a themed birthday party, you're not a good mother," and, thus, you are a failure.
The new momism has evolved over the past few decades, becoming more hostile to mothers who work, and more insistent that all mothers become ever more closely tethered to their kids. The mythology of the new momism now insinuates that, when all is said and done, the enlightened mother chooses to stay home with the kids. Back in the 1950s, mothers stayed home because they had no choice, so the thinking goes (even though by 1955 more mothers were working than ever before). Today, having been to the office, having tried a career, women supposedly have seen the inside of the male working world and found it to be the inferior choice to staying home, especially when their kids' future is at stake. It's not that mothers can't hack it (1950s thinking). It's that progressive mothers refuse to hack it. Inexperienced women thought they knew what they wanted, but they got experience and learned they were wrong. Now mothers have seen the error of their ways, and supposedly seen that the June Cleaver model, if taken as a choice, as opposed to a requirement, is the truly modern, fulfilling, forward-thinking version of motherhood.
In the 1960s, women, and especially young women, were surrounded by mixed messages, one set telling them that there was a new day dawning, they were now equal to men and could change the world, the other telling them they were destined to be housewives, were subservient to men, and could never achieve equality. Electrified by the civil rights and antiwar movements and their demands for freedom and participatory democracy, women could no longer stand being pulled in opposite directions, and opted for equality. Of course, the contradictions in our lives did not vanish -- in the wake of the women's movement we were supposed to be autonomous, independent, accomplished, yet poreless, slim, nurturing, and deferential to men. In the early twenty-first century, we see a mirror image of the 1960s, but without the proud ending: The same contradictions are there, but now the proposed resolution, like a mist in the culture, is for women to give up their autonomy and find peace and fulfillment in raising children.
In other words, ladies, the new momism seeks to contain and, where possible, eradicate, all of the social changes brought on by feminism. It is backlash in its most refined, pernicious form because it insinuates itself into women's psyches just where we have been rendered most vulnerable: in our love for our kids. The new momism, then, is deeply and powerfully political. The new momism is the result of the combustible intermixing of right-wing attacks on feminism and women, the media's increasingly finely tuned and incessant target marketing of mothers and children, the collapse of governmental institutions -- public schools, child welfare programs -- that served families in the past (imperfectly, to be sure), and mothers' own, very real desires to do the best job possible raising their kids in a culture that praises mothers in rhetoric and reviles them in public policy.
Plenty of mothers aren't buying this retro version of motherhood, although it works to make them feel very guilty and stressed. They want and need their own paychecks, they want and need adult interaction during the day, they want and need their own independence, and they believe -- and rightly so -- that women who work outside the home can be and are very good mothers to their kids. Other mothers don't want or need these things for the time being, or ever, and really would rather stay home. The question here is not which path women choose, or which one is "right." The question is why one reactionary, normative ideology, so out of sync with millions of women's lives, seems to be getting the upper hand.
The new momism has become the central, justifying ideology of what has come to be called "postfeminism." Ever since October 1982, when The New York Times Magazine featured an article titled "Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation," a term was coined, and the women of America have heard, ceaselessly, that we are, and will be forever more, in a postfeminist age.
What the hell is postfeminism, anyway?37 You would think it would refer to a time when complete gender equality has been achieved (you know, like we'd already achieved a feminist state and now we're "post" that). That hasn't happened, of course, but we (and especially young women) are supposed to think it has. Postfeminism, as a term, suggests that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism, but that feminism is now irrelevant and even undesirable because it supposedly made millions of women unhappy, unfeminine, childless, hairy, lonely, bitter, and prompted them to fill their closets with combat boots and really bad India print skirts. Supposedly women have gotten all they could out of feminism, are now "equal," and so can, by choice, embrace things we used to see as sexist, like a TV show in which some self-satisfied lunk samples the wares of twenty-five women before rejecting twenty-four and keeping the one he likes best, or like the notion that mothers should have primary responsibility for raising the kids. Postfeminism means that you can now work outside the home even in jobs previously restricted to men, go to graduate school, pump iron, and pump your own gas, as long as you remain fashion conscious, slim, nurturing, deferential to men, and become a doting, selfless mother.
According to postfeminism, women now have a choice between feminism and antifeminism and they just naturally and happily choose the latter. And the most powerful way that postfeminism worked to try to redomesticate women was through the new momism. Here's the progression. Feminism won; you can have it all; of course you want children; mothers are better at raising children than fathers; of course your children come first; of course you come last; today's children need constant attention, cultivation, and adoration, or they'll become failures and hate you forever; you don't want to fail at that; it's easier for mothers to abandon their work and their dreams than for fathers; you don't want it all anymore (which is good because you can't have it all); who cares about equality, you're too tired; and whoops -- here we are in 1954.
Each of us, of course, has her own individual history as a mother, her own demons and satisfactions, her own failures and goals. But motherhood is, in our culture, emphasized as such an individual achievement, something you and you alone excel at or screw up. So it's easy to forget that motherhood is a collective experience. We want to erase the amnesia about motherhood -- we do have a common history, it does tie us together, and it has made us simultaneously guilt-ridden and ready for an uprising. Let's turn the surveillance cameras away from ourselves and instead turn them on the media that shaped us and that manufactured more of our beliefs and practices than we may appreciate, or want to admit.
Especially troubling about all this media fare is the rise of even more impossible standards of motherhood today than those that tyrannized us in the past. For women in their twenties and thirties, the hypernatalism of the media promotes impossibly idealized expectations about motherhood (and fatherhood!) that may prove depressingly disappointing once junior arrives and starts throwing mashed beets on the wall. Peggy Orenstein reported in her 2000 book Flux that by the 1990s, "motherhood supplanted marriage as the source of romantic daydreams" for childless, unmarried women in their twenties and early to mid-thirties. To put it another way, "Motherhood has become increasingly central to women's conception of femininity, far more so than marriage." The women she talked to "believed children would answer basic existential questions of meaning" and would "provide a kind of unconditional love that relationships with men did not." They over-idealized motherhood and bought into the norm of "the Perfect Mother -- the woman for whom childbearing supersedes all other identities and satisfactions." A new generation of young women, for whom the feminine mystique is ancient history, and who haven't experienced what it took for women to fight their way out of the kitchen, may be especially seduced by media profiles suggesting that if Reese Witherspoon can marry young and become an A-list actress while raising a three-year-old and expecting another child, then you can "do it all" too. Just as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, and Camryn Manheim sought to get women to say "excuuuse me" to the size-zero ideal, we would like women to just say no to the new momism.
Finally, this book is a call to arms. With so many smart, hard-working, dedicated, tenacious, fed-up women out there, can't we all do a better job of talking back to the media that hector us all the time? As we get assaulted by "15 Ways to Stress Proof Your Child," "Boost Your Kid's Brainpower in Just 25 Minutes," "Discipline Makeover: Better Behavior in 21 Days," and "What It Really Takes to Make Your Baby Smarter," not to mention "The Sex Life You Always Wanted -- How to Have it Now" (answer: put the kids up for adoption), let's develop, together, some really good comebacks. And let's also take a second look at these "wars" we're supposed to be involved with: the "war" against welfare mothers, the "war" between working versus stay-at-home mothers. While these wars do often benefit one set of mothers over another, what they do best is stage all mothers' struggles, in the face of the most pathetic public policies for women and children in the western world, as a catfight. Then the politicians who've failed to give us decent day care or maternity leave can go off and sip their sherry while mothers point fingers at each other. Our collective dilemmas as mothers are always translated into individual issues that each of us has to confront by herself, alone, with zero help. These media frameworks that celebrate the rugged individualism of mothers, then, justify and reinforce public policies (or lack thereof) that make it harder to be a mother in the United States than in any other industrialized society.
As mothers, we appreciate all too well how much time and attention children need and deserve, and how deeply committed we become to our kids. We can be made to cry at the drop of a hat by a Hallmark commercial or a homemade Mother's Day card. We get roped into the new momism because we do feel that our society is not providing our kids with what they need. But the problem with the new momism is that it insists that there is one and only one way the children of America will get what they need: if mom provides it. If dad "pitches in," well, that's just an extra bonus. The government? Forget it.
We fear that, today, we have a new common sense about motherhood that may be as bad, or worse, as the one that chained mothers to their Maytags in 1957. It wasn't always like this. There was a time in the now distant past when there was something called the Women's Liberation Movement. They are the folks who brought you "the personal is political." Enough lies have been told by Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, and others about what feminists said about motherhood and children to fill a Brazilian landfill center. But when we exhume what feminists really hoped to change about motherhood, hopes buried under a slag heap of cultural amnesia and backlash, the rise of the new momism seems like the very last set of norms you would predict would conquer motherhood in America in the early twenty-first century. Let's go back to a time when many women felt free to tell the truth about motherhood -- e.g., that at times they felt ambivalent about it because it was so hard and yet so undervalued -- and when women sought to redefine how children were raised so that it wasn't only women who pushed strollers, played Uncle Wiggly, or quit their jobs once kids arrived. Of course these women loved their kids. But were they supposed to give up everything for them? Are we?
Anyhow, the next time you read about Sarah Jessica Parker's perfect marriage and motherhood, don't sigh and say, "Oh, I wish that was my life." Instead, say, "Give me a break." (Or, alternatively, "Give me a %$#$% break." Of course, most of you probably already say that.) Because, you know, if we all refuse to be whipsawed between these age-old madonna-whore poles of perfect and failed motherhood, designed to police us all, then we -- all of us -- get a break. And that, as you shall shortly see, was what feminists were asking for in the first place.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels
Reading Group Guide
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today! Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How would you describe the state of motherhood in America today? Do you agree with the authors’ premise of the “new momism”—that women are being conditioned to believe they can find true fulfillment only through the perfection of motherhood? How well do they support the arguments and ideas they present in The Mommy Myth?
2. What are the tenets of feminism, and how have they been distorted through the years? Do you agree with the authors that “the new momism is the result of the combustible intermixing of right-wing attacks on feminism and women” (24)?
3. The authors cite numerous instances where newscasters reported a story as fact but did not offer evidence or statistics to back it up. Why do you think the American public is so willing to believe what is reported in the media, particularly when no supporting data is offered? Does it surprise you that government officials are the major source of news for the networks?
4. What role has politics played in the rise of the new momism over the last several decades? How have conservative mores in particular shaped the American culture’s representation of motherhood?
5. What ignited the enormous popularity of the celebrity mom profile, “probably the most influential form to sell the new momism” (113)? Why do women continue to be drawn in by the onslaught of celebrity mom profiles?
6. Discuss the ways in which television shows and movies—including The Cosby Show, thirtysomething, The Simpsons, women-in-jep films, and Kramer vs. Kramer—have impacted our society’s attitude toward motherhood in both positive and negative ways. How have the images of motherhood in television shows and movies evolved since the 1950s?
7. The “mommy wars” divided mothers into two camps—the working mother versus the stay-at-home mom. What escalated the mommy wars? Is there still a divide today between the working mother and the stay-at-home mom? What about women who work out of necessity to support their children? How has the “Martha Stewartization of America” further contributed to the debate about motherhood and added fuel to the mommy wars?
8. In what ways did media coverage of “threats from without” in the 1980s, including dangerous daycare and kidnappings, impact the new momism? In the late 1980s, this gave way to “the threat to children from mom herself” (140) with sensationalized stories about Susan Smith, Baby M, and crack babies. What caused this shift in emphasis and what effect has it had?
9. Trace the evolution of the welfare mother in the news media. How was the issue of welfare and, specifically, the welfare mother, used as a cornerstone of the Reagan administration?
10. How has the media’s need for heroes and villains enforced the stereotype of the black woman as a bad mother? Have women themselves aided in perpetuating this stereotype?
11. A central point in the book is the failure of the government to institute a national day care program despite legislation having been introduced to Congress on multiple occasions. How did the media’s coverage of the McMartin daycare scandal reinforce the government’s position against national daycare?
12. To what degree are advertisers responsible for the new momism, including companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson as well as toy manufacturers and retailers? Have they knowingly or unknowingly added to the cementing of the new momism in our culture?
13. The authors use Dr. Laura Schlesinger—a working mother whose platform is telling other women to quit their jobs and stay home with their children—to exemplify their point that the new momism is “not about subservience to men. It is about subservience to children” (299). What do you think of Dr. Laura’s message? Does the fact that she herself is a working mother alter your opinion?
14. Has reading The Mommy Myth changed your views about motherhood, the media, or women’s roles in society? Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels view The Mommy Myth as a “call to arms” and ask women “to just say no to the new momism” (26). How can women do this? Where do you see the state of motherhood in America ten years from now?
- Publisher: Free Press (February 3, 2004)
- Length: 400 pages
- ISBN13: 9780743267014
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
"An absolutely fascinating exposé...this eye-opening report contains a wealth of valuable insight into the never-ending, and ultimately self-defeating, quest for the maternal perfection glorified by contemporary American society."
"In a book crackling with humor and sarcasm, the authors comb through the past thirty years' worth of nightly news reports, women's magazines, celebrity journalism, newspapers, and ads, and point out a growing obsession with this idealized, and guilt-inducing, version of motherhood that women can't achieve."
-- Chicago Tribune
"This is a book for mothers who can admit that they yell sometimes, feed their children processed food, and occasionally get bored playing Barbie camp-out under the dining room table....It's a book for mothers who would be okay with being imperfect, if only the rest of the world would stop pointing out their shortcomings."
-- The Washington Post
Resources and Downloads
You may also like: Thriller and Mystery Staff Picks
More to Explore
Our Summer Reading Recommendations
Red-hot romances, poolside fiction, and blockbuster picks, oh my! Start reading the hottest books of the summer.
This Month's New Releases
From heart-pounding thrillers to poignant memoirs and everything in between, check out what's new this month.