The Mommy Myth

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (2004) by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels gave me a lot to work with for my essays and papers last semester.  I focused my research on the professionalization of motherhood through blogging.  This meant reading a lot of mom blogs, interviewing and talking with mom bloggers, and using maternal theory to interpret all of it.  So much fun!

The most important part of this book, to me in my research, was the idea of new momism, which is: “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” (p. 4).

I can see some of you nodding your heads.  You’ve been living new momism, and it has been tiring, frustrating, and ultimately unattainable, for what human being can accomplish all of that without going insane?  Nobody, that’s who.  Yes, mothering is important and our children are priceless treasures, but to live as if only their soccer schedules, ballet lessons, ability to speak three foreign languages, and wardrobe from Baby Gap are the most important aspects of mothering is a lie.  It is also called helicopter parenting, and from what I’ve read on that phenomenon, this sort of childrearing doesn’t do anybody favors.  Not the mothers, not the fathers, and certainly not the children.


Douglas and Michaels explore this new momism (and make fun of it).  The tone of their book is downright hilarious.  I laughed out loud more than once.   One of those moments is their description for people who fight against feminism, particularly in the media and for political purposes.  They call them the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda or CRAP.  That made me laugh.

Here are some of the other gems:

“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” (p. 2).

“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” (p. 9).

“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” (p. 16).

“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” (p. 25).

Their ideas explore working mothers, welfare mothers, the strange idea that celebrity mothers somehow portray that “having a baby is akin to ascending to heaven and seeing God” (p. 16-17).  Despite this glorification of motherhood for the rich, “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” (p. 21).  They explore the hypocritical nature of motherhood, and how white, middle-class motherhood is revered, but when single women or women of color have babies, it is somehow wrong.  This inequality of mothering ideals has to stop.  And yet, it continues today, and forced sterilization continued even into the 1970s.  Read this story, “A Crime Against Motherhood” if you’d like a taste of how that was for one family.

The new momism also promotes the binaries of “good” and “bad” mothers.  Why can’t we just be normal mothers who make mistakes, apologize when necessary, and pick ourselves back up to do it all again the next day?  There is no such thing as a perfect mother, and the good mother ideal is too much to live up to.  In addition, Douglas and Michaels see the new momism as a backlash against feminism, much like Naomi Woolf sees the beauty industry as doing the same thing to women.  Both myths insinuate themselves into our lives, but the new momism is particularly dangerous because it gets “into women’s psyches just where we have been rendered most vulnerable: in our love for our kids” (p. 23).

Now, the main thrust of this book is fascinating and opened my eyes to a lot of issues as a mother and even with my own mother.  For those of you interested in reading, I do want to say that this book has a humorous and snarky tone and comes from a liberal perspective.  I enjoyed it, but for those of you who are more conservative, you  may not or you may take issue with certain ideas and chapters.  Even I cringed a little at certain ideas, but that’s the point of reading something that gives you a different perspective than the one you had.

Here’s a sampling of the different chapters and their focuses.

Introduction – The New Momism

Chapter 1 – Revolt Against the MRS

Chapter 2 – Mouthing Off to Dr. Spock

Chapter 3 – Threat from Without: Satanism, Abduction, and Other Media Panics

Chapter 4 – Attack of the Celebrity Moms

Chapter 5 – Threats from Within: Maternal Delinquents

Chapter 6 – The War Against Welfare Mothers

Chapter 7 – The “Mommy Wars”

Chapter 8 – Dumb Men, Stupid Choices—or Why We Have No Childcare

Chapter 9 – Moms “R” Us

Chapter 10 – Dr. Laura’s Neighborhood: Baby Wearing Nanny Cams, and the Triumph of the New Momism

Epilogue – Exorcising the New Momism

I liked the whole book.  I highly recommend the introduction and Chapter 6.  I have a new perspective on welfare, especially when it comes to mothers.

Mothering is a vast topic, and I can’t even begin to cover everything worth sharing in this one book, let alone the class for which I read it, The Culture and Politics of Motherhood.  So, this will have to do.

I did read another of Susan J. Douglas’s books a year or so ago.  It was called Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done (2010), and my sister let me borrow her copy.  It had the same humorous and witty tone, but tackled the serious subject of sexism’s rampant hold on our society and how women now participate in it to act as if they are okay with remarks or issues, rather than speaking up.  Even men claim “I know better [than to be sexist], but it’s okay for me to say this horrible thing about women or to a woman because I know better and I’m just being funny.”  If a woman takes offense, the man can defend himself with “I was just joking” and women are supposed to be a good sport about it, taking the joke in stride and knowing that the man didn’t really mean it.  This is as destructive as new momism, and because of Douglas, we have books on both topics.

enlightened sexism cover

Lastly, I wanted to point out a great explanation of “the personal is political” in The Mommy Myth.  Douglas and Michaels wrote: “It is time for the mothers of America to . . . remind ourselves and those who make the decisions about our family lives, that the personal (raising decent healthy kids) is still political (sustaining a decent, healthy country)”  (p. 239).

This was written in their chapter on why there is no national childcare system in our country, and why we are all so afraid of it (because of the vilification of it by the media).  However, this is what national childcare looked like from the Kaiser Company in Portland, Oregon, in the 1940s, during World War II.

“Kaiser established a six-day-a-week, fifty-two-weeks-a-year center staffed by trained teachers and nurses.  It took kids from eighteen months to six years, and eventually became a twenty-four-hour site to accommodate women on the graveyard shift” (p. 241).

My great grandmother would have benefitted this as a widow with six children during the depression.  She worked nights in a Bay Area cannery, and then went home to care for her children.  I’m sure she was exhausted.  I’m exhausted, and I have many more comforts than she had (at one time they lived in a chicken coop) and I get plenty of sleep each night.  And the work I do is intellectual and stimulating and fun for me.  Her work could not have been fun or fulfilling.  Not at all.

Here is more about the WWII daycare.  “It had a kitchen, a cafeteria, and an infirmary.  Sick children went to an isolation room staffed by nurses and visited by a pediatrician every day.  There was an additional program for kids ages six to twelve during school vacations and the summer.  And at the end of the day, mothers could pick up their kids and a fully cooked dinner to bring home.  During its first year the center served two thousand kids” (p. 241-42).

Of course, this is an ideal, and it occurred during war time, when women HAD to work and families HAD to be taken care of.  But why don’t we still need this today?  Sure, women have the “choice” to stay home or to work, but for those families that  have no choice (read the welfare chapter) what happens to their children?  How can they afford childcare?  Why don’t we care about them?  Just some food for thought.

Here’s what Douglas and Michaels say about the issue: “Why is federal funding always ‘massive’ when it goes to women and children, but not when it goes to tanks and subsidies for agribusiness?” (p. 247).

I add to that, why are the laws to protect women and children in our country so lax and unenforced, while laws to punish people for smoking pot are so harsh?  Why do we care more about the drug war  or punishing those with fewer opportunities (welfare) than we do about helping families and protecting our women and children?

I’ve gotten on my soapbox here, when I never intended to, and I am now sharing the soapboxes of Douglas and Michaels, but something just strikes me as inherently WRONG when women and children get the short end of the stick, whatever the stick might be.  When will women achieve parity in our government?  When will women be paid the same as men?  When will women be treated as equals?  I just don’t have the answers, but addressing these issues in savvy books, such as The Mommy Myth and Enlightened Sexism, are a start.  Educating ourselves on what is out of whack in our country is also a start.

The end of The Mommy Myth spoke to my heart.  Douglas and Michaels give a glimpse into what their future would look like.  They tell the imaginary tale of feminist historians recounting what changes were made for women and children in our country.  They wrote, “They began imagining a different future.  They stopped believing that feminist struggles were a thing of the past.  They became convinced that motherhood remained the unfinished business of the women’s movement” (p. 336).