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).


43 thoughts on “The Mommy Myth

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  1. I must read this book. For several years, I worked as an editor on a parenting website, and the majority of our readers/visitors were mums. There were frequent battles and name-calling and accusations on certain issues in the forums, mainly to do with the choices of motherhood – eg working vs staying at home, breastfeeding vs bottlefeeding, sleep training, etc. I was horrified by the level of vitriol expressed in these interactions and always wondered why women were attacking each other when really aren’t we all supposed to have choices? Isn’t that the good thing that feminism was supposed to help us with? I think motherhood could potentially be the biggest divider amongst women themselves. Thanks for pointing this book out to me!

    1. PS Thank goodness for Kindle – it would have taken months to get hold of it via Amazon by post but seconds to download! 🙂

    2. Wow! That sounds like an interesting and stressful job. We are so hard on each other, but the media doesn’t help. I’ve been thinking about this with some of the political things going on the United States this week, and I just think we would all be happier if we worried more about ourselves and what we need to do personaliy to improve or be better instead of trying to police other people into being what we think they shoud be. I definitely see that with motherhood. Thanks for the great comment!

  2. This sounds like a fantastic book. I want to be a mom, but when I think about all of the pressure and judgment that comes with raising kids, I want to just avoid it all. I don’t even have kids yet and I’ve already had to deal with the mommy wars. It’s crazy. I feel like I have enough to worry about already, but, like I wrote yesterday, this issue is definitely worth talking about. Someday I’m going to have to face it whether or not I’m ready.

    1. You will have to face it, and one of the points of the book is that all women face it whether or not they are mothers. It is a pretty intensive cultural norm. If only I could live in a bubble!

  3. Excellent post, Emily! I haven’t read this, but I’ll have to check it out. I recently read parts of “Wife Work” by Susan Maushart, and there are some thought-provoking connections. Thanks for the post!

      1. This is one of the claims in “Wife Work” that you might find interesting:
        The full emotional work falls on the woman. It’s up to the woman to make sure everyone in the family is happy.

        I’m paraphrasing, but the idea is interesting, right? The woman needs to (is encouraged to?) take on not only her own self-actualization, but the actualization of the entire household. The members of her household will succeed or fail in reaching their full potential as a direct result of her efforts.

        That’s a lot of pressure, huh? But, regrettably, I think this causality is implied in our society.

        1. That is really interesting, and we women take on that role readily with our guilt and such. I can see in some ways that this emotional “work” is somewhat necessary. I’m thinking of my eight-year-old daughter who loves to wrestle and jump around and play video games with her dad, but when she wants to talk, she talks to me and she bans him from listening. It is kind of funny.

  4. Looks like one to add to my reading list. I have two kids and I can’t see any way of figuring this out. I’m well educated and always envisioned a big career for myself, but am not personally happy with the time it would take away from my kids. My current compromise is to work part-time while they are young (the youngest is three) and gear up as they get older, but I’m open to other arrangements. Maybe this book will give me some new ideas…

    1. I don’t know if it would give you ideas or just make you anxious and angry about a lack of options. It may spark something, but I hear you. My youngest is three as well (she just had a birthday!) and I really can’t imagine putting her in daycare full time, but I am so privileged to be able to make that choice and to afford the part time day care that I do use for school. It’s a tough thing. If you figure something out, let me know!

      1. I think that there are sacrifices no matter what you do, and for our family, sacrificing a little bit of work life and a little bit of family life seems like the best option. Not ideal, but the best one out of the given possibilities. If I come up with some brilliant alternative, I’ll definitely let you know. 🙂

  5. Isn’t there any book on,how to be agood daddy. I think men need more parenting lessons. We are afraid of handling kids.

    1. I love it! There probably is, but I don’t know. I do know that Michael Kimmel writes about men from a sociological perspective. I posted on his book Guyland a few months ago. I’ll look into it!

  6. The Mommy Myth sounds fascinating! So many of my friends have started having children and it has shocked me repeatedly how much their focus in life changes. Maybe not for better, maybe not for worse, but they suddenly identify themselves primarily as a mother. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Thank you! The changes are good and bad, and I don’t think that being a mother is a bad thing (I am one), but the way we mother and the way we watch ourselves mother and beat ourselves and each other up over it could be better. Much, much better. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I began reading your blog about 14 months ago or so, and like you, I am a student, mother, and in my case, a grandmother. I had to read parts of this book via a couple of classes, since my major is Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. I took a course on Women writers and one taught by a male feminist. I also had a Communications Professor drill some of this in. I laughed at parts of this, about the perfection expected, the overachiever, and went off on my own rant in a piece I wrote, that is posted this week in a contest at Perhaps you’ll get a couple of minutes to read about my frustrations as wife, mother, and writer. The title is Don’t Touch That Switch. While your blog post and my entry are not greatly related, I do touch on a little bit of contemporary “A Room of My Own,” women’s humor in a bit of a Virginia Wolfe-esk rant.

    I enjoy your posts, and don’t get enough time to comment usually. I also felt right there with you about Beverly Cleary. As a tribute to you, I’ve been logging my books read this year, and I’m doing my internship in Special Collections at James Madison University, highlighting their children’s book collections.

    By the way, did you know that William Faulkner wrote only one children’s story, The Wishing Tree, and was a naughty regifter – giving homemade copies to four children with the first page dedicated to each child as if the story was specially written for the one child. The first recipient, Victoria, became his stepchild, and was not amused when, after his death, she attempted to copyright and publish the story. She then was in a four way battle for copyright. The story, written in Feb 1927, published in 1967, after the copyright battle resolved in 1964. I love interesting trivia! Thanks for blogging.

    1. Vickie, I’m so glad you commented! I didn’t even know you were here. That makes me happy. I love the Faulkner story. How funny! It looks like we have the same “major.” That is what I’m working on for my Ph.D. and I love it. My experience in industry has been priceless in helping me understand how to apply all of the theory. It was also my undergraduate major, but then I did literature during my Master’s and I just love books (obviously), so that was a nice way to fit literature into my education. I’m also glad to know that we have Beverly Cleary in common. She’s fantastic. I will check out your blog. Thanks! 🙂

  8. I’m no fan of the mommy wars. and I agree that motherhood is inherently laden with pressure and guilt, but I don’t think there will ever be a “liberation” on that front–that’s just the nature of it when you are doing a work that is so crucial and long-lasting in its effects. But each day is a new one, and each woman should strive to do her best for her children within her own knowledge and capabilities. The hard parts are very hard, but the joys of motherhood exceed any other joys in life, and they make everything else worth it, IMO. Hopefully we can all agree on that.
    But when the authors carry it into public policy, and when you mention their dream of government daycare from the cradle on up, I have a problem. “Free” (nothing is free) daycare from the state is a bleeding-heart ideal of “helping” the poor, when it actually would serve only to further impoverish them, as well as their children. It would remove the personal responsibility of having children, and more than likely the already too-high incidence of out-of-wedlock births would skyrocket even higher. The system would be abused, kids would be neglected, and another generation would grow up severely disadvantaged from day 1.
    I know you’ll love me saying this, but motherhood is ultimately not about the mom. It’s about the kids. And the kids’ best interest is served not by their mother handing off their care unnecessarily to others, but by being married to their father (except if abusive), and by being there daily for them. No, I’m not talking helicoptering, unless by helicoptering you mean being present for your child.
    If public policy is to be used in any way regarding families, it should be to promote what actually helps the next generation of society to grow up well and stable: the two-parent home, with a mother and a father.
    And I can hear the anecdotal objections already, like the author’s great-grandmother who would have loved having state daycare in her situation. Public policy can’t be made on the emotional tails of single stories and exceptions–the broad trends of society are in the balance. Think of the millions who already grow up fatherless because the gov’t cares so much, it pays thier young, uneducated, unmarried, unprepared mother to have another child. just imagine if it also promises to raise it for her, and fix dinner to boot.

    1. Jeanne, I agree with you on most of this! I am so glad you entered the conversation. The authors do take things further than I would, but I enjoyed hearing their perspective. And yes, motherhood is about sacrifice and the children, not the mom. I would add that why isn’t fatherhood? Shouldn’t dads care just as much about their children and sacrifice just as much? Maybe they do. I really did like the welfare section. I had no idea of the difficulties single (and mostly black) mothers face when trying to get off of welfare. I say, where are the men? Where are their responsibilities? Why do we always blame the mothers? The book raises these issues, and for me that was insightful from my comfortable, white, middle class perspective.

      1. Yes, all this applies to fathers also. We should just say “parenting” for most of these discussions.
        You say, “where are the men?” Sadly, they were dismissed by the feminists who said they were not needed long ago. Sorry to sully the name of feminism to you, but men are not superfluous, and a mom cannot also fully be a dad to a child.
        Also sadly, the black culture (if I can use that term, meaning inner-city, poor, urban, the kind Bill Cosby and a few others speak about) in many cases has simply come to accept, perpetuate, and expect young unwed motherhood. There are many young girls in that culture who think it a rite of passage and a status symbol among peers to have a baby in her teenage years. Horrendous. But a culture has to be changed by its members. It can’t be legislated. Legislation almost always makes matters even worse. Education and an expectation of marriage and of men taking on the responsibilities of their fatherhood is the only antedote to that ill.
        but heaven forbid we should restrict anyone’s lifestyle choices or sayout loud that marriage is better than single parenting. The “tolerant” left cannot tolerate such language I’m afraid.
        So children continue to pay the price for adults’ seeking of self-fulfilment and rights without responsibilities.
        Between you and me, the teachings of the gospel are the answer to pretty much all of this, btw.

        1. I agree that the gospel is the answer. To me, it is a gospel of love, not of political propaganda or stereotyping. That is why I love King Benjamin’s address in Mosiah 4 so much. I think the hard part in implementing something like he suggests is that the government does get in the way, but people aren’t any better. There really is no solution because we all have agency and, unfortunately, we use that agency for bad choices as well as good. This reminds me of some of the conversations I’ve had in a class on technology and culture and the idea that either technology is in control or people are, but people sometimes use technology for bad purposes. It is a conundrum to be sure. And for the record, I completely disagree with you on feminism, but you already knew that. 🙂

          1. Yes I did already know that, and we will agree to disagree, agreeably. 🙂
            But then what is your answer to “where are the men?” if not that they have simply been told they are not needed?
            The term “feminism” means different things to different people. If by feminism you mean women can vote, own property, go to school, work in a career, and so on, then I am on board with that (along with pretty much everybody–which makes this meaning of the word rather useless anymore).
            But if by “feminism” you mean something stronger, then we may have issues.
            For instance, when feminist leaders broadcast their message that, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, then why should anyone be shocked at the obvious and logical consequences of that message? Women begin to discount and devalue men, who by their nature want basically to simply feel useful and be appreciated for it and not much more. So, feeling useless and unneeded (even unwanted), they leave. Hey, if the women are always shoving it in men’s faces that they don’t need them, that women can do it all because they’re just so strong and capable etc etc, then those same women really shouldn’t be calling on government or society to step in and help take care of things when they find themselves on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
            Of course, it’s not those same women. It’s all the women who’ve been taken in by those women, and run their lives accordingly, relegating men to mere sperm-donor status. Tragically, they find only after years of hard experience, that men actually are needed in the home, that thier daughters sorely need a grown man around who values and loves them for their inner beauty, and that their sons very much need a father to teach them how to become a man.
            The big lie of feminism is to deny this basic truth: that women and men are meant to go together, not one above the other, but side by side. And that children need their fathers. The hard core of the feminist movement seeks to rectify past inequality with its reciprocal; it replaces one wrong setup with a different wrong setup. Instead of subjugating women, it emasculates the men and tosses them away.
            Thus the new setup has the added detriment of robbing children of thier fathers, often by design.
            So by now I have so thouroughly offended your feminist sensibilities that I probably ought to digress. I think that within the term “feminism” there may actually be a lot that we agree on–equal opportunities, equal pay, and other basics. And i don’t even know if you subscribe to the brand of feminism I’ve described above. I would guess not. But in any case, its effects cannot be denied, or ignored.

            1. I’ve explicated my “brand” of feminism on this blog many times, but it essentially comes down to this. Feminism is about choices. Most of the researchers and scholars I have read on the subject articulate the same thing. I would say that any institution or ideology has “effects” that we cannot ignore. But I like to think of issues as complex and in shades of grey, rather than black and white. My experiences have taught me that feminism is still necessary.

  9. Interesting read. I understand what you say about Mothers being divided into good and bad. I was so surprised when I became a Mum recently to discover this whole world. I’m still amazed at all the parenting theories out there. Why do people need a theory to tell them how to be a good parent? It reminded me so much of my university training to be a teacher. We studied all these theories at uni but our real learning was on the job Also what drives me insane about being a Mum these days is that people are always making money from Mums- and we all fall for it!!

    1. We do fall for it. We let that “myth” entice us into thinking we need to be perfect and spend lots of money in order to be good at it. I like your point about theory and practice. We learn by doing. I learn by making lots of mistakes, too!

  10. Emily, this is a wonderful post. I just finished reading The Feminine Mystique for the first time and this book echoes much of what I read there.

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