Newly single Britney Spears seems to be the poster child for bad mothers these days. There was the car-seat mishap, Sean Preston falling from his high chair, and partying with Paris Hilton.
The paparazzi shots haven't been pretty. It goes without saying that you shouldn't flash your new C-section scar — and everything else down there — to the world, no matter who you are.
“Wild mom” Britney certainly is hitting a deep nerve in the American psyche. Our Donna Reed and June Cleaver images of the “good” mother are not squaring with reality, even if reality is being represented by a 25-year-old multimillionaire pop diva.
But while Britney may be an extreme case, experts and moms themselves say society holds mothers everywhere up to unfair, unrealistic standards.
Janet Penley, a parenting coach, mother of two adult children and author of "MotherStyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths," says our "good mom" images have rarely jibed with reality and that society needs to cut mothers — even Britney — some slack.
“Judging mothers — and watching us turn up short — has always been a popular American pastime,” says Penley. “As a society, we seem to want to say there are two kinds of moms — a good mom or a bad mom. That’s been damaging for women and it’s just wrong.”
To a great extent, the world still expects mothers to be soft-spoken, pearl-wearing model citizens who never let loose.
“We as a culture are way too hard on moms,” says Lisa Loop, a freelance copywriter and Seattle mother of two young daughters. “Just because a mom has a night out — even if she’s totally out of control — it doesn’t mean she can’t rein it in later when she’s with the kids.”
Furthermore, says Loop, why isn’t anyone asking the obvious: Where’s the dad?
Exactly, says Muffy Mead-Ferro, author of “Confessions of a Slacker Mom.”
“Unfortunately, in our society, motherhood is still very closely associated with martyrdom,” says Mead-Ferro, the mother of a young boy and girl. We don’t want to see moms having too much fun, and we don’t hold fathers to the same standards as mothers.
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“I remember a while back there was a big deal made of Britney coming out of a restaurant holding a cup of water. She was holding her baby and she stumbled,” says Mead-Ferro. “Everyone was obsessed with how Britney almost dropped her baby. If it would’ve been a father who stumbled we would’ve heard, ‘Oh my God, somebody needs to help him! This guy is doing too much!’ ”
Loop says that when men become fathers they aren't expected “to have their lives end. But when we have children the world expects us to turn into drudges.”
What the world needs is more moms to stay sane, happy and balanced, she says. And if that means they blow off steam a bit, so be it.
Mead-Ferro agrees. “There’s so much more pressure on mothers to be perfect, and a lot of women are ready to collapse under this pressure,” she says. “Every mom I know feels like she’s not doing enough for her children.”
And moms don’t even know what “enough” looks like. Mead-Ferro regularly speaks to groups of mothers, and her biggest message is to stop trying to be so good. She contends that children with moms who back off a bit — even let down their hair, if not dance on tabletops — will be better off.
While she’s not suggesting that moms burn their nursing bras and get inked, she does bring up a recent conversation with an admissions person at an Ivy League school. “She told me she prefers potential students who haven’t been coached every step of the way and who have been left to their own devices a bit,” says Mead-Ferro. She points out that there is such a thing as an overdevoted mother.
“For too many people, the role of motherhood has become this joyless thing. It’s competitive, aggressive and exhausting. It’s not good for mothers and it’s not good for the kids either,” says Mead-Ferro. “What teenager is going to want to grow up to someday be a mother if she sees that her own mother never has any fun?”
When it comes to Britney, however, not everyone buys her party-girl approach.
“Who breaks up a marriage and then becomes friends with Paris Hilton?” asks Donna Raskin, a teacher in Rockport, Mass., and mother of a young son. “When you see pictures of someone going out late at night, you know she’s not taking care of her children. You can’t do both. Who is feeding your kids? Who is reading to them? When I look at pictures of Britney Spears, I think she’s doing whatever she’s doing, but she’s not being a good mom.”
Penley says Britney's main issue is lack of maturity, more so than not caring about her kids. “Right now she’s acting like a teen ... who hasn’t yet developed mature judgment. She’s acting like a boat without a rudder, following her whims and overly influenced by external forces.”
But she’s also gone from stardom to mom-dom and had two back-to-back pregnancies and two failed marriages in the course of a few years.
If June Cleaver, Donna Reed or any of us had photographers following nonstop, we might not be painted as perfect either.
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance From a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.