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Shattering 'The Mommy Myth'

New book attacks what it claims are a set of ideals that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promote standards of perfection that are beyond a mother's reach. Read an excerpt of Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels' new book, "The Mommy Myth."

The “new momism” is a term named for a trend in America that places guilt on mothers — as to whether they’re making the right choices for their children. It’s also the subject of debate in a new book titled, “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women,” by authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. Douglas discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:

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.

Standards of perfection beyond your reach
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.

Mommy Olympics
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.

The new momism is everywhere
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?

Excerpted from, "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women.” Copyright © 2004 by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of The Free Press, a division of