If you find motherhood fulfilling, or if you consider it to be the best and most important thing you’ll ever do, you’ve been duped. At least, that’s what Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels tell us in their recently released book, The Mommy Myth. “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, and that if you don’t love each and every second of it there’s something really wrong with you,” write the authors. Such thinking, they say, is the result of “the new momism”: a “set of ideals, norms, and practices that promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond [a mother’s] reach.” The media are responsible for the new momism by elevating the status of motherhood and suggesting that it is nothing short of an unadulterated delight.
Post-feminism–the end result of the new momism–has “worked to try to re-domesticate women,” write the authors, by acknowledging that while today’s women can have it all, 21st-century mothers nevertheless choose not to. In other words, cover stories such as Time magazine’s March 22 “The Case for Staying Home: Why More Young Moms Are Opting Out of the Rat Race,” are merely a direct ploy to try and convince women that they’re better off at home. The article reported that more and more Generation X mothers are choosing to raise their own children instead of farming them out to nannies and day care, as their baby-boomer mothers did. But the authors don’t want this information available, as it perpetuates the idea that women have choices–which Douglas denies–or that when faced with choice, actual smart women choose to stay home. The truth, of course, is that Douglas and Michaels are simply angry that the tide has turned, and rather than celebrate or even acknowledge this fact, they suggest it’s the fault of “the new momism” that the trend exists at all.
To be honest, the authors’ premise regarding the idealization of motherhood might not be so bad–after all, they do make good points–if one could get past the anger that underscores the writing. I should warn you that this is very difficult. I did look for, and indeed found, some attempts at humor, the problem is that it always comes at the expense of other people. All of the individuals they name–people like Dr. Laura, Danielle Crittenden, Rush Limbaugh, Phyllis Schlafly, George Will, any Republican who ever lived–have one collective flaw: They don’t agree with the authors’ politics. As a result, they are prime targets for Douglas and Michaels’s contemptuous remarks. Their hatred takes a symbolic form: a “pantheon” of male (Republican) faces are placed on an imaginary dartboard; John Ashcroft (a.k.a. “the beast”) climbs the Empire State Building as mothers throw pitchforks at him; even children are murdered and buried in septic tanks due to the frustrations of motherhood. This is all in good humor, of course.
Are you laughing yet?
The authors’ position is this: Capitalism is bogus. Motherhood should be a shared enterprise. Day care is an unalienable right. And women are victims. They contend that mothers feel forced into taking care of their own children because our system is set up in such a way that they have no choice. The government won’t give women what they want (decent day care, paid maternity leave) because it’s comprised of “stupid, dumb men,” so women are forced into the role of full-time mother. Unfortunately, Douglas and Michaels have not done their homework. If they had, they’d know (from reading the research compiled by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public-polling agency in New York) that most women choose to be home with their children. Of course, the authors do not accept this fact (“For most mothers, work is an absolute necessity”) and thus resent anyone who disagrees with their philosophy. So when it comes to those who speak out about childcare, if their answer is not a massive federal day-care system for all families, they’re idiots. For example, they have nothing nice to say about Jay Belsky–a researcher who has conducted the most comprehensive child-care study to date–despite the fact that he was at one time a day-care supporter, and still isn’t opposed to it per se, but merely discovered its detrimental effects on children who spend too much time there. Because of this, he has become, according to the authors, “bad for your health.” Other targets include Penelope Leach, Martha and William Sears, Burton White, T. Berry Brazelton, James Dobson, and Linda Burton. Their crime? Speaking out for the needs of children. Naturally, this creates a problem for feminists, for if we dare to acknowledge that children do best when their parents raise them, then the main drive of feminism–to get mothers out of the home and into the workforce–becomes increasingly problematic. Women like Marion Wright Edelman and Ellen Galinsky, on the other hand, who have fought for day care for years, have no problem ignoring the truth about what children need. So they deserve a shrine.
That said, the book is not without its merits. The authors are correct in saying the media idealize motherhood, particularly when talking about Hollywood moms. (So sorry–excuse me–I should use the word mothers here, since the authors have assured us that the word mom “keeps us in our place, reminding us that we are defined by our relationship to kids, not to adults.”) Sure motherhood is grand–nothing but an unadulterated delight–when you have your own personal staff who do the real work for you. The question, however, is not whether Douglas and Michaels are correct in their assessment.
The question is, Who cares? The authors worry needlessly about women being subjected to this image out of fear that they will try and measure up to such standards. But I don’t know any woman so insecure that she seriously compares her life to the lives of Hollywood mothers. The authors also identify what they call “intensive mothering,” a type of over-protectiveness that exists today in which virtually all childrearing practices are called into question. And they’re right about this: We do act as if not exposing babies to Baby Einstein or not singing to them in utero will create permanent damage. Today’s mothers are barraged with a list of Dos and Don’ts that would make any head spin.
Unfortunately, these observations get lost in a sea of anger and resentment that undermines the authors’ purpose. Nevertheless, Douglas and Michaels insist they have only the best interests of children at heart. They write, “The New Right stereotyped feminists as women who hated housewives and kids even though they lobbied ceaselessly for quality day care for all children.” I don’t know about you, but those who claim to love children so much that they fight for their right to be in day care strikes me as rather odd. The result of all this anger toward anything right of center–or just center for that matter–is a relentless diatribe of feminist rants. It becomes evident that what Douglas and Michaels want is exactly what Midge Decter said about feminists in An Old Wife’s Tale: “What feminists demanded was not a chance to compete fairly but to turn the whole world upside down so as to make it more suitable for them.”
–Suzanne Venker is a freelance writer and author of the new book 7 Myths of Working Mothers: Why Children and (Most) Careers Just Don’t Mix.