The Real Myth of Motherhood

Reconsidering the maternal memoir-cum-manifesto.

Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, which is currently riding a wave of publicity, is “a very personal book” about hypermothering that takes aim at what she calls “the mommy mystique.” Only half a year ago in The Mommy Myth, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels made headlines with a similar indictment of the “idealization of motherhood” and the toll it takes on frazzled women who feel they can’t do enough for their kids. Roughly a year before that, Allison Pearson’s inside look at the harried life of a supermother, I Don’t Know How She Does It, was a runaway best seller. The novel followed closely on the heels of the much celebrated The Bitch in the House (2002), in which an array of writer/mothers lined up to “tell the truth” about motherhood (and other domestic ordeals). It was an anthology in the mold of Mothers Who Think (2001), in which another set of mother/writers shared “tales of real-life parenthood” that would make the imperturbable June Cleaver’s hair curl.

Those are only some of the most popular unvarnished reports from the trenches of motherhood in the 21st century, a genre that “bashes the stereotype of the ‘good mother’ ” (as another recent inside account of “the chaos of motherhood” puts it). I’ve left out numerous other recent contributors to the thriving field. There are also impressive 20th-century antecedents, though you wouldn’t guess it from the taboo-shattering tone favored by turn-of-the-millennium chroniclers of “mother shock.” I’m not sure what Susan Maushart was thinking in 1999 when she gave her Mask of Motherhood the subtitle “How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It.” By then, writers such as Betty Friedan, Adrienne Rich, Jessie Bernard, Anne Roiphe, Anne Lamott, to say nothing of Erma Bombeck, had been talking about it for more than three decades—”it” being of course the mess and anxiety, even misery, that haunt maternity in our society.

If there is a “myth” of motherhood these days, it is that mothers’ experience has been relentlessly, and romantically, mythologized. In print, at least, the opposite is the truth. Over the course of almost half a century now, women writers have been busy crafting a withering corrective to official versions of motherhood. By official, I mean not just (mostly male) pontification about the sacred ideals, intellectual rewards, emotional pleasures, psychological challenges, and profound social importance of motherhood, I also mean what Bombeck called “the prime-time mothers” with their “maddening perfection.” Speaking from their conflicted hearts and hearths, non-prime-time mothers have been issuing challenges to the tidy dogmas and dramas dispensed by experts, preachers, politicians, advertisers, and TV producers.

The proliferation of individual voices and personal dilemmas has been warmly welcomed, both by female readers eager for vivid portraits/polemics about overstressed parents in the dual-career era and by a media ever more obsessed with motherhood issues. Yet if you believe the authors’ own accounts, the accumulation of mothers’ “brutally honest” stories has done little to erode the power of those coercive myths of perfect motherhood—much less to shake up public policy, which resolutely ignores mothers’ work. Warner’s book captures a sense that daughters are saddled with, if anything, ever more impossible maternal ideals and mixed messages than their mothers were: “[L]ook at us: it’s 2002 and nothing’s changed,” she writes. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the maternal memoir-cum-manifesto might be complicit in the privatizing, sentimentalizing, anxiety-inducing “momism” that Warner, like many of the genre’s practitioners, aims to eradicate to make way for an ethos of more collective support for mothers.

It’s a question suggested by the genre itself, central to which is the premise that women are acutely vulnerable to any and all cultural messages that might possibly induce maternal guilt. Actually, I’m not persuaded mothers are so easily cowed, and the fact that these personal polemics by their very form work to confirm in readers a susceptibility to the peer and popular pressure of the moment is just one way in which the medium seems at least potentially at odds with its mission: to liberate mothers from oppressive external ideals. Warner’s impassioned book, for example, depends for its effect on readers strongly identifying with the author’s angst—an angst that she internalized from our “culture of narcissism” and in turn discovers mirrored in the “vicious self-and-other-attacking form of anxious perfectionism” she hears in the focus groups she assembles.

To be sure, there is galvanizing power in the “click” of recognition that feminists celebrated as the women’s movement surged. The insight that “the personal is political,” which informs the maternal memoir-manifesto, can indeed inspire a sense of agency and solidarity—as Friedan’s thoroughly researched and personally reticent classic proved. (As Bombeck appreciated, the “click” can also trigger comic clarity; “my type of humor is almost pure identification,” she wrote, eliciting in the audience the “that’s happened to me!” response.) Yet the flip side of solidarity is insularity. And as Dr. Spock discovered to his chagrin, empathizing with anxiety has a way of intensifying, rather than alleviating, it. (His motto, “trust yourself,” seemed to make many mothers wallow more in their worries.) Warner herself astutely recognizes how mothers’ obsessiveness is mutually reinforcing, not merely “imposed on us by the media or by that nebulous thing, ‘society’.” Before you know it, the girls’-gripe-session approach to the predicament of mothering can have a ghettoizing effect.

That is not to say that haggard mothers should simply grin and bear second-shift burdens and unrealistic expectations, for fear that the guys will feel ganged up on or the angels of the house will get a bad reputation. Quite the contrary: The point is to get more Americans, not just well-off mothers whose bookshelves are sagging with parenting fare, interested and energized and genuinely informed about contemporary family dilemmas. As it is, an increasingly well-worn (and, compared to The Feminine Mystique, heavily confessional) genre risks preaching to the converted and getting filed as mere women’s magazine fare.

Even Warner’s target audience might well be forgiven for feeling confirmed in the very fatalism about public action that she decries in her child-focused cohort. To read her description of a post-baby-boom generation of competitive control freaks unable to establish remotely reasonable priorities for themselves or their children is depressing, whether you count yourself of their ilk or not. The mothers she describes are demons of energy, but what an unlikely constituency to spearhead clear-eyed, concerted efforts at social change. It’s hard, too, to imagine these hard-to-please women eagerly participating in the kind of civic mixing that her proposals for universal day care would entail.

And just how representative a constituency is it, anyway? Mothers/writers have long been sensitive on this point. As Anne Roiphe acknowledged in Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World almost a decade ago, highly articulate maternal memoirists are inevitably “describing a narrow band of middle- and upper-class mothers who have education and professions” (and often hail from urban or suburban blue-state locations). Of course, families and mothers at every income level have frustrations in common, especially in our dual-career family era. And the scope of the “middle class” has become ever harder to define (something these books, generally based more on anecdote than data, rarely attempt). Still, it’s notable that in Warner’s book the most obsessive, wrung-out mothers seem to be the most affluent women, those with the luxury of hiring nannies, panicking about private school admissions, scheduling endless extra-curricular activities, etc.—with nothing telling them when to stop—rather than women in a real financial bind.

The portrait is disconcerting. On the one hand, such stress, even among the enviable few, suggests cultural and psychological tensions that run very deep. On the other hand, if privileged mothers with all kinds of resources are still riddled with anxiety, cures seem elusive. Either way, it’s not an obvious recipe for optimism. Would some version (authors tend to be vague) of comprehensive, high-quality day care, better health insurance, and more extensive parental leave work as the answer for anybody, or begin to satisfy a demanding elite?

Close these books, and you can’t help wondering. And I can’t help wanting a more accurate picture of how mothers whose middle- (and working-) class lives I don’t know about, much less identify with, are coping. Before we get swept up in another round of what Warner calls “catastrophizing”—this time about child-fixated supermothers—it’s worth finding out whether addled overparenting is in fact the core problem facing most American families. Warner is right, it is time to “take to the streets,” to get a wider view of what mothers really want and need and are ready to demand.