Online Edition: Fall 2004

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The Mommy Myth

The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women

Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels

Free Press ($26)

by Sarah Buttenwieser

What do welfare mothers and celebrity moms have in common? According to Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, these iconic stereotypes contribute to motherhood's current state, the new "momism." Welfare mothers border upon evil: lazy, fat women who scam the system for government subsidies and raise drug-addicted truants. The fantastical virtues of celebrity moms, in turn, evoke Madonna (not the singer). Their children want for nothing with designer clothes, gourmet snacks, and luxurious vacations. Round-the-clock nannies enable these women to meet celebrity's demands. When they aren't working, they are perfectly and serenely present for their children who uniformly fill their lives with joy and meaning.

The authors' analysis of television, magazines, and advertising from 1970 to the present is thorough and detailed, but their humorous tone is far from academic. For example, when asserting that the new momism is promoted even through toys, they write, "Coonskin hats and silly putty were just not going to cut it anymore. The good mother had to get her kids toys that were educational, that advanced gross and fine motor skills, that gave them the spatial sensibilities and design aptitude of Frank Lloyd Wright, and that taught Johnny to read James Joyce at age three." Their central point is that the media, in staging a backlash to feminism, has upped the ante on motherhood. Even how mothers refer to themselves at issue. "Today, thanks in part to Dr. Laura ('I am my kids' mom') and Republican pollsters (who coined the term 'soccer mom' in 1996), we hear about 'the moms' getting together and we have become so-and-so's mom…at the same time, 'mom' means you're good and nurturing while 'mother' means you're not (note the media uses of 'celebrity mom' versus 'welfare mother' and 'stay-at-home mom' versus 'working mother')." The authors discover that "crack babies" are such a grossly distorted interpretation of Dr. Ira Chasnoff's research about cocaine use during pregnancy that he denounced the term, asserting "Poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a child."

A thought provoking, swift read, The Mommy Myth provides a powerful antidote to every glossy magazine at the supermarket checkout featuring a reed-thin six-days' postpartum celebrity mom and every "mom" who professes to want do to nothing more in life than tend to her brood. Some will see this book as too polemic or strident (a term all too often applied to feminists). Even with a grain of salt, however, the message is clear and compelling. "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."

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents