Time to Slay the Perfect-Mother Myth by Jeanie Keogh
A generation ago, middle-class women grew up with the understanding that it was possible to have it all: healthy, well-adjusted children, successful careers and fulfilling personal relationships. Indeed, many women manage this superhuman multi-tasking balancing act with a surprising level of sanity.
However, a persistent anti-feminist attack is chipping away at mothers’ self-esteem. The culprit is the perfect-mother myth. It keeps women isolated from each other and competing with one another. The perfect-mother myth not only sabotages their careers, it sees mothers blame themselves for failing to be perfect.
Three Canadian feminist mothers have taken a fresh look at the perfect-mother myth with a view to unseating these unrealistic expectations of motherhood and encourage mothers to fight the unjust conditions in which most women mother. Their books include Bad Mommy, by Willow Yamauchi (Insomniac Press), Stunned: The New Generation of Women Having Babies, Getting Angry and Creating a Women’s Movement, by Karen Bridson (Health Communications), and Moms Gone Mad: Motherhood and Madness, Oppression and Resistance (Demeter Press), an anthology edited by Gina Wong. Each author talks about the loss of power, status and personal autonomy they experienced when they became mothers.
These losses varied, depending on the extent to which each mother was culturally evaluated by, and criticized for, the way she mothered. The mothers report not only that their choices were frequently undermined but that their ability to take care of their children was, at times, called into question. It was a far cry from the glory they expected as mothers, and an eye-opening discovery.
“There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in parenting,” according to Willow Yamauchi, a writer, artist and the mother of two teenagers. “Women are brought up to think mothering is beautiful and wonderful, and it’s going to be so satisfying, and it’s what you’re meant to be, and it’s going to make you a complete woman. Then when you do it, you realize that so much of it is bullshit.”
Karen Bridson, a digital media producer at TVO and the mother of a young son, has written an analysis about how women are transformed when they become mothers. “Living the carefree lives of men for so long, many of us feel shock when the reality of a mother’s life rains down upon us,” she writes.
“We quickly realize the lack of support and limited value our society places on motherhood. Ultimately, we recognize the true inequality that motherhood brings.”
At the same time, mothers are still held to impossible standards that only guarantee they will feel like failures.
“When a mother doesn’t appear to live up to these new, high standards of über-mothering or tending to her home, she may fall victim to something sociologists call mother judgment,” Bridson explains. “This occurs when women seemingly police each other.” She also notes that one of the reasons women judge other women is their own fears of inadequacy.
“The terror of caring for this tiny, fragile being can make people look for just the right way to do things, and to justify to themselves that they are, in fact, doing things that way,” Bridson says.
Wong describes this hyper-regulation of mothers as “the ubiquitous observational gaze ... the imprisonment that keeps mothers under malevolent, omnipresent surveillance. There’s self-surveillance, other surveillance, and we’re not even quite sure who is watching us anymore.”
It’s as if women, when they become mothers, become public property in a sense. “We all have a voice in the discourse of motherhood, it’s a public discourse. People feel that it’s a public thing they can comment on,” says Wong who is a psychologist, a maternal scholar and an Athabasca University professor.
Certainly, ideas about child-rearing are worthy of public discussion. However, in most of these public discussions, fathers don’t face the same scrutiny and aren’t held responsible in the same way. “Men won’t be ostracized for the quality of their kids’ birthday parties. And they won’t be judged by the health benefits of their child’s snack,” observes Bridson.
Mother blame and the perfect-mother myth come from the idea that mothers are principally responsible for their children’s development. When a problem arises, the mother is assigned culpability. The father’s role and the child’s personality are factors that are either downplayed or ignored.
“While it is certainly true that mothers are important to the development of their children, so are fathers, siblings, grandparents, teachers and the vast and complex social milieu surrounding them,” explains Regina M. Edmonds, in her chapter, “The Persistence and Destructiveness of Mother-Blame,” in Moms Gone Mad.
Mother blame can affect a woman’s psychological health if she suffers from post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis, Wong adds. Furthermore, mothers are often labelled as “unsafe” and “unfit” when health care practitioners don’t consider the factors contributing to their breakdown, including an uncooperative, absent or abusive spouse or a lack of familial or community support.
“Women’s so-called madness is often an understandable response to wider social conditions,” explains Wong, who believes in moving from shaming the individual to considering the whole. In this way, she says, practitioners would shift from “‘What is wrong with this woman?’ to ‘What happened to this woman?’”
The perfect-mother myth is long-standing, and signs are that it is getting worse.
“Unrealistic expectations [of ] modern mothers have increased over time and in fact set mothers further back, and to an extent not seen since the 1950s,” according to Wong.
Adds Bridson, “As mothers, our roles [bear] more resemblance to the 1950s than to the 21st-century myth of post-feminist total equality we’ve been fed.”
Mothering manuals of more than a century ago encouraged mothers to govern their emotions so as not to damage the development of the child. Such supposed harm included anger causing miscarriages, birth defects and poisoning the mother’s milk. A mother’s negative moods were believed to permanently affect a child’s temperament.
Yamauchi humorously debunks these myths, which she says are still prevalent today. She steers mothers away from the perfect-mother myth and encourages mothers to be confident in the knowledge that loving mothers don’t scar their children for life.“Where can you mess up? The answer is, at every single step. "No matter what you’re going to do, someone is going to say you’re doing it wrong,” concludes Yamauchi.
Examples of decisions for which mothers are routinely judged include circumcision, vaccination, public breastfeeding, co-sleeping, home-schooling and working versus staying at home. “The cruel truth is, being a good mommy is pretty much impossible. This creature exists only as a figment of our collective hope that we can actually be everything that our families need us to be,” Yamauchi says.
The fear of admitting that mothers are not only not perfect, but are not coping well is the dirty little secret in the private lives of mothers. “You’re constantly failing, so you lie to yourself and to others,” writes Yamauchi.
But while lying to hide imperfection isn’t new, what is new is the bombardment of new must-have gadgets and the messages teaching women more ways to be perfect. “Instead of hiding mommy guilt and shame with brave smiles, matching mother-daughter outfits and three o’clock martinis, in Bad Mommy we celebrate our neuroses, shortcomings and nasty little habits,” Yamauchi explains in the introduction to her book.
Women would be better off if they were truthful about how messy the process of mothering actually is. “It’s okay to not love mothering. It’s okay to not like it. It’s okay to share that and talk to other people about that,” she says.
Bridson agrees that it’s time to end the self-censorship.
“While women judge and compete with each other, they rarely discuss these issues,” she says. “We need to name the tensions and hash them out. We need to stop the disservice we do to ourselves as women by denying our connection and shared experience at one end of the spectrum, and judging and turning our backs on each other at the other.”
Her book gives mothers a reason not just to open up but to be downright angry on the professional front. Women with children are 44 per cent less likely to be hired than women without children. In Canada, full-time working women with children earn an average of 12 per cent less than women without children. If that’s not bad enough, Canadian men with children are paid between 10 and 12 per cent more than men without kids.
Then comes the divorce rate.
“So many of us are convinced this will never happen to us, yet the reality is divorce will happen to more than half of us,” says Bridson. “Women are four times more likely than men to live in poverty after divorce in Canada.”
Perhaps because motherhood is such an elusive, romanticized ideal, it is an area where we have been much slower to incorporate feminist ideals than, say, the fight for better jobs and equal pay—definable issues where women share clear, common interests. But even where better pay and workforce equality is concerned, working mothers are suffering. Those who do return to jobs they previously loved often experience a loss in status and have difficulty gaining an equal footing with men or women colleagues without children.
“You will quickly be demoted to the status of someone’s mommy first, big shot career woman, not so much,” according to Bridson.
She believes many women accept that not getting promotions is a trade-off for having children. Conversely, when motherhood takes a back seat to women’s own lives or jobs, they often become either secretly tormented or outwardly chastised for being bad mothers. And so the perfect-mother myth uses guilt to nudge intelligent, highly skilled women out of positions they might otherwise desire if society supported working mothers more.
“The right for women to do and be everything that men [can] be involves the need for society and families to support women in such a way as to make it possible for them to do and be whatever it is they want to do and be,” Bridson offers.
Until we adopt a more evolved, less judgmental model of modern motherhood, many mothers will continue to accept their lot and will refuse to fight for better treatment and opportunities because they are too distracted by the immediate needs of their family and too racked with guilt to see the big picture.
In order to change, motherhood will have to reach a cultural tipping point. Once a critical mass of mothers brings down the perfect-mother myth, women will be able to successfully tackle the many pressing issues that hold mothers back: family-unfriendly workplaces, the lack of affordable, quality daycare, discrimination against mothers and mothers-to-be, and a lack of better public policies to support motherhood.
In the meantime, the declining rate at which Canadian women are having children—the average stood at 1.61 children in 2011—suggests that there is already a silent, private boycott taking place against the state of motherhood. Perhaps women are already silently waiting for the terms of motherhood to become more favourable before they begin to have more children.
-published in the Fall 2013 issue of Herizons. Support Herizons and treat yourself and subscribe for just $26.45 plus taxes at http://www.herizons.ca/catalog/143/subscriptions.