When I took childbirth classes six years ago, the word “pressure” was bandied about an awful lot: We heard about the pressure on our bladders, the pressure applied to our backs to ease contractions, the pressure (oh, evil euphemism) we’d feel when it came time to push. As I read The Mommy Myth, it occurred to me that “pressure” had probably been a good word to get used to. According to the book’s authors, the enormous, contradictory postpartum pressure “to become some hybrid between Mother Teresa, Donna Shalala, Martha Stewart and Cindy Crawford” is a fact of modern motherhood.
Cultural critics Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels call it the “new momism.” Since the 1980s, mothers have been subjected to an increasingly ridiculous mythology of what a good mother does, and is. Cultural messages aimed at mothers, they say, tell us there is just one right way to mother; it involves much smiling and joy and serenity, and no questioning, ambivalence or frustration. In this “postfeminist” age, Douglas and Michaels, who raised their children in the 1970s and ’80s, see cultural forces at work to “return women to the Stone Age”:
Here’s the progression. Feminism won; you can have it all; of course you want children; mothers are better at raising children than fathers; of course your children come first; of course you come last; today’s children need constant attention, cultivation, and adoration, or they’ll become failures and hate you forever; you don’t want to fail at that; it’s easier for mothers to abandon their work and their dreams than for fathers; you don’t want it all anymore (which is good because you can’t have it all); who cares about equality, you’re too tired; and whoops–here we are in 1954.
But unlike in 1954, we have the language of choice, a perversion of second-wave feminism. We chose to become mothers, we chose the workplace or the full-time caregiver role (and the often unsatisfying ways these roles have bound us), we chose to take that shower during which little Anna not only missed out on her synapse-building time with Mom but provoked the cat into scratching her cornea. All of it is the mother’s responsibility alone, and she has to do it by herself. Something wrong with the system itself, you say? Need a little help? Loser.
Douglas and Michaels insist that it wasn’t always like this. In the early days of the women’s movement, they show that, for at least some feminists, mothers’ issues were very much on the table. Feminist goals included measures like universal daycare and Social Security for housewives, and achieving them seemed possible at the time. But, as they imagine it, a secret society–the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda (CRAP)–sought to “rewrite the history of the women’s movement and distort what feminists said and did.”
Since then, new momism has been gaining currency in the United States, and let them tell you, it’s everywhere: Contributors include the media’s evergreen coverage of the “mommy wars” (fought mama-a-mama with all the real-world veracity of the WWE); sensational and unrepresentative news coverage of mothers and children; the toy industry; the celebrity-mom profile–a women’s magazine staple; and the childcare expert establishment, starring, among others, Benjamin Spock, William Sears and Laura “I Am My Kid’s (Judgmental, Scary, Right-Wing) Mom” Schlessinger.