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.

Douglas and Michaels say that all this new momism sets up impossible and contradictory choices: If you’re a good mother, you will emulate the celebrity moms, who effortlessly combine raising children (who always “come first”) with fabulous careers, homes and marriages. Joy is the only acceptable emotion, self-sacrifice the only acceptable MO. If you’re a bad mother, you will also see yourself in the media: in stories about crack babies; in coverage of women, like Susan Smith, who murder their children; in virtually every report about mothers on welfare. Viewers, see what horrible things will happen when mothers put their own interests–in these cases, an addiction, a boyfriend or an extra $60 a month–above those of their children?

And if you wonder where on the continuum you fall, you can be sure that the “national fixation” on dangers to children in the news–sexual abuse at daycare centers, kidnappings and other “trends” not statistically worthy of their coverage–will nudge you back on the straight and narrow. That is, toward both intensive mothering and a career that raises the GDP. Sound like a recipe for crazy-making? “Now here’s the real beauty of this contorting contradiction,” they write. “Both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers get to be failures.”

The Mommy Myth is a fun read and a smart one, too. The deconstruction of thirtysomething alone is worth the price of the book. But Douglas and Michaels are at their best when they call attention–as they often do–to what a striking difference class makes in how mothers are portrayed in the media. Take Christie Brinkley, a veteran of the celebrity-mom profile:

No impolite chiding here, à la the welfare mother, about three kids by three different men. Instead, Christie got to announce her satisfaction with her latest family formation on the cover of McCall’s, “I finally got it right.”

(An issue of Ladies’ Home Journal reported that Brinkley’s third child was her “anchor, a midlife miracle well worth waiting for,” which the authors note “must have made her first child feel really special.”) Thanks to momism, the gulf between celebrity mothers and welfare mothers has grown, the authors write. “We rarely read about these very different mothers in the same publication, or even [consider] them as members of the same species.”

Douglas and Michaels also tease out the real-world implications of media coverage, especially for poor mothers. “The news may not succeed in telling us what to think,” they write, “but it does succeed in telling us what to think about: This is called agenda setting.” In the late 1980s and early ’90s the news pounded home images of women on welfare straight out of a racist stereotype, which led to welfare “reform,” which in turn led to a good percentage of formerly dependent families still living at poverty-level…with no insurance, hungry and even homeless. Another example: False scares about the dangers of daycare–Is that nice grandmotherly type a member of a Satanist pornography ring? Won’t Johnny become “aggressive” if he goes to preschool?–ground down the once-possible dream of government-sponsored daycare.

I wonder, though, whether Douglas and Michaels might ultimately wind up preaching to the choir. The Mommy Myth‘s prose–witty, engaging and backed by a lot of research–also tends toward hyperbole. With ideas as important as theirs, I longed for some of the serious reportage with long endnotes that, say, Ann Crittenden brought to her excellent 2001 book The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued, an economic analysis that laid out the many ways in which caregivers get financially punished. In it, the facts piled up and practically spoke for themselves.

Douglas and Michaels are old-school feminists, and while their perspective is refreshing (of the cut-the-CRAP variety), some of the parenting practices they target will undoubtedly put certain readers on the defensive. Take the subject of home-schooling: While Douglas and Michaels acknowledge that for some families it may be the best or only educational choice, the reader walks away with the impression that women who home-school are chumps who’ve bought into the new momism and its ideal of intensive, round-the-clock mothering. Ditto co-sleeping (i.e., having the whole family pile in one bed), baby-wearing (carrying around the kid in a sling) and “sequencing” (consciously reducing your paid employment to caregive more). The catfight between working and at-home mothers is imaginary, but the tension mothers feel over caregiving is real. Maybe the new momism has created a certain touchiness, or maybe it’s just that nobody likes to be thought a fool, but I cringed to think of the letters the authors will be receiving from attachment-parenting dogmatists, who follow to the letter every single message of this “natural” parenting movement, in which parent-child bonding reigns supreme. (I should know–a year after the fact, I’m still fielding angry letters to the editor regarding a piece my magazine published criticizing Dr. Sears, the godfather of attachment parenting). I cringed more to think of the mothers who will quietly write off The Mommy Myth as an attack on them and what are, in the end, pretty innocuous parenting choices.

The Mommy Myth ends with a fantasy, where the new momism is “exorcised.” The exorcism begins when mothers nationwide denounce it. I think they used to call this sort of thing “consciousness raising,” and it is actually happening, although slowly and without a groovy 1970s soundtrack. Douglas and Michaels point out a few loosenings in the momism straitjacket in The Mommy Myth, but I’d say we’re further along than they think. The “momoir” publishing boom has given us at least a shelf full of honest, warts-and-all portrayals of motherhood. Some of the old-style service magazines like Working Mother and Family Fun have started (in sections, anyway) to come back to mothers’ reality, and there is a wave of new mother-centric, anti-momism websites and zines, notably the Mothers Movement Online (www.mothersmovement.org). A few groups have started to advocate for mothers’ rights, like the Crittenden-founded group Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights (MOTHERS) and Mothers & More. Small victories are declared every once in a while. Granted, in this political climate, the legislative stuff is a slow go. But that’s the thing about pressure–to relieve it, you have to push back.