A recent ER episode showed Abby, a doctor and new mother, bringing her baby to a "Mommy and Me" class where the other moms expressed horror that she was carrying her son in a Snuggli. With an air of superiority, one of the mothers told her that as a doctor she should know that the healthiest babies were ONLY carried in a sling. Abby made some snarky retort and got "politely" kicked out of the class. The scene illustrated the main reason I have never belonged to a mothers' group and I thought it was brilliant. It turns out that maybe they got the inspiration from this woman and her book.
A friend once pointed out to me that as women achieved more status and eventually power in the workplace and in public life, the mainstream image of the ideal woman has gotten progressively skinnier and harder to attain. I believe she meant that the threatened, male-dominated, publishing and media industries sought to distract women from the game of business by giving them a different, and often much meaner, rat race to run. Against each other.
Today, it could just as easily be about selling products, but the stakes have certainly gotten higher. It used to be about just about fad diets and mini-skirts, now we are dealing with eating disorders and a plastic surgery epidemic.
I've been mostly immune to that rat race; I refuse to diet (mostly because I don't need to), and I generally don't do trendy, believing that if it doesn't fit well, it probably looks ridiculous.
But when I became a mom I inadvertently entered a competition at a whole new level, a Mommy-War. We may be celebrating (or bemoaning) the ascendency of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton these days, but there is no denying that it is now much harder to be a good enough mother than when they were raising children.
And it's not just that it's not as safe a world as it used to be. Neither is it about the sour grapes comments that Rush Limbaugh made about Pelosi breastfeeding or going back to the kitchen "when" she loses, although that doesn't help.
Perhaps it started in the 80s with the daycare-abuse witch hunts that rippled through the news and through parent nightmares. It was added to in the 90s when we never adequately answered the question of why it was expected that poor women should go to work when it was "ideal" for well-to-do mothers to stay home with their children. It is exacerbated by "scare of the week" news segments and the "opt-out" revolution.
I've never been much of a conspiracy theorist, but since becoming a mother I've noticed:
- Attachment Parenting and "telecommuting" became household words at about the same time. Of course, since you must now wear and breastfeed your child until she is old enough to walk, "flextime" arrangements will never be good enough. If you don't practice Attachment Parenting, your child will become a sociopath.
- Mothers who can't or don't breastfeed are always "selfish." And yet, while it's often acceptable for women to show too much of their breasts before they have children, nobody wants to see any breast actually being used as intended.
- Daycare providers are always "strangers" with an element of menace rather than early childhood professionals with more kid experince than most parents, not to mention more objective answers.
- There is little political will to improve the quality or availability of childcare and the way we now measure schools will have nearly all of them designated as "underperforming" by the year 2014, pushing more and more mothers out of the workplace and into private school chauffeuring or homeschooling.
- We must take our children absolutely everywhere, but god forbid they act up in public.
- Mothers who actually enjoy working outside the home are selfish. Working mothers who take advantage of flextime at some perceived cost to their coworkers are selfish. And mothers who work to supplement the family budget are selfish. What right do they have to actually want a family vacation or a house with more than one bathroom?
- You may not spank, yell, lose your temper, or punish, but if you are not in control of your child, you are a failure.
- Children thrive on imagination and free play, yet for their safety, everything your child does must be supervised, scheduled, and often involve some kind of protective equipment. Even playing out in the back yard by themselves is suspect. Kick the Can? Capture the Flag? Ha!
- As a mother you are simultaneously invisible and the most scrutinized person on the planet.
- If you subscribe at all to the "village" theory of parenting, you are a worthless layabout and should move immediately to Europe where they actually support families with daycare, healthcare, and real vacation time. This is America, you had 'em, you raise 'em, you are on your own; and no matter what corporations, the media, and societal trends do to undermine your influence, absolutely anything your child does wrong now, or in some distant future, is YOUR FAULT.
How did it get this bad? And is it a coincidence that, as more doors have opened to women in business and public life, the expectations on parenting have become some cutthroat, high stakes game?
And not only do we participate in this winnerless race, we contribute to it. Even Meredith Viera, who so publicly struggled to balance family and career, and should know better, has appointed herself a referee in this latest round. There have been words coined to describe this phenomenon. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that it's "for the children," but more and more, I'm starting to suspect that it's really about us. Perhaps the greater demands and higher expectations of mothers these days may be how we achieve status in our post-career parenting lives. We lose or renounce all that previously made our lives full and sign on to the Cult of the Self-Sacrificing Mother.
This can't possibly be healthy. Even in business we have learned that teamwork produces a better result.
And yet, if it is a conspiracy, who would benefit? Certainly not the kids.
As previously discussed, women who are busy competing with one another are less likely to be out there competing with men. Now I'm not sure I know any men these days who would honestly think this was a good thing, but if they are out there, I'll bet they are listening to Rush Limbaugh.
To borrow from a popular ad: When mommies compete, marketers win. One upsmanship sells products - and services. Ads are the lifeblood of mainstream media.
Finally, for the last several elections, politicians have seen mothers as a significant voting bloc. But whether they are calling us Soccer Moms or Security Moms, all their talk about "family values" hasn't yielded much of anything that improves our daily lives. Instead, many of us have seen the living situations of our friends and neighbors maligned or even imperiled in the name of family values. Significant and supportive change for families will never happen if the mothers are infighting or feeling guilty and paralyzed by insurmountable expectations.
It used to be hard for me to fathom that diverse groups of people could actively organize to undermine someone who was just trying to do a decent job. But I was paying attention during the Clinton era, and now I believe.