The (Ongoing) War Against Mothers

Gee, I've Got It All

This article first appeared on BlogHer.

Remember that old movie, Network, where the guy hangs out of the window and yells, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”? Well, that’s how I felt when I read this month’s issue of The Atlantic. The cover article is called,”How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” but what it should really be called is, “Yet Another Way to Blame Mothers for Their Children’s Failures.”

I had my first child in 1994. At the time, I was working more than full-time as an executive in an advertising agency. I struggled daily with my decision to continue in my chosen career. When my daughter was born two years later, I decided to open my own marketing consulting practice. I had better control over my hours and even managed to make more money than in my previous job, but I still wasn’t sure if I was doing right by my children. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my third that I raised the white flag and cried, “Uncle!” I decided to take a step back and reevaluate (and yes, I was blessed to have the luxury to even contemplate that choice).

As I struggled with my decision to move from one side of the fence to the other (from the working-outside-the-home side to the stay-at-home side), it was clear I was not alone. In 1998, three books came out in succession each addressing this same issue: Not Guilty: The Good News About Working Mothers by Betty Holcomb, The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life by Dr. Harriet Lerner, and A Mother’s Place: Taking the Debate about Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Blame by Susan Chira.

Each of these books revealed the deep struggles women were having about the costs of a full-time career versus the costs of full-time motherhood. Whatever we chose to do, the answer was wrong and it was abundantly clear this was our problem, not society’s.

Fast forward seventeen years and still mothers just can’t get a break. Then, we were failures because we weren’t giving our children the focus and care they deserved. Now, we are helicopters whose tendency to drop in and make a mess of things have left our children anxious, angry, and unable to fend for themselves.

In her article for The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb argues “parents” are overinvolved in their children’s lives and that this “overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids.” While I do agree with her fundamental premise (I don’t believe the current parenting paradigm stresses autonomy as much as it could), I struggle with what seems to be a veiled attack on mothers.

Gottlieb is careful to not use the word “mother” when she complains about the ”parents” who rush in to keep Janey from experiencing any pain or failure, but let’s be real: Which gender makes up the vast majority of primary parenting? Women. (Yes, feel free to call me politically incorrect, but last time I checked in with my extended community, mothers were still typically the ones setting up playdates, organizing birthday parties, and attending orthodontist appointments. Fathers have made leaps and bounds but the “second shift” is still very real for working mothers.) Who does Gottlieb profile as examples of overinvolved parents? Mothers.

The question to ask, of course, is why are “parents” overinvested? Gottlieb argues it’s because we are busy trying to fill a void. She writes, “Many of us today don’t really want our kids to leave, because we rely on them in various ways to fill the emotional holes in our own lives.” She goes on to quote Harvard pyschologist Dan Kindlon who says, “We demand more from them – more companionship, more achievement, more happiness.”

All this talk about emotional emptiness has echoes of Betty Friedan’s “the problem with no name” :

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?” Excerpt from The Feminine Mystique

Where once women focused on the household to fill the void, now we are channeling all that misspent energy into our children. The subtext isn’t that the construct is flawed (ie: the perfect housewife has now been replaced with the perfect mother), but that women are.

It seems I remember reading something about the personal being the political. Couldn’t the real problem be rooted in the fact that women in our society just never get a break? That no matter what we do we are criticized? That in our well-intentioned efforts to raise well-adjusted children, we are, yet again, falling short of some elusive ideal?

A friend who is a new father recently noted that when he takes his daughter shopping, he often gets comments on what a “good father” he is. I long for the day when my meager efforts to juggle the housework, the homework, and my own work are considered good mothering. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to make peace with being just good enough.

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5 responses to “The (Ongoing) War Against Mothers

  1. Thank you for this wonderful blog and insight. I struggled so much trying to find balance and figuring out what kind of mom I would be to school age children. I wanted the “perfect” balance and intellectually thought I could figure it out. What I learned is that having my own life, my own art, my own inspiration, the balance came naturally and my children learned how valuable a happy mom was.

    • Sheila,
      So well said: “What I learned is that having my own life, my own art, my own inspiration, the balance came naturally and my children learned how valuable a happy mom was.” This is exactly the advice I give to new moms who ask me, “how do you do it?” I tell them I do it by modeling for my children the pursuit of a goal that fills my soul (ok – didn’t mean for that to rhyme, but it works).
      Thanks for reading and for engaging in the conversation.
      Best,
      Lisen

  2. It’s great being a fully involved father of three under-twos. When I took our twins for a walk round our small leafy block once mothers watching from their front doors showered me with praise for getting out and about with my daughters. Now I realise some of the praise is unearned as it derives from other mens’ laziness.

    I had always been sort-of aware that it’s easy to shine as a dad more because hands-on dads are a rarity than because I’m actually going above and beyond the call of duty.

    But I do wonder how mothers of twins got by in former times when fathers were less encouraged to get involved with childcare. My wife is a very talented mother but we couldn’t have got by with less support from me.

    I hope mothers spend more time listening to their best friends and less to the media.

  3. Moms definitely cannot catch a break. When I feel the sting of the criticisms you summarize so well, I try to recall Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous admonition that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Some of the time, it actually helps.

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