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The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women

3.2 9
by Susan J. Douglas, Meredith W. Michaels
Taking readers on a provocative tour through thirty years of media images about mothers -- the superficial achievements of celebrity moms, the sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the media-manufactured "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and more -- The Mommy Myth contends that this "new momism" has been shaped by out-of-date


Taking readers on a provocative tour through thirty years of media images about mothers -- the superficial achievements of celebrity moms, the sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the media-manufactured "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and more -- The Mommy Myth contends that this "new momism" has been shaped by out-of-date mores, and that no matter how hard they try, women will never achieve it. In this must-read for every woman, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels shatter the myth of the perfect mom and all but shout, "We're not gonna take it anymore!"

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the idealized myth, mothers and babies spend their days discovering the wonders of life, reading, playing and laughing. Mom wears her baby in a sling, never raises her voice and of course has unlimited time and patience. Baby grows up safe, happy and respectful. In real life, however, it's a different story. Douglas (Where the Girls Are) and Smith College philosophy professor Michaels, "mothers with an attitude problem," blow the lid off "new momism," "a set of ideals... that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond [a mother's] reach." The authors examine the past 30 years of television, radio, movies, magazines and advertising to show that the bar has been increasingly raised for "the standards of good motherhood while singling out and condemning those we were supposed to see as dreadful mothers" (notably harried working mothers). Using ample humor (e.g., buy the wrong toys and your child will "end up a semiliterate counter girl in Dunkin' Donuts for life"), abundant examples and an approachable style, Douglas and Michaels incriminate not just Republican administrations and Dr. Laura, but also celebrity mothers, Drs. Spock and the evening news. While the authors are occasionally repetitive and sometimes condescend to moms who stay at home, their thought-provoking, accessible foray critiquing new momism will be of interest to liberal mothers-and possibly fathers-helping them to judge the media's images of motherhood with a more critical eye. (Feb. 9) Forecast: Douglas and Michaels's book will undoubtedly be reviewed in various media, and a 10-city author tour will create further interest-and debate. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
What is the "new momism"? According to Douglas (Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female Within the Mass Media) and Michaels (Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions), it is a virtual cult that posits motherhood as woman's true destiny and then sets standards so high that achieving them is impossible. Central to this book is their accusation that the media have collaborated with the government and the Right in creating the new momism by promoting these standards in film, television, and print, especially women's and parents' magazines. Following an introduction, the authors trace the relationship of feminism and motherhood. They also consider how racism informs society's treatment of welfare mothers, define the conflict between working and stay-at-home mothers as artificial, explore the roles of mothers and children as marketing targets, and suggest strategies for fighting the new momism. Breadth of coverage, quality of scholarship, and an informal style make this suitable for both academic and public libraries. Readers may disagree with the authors' arguments, but their passion and sense of humor are undeniable.-M.C. Duhig, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"An absolutely fascinating exposé...this eye-opening report contains a wealth of valuable insight into the never-ending, and ultimately self-defeating, quest for the maternal perfection glorified by contemporary American society."
-- Booklist

"In a book crackling with humor and sarcasm, the authors comb through the past thirty years' worth of nightly news reports, women's magazines, celebrity journalism, newspapers, and ads, and point out a growing obsession with this idealized, and guilt-inducing, version of motherhood that women can't achieve."
-- Chicago Tribune

"This is a book for mothers who can admit that they yell sometimes, feed their children processed food, and occasionally get bored playing Barbie camp-out under the dining room table....It's a book for mothers who would be okay with being imperfect, if only the rest of the world would stop pointing out their shortcomings."
-- The Washington Post

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
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6.44(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.23(d)

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The Mommy Myth

The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
By Susan Douglas Meredith Michaels

Free Press

Copyright © 2004 Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-5999-8

Chapter One

Revolt Against the MRS

Imagine it's Mother's Day, and you are being taken out to one of those god-awful brunches where you and hundreds of other mothers will be force-fed runny scrambled eggs and flaccid croissants by way of thanking you for the other 364 days, when instead of the brunch you get "Mom, you shrank my sweater in the dryer and I need a new one by tomorrow," or "All the other mothers will be at the hockey banquet," or, simply enough, "I hate you. You never listen to me! I wish you weren't my mother!" As you walk toward the restaurant, you notice broadsides posted on the telephone poles all over town. They begin, "Today, one day of the year, America is celebrating Motherhood, in home ... church ... restaurant ... candy shop ... flower store." Obvious enough. But then the tone changes. "The other 364 days she preserves the apple pie of family life and togetherness, and protects the sanctity of the male ego and profit. She lives through her husband and children." Now things get more radical. "She is sacrificed on the altar of reproduction.... she is damned to the dreary world of domesticity by day, and legal rape by night.... She is convinced that happiness and her lost identity can be recovered by buying - more and more and more and more."

Or a bunch of women are handing out flyers. They are titled "Notice to All Governments" and then demand "Wages for Housework." (Yes!) They read: "We clean your homes and your factories. We raise the next generation of workers for you. Whatever else we may do, we are the housewives of the world. In return for our work, you have only asked us to work harder." As a result, "we are serving notice to you that we intend to be paid for the work we do. We want wages for every dirty toilet, every painful childbirth, every indecent assault, every cup of coffee, and every smile. And if we don't get what we want, then we will simply refuse to work any longer." The result? "Now you will rot in your own garbage." The broadside ends with "We want it in cash, retroactive and immediately. And we want all of it." Oooo-weee. Don't you think this would make Mother's Day a lot more, well, interesting?

The poster described above actually appeared in Cleveland on Mother's Day, 1969, courtesy of The Women's International Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH, founded in 1968 with the express purpose of staging outrageous and often very funny profeminist actions). "Wages for Housework" was a feminist broadside as well, one of many that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s denouncing the fact that housewives and mothers were overworked, underpaid, and very much underappreciated.

Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, millions of women across the country, many of them mothers, stood up for themselves, and demanded to know why women, and housewives and mothers in particular, were second-class citizens, consigned to financial dependence on men, relegated to do housework that was necessary, endless, yet looked down upon, and why women were deemed to be the only gender who should give up everything in exchange for raising children. Young women started wondering why they should get married at twenty-one, let alone eighteen, if that meant getting chained to the diaper pail all the sooner. Simply put, motherhood became political.

Welcome to the Women's Liberation Movement, which was, for those involved, lots of hard work, scary, exhilarating, dangerous, exasperating, infuriating, and fun. "Fun?" you ask. "Weren't feminists these grim-faced, humorless, antifamily, karate-chopping ninjas who were bitter because they couldn't get a man?" Well, in fact the problem was that all too many of them had gotten a man, married him, had his kids, and then discovered that, as mothers, they were never supposed to have their own money, their own identity, their own aspirations, time to pee, or a brain. And yes, some women indeed became bad-tempered as a result. After all, no anger, no social change. But to see that you had common cause with other women, to fight for your rights, to believe that you could change the world, your very own future, and that of your kids - all this was bracing, invigorating. So we want to unearth from the graveyard of history the brazen, outrageous, passionate things that women dared to say about motherhood and child-rearing in the late 1960s and early 1970s so we can see how far mothers have and have not come since those heady, rebellious days.

As outlandish as the expectations are today surrounding intensive mothering, they are hardly the fault of feminists. Feminists never said, "Hey, great, mothers are working ninety hours a week as it is, let's add a forty-hour-a-week job on top and not ask Dad to do an iota more than he's already doing." Feminists were the ones who tried to make motherhood less onerous, less lonely, less costly to women. Look at Gloria Steinem's hopes for the future, printed in U.S. News and World Report in 1975. She predicted, "Responsibility for children won't be exclusively the woman's anymore, but shared equally by men - and shared by the community, too. That means that work patterns will change for both women and men, and women can enter all fields just as men can." Well, we're not there yet, but if you are a mother and have your own salary, let alone a job you find remotely rewarding, a day care center near you, after-school programs, maternity leave (however stingy), a daughter who gets to play soccer or basketball, a partner who understands that making lunches, finding baby-sitters, and taking the kid out in the stroller are not entirely your responsibility, and if you stay at home and see this as a choice and not an edict, then your life as a mother has been revolutionized by feminism.

Nonetheless, one of the reasons so many women say "I'm not a feminist, but ..." (and then put forward a feminist position), is that in addition to being stereotyped as man-hating Amazons, feminists have also been cast as antifamily and antimotherhood. Since we are feminists and mothers (and married, too, to men we actually like), and in point of fact know lots of unabashedly doting mothers who are also feminists, a question persists: How, exactly, have these stereotypes been sustained?

Sometime in the 1980s, in what we imagine to be a deep, subterranean grotto filled with stalactites, bats, and guano, a coven of men and women came together with an apparent simple mission: to rewrite the history of the women's movement and distort what feminists said and did. We'll call this group the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda (CRAP). The high ministers of CRAP have included - but have hardly been restricted to - Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Christina Hoff Sommers, Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant, Pat Robertson, John McLaughlin, and George Will, to name a few. Because they were always invited to hold forth on political talk shows, or hosted their own (sponsored by GE, or cures for male-pattern baldness, or God), they got to rehearse the CRAP version of history on a regular basis, which is how you turn something that is false into something everyone starts to take for granted as true. The CRAP version of women's history was essential to the promotion of the new momism, because the alleged evils of feminism made the new momism seem all the more reasonable, natural, inevitable, and just plain right. Of course, millions of women see through the CRAP line and would rather leave the planet for a space station than inhabit a world designed by Pat Robertson (who, we remind you, blamed September 11, 2001, on feminists and other evildoers, like gays). But the CRAP line has nonetheless sustained major misconceptions about feminism.

Let's see how successful CRAP was, by administering the patented "Full o' CRAP" quiz. What was the very first thing feminists attacked in the late 1960s and early 1970s? If you answered "motherhood," that is the correct CRAP answer. (If, however, you said "patriarchy, the fact that women made fifty cents to a man's dollar, widespread discrimination against women in education and employment, and the assumption that the only things women's tiny little brains were capable of handling was scraping cradle cap off their kids' scalps," then maybe you were around in 1970 or have read some real history and know what actually happened.) Who did these feminists hate the most? The correct CRAP answer is "stay-at-home moms" followed closely by "children." (Now, don't go saying things like "Wait - I remember Gloria Steinem insisting that housewives were getting ripped off because they did so much invaluable work that was unpaid," because that does not fit into the official CRAP story.) This is the World According to CRAP, a view and a history that CRAP has sought - with considerable success, we might note - to super-glue to what passes for our national "common sense." CRAP put forth two versions of the antifamily feminist man-hater. The first - Limbaugh's feminazi - is the never-married, child-loathing battle-ax in steel-toed boots. The second is the overly ambitious careerist who may, indeed, have kids, but neglects them in favor of her work. At the core of both versions is their alleged hatred of kids and of "real" mothers.

Let's just briefly sample a typical CRAP offering. In 1999, CRAP sent forth one of its high ministers, Danielle Crittenden, queen bee of the notoriously antifeminist Independent Women's Forum, with her very own CRAP history, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, to much media fanfare. (Danielle should never be confused with the fabulous Ann Crittenden, whose 2001 book The Price of Motherhood is must reading for every parent, male or female, in the country, and for anyone who has a say in policies affecting parents and children.) The book is a primer on the importance of the new momism. The "us" in Danielle's title refers to twenty- and thirty-something women, and "our mothers" refers to women who in the 1960s and 1970s got "taken in" by feminism. Even though these fem-bots excoriated motherhood, they decided to have children anyway. ("Why?" remains one of the innumerable mysteries of the book.)

According to Crittenden, young women today are deeply unhappy and confused because they ignored the siren song of the new momism and instead followed the really bad advice of their feminist mothers, who allegedly told their girls to forget marriage and motherhood. Instead, feminist mothers supposedly insisted that happiness only comes to those who climb the corporate ladder by impaling men's balls on their Ferragamo heels. (We are both card-carrying members of the feminist axis of evil, and we know of no mothers of twenty- and thirty-something daughters who have said, "Honey, I definitely do not want grandchildren. I want you to get that promotion and work seventy hours a week instead of sixty.") Having heeded their feminist mothers' advice, these loser young women have "postponed marriage and childbirth to pursue their careers only to find themselves at thirty-five still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight." (No mention of the fact that once you remove the 10 percent of guys who are gay, and the other 30 percent who are snorting wasabi till they puke because they saw it on Jackass, the pickings can be slim.)

How did Crittenden determine that most women in America are miserable because they have failed to embrace the new momism? Instead of talking to actual, real women, she scanned the previous thirty years of women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, and concluded that "... my contemporaries are even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Valium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s." Not only that, but "the unhappiness expressed in the magazines' pages [is] the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs." If she checked out a less glitzy source, Statistical Abstract of the United States, she would have to confront the fact that 80 percent of women between the ages of thirty and thirty-four in the 1990s had married at least once, and that the figure rises to 86.5 percent for women aged thirty-five to thirty-nine. True, some of these women divorce and don't remarry immediately, but the specter of an entire generation of women with "no husband in sight" is not borne out by what scholars refer to as "numbers." (This is hardly statistically valid, but none of the college women we meet in our classes ever want to go back to 1957. It, like, scares them.)

So let's get back to the actual feminists, not those of the CRAP imagination, and remind ourselves why they might have, for example, handed out leaflets at the New York City Marriage License Bureau that asked, "Do You Know That, According to the United Nations, Marriage is a 'Slavery-Like Practice'"? To review briefly, in the late 1960s, men got paid more than women (usually double) for doing the exact same job. Women could get credit cards in their husband's names but not their own, and many divorced, single, and separated women could not get cards at all. Women could not get mortgages on their own and if a couple applied for a mortgage, only the husband's income was considered. Women faced widespread and consistent discrimination in education, scholarship awards, and on the job. In most states the collective property of a marriage was legally the husband's, since the wife had allegedly not contributed to acquiring it. Women were largely kept out of a whole host of jobs - doctor, college professor, bus driver, business manager - that women today take for granted. They were knocked out in the delivery room, birth control options were limited, and abortion was illegal. Once women got pregnant they were either fired from their jobs or expected to quit. If they were women of color, it was worse on all fronts - work, education, health care. (And talk about slim pickings. African American men were being sent to prison and cut out of jobs by the millions.)

Most women today, having seen reruns of The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best, and also having heard of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the bestseller that attacked women's confinement to the home, are all too familiar with the idealized yet suffocating media images of happy, devoted housewives. In fact, most of us have learned to laugh at them, vacuuming in their stockings and heels, clueless about balancing a checkbook, asking dogs directions to the neighbor's. But we should not permit our ability to distance ourselves from these images to erase the fact that all women - and we mean all women - were, in the 1950s and '60s, supposed to internalize this ideal, to live it and believe it.


Excerpted from The Mommy Myth by Susan Douglas Meredith Michaels Copyright © 2004 by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, and Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Her journalistic articles have appeared in The Nation, Ms., In These Times, TV Guide, and The Progressive.

Meredith W. Michaels is a writer who doubles as a philosophy professor at Smith College. Her research and writing focus on the way that cultural changes affect our understanding of reproduction, parenthood, and childhood.

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The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Douglas and Michaels join the very media catagory that they proclaim are undermining women. They do not miss an opportunity to take jabs at mothers who stay at home or who are happy being around her kids for the better part of the day. The book does make some good points, but they are buried underneath the authors' condescending comments about mothers who do not make the same choices or have the same likes/dislikes. There are certainly problems with the way mothers are portrayed in the media, but this book does nothing to help. I was hoping to find a judgement-free book that promotes a unity among all women (working, stay-at-home, celebrity, poor, etc.) to fight what they've named the 'Mommy Myth.' Instead, I got a lot of snide comments about lifestyle choices.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A big hearty thanks to the brilliant women who wrote this hilarious though troubling book about the many new challenges facing women today. I found this book so liberating and comforting. Ironically after years of wondering if I was I just too selfish, lazy and imperfect to bring a child into this insane violent world while maintaining my own vocational and social interests, this book helped me see that my trepidition was largely based on the MEDIA-hyped illusion that anyone can achieve the ABSURD and contradictory expectations placed on women today. The book's survey of how the media has often prayed on womens' deepest insecurities and love for their children was enlightening--and while some of the criticism may seem obvious, en masse one fully appreciates the awesome cultural impact on our collective unconscious. Thank you---now I actually feel like I could be a loving succssful parent without losing myself in that self-loathing, neurotic abyss of unachievable mom/woman/wife standards. This book stresses our shared humanity and most importantly our need for societal help in childrearing. Even for those women who have the luxury of staying home with their children, to expect any one person to be a fulltime caregiver/homemaker without outside assistance is naive. Many don't have the money or extended family who are willing/able to pick up the slack. The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries not to provide women with REAL support with quality day care, flextime, etc. that most of Europe provides. So while politicians and talking heads tout 'family values' and prolife they do nothing to really back mothers or fathers up. A wonderful read reminding women that life is so hard--we really need to support one another--not sure why some readers felt it was so 'anti-stay at home mom?' The book realistically expressed what I've heard from a full-spectrum of mothers- ranging from euphoria to ambivalence to depression. But they feel they are no longer free to admit the downside in our PC nation without being condemed as a bad mothers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading just the first chapter, I felt empowered with knowledge. I realized that attachment parenting is a lifestyle CHOICE and not the ONLY right way to parent as mothers are constantly reminded and made to feel guilty about. It is a lifestyle that my husband and I enjoy along with homeschooling our girls that really suits us. Although the book does patronize this choice often, I just brush it off. The point still stands. We must respect and support every woman's right to choose her parenting style and to decide what works for her unique family. Let's face it, if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For all the mothers out there who, with all the day-to-day sacrifices they do for their children and their families, still feel that they have not done enough to show their love; for all the women who are scared to have children because they feel intimidated due to all the expectations that comes with being a mother in the 21st century; to all WOMEN period... You've got to read this book!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Stay away from this book. It only made a few good points the rest is garbage. Puts down well educated women who choose to stay home with their children.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Mommy Myth is a controvercial insight into our culture whether you want to hear about it or not. In an age where the 'feminazi' label has hammered upon women who have ambitions outside of raising children, the images, ideas, and entire perception of adult women in this country is carefully examined in this book. Raising children is a thankless and extremely important job. More women who are ambitious in the working world should stop and realize that women who do choose motherhood are not simply handing themselves over to the age-old mother stereotype. However, the assumption that the media, politicians, and our society in general makes is incorrect--that women are somehow 'unfulfilled' without children, and if they become mothers, somehow 'everything will change'--their ambitions will melt away and they will fade into the woodwork as so-and-so's wife or so-and-so's mother and that will be acceptable. For every woman out there who has no desire to take her husband's name in marriage if it means irradicating her own identity, who is frusterated by the standard that she must opt out of employment if she were to become pregnant, and who went to college to become someone on her own terms, take a seat and read this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What is new Momism? Momism is not even a word, thought or action. The book has a few good points but pretty much puts motherhood down and especially for those who chose to stay at home with children. For most moms today, if you are a stay at home mom, you have made that choice because you wanted to and might have even been putting a highly successful career on the back burner hoping to some day return but will wait for that time and re-evlauate it at that time. Kids are worth it and they deserve the best role model as possible...a mom who is there for her family without complaining and being labeled as a myth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the words of Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels; - 'Then there is 'babywearing.' You wear your baby in a special sling until she wears you out, at which point you put her in the 'family bed' and get in with her to 'co-sleep.' If there's not enough room, your husband or partner can go to the couch. You can purchase the 'original' Dr. Sears Sling on-line at the Dr. Sears Store, or you can order a custom sling from one of the many Web sites, like Mamaroobabysling.com. ...So our point here is not to bash mothers who find these options comforting or convenient. It is to see Attachment Parenting as a fad...' In the words of Dr. Sears in The Baby Book; 'What [they] have is centuries of tradition that have simply taught them that something good happens to women and their babies when the babies are worn.' In the words of MamaRoo; 'Being a woman, becoming a mother, I have started to see that my experiences have already been lived, and I am drawing from a long history of instinctive behavior. Women learn from their mothers, who learned from their mothers, back to antiquity. If women hadn¿t learned to nurture their children, mind, body and soul, we wouldn¿t be here today.' Frankly, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, I feel that you are completely out of touch with the world view of parenting. Attachment Parenting encompasses natural parenting, giving a name to our instinctual desire to nurture the next generation. You demean the bond that develops between a mother and child, a bond nurtured through breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, natural infant hygiene... a bond that has brought us as a race to where we are today.