The myth of motherhood and family today
Review by Jennifer Roesch | June 25, 2004 | Page 9
Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. Free Press, 2004, 336 pages, $26.
EARLIER THIS year, the New York Times Magazine ran an article called "The Opt-Out Revolution." The author, Lisa Belkin, argued that there was a massive exodus of women from the workforce--the liberated children of the women's movement who were choosing the pleasures of home and family over paid work. Shortly after, Time ran a similar piece, "The Case for Staying at Home."
In The Mommy Myth, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels drive a Mac truck through the idea that there's a new "feminist revolution" of women freely choosing to leave the world of work and return to the nuclear family. They show how the idealization of motherhood is part of a backlash against the gains of the women's movement.
Douglas and Michaels point to the massive contradiction between the expectations raised by the women's movement and the reality of most women's lives today. They point out that at its height, the women's liberation movement demanded real changes in women's lives, such as equal pay for equal work and extensive quality child care. They describe how "some women staged 'child-ins': Together they brought their kids to work to dramatize their need for day care."
The women's movement had a lasting impact on women's lives. Large numbers of women, including women with young children, entered the workforce. However, the authors point out, the accompanying policy reforms never materialized.
In 1971, a Comprehensive Child Development Act passed Congress that would have made child care available to all children at a cost of $2 billion. Nixon vetoed it, and subsequent child care bills failed.
With no system of publicly funded child care, women were left to patch together often fragile, costly and deficient arrangements for their children. At the same time, social services were cut and families had to work longer hours just to make ends meet as Corporate America held down wages.
Instead of genuine equality and real change, women were fed the myth of the "super-mom." With anger and humor, Douglas and Michaels show how the backlash against women has fed on the guilt and insecurity women feel as a result of their new position.
For instance, they take apart the media scares about the dangers of day care. While acknowledging that quality day care remains inaccessible to most women, they show that the media plays up stories of abuse while ignoring research about the positive impact of day care on children.
At the same time, they describe the unattainable ideal of the women who can "do it all." This ideal tells women that their difficulties juggling work, family and housework are a result of their personal failure rather than the lack of adequate support for working women.
The flipside of the idealized mother has been a racist attack on poor women--notably "welfare mothers." They show how the image of the bad mother--usually Black or Latina, always poor--was used as a scapegoat for people's anger and fear about their lives.
By painting women on welfare as "lazy cheats," the debate about welfare helped to define work and child care as issues of personal responsibility rather than social reform. This had a devastating impact on millions of poor women and their children. And it also made it harder to win the kinds of reforms that would make life better for all working women.
The Mommy Myth very convincingly shows how this so-called post-feminist revolution is a product of this backlash against women. They put the dynamic well: "The mythology of the new momism now insinuates that, when all is said and done, the enlightened mother chooses to stay home with the kids.
"Back in the 1950s, mothers stayed home because they had no choice. Today, having been to the office, having tried a career, women have...found it to be the inferior choice to staying at home. It's not that mothers can't hack it [1950s thinking]. It's that progressive mothers refuse to hack it."
Of course, the reality is that the vast majority of women work because they have to. And the traditional nuclear family is the experience of only a minority today.
In an era of privatization, economic insecurity and declining social services, the backlash against women has served up a powerful dose of moralism and personal responsibility. The Mommy Myth is a funny, angry and powerful antidote.
Unfortunately, it is weak on solutions--ending with a call for women to "talk back" to the new momism. But their early descriptions of a movement that fought for child care, equal pay and structural changes to the workforce offer a different possible ending. It's that kind of a fight that will be necessary to reverse the backlash and win the real changes necessary to deliver on the expectations and promises raised by the women's liberation movement.