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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Magical, Maniacal, Mythical Mother

Thank you Judith Warner.

Warner penned Newsweek's fabulous February 21, cover story called, The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Why it Drives Real Women Crazy."

When the issue landed on the table alongside my husband's cell phone and wallet, I scooped it up and was suddenly covered in a warm, reassuring bath of commentary that validated what I've been feeling and writing about; the plight of mothers. Thankfully Baby in Chief was already in bed or he surely would have been thoroughly neglected for 10 minutes while I powered through the article. And as I was reading, I couldn't help but shout out passionately. "Hallelujah!," and "Right on Sister!, spurted from my mouth after every couple of sentences.

All our lives we believed that having it all was attainable and worth attaining. Holding onto that notion has been the grown-up equivalent to believing in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Like those childhood icons, "It" does not exist. So instead of finding "It" or making peace with "It," we end up feeling inadequate in so many ways. We also feel like failures, even though we have made choices that have brought us to where we are.

I have let myself down for not working (at a job or on another degree). I have let my kid down for feeling that being his parent isn't enough by itself. I have let my husband down because I don't have much to talk about outside of updates on our kid's latest accomplishments or what household projects I'm working on. I have let my dad down because I didn't go on to get my master's after getting my undergrad degree. I have let my sister-in-law down because I've become one of those women who worked just long enough to get married and have a baby. I have let my mentor down because I'm not contributing to my fullest potential. I have let a friend down for wanting to work when I don't have to.

It's one big game and I always lose. My family and friends don't think I'm a failure and don't think I have let them down. Each and every one of those failures lives only in my head. My husband is proud that he can give me the freedom to be at home and knows I'm a kick-ass writer, an amazing mother, and an overall fabulous person, with or without a "real" job. My parents know that raising a family is very respectable job. My sister-in-law knows I didn't have a baby so that I could stop working. My mentor knows I'm smart enough to find a job that compliments my job at home. My friend has a bit of sour grapes and loves me anyway. My whole family respects what I am doing as a parent, as a writer, as a woman, as a person. They all love and respect me. I wish I could manage the same for myself.

"Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice," wrote Warner. But instead of being able to choose a path that takes us to where we are trying to get, we are instead "faced with the harsh realities of family life in a culture that has no structures in place to allow women--and men--to balance work and child-rearing."

As a result, we feel helpless, not empowered. We feel self-hate and depression. We feel that we have lost ourselves on our way to the playground. This "learned helplessness" can get chalked up right next to our giant, cumulative case of depression, which affects 30 percent of mothers with young children, according to the article. I'm actually surprised that it's not higher.

In all our hopelessness, we can't think our way out of our diaper bags. We are so focused on creating the best learning environment for our kids by reading to them, taking them to play group, art class, swim class, the park, Germ-boree, music class, story time at the library, and Little Wonders, it seems impossible to figure out how to change things so that our worlds become a better, less insane place to live. As we drive to our kids' activities, we realize our attempts to create the best environment for our kids is a toxic place for the parents. There is no time left for the parent to be a person.

"We need solutions--politically palatable, economically feasible, home-grown American solutions--that can, collectively, give mothers and families a break," wrote Warner. Yes! We do need solutions, real-world, realistic solutions! And Warner has a couple of ideas that we need to read, be inspired by, and act on:

• We need incentive like tax subsidies to encourage corporations to adopt family-friendly policies.

• We need government-mandated child care standards and quality controls that can remove the fear and dread many working others feel when they leave their children with others.

• We need flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality part-time day care so that stay-at-home moms can get a life of their own.

• We need new initiatives to make it possible for mother to work part-time by creating vouchers or bigger tax credits to make child care more affordable, heath insurance available and affordable for part-time workers...

• In general, we need to alleviate the economic pressures that currently make so many families' lives so that mothers and fathers could stop running like lunatics, and start spending real quality time--and quantity--time with their children.

Hallelujah! And right on sister!


  1. As you might imagine, I wrote about the article myself. I kept nodding my head throughout the whole thing. I don't think I go to the extremes that some of the women in the article seem to, but there's still that desire to do well in both arenas. Having to realize that you're not living up to expectations in either is tough.

  2. sounds like an interesting article. what is it with these expectations? why do we grow up with adults telling us we have so much potential, we can do anything we want? why does it end up feeling like that when we are stuck we've let them down? what is it that propels us to have to be a genius? to be that perfect mother? is this our only way to get self-worth? is it hollywood? i like to blame them for everything. i blame them for screwing with people's ideas of what relationships should be like. oh yeah, you hook up with the perfect guy and live happily ever after. right. we grow up in this country with such notions of what things *should* be like. there are countless books that tell you how you should be pregnant, raise your children, to get on with your spouse, blah blah...

    it's not our fault! we're caught up in this whole societal madness. it does seem to behoove us to reflect on this a bit. i find i get anxious about certain things, like is my child getting the right number of calories per day, drinking the right number of milliliters of breastmilk per day? or is my relationship with my mate working? is it wrong for me to not provide breastmilk to my child after 6 months? is my child in the correct growth percentile? did i exercise the correct number of minutes per day?

    i mean, ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    i guess that is what i mean we need a sense of humor about all this BS. it's sort of funny. and really, more than anything, it seems like being relaxed about who we are, our lives is really going to be the most key element in providing a happy comfortable environment for our kids. cause you know our kids pick up on our anxieties.

    and we are toughest on ourselves. i mean suzanne, you are an awesome person. and i know you are approaching your parenting and career with great vigor and enthusiasm (definitely not hopelessness!!). what more can you want?! what more could you want from your child? i love it when my child's excited.

    sometimes i think it's so simple and yet we make it more complicated.

    ok, i'm gonna shush now.

    oh, i thought that this was an interesting op-ed piece in the ny times: