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The Rhetoric of Motherhood by Abby Arnold

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The rhetoric of motherhood defines how we as a culture allow ourselves to think about mothers. It also defines how mothers are given permission by the culture to think of themselves. Sharon Hays, in The Cultural Contradiction of Motherhood, describes the conflicting expectations about women who mother. They are expected to be power workers, advancing in an environment that regularly requires more than 40 hours a week of labor. They are also expected to be what I call Professional Mothers, fervent believers (or acting as if they are) in what Hays has named the ideology of intensive mothering. This type of mothering requires the mother (not the father, or the parents as a team) to focus relentlessly on her child’s development and growth, supervise every detail of her child’s day, bake homemade cupcakes for preschool class at every opportunity, responding, as Hays states “to all the child’s needs and desires, and to every stage of the child’s emotional and intellectual development [italics mine].” (8).

It is impossible for anyone, even a devoted mother, to respond to another person’s every need. It is even more impossible that this mother combine uber-parenting with full time, productive work outside the home. But still, as Hays states, “The same society that disseminates an ideology urging mothers to give unselfishly of their time, money and love on behalf of sacred children simultaneously valorizes a set of ideas that runs directly counter to it, one emphasizing impersonal relations between isolated individuals efficiently pursuing their personal profit.” (97) Women who mother and work outside the home are expected to master both ways of life. And if they “choose” one over the other—finding full time work incompatible with the way they want to parent their child, or stay at home life impossible for financial, career or personal reasons—they are pitted against each other through what the media loves to call The Mommy Wars, as this promo for a recent Dr. Phil show so clearly states:

It’s a battle between stay-at-home moms and working moms, with Dr. Phil in the middle! Women on both sides of the issue are passionate about their position…but what’s best for kids? Find out what Dr. Phil and other experts say to parents who are struggling with this decision. (Promo for the Nov. 10, 2003 Dr. Phil Show, Mom vs. Mom)

Appalling in every way? Yes. To make it worse, during the actual show, Dr. Phil led the audience in chanting “Catfight” and “Meow” as women disagreed with each other’s positions. Apparently even the “straight talking” Dr. Phil can’t resist taking a complex issue and reducing it to that old standard of feminine triviality and male titillation, the cat fight.

What’s most interesting to me about this way Dr. Phil tried to frame the discussion of stay at home vs. working outside the home mother, is the statement that two of the “experts,” described in the promo as battling each other, felt called upon to release after the show:

While we (Heidi and Joan) know we have some differences of opinion and perspectives on parenting and child care policy, they are marginal to our shared commitment to a society which recognizes the value of care-giving and nurturing of children and others. None of us believes other mothers are the problem. We all know the problem is the lack of public policy and cultural support to address today's burdens on parents.

The statement goes on to list joint recommendations for improving the lives of all mothers, children and families. The experts (both women), enemies at war according to the rhetoric of the media, came together to refute their portrayals and to call for mothers—and all of society—to seriously and cooperatively address the real problems faced by parents as they try to balance economics, family and individual lives.

Additionally, mothers are told to be both an ideal worker and an ideal mother while pursing “self growth,” reading books with a book club, keeping the perfect Pottery Barn-replica home, and maintaining their looks and sex appeal (but only in a wholesome way. Conventional wisdom dictates that a mother who is truly sexy must be 1) a slut and 2) a bad mother). Plus, as a brief look at most parenting magazines tells us, good mothers are also white and middle class. But we won’t get to these expectations and assumptions. There’s not enough space. The conflict between a woman being the ideal worker and the ideal mother is big enough.

In an examination of motherhood ideologies portrayed through popular women’s magazines, sociologists Deirdre Johnston and Debra Swanson uncovered some disturbing trends. For example, although 62% of mothers work either full or part-time, employed mothers are only shown in 12 % of women’s magazine texts, while at-home mothers are shown 88% of the time. At the same time, however, the study found that employed mothers were significantly more likely to be presented as happy, busy, and proud, whereas at-home mothers were more likely to be depicted as confused-overwhelmed. There were no significant differences in the depiction of working mothers and at-home mothers as guilty, tired, or angry (27).

So, according to the magazines, a “normal” mother is an at-home one, although she isn’t very good at her job and needs constant help. This image is quite insidious: as the authors point out, it doesn’t really matter if you read the magazines or not. They are so present—in the grocery store check out line, the doctor’s office—that they form our cultural consciousness of who a mother is without our necessarily subscribing to the ideology.

However they manage the work/home balance, mothers tend to lose. Lose respect from others, for failing to meet unrealistic standards. Lose respect from society, who views them as incompetent. Lose connection with other women who have a different home/work dynamic. Lose their own sense of self whatever their lifestyle, as they try to meet what are presented as effortless requirements and are, in actuality, unachievable standards. Plus, as Joan K. Peters states “Having a child is such an overwhelming experience that we retreat to the safest, most conservative version of ourselves…By their very prescriptive nature, set gender roles provide an easy way to forestall criticism from others about how we parent” (91).

Through the isolation that develops from all this loss, mothers become increasingly vulnerable to images of motherhood, and to the experts who know exactly how she should behave.

the fallacy of “natural” motherhood

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