By Lori Rotskoff
Why haven’t we done away with the mystique of the “perfect mother”? We know she’s a mirage. And yet, as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in her introduction to The Good Mother Myth, the “fabled ideal” of maternal perfection retains its power to make us feel anxious, guilty, and even depressed. The myth of the “Good Mother” reigns on screen and in print, on blogs and on Facebook, flattening the complexity of real mothers’ lives and fostering a “manufactured culture of conflict and judgment,” of second-guessing and self-doubt.
Here, Nathman gathers thirty-six personal essays that hone the raw material of maternal experience into pithy, pointed vignettes that make a strong impact on the reader. Sometimes confessional; sometimes questioning; and frequently defiant, subversive, and bold, they challenge our understanding of what it means to be a good mother beyond stereotype and social convention.
Some writers plumb the depths of anxiety when a child faces medical problems or life-threatening situations. Parenting experts may chide “helicopter mothers” for stunting their kids’ development, but for a mother like Heather Hewett, whose daughter has severe food allergies, such hyper-vigilance is necessary. “All parents know the fear of losing their children,” Hewett writes, but for some, controlling a young child’s environment is a daily task in which “perfection becomes an expectation.” Jessica Valenti struggled with a similar issue when her daughter was born premature and spent two precarious months in the NICU. “When I find myself scowling at some other mother’s parenting style, or even being hard on myself,” writes Valenti, “I remember that being ‘overprotective’ is … a mostly reasonable response to the oh-so-scary act of having something exist in the world that you love more than yourself.”
Of course, guilt can arise from less grave circumstances, such as how often Kraft Mac and Cheese surfaces on the dinner table. Any reader who adores her mother’s holiday cooking will understand the import of Carla Naumburg’s confession: “I’ve never successfully roasted a chicken. That’s right. I’m a Jewish mother who has never fried a latke or made matzah ball soup.” And let’s not forget the PTA. If you’ve ever found yourself chairing the school book fair against your better judgment, Soraya Chemaly’s trenchant analysis of the gender divide in school volunteer culture might empower you to “just say no” next time. Chemaly doesn’t denigrate the work that volunteers do; on the contrary, she criticizes the fact that female-dominated volunteer groups unintentionally de-value women’s unpaid labor, mirroring and perpetuating the wage gap and sex segregation in the broader economy.
Here, in fact, lies the book’s greatest strength: illuminating the extent to which mothers’ choices and lifestyles are enmeshed in a broader context, too often constrained by economic insecurity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Can a woman who takes psychotropic drugs to combat bipolar depression be a “good mother?” Is a poor, teenage mother by default a “bad” one? What about a mom who smokes pot because it gives her the “patience for just one more puzzle, one more tantrum, and a few hundred more questions” from her three-year-old? Does a filmmaker who makes erotic films about S&M qualify? How about an observantly Jewish male-to-female transsexual whose children resent her radical shift from daddy to mom?
And what about black mothers? Although the book might have profited from more African-American women’s voices, as well as Latinos and women who practice non-Western religions, T.F. Charlton’s piece speaks volumes about the insidious impact of racism and white privilege. “The myth I contend with is not that of the Good Mother, but that of the Bad Black Mother,” Charlton writes. “It’s a myth that renders my motherhood at turns invisible and suspect…Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”
While some essays suffer from vague or familiar observations about pregnancy, childbirth, or toddler mishaps, and most lack the long-term perspective gained through parenting teenagers or young adults, this provocative book is valuable simply because it asks us to suspend preconceived judgments and absorb the stories of women whose experiences differ profoundly from one another, and from our own. It shows us that the best way to battle the barrage of saccharine sound-bites is to arm ourselves with alternative, candid “tales from the trenches” depicting the messy, real dilemmas of real mothers in an imperfect world.
Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian, writer, teacher, and co-editor of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made (2012).
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