The Unintended Consequences of Placing ‘Moms’ on Pedestals

Mary Tyler Moore

It’s Day Three of the open salon hosted by yours truly and Keiko of The Infertility Voice. We created this dialogue to discuss both sides of the motherhood debate from our unique perspectives. Why? To parse out the concerns and vulnerabilities of transition within the ALI (adoption/loss/infertility) community without tripping over political correctness and delicate sensibilities.

We hope you’ll join us every day this week and will be inspired to add your own responses in the comments or by writing your own blog posts.

MTMWho doesn’t relish great role models? Those confident, make-it-happen types who can inspire us to dream BIG.

My props go to spunky Marlo Thomas for her work on Free to Be… You and Me (40 years old next month) and to plucky Mary Tyler Moore and her sidekick Rhoda Morgenstern.

In the 1970s these and many other women were celebrated for their can-do moxie. Go back earlier and there was Katharine Hepburn. That Marlo, Mary, Rhoda weren’t mothers on TV wasn’t the focus of attention, but it carried some weight when I was a wee thing wondering how my life might unfold. On or off screen their value to society was never questioned. They brought me peace of mind. I knew I had options.

If only there were more real or fictional role models for the next generation of impressionable girls to underscore that there’s more to life than whether they achieve motherhood.

Just to be clear, I’m not knocking mothers who fulfill an important job — my own is a strong woman responsible for shaping and guiding who I am. It’s when mothers spend more time advocating for themselves rather than for their children, wrapping themselves up in the mommy flag and shouting from the rooftops about how special they (and their market) are, well, it gets sorta bogus. You have to wonder are mothers in it for fulfillment, or to flash the powerful mommy card. For instance, how would removing the terms mom, mother, mommy from our vocabulary change things?

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It’s hard not to long for the days when baby bumps didn’t merit magazine cover banners and motherhood wasn’t equated with sainthood. The obsession with all things mom isn’t healthy. It also sends the wrong message since the number of childless women is, yes, growing.

Nearly one-in-five American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one-in-ten in the 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center.

ONE IN FIVE. The increase in childlessness in no way correlates with anything you’d glean browsing the grocery store magazine rack, blogosphere or tuning into news or feature show narratives. In fact, if you dropped in from outer space you would no doubt quickly arrive at the conclusion that most if not all women were either already a “mom” or busy hatching plans to become one.

What message are we sending to girls? What does the glorification of motherhood say about women who are not mothers by choice, chance or by circumstance? That we’re somehow less than? That we’d better get to a fertility clinic and fast! Otherwise, we might not fit into society’s carefully crafted view of today’s bestest form of woman: the mommies (and let’s not forget their spending power)!

In my lifetime women have gone from being celebrated for all of their unique gifts to being celebrated for their reproductive output. How can that not instill a sense of weirdness in our culture? When was the last time you saw a woman feted for coming to terms with her infertility on a magazine cover?

Make no mistake. Moms are the undisputed “It Girls,” and they’re indulged accordingly –sometimes with their own talk shows:

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Check out this New York Times review of the TV show “The Talk”:

“The show’s organizing theme and chief preoccupation is motherhood and child rearing. Guests, male and female, are introduced by how many children they have; the hosts talk at great length, and tearfully, about their own experiences.”

To emphasize how this might be taken to the extreme, the reviewer describes how the “The Talk” hosts would refer to Stalin … “he would be introduced as ‘Stalin, father of two.’ “

The Cult of Motherhood is not simply a U.S. phenomenon. It is being explored this week in a U.K. blog.  Blogger Lynn Schreiber refreshingly observes:

“When we begin a sentence with ‘as a mother, I believe…’ — does it not express that I have a more insightful comment to make than someone who is not a mother?

“Should the simple accident of biology that made me a mother mean I can demand respect for my status as a mother? Why should I ask for respect for something that millions of human beings have done – procreate.”

She goes on, adding:

“I cannot think of any wisdom (other than don’t stick a finger down the back of the nappy to see if your baby needs his nappy changed) that I have gained from being a mother. I would say that I am wiser than I was before I was a mother, but would attribute that to the intervening 10 years and not motherhood.”

I’m glad I stopped holding my breath waiting for the Mommypalooza to wane or I’d be seriously blue in the face, or worse. It shows no signs of dissipating. In fact, it may be growing worse.  Both our First Lady Michelle Obama and her Republican challenger Ann Romney laid it on thick in their convention addresses. This summer, I wrote about the sponsors and camera operators at the London Olympics who were almost more interested in the Olympian’s mothers or the athlete’s mommy street cred than in athletic abilities.

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IMHO, I don’t think the cult of motherhood serves mothers or non-moms — or girls or young woman who will one day be one or the other.

If you look really hard, there are online sites highlighting the contributions of women who are not mothers. For instance, Lisa Manterfield routinely blogs about CHEROES, (Heroes who are childfree). Karen Malone Wright runs a website called The NotMom.com described as celebrating women who are childless by choice or by chance. They are the exception rather than the rule.

As with all pendulum swings we may one day observe that parenthood (or lack thereof) is less central to identity or the topic of conversation. It’s happened before, perhaps it will happen again. To wit, I got a good laugh when I was back visiting my parents (now in their 70s).  A few weeks ago they met with two couples, college friends from years gone by. Steeped in all the parent talk I get in my own social life, I wondered how their respective grown children were doing. My mother’s response, “actually, you kids never came up. We had other things to talk about…”

Ah, music to my ears. I’d like to think this will become a trend … if for no other reason than to level the playing field for the next generation. What say you?

 

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27 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of Placing ‘Moms’ on Pedestals

  1. Traathy

    I love this comment and couldn’t agree more. I’m coming from a place of being an Indo-Canadian woman who’s adopted a Caucasian blonde haired blue eyed baby girl. Total social/cultural mystery apparently in the eyes of my neighbourhood. Which I actually once thought was pretty liberal in its multiculturalism. I’ve gone to “mom groups” where you wouldn’t believe the social awkwardness that occurs when I sit down.

    It’s like you’ve been through a storm to get to being a mother for some of us and then you are fully unprepared for the cliques that are so dominant in “momdom”.

    There’s still this huge piece that needs to be talked about when it comes to accepting families however they “look”.

  2. Again, so interesting. Looking back I am glad that I had an extra five years to develop myself as a person before “having” children. I was set to dive into motherhood six months after marrying. I have been lucky to have a mother like mine. She stepped out of society’s boundaries in the 70’s by working full time. Staying at home was not for her. I learned from both of my parents that it is very important to be happy as individuals and a married couple as well as happy as parents.

  3. ‘Stalin, father of two.’ Cue my hearty chuckle. It’s amazing though, how we are defined by our progeny, isn’t it? When I think of Hilary Clinton, I don’t think of Mrs. Clinton, mother to Chelsea- I think of Hilary Clinton, our kickass Secretary of State who’s married to that lovable dolt and former President, Bill.

    On the flipside, you have a woman like Mother Theresa – a Catholic nun who, by the definition of what it means to be a nun, never had children – and yet is CANONIZED as Mother!

    And I understand the concern with the message that’s being sent to young girls: become a wife or a mother… or else. (Worse yet: become a SLIM wife or mother.) This kind of messaging is a loaded weapon, and something I didn’t really explore in my post but meant to: when I raise my children, the message for them will be: be a wife, or don’t. Be a mom, or don’t. Just be safe. Be happy. Be fulfilled. Your dad and I will love and support you regardless.

    As happy as I am to wear my tiara, I will proudly salute those who buck this trend, who fight cultural stereotypes and norms. And you’re right: this conversation NEEDS to shift, because it ignores such a large swath of our population in addition to being a dangerous narrative to tell our daughters.

  4. Barbie

    I couldn’t agree more Pamela! (shocking..haha) between baby bumps, mom clubs and social media, I have never felt so excluded from a lifestyle. Being without a child in this day and age is quite the daily challenge.This conversation definitely needs to shift. I am pretty sure unless you have been in my (our)shoes it is almost impossible to grasp this disease. At this point I don’t even expect that..I would just prefer to feel validated as well for what I contribute to society. I would just appreciate not having to be completely overloaded with “momdom” everywhere I turn. It’s exhausting! All Women should be recognized and honored-we need to unite and teach our future generation of women that having it all doesn’t always mean it includes kids…. Thank you once again for your always on point perspective!!! Hope you are well!!! It’s been a while! :) xo

  5. Pamela

    Exhausting indeed (and at times more than a bit boring). How many times have I wanted to say, “can we please change the subject — movies, books, world events …”

  6. Inconceivable

    ^5 to all of the above plus, imho, the ubiquitous ” babies are blessings from God ” is like being stabbed with an icepick for the infertile/barren. (I was born with severely defective reproductive parts…so what does that make *me* according to that…cursed ?)

    1. Tammy

      Thank you for saying what I was thinking!

  7. Re: finding other topics of conversation as we age — personally, when I’m not hearing about their kids, I’m now beginning to hear about the GRANDKIDS of my peers. :p Although I do have a ways to go before my 70s. ; )

    But of course, your parents (& mine) were from a different generation than today’s “helicopter” variety… in my memory, my parents always had (& still have) other things to do or to talk about than us. We were central in their lives, of course, but we were not put on a pedestal — and the mothers of our generation were not, generally, put on pedestals for the simple fact that they were mothers. That’s the big difference today, I think.

    I am sometimes glad that I didn’t get to be a mother, because quite frankly, I don’t think I could live up to the impossible standards that moms today set for themselves (or have thrust upon them). I get exhausted just thinking about it sometimes. My mother worked very hard (both inside & outside the home), but she was not constantly hovering over every detail of my day to day life the way parents today seem to be. She knew the value of babysitters. ; ) (I am also very glad that I grew up in the time & places that I did, because I had a heck of a lot more freedom than kids today do.)

    And yes, when you & I grew up in the 1970s, we had role models like MTM and Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem telling us we could do or be anything we wanted to be. Today, powerful businesswomen like Marissa Meyers and Sheryl Sandberg get more press about their kids and their work-life balance strategies than what they actually do for their companies.

    But I do think there will eventually be a pendulum swing back towards a more reasonable approach to motherhood. Eventually. (I hope.)

  8. Thank you for this. I too, cannot stand the whole “blessings from G-d” business or worse yet, telling infertile people that “children just weren’t in G-d’s plan for you.” Infuriates me. It’s so demeaning of one’s own faith and belief systems AND a way to pass judgment on a person’s situation but couch it in the context of religion.

  9. “What message are we sending to girls?”

    I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon. I’ve been trying to remember my own childhood and the messages I was aware of (I’m sure there were also many I was not aware of).

    My parents told my sisters and me we could do anything. I never felt limited by the mere fact I was female, as generations before me may have. I do remember MTM and her depiction of a woman who was strong and interesting even though she wasn’t a mom. Or even a wife! I remember thinking I would probably follow in my own mother’s footsteps mom-wise, but in MTM’s footsteps career-wise.

    I don’t remember at that time if there were messages that you HAD to be a mom or you were less-than. I do know that my own daughter wants to one day be a mom (and my son a dad) but I have no way to tease out if it’s because that’s what they see from their key role models or because of other messages they’re picking up from society.

  10. I was raised by a mom who drilled into my head that I could have it “all” — i.e., that there was no rush to marry or have babies because I needed to first define myself as an individual, build a career, be independent. while there was a certain amount of validity to her concerns, it turned out she was wrong: we can’t always have it “all.” and that fundamental assumption is based on the view that if you have less than that (which society views as desirable, worthy), then you too may be “less than.” and that’s just wrong.

    when I was facing a life without children, quite honestly I did not handle it well. yet my experience cultivated massive empathy and compassion for all kinds of struggle and loss.

    today, I am trying to raise girls to believe that they are already whole and complete. they don’t need something (r someone) else to define them. they may or may not choose (and try) to become mamas themselves some day. but nothing is a given. all choices are valid. all perspectives are important. I can only teach them that by leading by example.

  11. Pamela

    @Luna @Lori:  Having met you both after connecting online, I have no doubt you are raising children with the utmost openness and empathy and to respect all regardless of how different their life paths may be. May you continue to positively influence not just your own children, but all who get to know you IRL or through your writing.

  12. SO MUCH THIS! One of my good friends from college and I got together to visit after we’d both had one child apiece (maybe a year and 6 months old, respectively) and I was infinitely sad that we talked about nothing but babies for 3 hours. It took so little time for her at least to go from well-rounded person to solely mommy. It’s one reason I aspire to keep my blog somewhere in the 60% mom to 40% career range, because I do not want to lose my non-mom self. You’re such a flat person if you’re only mom. Hopefully society comes around and we stop expecting super-duper parenting AT EVERY MOMENT soon.

  13. I absolutely agree with you that putting mothers and motherhood on a pedestal is a massive mistake, one we as a society will pay for eventually. It is not healthy for mothers, for women who are not mothers or for anyone else. It’s just not. As a culture we should be celebrating women, extolling their successes in a world where it still requires more work to achieve those successes than it should. It shouldn’t be about mothers but women. I hope some day it returns to that but I doubt it will happen anytime soon.

  14. Great post, again. I am afraid that the current political and social climate is veering towards the June Cleaver model as an ideal. I’m hoping the pendulum shifts once more.

  15. Meggan

    Dear Pamela, as always, very thought provoking. I am a mother to a daughter after many years of fertility treatments and losses. Honestly, I don’t know how to relate to the mom of today. I would rather be understood and appreciated for how my character was moulded while in the trenches. I want my daughter to know at the most important is to show empathy for those going through life’s hardships. I want her to know that whatever she chooses or whatever life chooses for her, she matters. I want her to know that different can also mean normal. All these things I wish I had learnt before infertility struck us. I try and use my experience from my history to shape her, instead of running away from it. In saying that, I don’t want to be judged when I don’t want to talk about babies in every conversation. I believe I am a better mother for showing my daughter that I have life, apart from her. Just for the record, I am a stay at home mom, I don’t need a job to define me entire existence either.

  16. Thanks for linking to my blog.

    I find the statistic that you quoted quite astounding. One in five? You really would never know that by looking at the surge of mummyness in our society.

    I love the balance of your blog post. So often these discussions descend to a battle between mums and non-mums with hurtful terms being used (as I mentioned on my blog). It is great to see an honest and open discussion between women without rancour.

    I do say that I have been ‘blessed’ with children – not from God, or from any other deity, but by chance.

    We have come so far with medical technology, that it is sometimes seen as a women’s right to have children, ‘If it doesn’t happen naturally then there is always IVF’, I have heard many friends say.

    As my friends and I age, we realise that medical technology is not always enough. That sometimes even with the best doctors and procedures in the world, some women will not conceive, or carry a child to term. If a woman is unable to have a child, she is left with no idea of what to do, as our society has built up this false ideal of how our lives should be.

  17. Gail

    I am enjoying your posts for this series and hope to stick around as a reader.

    I just caught the last 15 minutes of the Price is Right on TV during lunch and just had to comment that the mom pedestal has moved into game shows. The entire show was for pregnant women and the stereotypes couldn’t be more worse. So many of the women had shirts on with witty things to say about their baby bumps and all the prizes involved minivans and SUVs as if a mom-to-be couldn’t drive a Honda Civic or a Ford Focus. Plus, they were giving away special “babymoon” trips as if going on a regular vacation isn’t enough for a pregnant woman.
    It was just too much for this infertile to take, so I turned it off before finding out the results of the final showcase.

  18. Pamela

    It’s important to keep a balanced view about what science and technology can and cannot do. Appreciate you visiting, Lynn. I’ve included part of your comment in today’s post.

  19. Pamela

    Thanks, Meggan, for your comment. It’s great to hear how lessons learned are being applied around the world…

  20. Pamela

    Me, too — for all our sakes!

  21. I would add how frustrating I have come to find the expression, “everything happens for a reason.” I used to think that way, but after years of dealing with secondary infertility and loss, that theology just doesn’t work for me anymore.

  22. I love this Luna: “today, I am trying to raise girls to believe that they are already whole and complete. they don’t need something (r someone) else to define them. they may or may not choose (and try) to become mamas themselves some day. but nothing is a given. all choices are valid. all perspectives are important. I can only teach them that by leading by example.”

    What a great way to approach raising your children.

  23. I liked your mom’s comment. But you know, I think that is reflective of the generational differences. In NZ, in the 60s and 70s when we were growing up, it was unseemly to brag about anything, let alone your kids.

    And mothers then definitely didn’t want their children to become big-headed. That was a major crime. (Is it a New Zealand thing, or a generational thing? I’d be interested in ionions). Now, I think that was a bit too far the other way. (I rarely heard praise, and yet I was a great student, excellent athlete and musician, and a good kid. Yet now I have an inferiority complex!) But the whole idea of “children should be seen and not heard” still held true. We learned our place in society, we learned to respect our elders/betters, and we learned to consider others. I think that was good.

    Mothers were mothers because that’s what happened. There were non-mothers around, of course – though none in my immediate family. But motherhood was just what people did, in the same way that fatherhood, or being a farmer, or a musician, or a bit of a comedian, was just what people did. And so it seems to me that there was much less pressure on mothers and non-mothers alike. They just lived their lives (with all the other pressures of course that are part of life). Maybe I’m looking back through rose-tinted glasses.

    But I agree that the very pressure placed on women to be mothers (and then, to be mothers of a particular type) is a disservice to them, and us.

  24. Sarah

    I am childless but not by choice. It’s amazing how mothers will use their children to get away with anything. “IF you had kids you would understand why I need to leave work early” or “you’ll never understand the time it takes to mother a child” or my personal favorite “it’s best you wait for kids, they are a complete pain in the…”. I don’t get why I must carry someone else’s workload because their reproductive system works and mine does not. Great his sperm met your egg, just like 7 billion other people, please do not think you are suddenly a “sun person” and the world revolves around you and your genetic contributions. I’m glad there is a place like this blog for the involuntarily childless, especially since it does not revolve around “miracle stories”.

  25. […] I made clear in this post, The Unintended Consequences of Placing ‘Moms” on Pedestals, which coincidentally came together after listening to political convention speakers invoking their […]

  26. […] In 913 words she accomplished what many women (yours truly among them) have spent years trying to do: bring much needed attention to an unhealthy, one-dimensional societal devaluing and marginalizing of women who do need fit some one-dimensional “ideal.” There are lots of people reporting on the body shaming of women who are not supermodel perfect, but I want to amplify the second part of her message — that society needs to — once and for all — get over the twisted obsession with “baby bumps” and its unhealthy idolatry of “moms.” […]

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