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The Mommy Myth

The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women

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Susan Douglas first took on the media's misrepresentation of women in her funny, scathing social commentary Where the Girls Are. Now, she and Meredith Michaels, have turned a sardonic (but never jaundiced) eye toward the cult of the new momism: a trend in American culture that is causing women to feel that only through the perfection of motherhood can true contentment be found. This vision of motherhood is highly romanticized and yet its standards for success remain forever out of reach, no matter how hard women may try to "have it all."
The Mommy Myth takes a provocative tour through the past thirty years of media images about mothers: the superficial achievements of the celebrity mom, the news media's sensational coverage of dangerous day care, the staging of the "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms, and the onslaught of values-based marketing that raises mothering standards to impossible levels, just to name a few. In concert with this messaging, the authors contend, is a conservative backwater of talking heads propagating the myth of the modern mom.
This nimble assessment of how motherhood has been shaped by out-of-date mores is not about whether women should have children or not, or about whether once they have kids mothers should work or stay at home. It is about how no matter what they do or how hard they try, women will never achieve the promised nirvana of idealized mothering. Douglas and Michaels skillfully map the distance traveled from the days when The Feminine Mystique demanded more for women than the unpaid labor of keeping house and raising children, to today's not-so-subtle pressure to reverse this thirty-year trend. A must-read for every woman.

The Mommy Myth
The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. How would you describe the state of motherhood in America today? Do you agree with the authors’ premise of the “new momism”—that women are being conditioned to believe they can find true fulfillment only through the perfection of motherhood? How well do they support the arguments and ideas they present in The Mommy Myth?

2. What are the tenets of feminism, and how have they been distorted through the years? Do you agree with the authors that “the new momism is the result of the combustible intermixing of right-wing attacks on feminism and women” (24)?

3. The authors cite numerous instances where newscasters reported a story as fact but did not offer evidence or statistics to back it up. Why do you think the American public is so willing to believe what is reported in the media, particularly when no supporting data is offered? Does it surprise you that government officials are the major source of news for the networks?

4. What role has politics played in the rise of the new momism over the last several decades? How have conservative mores in particular shaped the American culture’s representation of motherhood?

5. What ignited the enormous popularity of the celebrity mom profile, “probably the most influential form to sell the new momism” (113)? Why do women continue to be drawn in by the onslaught of celebrity mom profiles?

6. Discuss the ways in which television shows and movies—including The Cosby Show, thirtysomething, The Simpsons, women-in-jep films, and Kramer vs. Kramer—have impacted our society’s attitude toward motherhood in both positive and negative ways. How have the images of motherhood in television shows and movies evolved since the 1950s?

7. The “mommy wars” divided mothers into two camps—the working mother versus the stay-at-home mom. What escalated the mommy wars? Is there still a divide today between the working mother and the stay-at-home mom? What about women who work out of necessity to support their children? How has the “Martha Stewartization of America” further contributed to the debate about motherhood and added fuel to the mommy wars?

8. In what ways did media coverage of “threats from without” in the 1980s, including dangerous daycare and kidnappings, impact the new momism? In the late 1980s, this gave way to “the threat to children from mom herself” (140) with sensationalized stories about Susan Smith, Baby M, and crack babies. What caused this shift in emphasis and what effect has it had?

9. Trace the evolution of the welfare mother in the news media. How was the issue of welfare and, specifically, the welfare mother, used as a cornerstone of the Reagan administration?

10. How has the media’s need for heroes and villains enforced the stereotype of the black woman as a bad mother? Have women themselves aided in perpetuating this stereotype?

11. A central point in the book is the failure of the government to institute a national day care program despite legislation having been introduced to Congress on multiple occasions. How did the media’s coverage of the McMartin daycare scandal reinforce the government’s position against national daycare? 

12. To what degree are advertisers responsible for the new momism, including companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson as well as toy manufacturers and retailers? Have they knowingly or unknowingly added to the cementing of the new momism in our culture?

13. The authors use Dr. Laura Schlesinger—a working mother whose platform is telling other women to quit their jobs and stay home with their children—to exemplify their point that the new momism is “not about subservience to men. It is about subservience to children” (299). What do you think of Dr. Laura’s message? Does the fact that she herself is a working mother alter your opinion?

14. Has reading The Mommy Myth changed your views about motherhood, the media, or women’s roles in society? Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels view The Mommy Myth as a “call to arms” and ask women “to just say no to the new momism” (26). How can women do this? Where do you see the state of motherhood in America ten years from now?

 

Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, and Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Her journalistic articles have appeared in The Nation, Ms., In These Times, TV Guide, and The Progressive.

Meredith W. Michaels is a writer who doubles as a philosophy professor at Smith College. Her research and writing focus on the way that cultural changes affect our understanding of reproduction, parenthood, and childhood.

"An absolutely fascinating exposé...this eye-opening report contains a wealth of valuable insight into the never-ending, and ultimately self-defeating, quest for the maternal perfection glorified by contemporary American society."
-- Booklist

"In a book crackling with humor and sarcasm, the authors comb through the past thirty years' worth of nightly news reports, women's magazines, celebrity journalism, newspapers, and ads, and point out a growing obsession with this idealized, and guilt-inducing, version of motherhood that women can't achieve."
-- Chicago Tribune

"This is a book for mothers who can admit that they yell sometimes, feed their children processed food, and occasionally get bored playing Barbie camp-out under the dining room table....It's a book for mothers who would be okay with being imperfect, if only the rest of the world would stop pointing out their shortcomings."
-- The Washington Post