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Motherhood climbs back on the pedestal

Many women feel heavy pressure - from peers, church, themselves - to be 'perfect' moms

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Carla Barnhill knows a stereotype of perfection when she sees one, especially when it involves mothers. As senior editor of Christian Parenting Today, an evangelical publication, she meets many women who are striving valiantly, and not always successfully, to fulfill their church's idealized expectations of child-rearing.

"The definition of what makes you a good Christian is: You are a good mother," says Mrs. Barnhill, who explores the subject in a new book, "The Myth of the Perfect Mother." Many evangelical churches, she explains, portray the "good" Christian mother as someone who is "always loving, always patient, always happy, always ready to serve her family."

As women's roles and responsibilities have expanded in recent decades, so has the degree to which they are judged - or judge themselves - as successful mothers. These days, social observers say, a growing religious conservatism is intensifying stereotypes of maternal perfection. At the same time, secular culture creates its own expectations of perfection. As Barnhill, who has two children, notes, magazines portray the "good mom" as someone who is "very creative and loves making smiley faces on sandwiches." This time of year, she's also expected to create perfect holidays for her family.

Call this approach to parenthood the new momism, extreme mothering, intensive mothering, or exclusive mothering. Whatever the name, this romanticized version of motherhood takes many forms, secular and sacred.

"Most of my images have come from TV shows, Hallmark greetings, Norman Rockwell, Martha Stewart, and the 'perfect' churchwoman," says Susan Wehrley, a mother in Brookfield, Wis. "They're all illusions of motherhood."

For those trying to be the "perfect churchwoman," the pressure can be subtle. "I don't think the church has intentionally gone out and said, 'A mother has to look like this,' " Barnhill says. "This has grown out of good intentions. As the church has felt more threatened by the secular culture, there's been an effort to circle the wagons around the family and create a sense of safety."

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