Don't believe the 'perfect mother' myth
Why do I and so many other mothers feel suffocating guilt for not being a supermom?
As I was watching my son's soccer game just before Mother's Day last year, a mom was trying to get her husband to get a chair out of the car. She implored him but he just looked at her. I couldn't help but chime in: "Hey, it's Mother's Day weekend!" He went to get the chair. On his way, he told me half-jokingly, "That was no fair." Everyone chuckled. A reminder about Mother's Day inspired him to do an unpleasant chore.
In retrospect, I'm not so amused. Why is it funny that the mom wanted help? Why are moms only allowed one day of leisure? It's partially our fault. Most of us have taken on the sacred role of mother goddess. As such, we believe it is our obligation to do everything, to sacrifice, to give up our desires. For those of us who have pursued some of our dreams along with motherhood, there is often an aching, never-ending feeling of guilt. We feel that somehow by pursuing our dreams we have stolen from our children's happiness.
This issue follows us everywhere. How many times have I scoffed at a mother who was groomed impeccably with perfect hair and manicures? I judged her as a selfish mother. Surely she could use that money and time for her children.
The problem is that this kind of thinking extends beyond self-care. From work-life arrangements to day cares to housekeeping, we mothers often feel we must take the shorter end of the stick. If we ask for more, somehow we are less than perfect employees, less than perfect moms, less than perfect women.
If I admit that I am not an accomplished cook or housekeeper in certain circles, gasps of horror erupt. If I dare to share how my husband takes an active role in child-rearing and housekeeping, suspicious eyes are cast my way and sympathy for such a beleaguered man overflows.
In private, I question why I am not a supermom. I feel an uncomfortable, suffocating guilty feeling. It's only in recent years, after almost two decades of motherhood and four children, that I have started to question the overwhelming societal pressure, the driven nature of this kind of motherhood that chokes out any joy, any satisfaction. It makes me question my worth and purpose if I am not completely committed to my children's happiness 24/7.
I don't think this is the age-old feminism argument. This is something different, a bizarre phenomenon that plagues thousands of women in the United States. It is what Judith Warner described as the "Mommy Mystique" in her book "Perfect Madness." She describes the outrageous lengths women go to to fulfill a societal expectation of perfect motherhood.
Believing this myth, they obsess over every minute detail of their children's lives. "It's the way our culture has groomed and greeted us," Warner says. "Mixing promise with politics, feminism with 'family values,'... into a combustible combination that is nothing less than perfect madness."
I sensed this "perfect madness" one night when I anxiously searched a convenience store's shelves. My mission: deliver 20 "black and white snacks" for my son's class the next day. Dead tired, I reached for Oreos. Then I realized that a sugary snack might be inappropriate. There weren't many choices in that color category. Torn, I bought 10 boxes of raisins and 10 packages of Oreos.
Did my value as a mother really depend on picking the right snacks? There are several problems with this "Mommy Mystique" phenomenon. It doesn't create perfect, happy children. How many children are on antidepressants and other psychotropic medications today? It seems as if the numbers keep increasing.
Also, a woman who feels she must conform to the modern-day version of perfect motherhood is just as imprisoned and unhappy as the stereotypical homemaker in the 1950s and '60s.
Further, this irrational perfection has caused women to bitterly fight one another. We are so busy trying to rationalize our own sacrifices that we take sides in mommy wars. We throw out ludicrous arguments about whether stay-at-home moms are superior to working moms or vice versa.
In attempting to take on societal scripts as perfect mothers, we have become isolated and powerless. We are afraid to share our doubts or needs. We have become so busy with images and roles that we forget that we do have voices.
Instead of critiquing other mothers, we could reach out to them. Instead of suffering in silence at work or at home, we could ask for help.
Let's speak up about what is good for all: for women, our families, our future.
Check out new movements such as MomsRising. Or create other movements that address the needs of our nation. It is not selfish or weak to talk about our problems. We have them. They're not going away.
Yes, Mother's Day weekend is laughable. We need a month. Call it "Mothers Making Changes Month." While we're at it, let's pull out the scripts and if necessary, rip them up into shreds and write a new script. Goodbye "Mommy Mystique."
Let's celebrate our own mystique and our power to change the world. We are women. Hear us roar!
• Em Hunter is a writer and an imperfect mother of four.