“She’s everything that I’m not.”
These responses might be colored by the fact that my polling sample, despite containing a moderate amount of racial, religious, and socioeconomic diversity, was composed of women of approximately the same age (mid-thirties to early forties) and the same level of education (which can be described, succinctly, as “more than they use”). Nonetheless, the common elements in the responses make a compelling statement both about the pervasive power of the antiquated vision of motherhood and about how badly we fall short.
The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation. Her day is constructed around her children’s health and happiness, and her own needs and ambitions are relevant only in relation to theirs. If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn’t harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off. She takes care of herself for their sake, to make them better people: “She is in shape and works outside of the home so she can be a good role model.”
Being a Good Father is a reasonable, attainable goal; you need only be present and supportive. Being a Good Mother, as defined by mothers themselves, is impossible. When asked for an example, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmie, from Little Women. Both fictional characters. It’s as if the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Tracy Caulkins were to beat herself up for being slower than the Little Mermaid.
Is there really no other way to be a mother in contemporary American society than to be locked in the cultural zero-sum game of I’m Okay, You Suck?
Without exception, the mothers I know feel like they have failed to measure up. As Judith Warner so eloquently wrote in her book Perfect Madness, “a widespread, choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret … is poisoning motherhood.”
I have been pondering the reasons for this maternal anxiety ever since I first found myself suffering from it, sitting in a playground, my briefcase traded for a diaper bag, my ambition curdling into something I thought was anger but I now realize was closer to despair. Before I had kids, I was hard-driving and ambitious, myopically fixated on my career as a federal public defender. But after my first baby was born, I found myself overcome with jealousy of my husband, a work-at-home writer who got to spend long, languid hours with my daughter. When I became pregnant with my second child, I packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas into the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom.
It was everything that I thought it would be. Mommy & Me, Gymboree, story time at the library, long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And then the next day it was Mommy & Me, Gymboree, story time at the library, and long stroller walks with my stay-at-home-mommy friends. And the day after that, and the day after that.
Within a week I was bored and miserable. But a Good Mother wasn’t supposed to be bored and miserable. She didn’t stare at the clock in Gymboree, willing it along with all the power of a fourth-grader waiting for recess, or hide the finger paints because she couldn’t stand the mess. If I wasn’t enjoying myself, then I was a bad mother.
This anxiety has everything to do with what journalist Peggy Orenstein, author of Flux, calls “making pre–Betty Friedan choices in a post–Betty Friedan universe.” When we were little girls, we all had ambitions that went beyond the confines of our own houses. We wanted to work, to have careers. But we found that the realities of the workplace and of family life often defeated our expectations. When professional advancement demands a 60-hour workweek, when the child-care bill approaches or exceeds your paycheck, juggling home and family can feel impossible. Someone usually ends up compromising, and in a world where a woman still earns 70 cents to a man’s dollar and where a man’s identity is still almost exclusively defined by his job, it’s almost always the mother.
So here we are, either staying home, or making serious professional compromises in order to be more available to our children, or feeling like terrible mothers for having failed to make those sacrifices. I imagine there are some mothers who have without regret channeled all of their ambition and energy into making homemade Play-Doh and organizing the nursery school’s capital campaign. I have never met one. The women I know feel an underlying and corrosive sense of disappointment and anxiety. The women I know are, on some level, unfulfilled.
It’s the fact of being unfulfilled that triggers our most intense guilt and shame. Because a Good Mother not only sacrifices herself for her children but also enjoys doing it. A mother who isn’t satisfied, who wants to do more, who can imagine more, is selfish. And just as the Good Mother is defined by her self-abnegation, the Bad Mother is defined by her selfishness.