Frisky Q&A: Avital Norman Nathman, Editor Of The Good Mother Myth

You know Avital Norman Nathman as the columnist behind Mommie Dearest, our feminist parenting column. But Avital is also the “mom” of her first book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality.

The anthology explores the same ground she writes about here on The Frisky, like teen parents, postpartum depression, the changing face of the American family. Contributors included maternal health advocate/model Christy Turlington Burns, New York Times Motherlode blogger K.J. Dell’Antonia, Feministing co-founder Jessica Valenti, Manifesta co-author Jennifer Baumgardner, The Radical Housewife blogger Shannon Drury, and many others.

I’m not saying this just because Avital is one of our columnists — I genuinely loved The Good Mother Myth. It provoked me to think about feminism and motherhood in ways I hadn’t before and opened my eyes more to how gender identity, race and class alter the experience. I gave Avital a call over Skype to chat about her book, myths surrounding motherhood, and how to know when you’re ready to have kids. Our interview, after the jump:

The Frisky: Why don’t you first explain what the “good mother myth” is?

Avital Norman Nathman: Well, the myth itself is that stereotyped ideal of what the pop culture perfection of motherhood is:  white, cisgender, heteronormative, middle- to upper-class. If she works out of the home, she still manages to keep the home perfect;  if she doesn’t work out of the home, she’s that Pinterest perfect mom. [She m]anages to have a healthy and satisfying sex life, her kids are perfect, and if they’re not, she manages to effortlessly deal with them, plans parties like Martha Stewart, all that stuff. So that’s the good mom myth— these idealized expectations of motherhood.

What are some of the sources — the mainstream media obviously being one of the big ones — that feed this myth of the “good mother” and keep it alive?

People have asked [me] ‘Why now? Why is this so popular?’ I think this myth has always been there — say, from judgment in our own personal social circles ‚ but it’s gotten even more popular because of social media and the easy of access to it. We’ve got Facebook and you can choose to edit your life according to how you want it to look to other people, so that can breed judgment and that can breed competition as well. Pinterest, too. I think back to what would’ve happened if Pinterest had been around when I was planning my wedding! That would’ve been a mess! It could’ve been helpful, but it could also be this huge thing to live up to, of all these ideals of perfection. And mommy blogs, things like that. People are putting their versions of their lives out there, but in branded ways, so to speak.

Contributors to The Good Mother Myth include single moms, an adoptive mom, a few moms with mental illness, a few women of color moms, a transgender mom, and a mom who smokes pot. You obviously made a point to make all the different writers in the book really diverse. Why was that important to you?

I think this also speaks to that “good mother myth” — that it’s very monolithic, it’s very ‘one voice,’ and it leaves out many women. Many moms and many families don’t see themselves represented, whether it’s in social media or mainstream media. You look at mainstream media and when they talk about motherhood, it’s either this highly sanitized or idealized version of motherhood, or it’s a co-opting of other stories to be used as cautionary tales, like teen mom vs. Suzy Homemaker. These are the kind of extremes that you get in mainstream corporate media and so many voices are being left out. So, my hope had been to use this platform to bring those voices into the fray so that people could latch onto and find more versions of motherhood than the kind of monolith, one-note ones that we see today, whether it’s an LGBT mother, or a single mother, or a young mother or an adoptive mother, all that.

My very favorite essay in the book was the one by The Radical Housewife blogger Shannon Drury, who wrote about being a mom with mental illness (“The Peculiar Case Of Mentally Ill Motherhood). That really got the wheels turning for me, because there are so many women that cope with mental illness and particularly, depression and anxiety. A lot of those women become mothers. The struggles with mental health don’t go away just because you have a kid. In fact, sometimes it’s exacerbated!

You could do a whole book on mothers and mental illness, I think. I only devoted a section of the book to it, just because there were so many other stories, but they’re all so important.

What has been the response to the book in general? Because I know you posted a bunch of the essays on TIME magazine’s web site. 

It’s been great! …  Of course, you’ll get some comments kind of pushing back and challenging, like, “What’s wrong with being a good mother?” That’s not what I’m saying at all! I’m not saying that we shouldn’t aspire to be the best mothers we can be.

 People have really thought the book was advocating bad parenting?

Yeah. But aspiring to be the best mother we can be is way different than aspiring to be this “good mother” ideal of perfection which is unattainable and undesirable too, I think, for many people. I think some people are frightened that in trying to deconstruct this myth, I’m trying to excuse poor mothering. So there’s been — you know, there’s always a pushback — the majority of response has been really great, really thankful, and a lot of women want to tell me their stories now. They’re like ‘oh, I’ve got a great story for volume two’ or ‘you need to hear this story about me,’ so that’s wonderful. I don’t know if a volume two is in the works, it’s just wonderful to hear their stories. I’ve been trying to put them on the website too if people send me stuff.

If you actually read the book, there’s nothing in it that’s condoning poor mothering.

Not at all! Some people could make the case like, ‘Oh, I’m against abortion so that essay [about choosing to have an abortion] is about poor mothering’ or ‘I think smoking pot is bad so obviously that mother’s awful.’ You could [make the argument], but that would be reaching. But everyone’s got to have a complaint, you know.

Do you think that there are similar myths surrounding fatherhood? What do you think those myths might be?

That’s a good question. There are, but not to the degree [that there are for mothers] and I think that’s only because we don’t talk about fatherhood as often and as pervasively as we do about mothers. Maybe it’s starting to change a little bit. There are definitely archetypes and stereotypes of fathers as the absentee dad or the dad that’s only working, dads as babysitters, and of course the emasculation of the stay-at-home father. But I don’t think it’s as pervasive and I’m not sure it’s as damaging as the motherhood myths. Not to discount fathers by any means, but I think there’s more damage [around myths of motherhood] and only because mothers have been put at the core of the family for so long.

For what it is worth, this book made me think a lot about what it might mean to be a mother some day. I don’t have kids yet, but would like to have them, and you gave me a lot to consider here!  

I have found that mothers of say toddlers on really latch onto [the book]. Women who are pregnant who don’t have any other children are terrified by some of the essays. I’ve gotten people saying ‘Oh, I got this for my friend who’s pregnant and she read some of it, and she called me saying she couldn’t read any more of it because she was getting too scared.’ It definitely was not my intention, but I think there’s that little bit of reality when [the truth about motherhood] gets put out there. It can be scary. So I would recommend [reading] it either before having kids, not while you’re pregnant, or past that first year. Because when you’re in that first year, that can be a bit too intense still too.

Well, I’m joking a little bit but I’m also serious! I’m someone who’s very serious about planning pregnancy and planning parenthood and wanting to have all the ducks in a row. I do want to have kids, but I want to have them at the right time.

There’s no right time!

Well, I know there’s no right time, but your book really illustrates there so many other things that you have to factor in. Not that I will put it off indefinitely until conditions are perfect, but I want to be ready for motherhood.

Or as ready as you can be, because there are so many unforeseen things thrown at you. Whether it’s a difficult birth, or difficulty nursing, or no sleep, or postpartum depression, or sibling rivalry. You can go through the years, whatever it is. “Prepare for everything, expect anything”: that’s one of my favorite mottos of parenting. My other favorite is “The days are long, the years are short.” They’re trite, but they’re so true.

The Good Mother Myth is for sale now. 

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