Mommie Dearest: The “Mommy” Problem

“Mommy!” Coming from anyone other than your child it can certainly sound sickeningly saccharine, diminutive, and even mocking. But at the moment, all things Mommy reign supreme. This past weekend, Heather Havrilesky (who writes the awesome advice column Dear Polly, BTW) addressed this dichotomy for the New York Times Sunday Review in her piece, “Our ‘Mommy’ Problem.” Havrilesky writes:

Motherhood is no longer viewed as simply a relationship with your children, a role you play at home and at school, or even a hallowed institution. Motherhood has been elevated — or perhaps demoted — to the realm of lifestyle, an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.

And Havrilesky is spot on. We’re currently living in a social media fueled world where it’s easy to see how the identity of motherhood is shifting yet again — this time in a much more visual way. It’s not that hard to find yourself faced with Pinterest-perfect pressure when it comes to motherhood these days. I’ve seen this phenomenon occurring way too frequently in my various circles: ideals of what a mother should be and who can obtain it. In fact, it made me so frustrated — particularly at how it leaves out a significant array of voices — that I did something about it.

Havrilesky continues on, noting how society looks at women who are mothers:

…at this particular moment in our history, some combination of overzealous parenting, savvy marketing and glorification of hearth and home have coaxed the public into viewing female parents as a strange breed apart from regular people. You might feel like the same person deep inside, but what the world apparently sees is a woman lugging around a giant umbilical cord.

So, what’s a mom(my) to do?

I’ll admit that when I first had my son, I felt all consumed by this need to solely identify as a mother. Blame it on being a first time parent, postpartum hormones or lack of sleep, but something inside me zeroed in on my helpless, squishy, newborn son and compelled me to be “mom.” I was that woman. The one who hardly had anything to talk about beyond motherhood. I’d regale you with stories of smiles, burps, and dare I say it, poop. Sure, I bought into the hype of mythical motherhood, but who could fault me? It’s everywhere we look.

Regardless of the progress we’ve made for women along the years, motherhood lags behind. Society and mainstream media still push idealistic notions of motherhood which are then reinforced via social media, yet we continue to fail to back them up with any sort of actual policy (mandating paid maternity leave, affordable/quality childcare, federal paid sick leave, etc…). These messages can easily become ingrained, leaving an otherwise capable, together person questioning both herself and her identity.

For me, it only took a couple of months before I snapped out of it and realized that “mommy” as a sole identity isn’t feasible in the least. At the same time, I knew that there was no way not to identify at least a part of myself as such. And what I found is that being a mom is something I’m proud of and would like people to acknowledge, actually. The problem isn’t with our identities as mothers. The issue is with all of the idealized attachments society has placed on the specific (and highly manufactured) image of “mom.” No one thing defines any person, but for women and all the pressures they face, it can easily feel like you’re being consumed by motherhood, especially when a very singular version is continually being pushed.

Rather than separate that identity out or tamp it down, why not work to change the way we as a culture think about, talk about, and represent mothers? Let’s take control of the narrative both from within and from the outside. Let’s push more varied representations of what it means to be a mother out into the world. Let’s rise up against the injustices still facing mothers from lack of supportive policy to the criminalization of pregnancy and motherhood. Then, maybe, we can start to break down the stereotypes and fallacies around the Good Mother Myth that feels so suffocating to so many of us.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.