The dominant culture of “New Momism”


Praise mothers in rhetoric, revile them in public policy, and make them pay to prove their love.

The Book

The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, outlines the trajectory of the rhetoric surrounding mothers in the mass media, the revulsion that mothers are subjected to in public policy, and finally, how mothers and children have become a market. From this rich framework, they have this thesis:  While we have come far from the Feminine Mystique, the problem has a new name (New Momism) that is couched in the rhetoric of feminism itself (i.e. choice).

Douglas and Michaels call this problem the New Momism, for reasons that they astutely and accurately outline in the introduction to their book. I suggest you read it — here, let me link you to a pdf version — because the introduction is quick, to the point, and almost stands alone from the rest of the book.

But what I find really interesting about the book is that it outlines, very precisely, the cultural “rules” surrounding motherhood. Of course, they’re critiquing it, and they’re using it as a call to activism, but the rules that they put together for being a celebrity mother (the pinnacle of motherhood in the media, they argue) are not all that different what I’d imagine a list of rules for being a good mother would be — or at least what makes a good mother on television, in the movies, in advertisements, and in our heads.

The rules are (From pages 126-130):

  1. The mom is gorgeous, in clear control of her destiny, and her husband loves her even more once she becomes pregnant and the baby is born.
  2. They are always radiantly happy when they are with their kids.
  3. They always look and feel fabulous — better than ever — while pregnant, because they are nutrition experts and eat exactly what they should and have the discipline to exercise regularly.
  4. Whatever your schedule, whatever institutional constraints you confront that keep you away from or less involved with your kids, it must be clear that they are your number-one priority, no matter what.

And, to be honest, this is how I have imagined motherhood. I have imagined that Tim and I would conceive, which is a word that is imbued with strange magic, that he and I would be joyous and in love, that there would be no ambiguity as we prepared for the birth of our child. I would be a joyful and attentive mother, and Tim would be a doting and remarkable father, and we’d all live happily ever after, at least until the kids became teenagers.

I’m cringing as I’m writing this, realizing how hopelessly naive I probably sound to someone who is a parent. And I think I knew it was hopelessly naive — I was 9 when my little brother was born, I helped take care of him as an infant. I spent my middle school and high school careers babysitting. I know how much attention and care infants need, how their older siblings get jealous, I know about toys being flung across rooms, and trying to stop children from hitting each other and making them go to bed. I know how big of a mess they make, and how boring it can be to play games about a bajillion developmental stages below yours.

So, mothers out there, and aspiring mothers out there… have you ever bought into this ideal?

There’s much, much more to this review, but I’m trying to keep it bite sized. So, for now, the common conception of what a good mother is in popular culture.


7 thoughts on “The dominant culture of “New Momism”

  1. I’m certainly not a mother, but that’s never kept me from commenting. So, let me comment from my perspective as a parent more generally, acknowledging that your mileage may vary.

    Ideals, like Plato’s ideal forms, are rarely realized. That doesn’t have to be a discouragement. We hold up the ideals as an attempt to keep perspective on the everyday situations that attempt to pull us from the ideals.

    I may not always make my kids my number-one priority in every choice of activities. But because of the ideal out there, I at least am aware when I’m making that choice on a particular day or week. The problems occur when I consistently make that choice over time without even being aware of it … and wake up ten years from now wondering why I’m isolated from my family.

    There’s nothing wrong with self-aware naivete. When we embarked on parenthood, we knew that we didn’t have a clue as to what was going to happen. We gave ourselves the freedom to invent for ourselves what it means to be a family — to be sure, looking at other models, but reserving unto ourselves the right to define what it means for us. (And, as well, giving other families the grace to define it for themselves, too … even if they make choices different from ours.)

  2. As someone who suffered PPD after both my births, I believe that this cultural ideal of motherhood is a huge contributor to new mothers’ unhappiness. It is natural to feel some ambiguity if not anger and misery after such a huge life change while your hormones are raging (or emotions are high if you have not come to parenthood biologically), and of course we still sometimes mourn the freedoms we left behind. This does not mean that we do not enjoy motherhood or that we are not wildly in love with our kids, but we’re still people too! I believe that the lack of institutional support of motherhood is a huge piece of the puzzle as well – you hit it right on the head, motherhood is revered in rhetoric and reviled in public policy. I volunteer with an organization called MOTHERS (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights) that works on these issues, I encourage you to check them out!

    • I totally agree with you! The ideals are pernicious, and they cause more harm than good. I really appreciate your org recommendation, and I’ll check them out.

      I hope you stick around for the continuing discussion – on Monday, I hope to post about what this ideal means for women, specifically that it’s pretty anti-woman, and why.

  3. Pingback: What is New Momism? « Practicing Empathy

  4. Pingback: How did we get to New Momism? « Practicing Empathy

  5. Pingback: The purpose of parenthood « Practicing Empathy

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