A little note on culture
We walk through our lives performing actions that have meaning to ourselves, meaning to others, as we are self-directed by the meaning that we have internalized — which we then act out, in a constant cycle of action and interpretation and reinterpretation and reaction. This cycle is one theory about how culture functions in our lives. Culture is what provides meaning to those actions and reactions.
Some people take this cycle completely for granted. They live an unexamined life, they take the meaning that is demonstrated to them and perpetuate it. They continue to use these symbols and meanings until something stops them, until the meaning that they’ve been using isn’t enough to explain a situation or a symbol — in other words, sometimes common sense isn’t enough. Some people walk through life examining the meaning of everything, or they become cynical to every meaning — both of these stances, which might be categorized as being “unsettled” — are both rather exhausting.
Culture defines the world so that we can act with confidence within it. Cultural systems both teach and express orientations to the world — they teach moods and motivations. We each have our own cultural repertoire, a mental catalog of symbols, rules, and rituals. Only, the meanings of these don’t work for all people at all times in the same way.
Take this one for example:
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby carriage!
What is this rhyme but a set of instructions — or a rule — for how to conduct your adult romantic life? Of course, the rhyme says nothing about boy-meets-girl or pregnancy and delivery, but because our society assumes hetero-normativity and because the law prohibits (for the most part) legal union between same-gender couples… you can see how this common sense rhyme might not be a culture took that is comfortable for everyone.
It isn’t a cultural rule that I’m completely comfortable with myself. Maybe if it were first comes education and career, then comes love, then comes legal recognition of a relationship, and then comes a community possibly including a younger generation.
But that’s not nearly as snappy.
Somehow, the cultural rules about motherhood didn’t seem all that contradictory to the reality I knew from caring for other people’s children. The two were never side by side in my mind. I don’t think I realized how insidious these “rules” of motherhood were until I read the definition of New Momism that Douglas and Michaels propose:
[It Is] the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet (4). The ‘new momism’ is a set of ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented in the media, that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your reach (5).
But I have a choice, right? I can choose not to have children. Or I can choose to parent differently. Not so fast, says The Mommy Myth:
Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist insistence that woman have choices, that they are active agents in control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy. But here’s where the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to make as a woman, the one that proves, first, that you are a ‘real’ woman, and second, that you are a decent, worthy one, is to become a ‘mom’ and to bring to child rearing a combination of selflessness and professionalism that would involve the cross cloning of Mother Teresa with Donna Shalala. Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: It both draws from and repudiates feminism (5).
And the nail on the coffin: “The new momism involves more than just impossible ideals about child rearing. It redefines all women, first and foremost, through their relationships to children (22).”
How this effects me
I remember this playing out, in high school and in college. I remember talking to other young women and asking them their opinions of children, of kids, of growing up and becoming a mother. The ones who said that they never wanted to have kids were the weird ones, were the ones whose opinions and assertions were belittled by others (“Oh, you’ll change your mind!”). Liking children, or not liking children, separate women into ideological camps long before we ever ready to have children (at least amongst my middle class, college bound cohort).
I was always on the side of liking children. And now, as a twenty-something, the cultural script says that now that I have love, and marriage, I should be making babies.
However, there is a counter-cultural script out there, at least one I encountered as a middle-class white girl. Perhaps it’s more tied into a denial of sexuality in teenagers, and a abstinence-only mindset, but there is the idea that children are absolutely counter-productive to life goals, such as graduating high school, college, and developing a career. It’s a mindset that makes children a drag, that puts sex and children in opposition to any sort of ambition. Tim often jokes, “But we’ll never graduate!” when I suggest we have a kid — even though we both have very expensive pieces of paper, he jokes that somehow we won’t become productive members of society if we have children.
I think that this is a cultural script that is often taken for granted with high-achieving young women in many different contexts. I know that when I consult my former professors about potential career choices, they often encourage me to take risks — at least because I have yet to “start a family.” These are men (and sometimes women) who know that I am very capable often treat children as an anathema, as something that should be avoided for as long as possible in order to develop myself into a productive citizen.
I think that this is a direct reaction to the New Momism — my mentors “know” that children require my entire “physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being,” and so being a mother is something that should not be perused lest I lose the momentum that I have towards whatever my goals might be.
But the problem is that my goals being torn in two directions: New Momism states that I cannot be a “real” adult woman until I have children, my own expectations for myself and my education say that I should not have children, because children are incompatible with a career. It causes a kind of ambivalence where myself as a woman has to choose between two equally tempting, two potentially fulfilling paths. But, as we know, the only good, real choice according to popular culture is to be a mommy, to be a woman who is wholly involved with her children.
And this is what I mean by invoking cultural analysis. New Momism is a cultural script, insidious though it may be, but it is highly unsettling, because it does not fully explain how I can both a career person, and a parent. To the point where my mentors try to minimize the impact of family on my potential career.
There is one thing more thing that I think is really important to talk about from the book: how are these cultural rules developed?
Thanks for this–I feel like I’m struggling with the same issues these days. I very much want a family that includes children, but before I commit, I want to know what I’m getting myself into. What kinds of assumptions are going to be made about me as a person, as a woman, as a professional–and how will I respond to them? What kind of a “club” may I be unwittingly joining? How much of what I think a Mother is is based on these cultural rules (spoken and unspoken)? How will being a mother change me? Is it enough that I think I’ll be a great mom? Is it okay that my parenting style may be a little “off-beat”. I want the best for my children–am I wrong to think that what’s best for me is best for them?
It’s good to know there are other women thinking about these things (not-yet-moms). Maybe the path to modifying/reaffirming these cultural rules is one of like minds talking about them.
Thanks again for your post–it made me think. 🙂
Sarah! Allow me to personally invite you to stick around. I’m doing a lot of reading and research about these topics, and I’d love it if you became a regular voice and part of the conversation.
(Also, there’s offbeatmama.com, and you should check them out. Of course, the majority of them are already mamas, and I’m in that not-yet-mom category you identified.)
You’re officially bookmarked! 🙂 Thanks for the invite!
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Reblogged this on experimentalcriticism and commented:
Great article on New Momism and it’s effect on women. Give it a read. (optional)
I know that this is an old post, but I love the thoughts on New Momism and it’s relationship to feminism. I also write about many of the same topics as you do on my blog. In fact, I loved your post so much I recently reblogged it. Good work!