How did we get to New Momism?

The Mommy Myth is a book that is specifically about the media, and how the media represents motherhood, and what that says about society’s view of mothers. It is therefore implicitly about culture, since media contains cultural representations, but I want to bring the cultural implications to an explicit level. So, up to now, we’ve talked about the “societal ideal” mother, we’ve talked about why that ideal is injurious, and now I want to talk about how this ideal was created.

Douglas and Michaels put it like this:

For a new set of rules about proper behavior to take hold, warnings about what will happen if you break the rules also need to circulate through he culture. And let’s remember that the media are about creating drama — that’s what they do. To create drama, you need heroes and villains. […] The heroes have wonderful qualities we’re supposed to envy; the villains, repugnant traits we’re meant to disdain or despise (141).

So, in the celebrity mother profiles, the rules for being a good mother are outlined. The most important of which can be summarized thus: No matter what, children always come first to a mother. What happens when women with do not devote their entire being to being a mommy?

On page 88 of the book Douglas and Michaels explain how media panics work. Rather than giving you the 300 word paragraph to read, I’ve decided to turn it into a nice outline for you.

A media panic:

  1. Identifies a person, group, event, or condition as a deeply destructive threat to society
  2. The media then represents the person (&/or etc.) in a highly sensationalized or stereotypical fashion
  3. Authorities then assume the role of moral police. The authorities may simply be reporters, editors, elected officials, or other people who have not necessarily researched a subject.
  4. The moral police does three things:
    • Expresses outrage
    • Demands swift punishment
    • Creates a massive search for other potential threats
  5. Other stories are then connected to this first story, increasing the panic over time
  6. A panic may inadvertently support and reinforce conservative political stances and polices not necessarily shared by the majority of the population which is considered necessary because of the panic.

The book gives many many examples of media panics, but I want to focus on two specific media panics (sexual abuse in day care centers and crack babies) because both produce interesting situations for women that provide clear class and race demarcations in motherhood outlining who can and cannot be a good mother, and also produces polices that impinge upon women.

Day Care Satanic Sex Abuse

No, really. I’m not kidding. In the 80s and 90s there was a media firestorm over satanic sexual abuse in day care centers. I’ll admit to returning Mommy Myth to the library, and now working from my notes, but it turns out that the day care sex abuse hysteria has its own wikipedia page, so no quoting from the book is necessary.

It comes down to this, which fits both the “rule breaking” rubric as well as the media panic rubric: If you work outside the home, you’re not devoting your entire being to being a mommy. If you work outside the home, you’re most likely using day care, so day care becomes a symbol of you not doing your job as a mommy. Since these people who were abusing children could happen anywhere and everywhere, the only way to protect your children is to keep them out of day care. However, if you go through that whole list on wikipedia, you can see that the majority of the cases included children coerced into testimony and convictions being overturned on account of there being no evidence. It was a manufactured panic, though not centrally coordinated.

The most important thing to remember about mothers is this: mothers want to do the best possible job raising their children. And they try to do the best possible job raising their children given the resources they have. In the 1980s, federal funding for day care was basically destroyed, and the state and federal oversight of daycare centers was suggested (though not proven) to be horrendous by the allegations made. And who does that leave to watch out for the welfare of children? Mothers.

What happens when you do not give your whole self to mothering your child? They could end up ritually sexually abused in their day care center.

Crack Babies

To get all the suspense out of the way: crack babies are a myth. Low birth weight and premature birth is more attributable to poor prenatal care than to use of crack cocaine during pregnancy. However, both crack and poor prenatal care (again, there is very little if any federal funding for such things) are wide spread (or at least seen as wide spread) in poverty stricken, urban African American Communities. First of all, smoking and the abuse of alcohol have clinically proven to cause more damage to fetuses than crack.

Second of all, this is so racist it isn’t even funny. The entire hype suggested that poor black women were unable to care enough about their children to resist crack cocaine while pregnant: they were the ultimate bad mothers, this class and race based collection of junkies. Because “crack babies” are related to a particular race and class, those who are not of that race and class are able to stand on their superiority — I’m not a crack addict, therefore I am a better mother. This belief that black women, crack addicts are not worthy mothers almost certainly contributed to the defunding and restructuring of welfare, as well.

What happens when you don’t turn your pregnant body into a pure and pristine temple for the growing fetus? You risk premature birth, you risk a “crack baby.” It is the fear of premature birth, birth injury and birth defect which puts women in the place of policing themselves and others, because it is only women who are able to protect children. Again.

This is related to other policing of women’s bodies while pregnant. Waiters who refuse to serve a visibly pregnant woman soft cheese or a glass of red wine, or caffeinated coffee — all substances not recommended, but nothing that is particularly harmful in a single instance. These strangers are controlling a woman’s body because they believe that as a pregnant woman her body is not her own, it is completely in relation to the fetus growing inside of her.

New Momism is all about making women the bottom line, where the buck stops, the protector of last resort. When the media reports threats — both from without and from within — and does not demand that the government step in and provide better prenatal care, better oversight of childcare facilities, and instead suggests that the only way to protect your family is to do it yourself? That’s when the media reinforces New Momism.


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