The purpose of parenthood

Cover of "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, an...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve lost the art of democratic debate, says Michael Sandel. He gives a wonderful talk during TED about moral philosophy and justice — and how to reintroduce them into our politics. He paraphrases Aristole’s theory of justice: “Justice means giving people what they deserve.” He says the real questions begin when we consider who deserves what and why, that we have to reason about the purpose of the thing or the activity, to fully provide justice to all.

So, this of course has me thinking. I have thought about the Mommy Myth, which demystified the current state of motherhood, deconstructing the societal forces which prompt women to give everything they have to motherhood, and devote their entire being to supporting their children.

I’ve been thinking about Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf, which describes a very hetero-normative, upper class view of childbirth and the immediate postpartum experience — but it also talks about that which is concealed from women, in (from her view) a very strange vow of social silence. (And, I might argue, if choices are limited for the rich people — it’s got to be much worse for those in poverty.)

I’ve been thinking about a book I read in college, which I no longer own but was thinking about retrieving via the library system called “The Failed Century of the Child” — a book about the policies that were put into place during the 20th century which attempted, and failed, to remove children from poverty, and to make education a democratic thing.

I’m reading Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, who explores this question in her book: “As children — and just as important, their mothers — prepare to meet the pressures and the allures of an increasingly materialistic and meritocratic mass society, is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home? the answers to the question have in turn reflected the long-running debate over whether nature or nurture counts most in shaping children’s destinies, which parenting experts across the spectrum and the decades have presumed are decisively cast in early childhood (7).”

So, to go back to the beginning of this post: What is the essential role of motherhood? What is the role of the mother to a child as an infant, a baby, a toddler, a preschooler, etc.? What is the role of the mother to herself during those same time periods? To her partner? To her family, and friends? The “common sense” wisdom seems to be that of primary care giver, and more than that, to be romantically (like “Leaves of Grass” romantic) obsessed with your child, watching their every coo and gurgle.

And, the flip question. What is the role of a father? I think that one is much more cut and dry to the “common sense” — the role of the father seems to be that of helper and bread-winner, and possibly the laughably un-knowledgeable one, as offered to us by sitcoms and commercials.

But is this really the purpose of mothers and fathers? What do you all think?


What is New Momism?

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).” Continue reading

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.

Motherhood and Feminism: What I know and What I want to know

How it all began

I keep fairly extensive journals. I can actually pinpoint with some accuracy when this particular unfinished business of feminism was brought to my attention. I read an article in the New York Times entitled Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood in September 2005, and I was simultaneously outraged and complicit.

I was outraged that the young woman profiled had worked so hard to get into Yale, but was going to give it all up for her future theoretical children, because she saw that it was her mom staying at home that had enriched her enough in order to go to Yale. It was, after all, her achievement. Why would she give it up for her children? Why wouldn’t she use her education to give back to the society she lived in, to help “save the world”?

I was complicit because she expressed something that I, perhaps, believed: that you cannot be both a good career woman and a good mother at the same time. Because, after all, I had been raised by a Stay-at-Home Mother, too, and my mother’s influence was key in making sure my homework was done, and that I excelled in school, that I was able to do after school activities. I didn’t even know how childcare worked – and a lot of my friends were the same way.

It lead me to a personal moral dilemma — what would I owe society? Should I give back to society through working a career, a career I was prepared for by the public schools and public universities? Or should I give back to society to raise the next generation of children — to put them through schools so they could raise the next generation of children? Were they even equivalent? How can you make this kind of judgment? How do you know what’s fair? Continue reading

Listen to your teachers, kids

When I was a senior in high school, I took an English Class that really challenged me as a writer. It was called “Advanced Composition Methods,” but we referred to it as the Writing Center. There were only about twenty students in that class, the majority of them my friends, and we were the best writers who wanted to take the class. We were trained as tutors to provide free lunch-time one-on-one tutoring available to the rest of the student body. But we weren’t allowed to rest on our laurels ourselves. No, besides helping every freshman who needed help with their To Kill a Mocking Bird essay, and every sophomore who needed help with their personal narratives, we were to produce two polished pieces of writing, and a research paper each semester.

The research paper wasn’t the typical kind that you think about, with a stilted omniscient voice that presented itself as an authority. This paper was about a personal quest, about our own personal journeys to seek knowledge. It sounds really hokey, and the majority of us scoffed at that. But the least sentimental teacher who helped coordinate the class said, “No, really, guys. You’ll be writing these papers for the rest of your life, even if you don’t write them down. I have three or four topics that I’m investigating right now, myself.”

Well, Mr. Thompson, you were apparently right. I know I have three or four things that I’m researching right now, trying to understand, trying to put together as I’m trying to become an adult. And the last couple of posts speaks to one of those themes, which I’d like to formalize here as an i-search.

But what does an i-search look like, you ask? I actually had to look it up again, though I still have the two i-searches I wrote back in high school that I could have looked through as a guide. The i-search involves an introduction, where you explore what you know about a topic, and what you want to learn about it, and what your plan is. The “body” of the paper involves many different types of sources, including books, magazine articles, academic articles, interviews, documentaries, and the like. The formalized outline says three different sources for each type of source. I’ve already got the three books sourced that I want to read and talk about in my search, but I also have plans to interview both my mother and my mother-in-law, as well as some of my friends who are mothers. I know of a couple of academic articles I could look at, but I’m willing to see what comes up in the course of my search. Finally, there’s a conclusion, in which I discuss what I’ve learned, and, in my case, what comes next.

I’m a little embarrassed by needing to formalize this like an assignment. I’m reclaiming structures and practices that worked for me in high school, and I’m afraid that it might be an unhealthy coping mechanism. What’s next, me claiming that high school was the best years of my life? But on the other hand, I’m recalling my skills and strengths, and using them to discover myself, go on an intellectual journey, and reach conclusions. I hope you’re up for the ride, dear readers.

Do you guys have any research projects you’re doing now, floating around in your brain, even if you don’t have to write papers anymore?