Part one in our series of essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.
Her kids have always slept through the night, and even if they don't, she still manages to look like she's had eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. There is always a well-balanced, homecooked meal on her dinner table. She holds down a fulfilling job while still finding time to join the PTA, run the school's book fair, and attend every soccer game. Her house is spotless, and if it's not, she can effortlessly laugh it off. She has the energy and desire for a happy and adventurous sex life, and her partner is always satisfied. She is crafty, creative, and embodies the perfect blend of modern woman and hipster housewife. She is usually white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, married, and neither too young nor too old.
But above all . . . she's a myth.
The myth of the "Good Mother" is one continuously embedded in our lives, passed down from generation to generation, shifting to fit the nuances of culture and society but always imbued with a fabled ideal of what constitutes the perfect mother. Today she starts even earlier, manifesting herself as the "Good Pregnant Woman" and the "Good Birther," piling on multiple layers to this already formidable archetype.
This Good Mother has been cemented into our society through television, movies, and most recently, the Internet, where social networking sites, like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and the explosion of "mommy blogs" feed us images and ideas of perfection at a rate faster than ever before.
And we are not just eating it up, we are measuring our own motherhood against it all. But a good chunk of these impressions are just that: dressed up or watered down versions of reality. In other words, all of these perfectly executed nurseries, beautifully decorated birthday cakes, Martha Stewartesque holiday meals, and hyperorganized playdates are feeding into the ever-growing myth.
Motherhood as a topic du jour has also remained a staple of the news media, providing endless fodder for websites, magazines, daytime talk shows, and political debate. The majority of these stories hardly begin to scratch the surface of what motherhood really looks like. Instead, cute and quippy sound bytes end up sanitizing the concept of motherhood, or they go to the other end of the spectrum, fostering a manufactured culture of conflict and judgment.
As the myth grows, so too do the negative consequences of its saturation in our lives. The so-called Mommy Wars, mother's guilt, peer judgment, mental illness, and postpartum depression have all been caused or exacerbated by the unrealistic expectations promoted by the Good Mother myth.
It's insidious on a systemic level as well because as we focus so much energy on the red herring of perfection, we are forgetting the institutional problems, such as how far the United States is behind other countries in many ways: from reproductive freedom and equal pay to not having mandated, paid parental leave, not to mention dealing with a corporate culture rampant with sexism that does not favor working mothers.
I remember the first time I truly absorbed how detrimental the Good Mother myth is. My son was only 4 weeks old, and we were alone together for the first time. My husband had gone back to work, the endless parade of friends and family had slowed down, and an eerie sense of calm and quiet had spread throughout our home. I had just folded a load of laundry, and found myself sitting on the couch, my son happily nursing away in my arms, wondering . . . what now?
I felt like I should have had some idea of what to do, but I was drawing a blank. I had no urge to clean the house, cook, or even sing to my son. I didn't feel sad or upset. I simply didn't feel much of anything. It was that overwhelming sense of apathy that scared me. I should be enjoying this, I thought. Why was I not reveling in this domestic bliss, I wondered. I sat there, a little spaced out, until I heard somebody at the door. Eager for a little adult interaction, I placed my son on the couch and ran to the front door to greet what turned out to be a UPS delivery man.
Only seconds later I heard a wail that pierced through my heart and jump-started all those feelings that had, only moments earlier, gone numb. In the few seconds that I had been at the front door to sign for my package, my son had somehow rolled off the couch and onto the hardwood floor. I quickly shut the door, rushed to him, inspected him for any bleeding and bruising (there was none), and desperately tried to stick my breast into his wailing mouth. As he finally began to nurse, I took a deep breath, and my panic subsided along with his cries.
I spent the rest of that afternoon alternating between falling apart into a sobbing mess and mentally berating myself:
A good mother would never feel apathy toward her obviously privileged life. A good mother would have known not to leave her baby on the couch unattended. A good mother would not be sitting on the floor, still sobbing, when her husband comes home for dinner that is obviously still not prepared.
Eventually I got over myself. Of course, that was only the first of many future encounters with how my story wasn't falling in line with that of the Good Mother's. She would cross my path many times throughout my son's infancy and toddlerhood. We still go head to head in battle now. But one thing I found was that the moment I shared my story with another parent, no matter how ashamed and nervous that made me, I could breathe a little easier. And so, I began seeking out more stories of mothers dealing with realities that weren't represented in the media.
I was surprised to find that many other women were just as frustrated and annoyed with this myth as I was. They felt as if they were being held to unrealistic and arbitrary standards. Who created this measuring stick for what is good enough and then proceeded to spread it as gospel? The more I spoke with other moms, the more I realized that the narrative surrounding the Good Mother will only change if we share the realities of our lives and deconstruct this myth, which for too long has been hijacking the hearts, minds, and attention of women across every economic, social, and racial background – some more than others.
The women who shared their stories with me also have had enough of this so-called Good Mother. Together we created an anthology of real stories of motherhood – the beautiful and funny, messy and heartbreaking. Raw, diverse, candid, and unapologetic, these stories aim for a collective goal: to change the narrative of what it means to be a good mother.
Excerpted from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
Read other essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.