Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Northern Colorado
Representations of what it means to be the “perfect” mother are everywhere in contemporary society; Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, twitter, mom-blogs, playgrounds and playdates, to name a few. I know, because I am one of those mothers; I’ve embodied this ideology (though now I try really hard not to). My mom-friends ask me how I “do it all” –from a standpoint of both curiosity as well as criticism. Before I began researching the ideologies associated with modern motherhood, I couldn’t really say how I did it “all” (whatever that means). In fact, I had no idea I was even participating in the hegemonic discourse of motherhood, much less actually giving off the impression that I was achieving some unattainable standard of “doing it all.” I also had no idea just how damaging those unattainable standards could be.
But that was before I had three children, before I lowered my standards, before I learned from (and laughed about) my early mistakes, and before I embarked on a sociological research project examining modern motherhood.
It all started on a playground with my first child, listening to other moms discuss the best way to feed (homemade baby food or store bought?), diaper (cloth or disposable?), teach (homeschool, charter, or public school?), and wash (homemade bath soap or store bought?) their children. I immediately began to question my own parenting abilities, wondering if I wasn’t doing enough and whether or not my firstborn would suffer because I wasn’t going above and beyond to raise him. I wasn’t feeding him all-organic food, I wasn’t making my own laundry soap to wash his clothes, I wasn’t testing all of his toys for harmful chemicals with a special kit. For months, I agonized over these issues and worried about my performance as a mother. I also (thanks to my insatiable academic curiosity) read everything I could get my hands on, including trade books on motherhood and parenting, and also academic research that examined the “why” and “how” of modern motherhood. There was not much scholarly literature on the topic at the time, which turned into an awesome opportunity for me…I knew I had to research the sociological underpinnings of modern motherhood.
The first question I had to know the answer to was why…WHY was this how women were “doing” motherhood? Douglas and Michaels (2004) pointed the proverbial finger at the media depictions of celebrity moms’ perfect lives and flawless post-baby bodies. This, however, contrasted with my own experience. I didn’t care about celebrity’s lives, and I certainly didn’t hear other women discussing them at length either. Instead, I saw firsthand how even the most innocent conversations about parenting could easily make any bystander anxious about their own decisions as a mom. So, a colleague and I launched a motherhood study using a convenience sample of our own personal contacts. We e-mailed our motherhood survey to 164 women, and asked them to forward it to any other moms they thought would be interested in participating in the study. We learned one thing right away: moms LOVE to talk about motherhood. Our sample grew over 50% in size, snowballing up to 323 completed surveys. We asked women about the pressure to be perfect and where they thought the pressure came from, and we framed the analysis using Michel Foucault’s (1975) conceptualization post-structuralist surveillance. In other words, we argued that it wasn’t necessarily just “the media” that perpetuated the pressure to be a perfect mom. This is an important distinction because it’s easy to blame the media for almost any social problem. It’s much more difficult, on the other hand, to both identify and disrupt a problem if the source is unidentifiable. Foucault considered post-structuralist surveillance as automatic, with no traceable source of origin. Therefore, the source of all the arbitrary rules and guidelines that embody modern child-rearing are anonymous, but omnipresent. In fact, Foucault’s central tenet to his conceptualization of power is that it cannot be located; it is everywhere and therefore also inside us (Foucault 1975: 108). Therefore, women are upholding the unattainable standards of perfection by policing themselves and other mothers. Indeed, 26% of participants in our study felt compelled to write-in that the source of parenting expectations came from “self” instead of selecting an external source (such as family members, professionals, friends, etc.). This is problematic because even though women are influenced by external sources, they are internalizing this pressure and claiming that it comes from within themselves. This is quintessential Foucauldian behavior; participants were well aware of the social expectations of what it takes to be a “perfect mother” and also actively trying to achieve these normative standards of perfection. Yet, when they do not measure up to the ideals, women look to each other and to themselves for the source of the problem. It’s a powerful cycle of self-blame that unfortunately distracts us from identifying and critiquing the external forces at play.
Our most recent study examined the mental health consequences of this type of motherhood discourse on all mothers, not just those who subscribe to intensive parenting ideologies. The reason we framed the study in this way is because we wanted to problematize the discourse, and critique the ubiquitous standards of perfection as opposed to critiquing mothers themselves. This is a departure from some of the recent literature on intensive motherhood; other scholars were asking why women subscribe to intensive mothering ideologies as opposed to identifying the power of the ideology and how it affects all women.
The results show that moms who experience the pressure to be perfect have higher anxiety levels, higher stress levels, and lower levels of self-efficacy, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the traditional ideologies of motherhood. This is important because it shifts the responsibility for carrying the weight of guilt and self-blame off of the mother’s shoulders. It is not any one choice that women make that compounds the pressure to be perfect; instead, it is all around us. It is part of the modern mystique of motherhood.
So where do we go from here? Can we escape these standards of perfection? The good news is, the counter-hegemonic discourse is in full swing. While we could argue that social media only make the problem worse by allowing parents to post picture-perfect glimpses of their family lives, including their perfectly themed birthday parties and Pinterest-inspired Halloween costumes, the other end of the parenting spectrum is also being celebrated. Social media sites provide comic relief to help parents take the daily challenges of raising children in stride; hashtags such as #momoftheyear, #pinterestfails, #nailedit and others help us identify and critique the (often) ridiculous standards of perfection associated with parenting and motherhood. In addition, social media sites are also inspiring new avenues for research on the hegemonic discourse of motherhood, fatherhood, and everything in between. It’s an exciting time to be researching these issues, and it’s important to keep in mind how far this line of research has come. Since Betty Friedan identified the “problem that has no name,” we’ve named it, investigated it, identified how it’s changed over the past 50 years, and we are actively critiquing it.
As for me, I don’t, and never have “had it all,” and I never will. Because that standard – that perpetual voice inside all of our heads pushing us to give more, do more, bake more, make more….it’s not reality. It does create fear, anxiety, and stress…and it certainly sells us all sorts of things we don’t really need. So instead of having it all, I challenge it all. I challenge it in my research, in my own social circle, on social media as well as interpersonally. My children do not have Pinterest-inspired snacks every day after school, built on these idealized notions of motherhood and family life. I’ve gotten better at practicing what I preach in my research, and so far, my kids seem to be okay. #fingerscrossed
Douglas, S. J. & Michaels, M. 2004. The Mommy Myth. New York, NY: Free Press.
Foucault, M. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.