Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Myth of Perfect Motherhood

Barbara Curtis has taken to task Judith Warner,the author of the lead article in last week's Newsweek.

American mothers are, Warner writes, overstressed, overwhelmed and underappreciated. They are sinking in a sea of obligation, endlessly running their tots to whatever activity, appointment or opportunity experts say will contribute to the kid's well-being. The pressure of raising kids committed to the treadmill of relentless self improvement gets to be too much. They feel trapped.

Warner writes:

Most of us in this generation grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice. Yet as mothers many women face "choices" on the order of: You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate child care. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night.

Curtis criticizes the author and the women she writes about for being self-indulgent whiners reluctant to sacrifice career and personal opportunities for the sake of their children.

No doubt, there is more than enough self-pity to go around, but Curtis doesn't seem to have dealt with other important aspects of the story.

What is making these women miserable are the conditions in which we live. The meaninglessness of contemporary culture powers much of the drive to be overachieving Ubermoms.

In a materialistic society that prizes individual autonomy above all else, mothers without a strong foundation in an alternative set of values will naturally feel excluded. Motherhood demands selflessness and so by its nature is at odds with the priorities of modern, secular life.

Sensing this tension, many middle class mothers seek to resolve or suppress it in activity. Their kids has to have every advantage, must be a concert pianist by 7, deep sea diving at 12. Having discovered a new species of starfish would look really good on the Dartmouth application, right?

When our lives are dominated by our culture's shifting notions of what a good person or mother is, we are plagued by our inability to live up. What the women in Warner's essay are really struggling with is trying to be a good mother in a culture that no longer agrees on what "good" is.

They may be whiny, but in a culture that has lost its way, there is certainly a lot to whine about.

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