Mothers under scrutiny

On the way to work yesterday, I was listening to the radio and there was a commercial for a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ (translated from Finnish). I’m sure this a Finnish version of some international hit reality show, but since I’m not a great fan of reality shows, I had never heard of it before. Now there are a lot of things that can be said about reality shows; the publicly private nature of them say a lot about the ideals and obsessions we have in contemporary society, but that is not what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about mothers. I find it really sad that someone has come up with the “brilliant” idea to dedicate a whole show to mothers criticizing each other.

Mothers are already so scrutinized as it is. It is mothers who are considered responsible for the kind of individuals their children grow up to become. If a child develops into a successful adult, we think the mother has done a good job. And if the child on the other hand has problems or should God forbid become a criminal, we look to the mother for blame. We have such high expectations of mothers, and a mother who doesn’t prioritize her children over everything else is not only considered a bad mother; she is also considered a bad woman. Men just aren’t judged as harshly for their priorities (although men do have other social expectations to deal with).

But mothers aren’t only scrutinized by society; they also get a lot of criticism from each other. I don’t think mothers mean to be unsupportive of each other. I think many just feel so overwhelmed by everything they are expected to do and be, that in order not to feel like a failure – in order to feel like they’re doing okay – they compare themselves to other mothers, looking for any sign that they at least are doing better than that. And that is actually as awful as it sounds. We have enough stress as it is, we don’t need to also be waiting for each other to slip up just so that we can feel better about ourselves (see What is it about mothers today? for more thoughts on what it is like to be a mother in contemporary society).

I think one reason mothers may be so critical of each other is that they feel alone in their situations. I remember a woman I interviewed once, who had opted out of her career. She was juggling small children, a very inflexible job, and caring for her husband who was ill. And she was of course the sole provider, as her husband couldn’t work due to his illness. This was a lot to handle to say the least and eventually she realized she just couldn’t do it anymore. Of course she felt relieved after she opted out, but she also felt like a failure. I remember her saying how so many other women seemed to be handling it just fine, what was it about her? Why couldn’t she handle it?

Well that’s the thing. Women are expected to have and do it all. And they are also expected to look their best, be feminine, well-groomed, and pleasant while they are busy doing that – having it all that is. We don’t talk very much about how we aren’t handling it, and we’re generally pretty good at keeping it together, at least on the outside, even though we may feel like we’re going crazy on the inside. Yesterday my colleagues and I talked about women executives who need to take a break for a few minutes in their work day to have a good cry in the bathroom, after which they quickly retouch their makeup to hide any evidence that they might possibly not be keeping it together, and then go back out to continue working.

And no, I’m not saying we should all cry openly at work. It’s just unfortunate that so many women experience similar feelings, but feel they have to go to great lengths to hide it from each other. And as a result we are alone, or even worse we are comforted by others’ difficulties and failures. To tell you the truth, just the thought of a reality show called ‘The War of the Mothers’ makes me feel sick.

What is it about mothers today?

I remember being at a dinner party a few months ago and I was sitting with a group of women who were my mother’s age. We were talking about motherhood, work-life balance etc., when one woman wondered out loud why it is that women with young children complain so much now-a-days, why do they think their children are such a nuisance? She was wondering whether people who have grown up in the 70’s and 80’s aren’t used to working hard, if they just don’t love their children as much, or simply don’t like being parents as much anymore.

This is definitely not the case. It is not that mothers or parents don’t love their children as much as they used to, or that they aren’t prepared to work hard.  There is actually research that shows that parents today spend much more time than previous generations playing with their children. There is also research that shows that professional life is much tougher than it used to be and that people work longer days. It may be true that mothers today complain more than before. One reason may be that it is no longer taboo to talk about how hard being a mother really is, and that is a good thing. But there is more to it.

Women today, especially if they are juggling both a career and children, are drawn between the individualistic world of work on the one hand, and the self-sacrificing world of motherhood on the other. The irony here is that both worlds crave 100% dedication and devotion. At work, you are expected to be completely dedicated and available 24/7, and as a mother you are expected to be completely devoted. Simple math will tell you that two times 100% simply doesn’t work no matter how you look at it. But not only that, the past decades have witnessed a professionalization of motherhood where simply being a mother is no longer enough. In addition to being a mother, you’re supposed to also be your child’s nurse, nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, tutor, teacher, child psychologist…you name it. You’re supposed to be well read and if you don’t live up to it all (like making everything from scratch in order to protect your children from sugars and additives etc. while also holding down a fulltime job), all the recommendations and hype going around in the media and on the internet will certainly make you feel guilty, not to mention the pressure we get from each other.  (Have you ever thought about how you present yourself and your life on Facebook for example? There is material in that for a whole new blog post…)

However, women are not only pressured to be perfect mothers, we are also supposed to be perfect women and have perfect homes. I at least tend to get stressed by the lists of things you need to do that circulate. What you need to eat, and how much of it you need to eat every day; how much water and other fluids you need to drink everyday; what kind of exercise you should be doing and how, and how often you need to do that. And while you’re busy remembering all this, you need to take care of your body, make sure to wax and use the right cosmetics, not to mention your hair and nails. Is there enough time in the day to do all this? On top of all that, there needs to be time to work and to be a mother, not to mention a wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. And somehow I get the feeling that if we eat and drink everything we’re supposed to, and in the recommended amounts, we would end up over eating.

There is also a greater sense of risk in society today. Through media we can take part of all the catastrophes that take place in all the corners of the Earth and people perceive life as much more dangerous, especially for children, than it was say 30 years ago. We need to constantly protect our children from these dangers, which sometimes can be very stressful, not to mention tricky – like protecting children from seeing horrible things on the internet, or internet bullying.

And on top of that there is of course this whole hectic culture in which we live. The job market is insecure.  With all the restructuring and downsizing no one is safe. What you have accomplished does not really count anymore; you’re only as good as your next thing.

So maybe it’s no surprise that mothers have a lot to complain about. Being a mother in today’s society can really be quite overwhelming.

If you’re interested in reading more about the contradictions of motherhood, see:

Competing Devotions: Career and Family among Women Executives by Mary Blair-Loy (Harvard University Press)

The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood by Sharon Hays (Yale University Press)