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Feb. 4, 2004

Women should ignore media's "perfect mom" image, new book says


ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Women should not allow the media to define what the "perfect mom" is because they'll suffer from guilt and low self-esteem trying to achieve an impossible goal, a University of Michigan professor says in a new book.

In fact, women should not be pigeonholed by "the new momism," a trend in American culture that causes women to feel that only through the perfection of motherhood can they truly find contentment, said Susan Douglas, a communications studies professor and co-author of "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women."

"The 'perfect mom' is not attainable," Douglas said. "The first thing (women) should do is take the blinders off. This vision of motherhood is highly romanticized and yet its standards for success remain forever out of reach, no matter how hard women may try to 'have it all.' "

Douglas and co-author Meredith Michaels, a research associate in the philosophy department at Smith College, analyzed the past 30 years of media images about mothers: the superficial achievements of the celebrity mom; the staging of the "mommy wars" between working mothers and stay-at-home moms; and the onslaught of values-based marketing that raises mothering standards to impossible levels. In concert with this message, the authors contend, is a conservative backwater of talking heads propagating the myth of the modern mom.

The assessment of motherhood has been shaped by out-of-date mores, the authors noted. It is not about whether women should have children or whether mothers should work or stay at home; it is about how no matter what they do or how hard they try, women will never achieve the promised nirvana of idealized mothering, they said.

"Whatever mothers are doing for their kids, it is never enough...mothers believe they must keep doing more, more and more, and never make a mistake," said Douglas, who first gained prominence with her book "Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media," which looks at the media's misrepresentation of women.

June Cleaver is the classic example of the 1950s mother who stayed at home and served her family. But the level of detail a woman is expected to monitor and to anticipate "has gone through the roof–and just at the time when most Americans have less leisure time than ever," Douglas said.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of the women's movement and an economy that required two-income households, mothers–and in some cases fathers–challenged the 1950s "common sense" about motherhood. Parents wanted daycare centers and women's magazines said it was OK to let the housework slide, the authors said.

It was during the 1980s that the media mistakenly considered stay-at-home moms a national trend rather than individual experiences, Douglas said. Newspaper and magazines profiled celebrity moms–such as Kathie Lee Gifford, Jaclyn Smith and Connie Selleca–which idealized and romanticized primers on how to be the perfect mother.

"They promoted levels of non-stop maternal joy, over-the-top consumerism and ceaseless devotion to one's child–despite a career–that were both seductive and unrealistic, even for them," Douglas said.

By the 1990s, the myth of the perfect mother who does it all or must stay at home for the sake of the children returned with a vengeance, Douglas said. The government showed little sympathy for working mothers as it failed to offer funding for daycare and propagated how the modern mother should behave.

Today, the perfect mom images continue bombarding all forms of media and entertainment, including cartoons and movies. For example, "Rugrats," a TV animation show about babies, depicts a working mom often with a cell phone to her ear apparently more concerned about her work than her kids, she said.

Ultimately, these images affect a woman's self esteem because she may feel she's not a good parent. She may question what it takes to be a good mother, including deciding whether to buy the latest gadgets for her child, said the authors, who between them are parents to six children.

Related links:

More information about Douglas >

Information about the book, visit >

Contact: Jared Wadley
Phone: (734) 936-7819
E-mail: jwadley@umich.edu