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Mom Shaming: America’s Favorite Pastime

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Recently, a Facebook app came out called Unbaby.me that blocks pictures of children in your news feed and changes them to something more “entertaining,” like cats. Now, I love Lolcats and Anxiety Cat memes as much as the next person, but really?!?  If we are discussing Facebook etiquette, then let me chime in.  I can’t begin to count how many posts could qualify as annoying. Let’s take drunken bar pics or updates from playing Farmville or Lose It calorie counter apps or even those Ecard memes. How many are considered acceptable before they cross into “you are getting on my nerves, can’t you post something else” territory? Moderation in all things is my mantra- kid pics or other. But let’s face it: it’s a choice to subscribe to a friend on Facebook (or even to have them as a friend on Facebook), so why is an app needed specifically for blocking baby pictures?

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I’m sure someone out there is saying right now, “She’s biased and obviously has kids.” Yes, I do have three children, all of whom I love dearly, but I am also a doctoral student, an activist, an adjunct instructor, a wife, a daughter, a friend, etc. I choose not to define myself solely in terms of my parental status. But, if a woman wishes to identify overwhelmingly as mother and post pictures of her kids (ok, a ton of pictures of her kids), then why the negative attitude? Let her be fulfilled as a parent. There’s no harm in that. In fact, parenthood can be so amazing.  I completely understand sharing those adorable moments when your children randomly say they love you or when they can’t say words correctly, like “hostage dogs” instead of asking for the breakfast item “sausage dogs.”  Choosing to “breed” (as someone rather daringly said while I was a huge 8 months pregnant), should not devalue a woman’s status as a human being.

Conversely, if a woman chooses not to identify completely as a mother, why do some try to shame her?  Women who decide not to have children should be respected for their choice.  They are no less of a woman and shouldn’t be nagged incessantly about when they will “finally” get pregnant.  Also, women who are mothers but allow for other parts of their identity to be of value- they shouldn’t be called “bad moms” or told that they “don’t love their kids enough.”  If you haven’t seen photos of the most recent celebrity who gave birth, such as Jessica Simpson or Kourtney Kardashian, then let me know your secret for dodging this form of news plastered all over the internet and covering the checkout area. The media lavishes attention on pregnant celebs and their new babies. These famous women largely claim that pregnancy was great and being a parent is now so important that they do not want one moment away from their child. Kourtney Kardashian said after her first kid, “I have no desire to go out….I can’t be away from him without feeling guilty. It doesn’t feel good or natural to be [without him]” (italics added).  The message is that motherhood is idyllic and a good mother devotes every second to her child because it is “natural.” Here we move onto dangerous ground.

Here are People and Who Magazine covers for Jessica Simpson’s first child. They talk about “baby bliss” and how her “life has completely changed.”

Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels examine the near-sacred view of motherhood in The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. Douglas and Michaels humorously explore this myth, especially as it is perpetuated by celebrities, and how detrimental it can be. After all, not everyone can afford to stay at home or to finance an entourage of nannies to help care for their children.  Is every moment of motherhood a serene, blissful moment? Uh, no. How about those sleepless nights of colic or cleaning vomit out of the carpet or the temper tantrum in the middle of the store that draws everyone’s attention to you and your child who is screaming for a toy?  Why is it so wrong to say that sometimes raising a child is not always roses?  How does admitting the reality of motherhood make you somehow less of a parent, less of a person?

Society has a complicated view of motherhood. In one perspective, motherhood is diminished simply to an unpleasant biological function, but then in another, it is glorified as the most important thing on this planet.  Most of us see (although may not understand how) these contradictory perspectives coexist.  To solve the riddle, some claim motherhood would always be seen as near sacred, but it’s feminists’ fault for denigrating motherhood and destroying “family values.” (Roll eyes here.) The backlash against Second Wave Feminism perpetuated that idea, tainting women’s rights advocates and the successes of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. But, the reality is that prior to the 60s, motherhood wasn’t consistently viewed as a sacred, ennobling role for women.

Following the American Revolution, women increasingly became regulated to the domestic “sphere” by being told their civic contribution was in the form of what historian Linda Kerber termed “Republican Motherhood.”  Basically, women could best serve the country by raising patriotic sons.  The Early Republic view grew into the nineteenth century dominate gender norm for women: “angel in the house.”  Women were believed to be naturally more moral, and their role was to keep house and to serve as a refuge for their husbands, who participated in the oftentimes less savory dealings of business and politics.  (Of course, this marker of womanhood was only obtainable by white middle to upper class women.  Women of color and working class white women were thought to be less civilized and made for laborious tasks.)  As education for women increased and with the antebellum Women’s Movement, the “angel in the house” ideal became challenged.  Some advocated for, as historian Nancy Isenberg states, “co-equality.”  Others utilized the idea of women’s moral superiority to gain reform measures, such as in child custody and property rights.  By the late 1800s, maternalist arguments helped women gain a foothold in public “sphere,” especially in areas relating to child welfare.  But still, motherhood held a sacred, emotional, noble position.

With the Progressive Era and faith in expertise, the medical profession increasingly exerted more and more influence.  Doctors suggested strict feeding schedules and other tips, ushering in what historians have called “scientific motherhood.”  Public health nurses would go so far as to visit homes and teach bottle sterilization to working/immigrant mothers in an attempt to reduce infant mortality.  As a result of the new public health crusade, mothering became less private, and while women retained a special position as mother, they could not raise their children correctly “without physicians’ omnipresent guidance,” as historian Jacqueline Wolf states (86).

I’m sure this PSA from doctors didn’t provoke any anxiety in mothers at all!

Even with less trust for a mother’s intuition and guidance, motherhood was still revered.  That is, until the late 1930s.  The 30s witnessed a large growth in medical specialization of psychiatry and psychology.  These professions employed psychoanalysis more and more, and with Freudian influences, motherhood was bound to be examined more critically.  In 1937, William Allan Neilson spoke to the Smith College Club and said, “I do not believe in mother love.  I think in nine times out of ten, mother love is self-love.” (Plant, 1)  This touched off a public debate over motherhood.  In her book Mom, historian Rebecca Jo Plant deftly examines how the 40s and 50s witnessed a transition in views of mother starting with the all important momism theory proposed by Dr. Philip Wylie.  In 1942, Wylie’s Generation of Vipers was published and attacked mothers as narcissistic, smothering, and dangerous to their sons’ emotional well-being.

His scathing critique of moms hit a chord with post-war Americans.   As Plant shows, momism helped explain the numerous soldiers who were “neuropsychiatric casualties” (100).  Dr. Edward Strecker claimed that many men could not successfully serve in WWII thanks to overbearing mothers.  This “mother love” squashed sons’ ability to develop independence and maturity (Plant 101).  Here, motherhood came under full attack.

Hollywood picked up this momism critique, as evidenced in films, such as Operation Petticoat (1959).  This comedy, starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis, takes place after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Despite severe damage to his submarine, Lt. Cmdr. Matt T. Sherman (Grant) tries to salvage his sub and continue in the war effort.  In his crew, he has what would be dubbed a “Momma’s Boy.”  While cleaning the sub and preparing it to leave, a sailor excitedly rushes to an officer saying he found the cake his mother had sent him.  Although water logged from having been in the sub when it sunk, the man is ecstatic to have preserved something from his mom.  The officer replies with disdain, “Mothers.  Why couldn’t she have sent him something we really need, like a universal coupling joint.”  The young sailor walks away sadly carrying the cake.  Although he may have been comedic relief, the message is clear.  His immaturity (thanks to his mom) is not helping the war effort and is in essence a failure on her part.

(Scene at the 10:18 mark.)

There is a lot more in terms of gender analysis that could be done with this film, but, for this post, the mom critique is important to discuss.  Women tried to adopt the more domestic ideal, but as historian Jessica Weiss shows, couples struggled to fulfill conservative gender roles as well as work and combine more egalitarian ideas for marriage.

By the 1970s, the rise of the “New Right” revived more conservative views of women and motherhood.  It sought to find blame for changes in women’s roles during the 60s and for a supposed decline in “family values” and respect for motherhood.  The backlash left in many Americans’ minds the idea that motherhood had always been a sacred, selfless role if it hadn’t been for feminists, but as Plant and other historians have shown, motherhood was not always viewed as idyllic prior to the 60s.

Presently, we are left with conflicting images of motherhood.  An argument could be made for which is the dominant view (pro or anti mother), but both uneasily coexist.  And, the reality is that this leaves women to be shamed for whatever life choice they make.  Just look at the breastfeeding/bottlefeeding debate, the breastfeeding in public critiques, insults to moms bringing their children in public or women remaining childless, or the working mom/stay at home mom issue.  Who wins in this situation?  Personally, I believe a woman and her choices should be respected.  Period.  Whether you would do the same doesn’t matter.  Moreover, we should embrace a more realistic view of parenting, and when we admit the joys as well as the difficulties, we will be paving a way for a healthier role for moms.

Works Mentioned:

* Douglas, Susan J, and Meredith W. Michaels. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. New York: Free Press, 2004.

* Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

* Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

* Plant, Rebecca J. Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

* Wolf, Jacqueline H. Don’t Kill Your Baby: Public Health and the Decline of Breastfeeding in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.

* Weiss, Jessica. To Have and to Hold: Marriage, the Baby Boom, and Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Allyson Change #

    I’m chiming in here with a different point of view–if I’d known about this app a couple years ago I would have downloaded it. I went through several pregnancy losses and as much as I tried to suspend my emotions after each of them, it was very painful for me to see pictures of ultrasounds or babies. I consider myself a positive person and I desperately wanted to rejoice along with the proud new parents, but I just wasn’t there. I also didn’t want to block or unfriend anyone, but on the same token when these pictures popped up it would break my heart. It got to the point where I avoided facebook for weeks during my dark spells. I eventually got into therapy and made some changes, and between that and enough time going by I can feel joyful again when I see my friends’ child-centered posts. I respect your point of view–it looks like the app has been a great launching point for research and a fascinating article! I just wanted to offer a perspective you may not have considered yet.

    August 24, 2012
    • Ashley Baggett #

      I am so sorry for your losses; I completely understand how such an app would have been of help for you. From comments and posts I had seen, most people who love the app spoke negatively of motherhood, etc, and I hadn’t thought about using it for the reason you mentioned. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective.

      August 24, 2012
    • Carolyn Herbst Lewis #

      Allyson — your comment resonated with me. I had two pregnancy losses in a six month period several years ago. It was devastating. And then yahoo kept promoting the babycenter.com website with images of “your baby” at such-and-such weeks gestation. I finally wrote yahoo a letter, and they sent me a nice reply that basically said, “We’re sorry for your loss… but we’re not changing anything.” This was before facebook, but I imagine I might have had the same reaction as you at that time.

      September 4, 2012

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