Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels

No comments

In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels tackle the subject of the media's misrepresentation of motherhood. Irritated by the "chasm between the ridiculous, honey-hued ideals of perfect motherhood in the mass media and the reality of mothers' everyday lives," the two authors, mothers themselves, began collaborating on the research for the book when they were both professors at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Douglas, now a professor at University of Michigan, lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and 15-year-old daughter. Michaels teaches philosophy at Smith College and has five children between the ages of 33 and 15, and two young grandchildren.

In an interview with one of their former students, Sarah Buttenwieser, the authors discuss how the book came to be and relay their take on its impact.

Sarah Buttenwieser: How did the book come into being?

Meredith Michaels: Susan had finished Where The Girls Are. She had a young daughter and we adopted two kids, so we were back into parenting young children -- and I was blown away by what had happened during that nearly 20-year gap. Where was Free To Be You and Me? What happened to the Barbie-free universe my other kids enjoyed? To me, having Barbie around was akin to having toy guns. Fortunately, my daughter, Cassie, wasn't into them at all. Ella, Susan's daughter, loved Barbies; she had tons of them. Susan believes you can be a critical consumer of the popular culture from the get go. So Ella watched "The Little Mermaid" and played with Barbie and I couldn't stand those things and my kids knew little about them.

Anyway, it was this shift in the culture that made us want to write the book. Motherhood is amongst the most vulnerable sites for ideological conditioning. We were interested in this juxtaposition of the welfare mom and the celebrity mom. If you're a good mother, your kid will go to Harvard; if you're a bad mother, your kid will be an axe murderer. When the personal stakes are that high, it's hard to step back and assess how much is being placed upon you.

SB: What was the process of collaboration like, especially since you live in different places?

MM: Susan is more accustomed to deadlines and she writes more easily than I do, so she did more of the first draft. I'd edit and revise her first drafts and she'd do that for mine. We traded chapters back and forth and we were in such agreement about the tone of the book that I think it's impossible to tell who wrote which chapter. We got together every few months to work on the book and that was important time. These exchanges forced me to articulate my thoughts. We also did a lot of this kind of thinking via email. The process of articulating these ideas together was extremely compelling. And by the time the editor saw the book, there was little left to do.

Progress was derailed by circumstances in our lives. First, Susan moved to the University of Michigan, and making that adjustment consumed all of her energies. My mother got Alzheimer's. My son was hospitalized for several months. With each of those crises, family overtook and work on the book had to take time on the back burner.

SB: How do you feel about the pressures put on this current generation of mothers?

MM: The ante on motherhood has been upped. June Cleaver had it easier: she could just send the kids outside to play. Nowadays, mom is not only supposed to raise children but raise them to an impossibly high standard. For example, when Dr. Stanley Greenspan introduced the concept of floor time for children on the autism spectrum, it was a specific treatment for children with specific needs. Now, mothers with healthy babies are supposed to commit to floor time and to feel badly if at the end of the day they haven't done enough floor time with their babies. Oh, and vacuum the floor, too. Seriously, it's extraordinary when you think of it how much energy goes into one child, extraordinary how much worry goes into one child. Educated, caring parents see a study -- say, the one about not exposing preschoolers to television -- then feel devastated about showing their newborns Baby Einstein videos. Somehow, in all of this we've put aside common sense. We rely too heavily on experts. We need to take the veneer off of motherhood.

Here's another thing I find fascinating about this time in our culture: we love for science to prove parenting theories right. Dr. Sears appeals to the science adoring, proof-hungry parent, but at the same time, he justifies his prescriptions by citing practices of primitive cultures. So, science and women in Africa prove you should wear your baby in a sling all day long. Does anyone talk about why women in Africa wear their babies? Because they are working all day long and they have no other place to put the babies. If they were given a choice, would they perhaps put the babies down more often? What the experts tap into is women's profound ambivalence about how much this experience of motherhood should dictate their lives and their identities.

SB: Did research on this book affect the way you view yourself as a mother?

Susan Douglas: It was good therapy. Looking so carefully at the media helped me pay attention to the historical forces that put a guilt trip on mothers, so I found the research allowed me to re-examine myself as a mother.

SB: Do you worry about pop culture's effect on your daughter?

SD: Pop culture is one of the major things we fight about. Having come of age in the sixties, I'm no prude. Yet, the media environment now is awful, misogynistic. The objectification is vintage 1950s oppression but sexualized. Girls are sexualized at increasingly younger ages. It's dangerous.

Here's a typical fight between my daughter and me: she's watching "The Real World" on MTV. Now, there's a show that has become so sexualized. Why? The ratings started to sag. Chicago marked a turning point; to boost ratings, they started to get people who would be more sexual on screen. By Vegas and now San Diego, it's pretty much sex and binge drinking. So, I tear into the show, critique it. My daughter is pissed off. She wants to watch. She says it's just entertainment. But, of course she is gauging her responses against the media.

SB: What has been the response to your book from the mainstream media?

MM: The mainstream media want to figure out a way to put what we were dealing with in its place. They wanted to pit women against one another: put the sanctity of the mother/child relationship in one corner and women whose ambitions supercede child rearing in another. Our argument gets lost because our book isn't about choosing.

The other thing that mainstream media struggled with was our book's tone. With such reverie about motherhood everywhere, to be sarcastic and bitchy is considered unseemly. It's okay for Ann Coulter or Al Franken to be sarcastic or biting, but don't touch motherhood. Reviews said things like, "They make some good points but the book was hampered by a strident tone."

Here's an example of how seriously people take motherhood. Our publicist read the book when she was returning from maternity leave. We kind of make fun of the craze of making body casts from pregnant bellies, like what will you actually do with that object once you've got it? The publicist confessed to our editor that she felt horribly embarrassed because she'd gotten a body cast! That's missing the point of the book. We don't care about specifics; we want for people to examine themselves more closely, examine the current state of motherhood.

SB: You step away from the humor that's so prevalent in your writing to take a hard look at the stereotype of welfare mothers and this era's disregard for the poor. Can you talk a bit about this?

MM: Policies toward the poor are anti-welfare. Why do we force welfare women back to work after four months when we endorse middle and upper-class mothers staying home with children? The discrimination goes deep. Although the majority of the poor across the country are not black, we feed those stereotypes. The "safety net" is trashed.

Washington DC is case in point: the city displays total disregard for the poor. Drinking water in DC has famously high lead levels. That's been known for a dozen years and nothing's been done about it. High lead levels, we know, are bad for brain development and a huge percentage of the population living in DC are poor and cannot afford bottled water. We know from studies that obesity is epidemic in the country and that childhood obesity is an increasingly serious health risk. We know one thing kids need to do is run around and play outside. But many neighborhoods in DC are so unsafe that a careful mother is going to order her kid to stay inside, to keep away from gangs, drugs, and guns. What will those kids do inside? Probably watch television. Again, we know that too much television is bad for kids. Good nutrition helps stem obesity, but what food is readily available in poor neighborhoods? There is fast food and junk food, but there are no good supermarkets or farmer's markets. Clearly, these kids are deemed unimportant. Their mothers are bad mothers. We should just keep them out of the way in these dangerous, unhealthy neighborhoods. It's time to resurrect a safety net.

SB: What were the most shocking things you discovered during your research for this book?

SD: I didn't realize what a total fabrication the crack baby was, whole-hog invention. I was also surprised by the extent to which the media presented accused molesters in daycare centers as guilty. I'm generally cynical about the media, but I was taken aback by how the media took the prosecutors' side without awaiting trial, especially in the McMartin case. Then, the allegations weren't true.

SB: So what's next for "mom-ism"?

SD: It depends on the day, on the hour, what I think. At least two things are happening. There is an ongoing media backlash that urges women to stay at home, and indeed there is a slight decline in the percentage of women with babies under the age of two or three entering the work force. So, on the one hand, there is this enormous pressure for women to conform to a retrograde, one-size-fits-all motherhood. On the other hand, women are starting to talk back, in "momoirs" and through activism, an incipient movement of mothers. It's an interesting crossroads.

MM: Women need to be freed from such intense self-policing, at which point perhaps they can articulate these issues politically and put their concerns on the agenda. Why are we the only industrialized nation without a substantive policy for paid family leave? We permit the workplace to squeeze out family life. Look, many women didn't expressly choose to be stay-at-home moms but circumstances and finances compelled them to do so. If you can't afford a nanny for your infant on the Upper West Side, you'll be competing for 18 credible daycare slots. So, why aren't women asking our presidential candidates what they will do for families?

SB: What has been the reader response to the book and what do you hope readers will ultimately take away from reading it?

SD: What was truly gratifying was the enthusiastic response from young stay-at-home moms, women between the ages of 20 and 30. These women were raised on the celebrity mother profile and now see that motherhood is not endlessly blissful but extremely demanding. I also met a lot of women in their fifties or older who raised kids in the seventies and are concerned watching their daughters and daughters-in-law tyrannized by the impossibly high standards now applied to motherhood. They are buying the book for their children.

MM: In the sixties and seventies, well-educated women began to wonder why they were picking up their husband's socks: wasn't he just as smart and wasn't he just as able to pick up his own socks? Most women don't realize how far feminism has taken us. In 1970, married women could not have a separate bank account or own a car themselves. In 1970, a woman could not marry and keep her name. In talking to women who have read the book, many I come across say that they didn't realize feminism addressed motherhood. Their association -- largely because of the media spin about feminism -- was that feminists are anti-mothers.

Now, a lot of couples enjoy more equality until children arrive. It's as if the introduction of the child is a chance for the man to regress. Maybe once a woman is a mother, she can kind of be his mother as well. I keep saying to women that wondering, "why am I the one doing ___?" is a feminist thought. Feminism wonders about this not just in regards to an individual relationship but within a system. I hope the book will be a consciousness-raising tool, to use an old-fashioned word and concept.


Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a graduate of Hampshire College and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program in fiction. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as the Georgia Review, Story Quarterly, and the Southwest Review, and various parenting publications including Brain, Child, Hip Mama, and Mothering. One of her essays appears in the anthology My Heart’s First Steps. Her op-eds have appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the The Springfield Republican, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and USA Today. She lives with her husband, three sons, and one daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts. She writes the blog Standing in the Shadows.


More from



Comments are now closed for this piece.