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Why Do We Still Need to Shatter the 'Good Mother' Myth?

01/29/2014 04:48 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014
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Perhaps it's fitting that the two worst mothers on television currently -- Corrine Dollanganger and her mother Olivia Foxworth of Lifetime's rendition of Flowers In The Attic -- coincide with the launch of a new book on mothers. The book, unlike Flowers in the Attic, isn't a little shop of horrors, but instead depicts the underbelly of our parenting faults -- or our parenting humanities -- in the form of beautiful essays by Mayim Bialik, Christy Turlington Burns, KJ Dell'Antonia, Andie Fox, Shannon Drury and more. The editor-in-charge of debunking the good mother myth -- also the title of the book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality -- is Avital Norman Nathman, who has been covering real feminist struggles and the intersection of motherhood on her blog, The Mamafesto, for years.

And while I always appreciate reading any stories, or writing stories, that uncover the real side of parenting like this, and this, and this -- I can't help asking myself the question: Why do we still need to shatter the good mother myth? Haven't we come a long enough way as a society -- as a culture -- to see that women as mothers don't, and shouldn't, be expected to fit into the molds of our fantasies?

The answer is no. In fact, if we look at any given magazine article from last year, we're still expected to breastfeed no matter what the cost (or be crucified if we don't), go to work without maternity leave and make enough money.

I asked Avital the very same question -- aren't we done debunking this myth? -- and she said this:

I think, individually, we all know that the "perfect" mom is bullshit, but regardless of that knowledge, there's still the overwhelming sense of judgment, competition and guilt that is somehow inherently wrapped up in motherhood. It's interesting, because that's not something you see much in fatherhood, right? It doesn't help that mainstream media still promotes these competitions/judgments through articles, headlines, and stories intended to further divide women.

We have endless television shows, more or less the entire programming of TLC--Honey Boo Boo, Teen Mom and the now defunct Jon and Kate Plus 8 -- TV shows that exploit awful parenting choices, shows that offer the exploitative mother or that give us insight about the mother who is just about to lose it. And I don't mean "lose it" in the Julie Bowen/Modern Family sense of "lose it." I mean, the kind of mother who is ready to beat her kids with a willow switch lose it. But on those shows, the examples are so extreme that we completely distance ourselves from their awful choices. I'm not that kind of mother! What an awful mother that woman is!

Take Kate Gosselin, who is in the news again for dragging her children on the Today show to prove they're not "messed up." The public outcry is so extreme because the girls said nothing about their experience when asked. You'd think that Kate -- a totally unlikable person, yet, the mother of eight children, who are we to judge? -- had fed them arsenic doughnuts for two years.

But the truth is our casualties as mothers (or parents) come in much smaller doses. It's quite easy to say: At least I'm not Kate Gosselin! But it's not as easy to admit something like, I curse in front of my kids. Or, Sometimes I can't stand being a mother. I'm not saying these are my current thoughts -- not that that these aren't thoughts I've had, because I have -- but these are the kinds of awful feelings we still shovel in a dark place, where no one can see.

It was only 10 years ago that Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels did their own debunking in The Mommy Myth, a more sociological take, calling out the typical mommy-centric magazines like Redbook and Parents for asking us the self-righteous question: "Hey you! Yeah, you! Are you really raising your kids right?"

Douglas and Michaels write:

Mothers are subjected to an onslaught of beatific imagery, romantic fantasies, self-righteous sermons, psychological warnings, terrifying movies about losing their children, even more terrifying news stories about abducted and abused children, and totally unrealistic advice about how to be the most perfect and revered mom in the neighborhood, maybe even in the whole country. We are urged to be fun loving, spontaneous, and relaxed, yet at the same time, scared out of our minds that our kids could be killed at any moment.

Here's what it comes down to: the impossible standards of motherhood which the media has place upon us, and which we carry over from generations of cultural breeding, are never far from our minds because they're how we're easily defined. You are supposed to be this. You are supposed to look like that. You are supposed to act like this. If we can look deep into those impossible standards, maybe then we can even see how V.C. Andrews allowed women like Olivia Foxworth and Corrine Dollanganger to lock their children up in the attic. (Because the attic was a generational punishment.) So the trick now is to constantly shatter that symbol of the all-encompassing woman, so that the myths continue to remain exactly what they should be.

Myths.