The Mommy Myth

Most people don’t get (or want) to look at old news footage, but we looked at thirty years of stories relating to motherhood. In the 1970s, with the exception of various welfare reform proposals, there was almost nothing in the network news about motherhood, working mothers, or childcare. And when you go back and watch news footage from 1972, for example, all you see is John Chancellor at NBC in black and white reading the news with no illustrating graphics, or Walter Cronkite sitting in front of a map of the world that one of the Rugrats could have drawn–that’s it.

But by the 1980s, the explosion in the number of working mothers, the desperate need for day care, sci-fi level reproductive technologies, the discovery of how widespread child abuse was–all this was newsworthy. At the same time, the network news shows were becoming more flashy and sensationalistic in their efforts to compete with tabloid TV offerings like A Current Affair and America’s Most Wanted. NBC, for example introduced a story about day care centers in 1984 with a beat-up Raggedy Ann doll lying limp next to a chair with the huge words Child Abuse scrawled next to her in what appeared to be Charles Manson’s handwriting. So stories that were titillating, that could be really tarted up, that were about children and sex, or children and violence–well, they just got more coverage than why Senator Rope-a-Dope refused to vote for decent day care. From the McMartin day-care scandal and missing children to Susan Smith and murdering nannies, the barrage of kids-in-jeopardy, ‘innocence corrupted’ stories made mothers feel they had to guard their kids with the same intensity as the secret service guys watching POTUS.

Having discovered in the summer of 2001 that one missing Congressional intern and some shark attacks could fill the twenty-four-hour news hold, the cable channels the following year gave us the summer of abducted girls (rather than, say, in-depth probes of widespread corporate wrongdoing that robbed millions of people of millions of dollars). Even though FBI figures showed a decline in missing persons and child abductions, such stories were, as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter put it, ‘inexpensive’ and got ‘boffo ratings.’ It goes without saying that such crimes are horrific and, understandably, bereft parents wanted to use the media to help locate their kidnapped children. But the incessant coverage of the abductions of Samantha Runnion (whose mother, the media repeatedly reminded us, was at work), Elizabeth Smart, Tamara Brooks, Jacqueline Marris, and Danielle van Dam terrified parents across the country all out of proportion to the risks their children faced. (To put things in perspective, in a country of nearly three hundred million people, estimates were that only 115 children were taken by strangers in way that were dangerous to the child.) Unlike mothers in the 1950s, then, we were never to let our children out of our sight at carnivals, shopping malls, or playgrounds, and it was up to us to protect them from failing schools, environmental pollution, molesters, drugs, priests, Alar, the Internet, amusement parks, air bags, jungle gyms, South Park, trampolines, rottweilers, gangs and HBO specials about lap dancers and masturbation clubs. It’s a wonder any women had children and, once they did, ever let them out of their sight.

Then there were the magazines. Beginning in the 1980s, and exploding with a vengeance in the ’90s, celebrity journalism brought us a feature that spread like head lice through women’s magazines, as well as the more recent celebrity and ‘lifestyle’ glossies: the celebrity mom profile. If any media form has played a central role in convincing young women without children that having a baby is akin to ascending to heaven and seeing God, it is the celebrity mom profile. ‘Happiness is having a baby,’ gushed Marie Osmond on a 1983 cover of Good Housekeeping, and Linda Evans, at the peak of her success in Dynasty, added in Ladies Home Journal, ‘All I want is a husband and baby.’ Barbara Mandrell proclaimed, ‘Now my children come first,’ Valerie Harper confessed, ‘I finally have a child to love,’ and Cybill Shepard announced, ‘I’ll have a fourth baby or adopt!’ Assaulting us from every supermarket checkout line and doctor’s or dentist’s offices, celebrity moms like Kathie Lee Gifford, Joan Lunden, Jaclyn Smith, Kirstie Alley, and Christie Brinkley (to name just a few) beamed from the comfy serenity and perfection of their lives as they gave multiple interviews about their ‘miracle babies,’ how much they loved their kids, what an unadulterated joy motherhood was, and about all the things they did with their kids to ensure they would be perfectly normal Nobel laureates by the age of twelve. By the summer of 1999, one of People’s biggest summer stories, featuring the huge cover headlines ‘BOY, OH BOY,” was the birth of Cindy Crawford’s baby. The following summer, under the headline “PREGNANT AT LAST!” we had the pleasure of reading about the sperm motility rate of Celine Dion’s husband, information that some of us, at least, could have lived without. In 2003, Angelina Jolie claimed that her adopted baby ‘saved my life.’ The media message was that celebrity moms work on the set for twelve hours a day, yet somehow manage to do somersaults with their kids in the park, read to them every day, take them out for ice cream whenever they wanted, get up with them at 3:00 a.m., and, of course, buy them toys, animals, and furniture previously reserved for the offspring of the Shah of Iran. These were supposed to be our new role models.

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it has Undermined Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels

Just some stuff I’m reading right now and contemplating. Good to know other people don’t have it all together. Also this books combines media analysis with continuing cultural norms/beliefs. Kinda something I’m into. I think if I ever went back to work I’d probably want to be a media critic or analyst instead of a journalist. Not sure there is a huge market for that kind of job, but you know, a girl can dream.

3 Comments

Filed under Journalism, Parenting

3 responses to “The Mommy Myth

  1. Paula

    can you put the next paragraph up? i want to see what she says about the present media…

  2. lwuertz

    Well, the book was written in 2004, but really seems to so far focus on media from 70s, 80s and 90s. If you think about it though, I don’t think the magazines and TV have changed all that much. Most of the magazines still have celebrity mom profiles a lot that suggest that you can have it all and be an a-list actress with a gorgeous husband and five billion kids that you’ve either adopted or had through invitro fertilization. And there are a lot of “news” stories about everything from circumcision, to toy recalls, to vaccinations, to childhood obesity (just a sampling from the MSNBC kids and parenting section this morning). On the one hand the media tries to make motherhood seem so glamorous and perfect, on the other they try to scare the Dicken’s out of you once you are a parent.

  3. Thanks for posting this and reminding me how interested I am in media studies/ women in the media. Now I really want to find some books on the subject! It’s too bad there isn’t a huge market for that kind of career. I’d also love to do something related to media analysis one day.

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