Does good mother = Miserable woman?

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A few years ago one of my daughters, who had not yet fully claimed her feminist card, told me that if I were a good parent, I would be there everyday after school to greet them with a snack and homework help instead of being at work. Outwardly I laughed at her ridiculous mid-century ideas of parenting, but inside the worry that I am not a good enough mother continued to haunt me.

Now recent research by Miriam Liss indicates that the “good” mother, the one who puts her kids’ needs first, who engages in “intensive” parenting, who is always there with a hug and a snack after school as my daughter once longed for, may in fact be more subject to depression, and a parent’s depression is most certainly not good for children.

The research focused on “intensive” parenting, defined as believing that mothers are the best people to take care of the children, that children’s needs should come before their own, and that parents should find their children “wholly delightful and fulfilling.”

    Moms who take an “intensive” approach, marked by the belief that mothers are the most important people in baby’s life and that parents should always put their child’s needs first, are less likely to be satisfied with their lives and more likely to be stressed than more laid-back moms.

Of course what the research doesn’t tell us is whether the kids are happier, let alone the more philosophical question of whether parents’ or children’s’ happiness should matter as much as “successful parenting”- that is, raising competent adults. Certainly some of the recent research on “failure to launch” among young adults and “helicopter parenting” might indicate negative outcomes to intensive parenting, but a failure to launch could just as easily be a result of the Great Recession and a disappearing middle class. What the research also doesn’t tell us is why certain parents are more susceptible to feeling like failures. Why did my daughter’s desire for a June Cleaver mommy get to me?

I think the answer is that I could look like June Cleaver if I wanted to. I am white and middle class and could vacuum in pearls and a sweater set if necessary. For white, middle-class mothers like me there is particular pressure to be “perfect” and somehow perfect means selfless, sacrificing, and preternaturally patient. The reasons this particular pressure is focused on white, middle-class mothers are both historical and contemporary, but have much to do with the invention of the “lady” as a way of creating class and race hierarchies in the 19th century. As “lady” was expanded from nobility to a larger middle class, working-class and poor women were excluded from good mothering (as well as the economic and racial privileges thereof).

In more recent times, the “mommy wars” between stay-at-home (middle class white) mothers and professional (middle class white) women have been staged to give us yet another binary: good mother/selfish career woman.

Fortunately I teach gender studies, long ago got my feminist card, and truly believe that children who are the center of their parents’ universe should be kept out of my orbit. So although the image of June Cleaver haunts me, I know that inside, June was a miserable woman who resented Ward and the Beav for sucking her soul.
This entry was posted in relationships, science, women’s health and tagged Bad Mother, depression, Good Mother, June Cleaver, Leave it to Beaver, Miriam Liss, Mommy Wars, Working Mother. Bookmark the permalink.

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