Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Mommy Myth

A few nights ago Chris and I sat down to watch a rented DVD, Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker. Let me preface this by saying that both of us have a pretty great sense of humour, and really enjoy stand-up comedy. But about 20 minutes into Rock’s act, we were looking at each other with expressions of shock and horror, wondering how on earth anyone could find his misogynist rantings funny.

Rock starts off talking about school shootings, presumably in reference to the Columbine incident which happened shortly before his show. After making a ‘joke’ about the inappropriateness of integrated classrooms, which is too disgusting to even repeat here, Rock takes his own stand on who’s to blame: the parents.

“Everybody’s mad at the kids for shootin’ up the school … what about the parents? The parents need to go to jail for some of this destructive shit, man.”

It’s an interesting theory, if not exactly original. But seconds later, it’s clear who Rock really has in his sights. The word “parents” doesn’t come up again. No, there’s really only one parent to blame here.

“Everybody knows that crazy-ass kid who never had a chance … ‘if you knew his momma, you know he’s gonna be in jail.’”

The audience goes wild with applause and laughter. Apparently, they do all know some crazy-ass kid who never had a chance. Rock goes on to describe what such a neglectful momma is like.

“I met this woman in a club at 2:00 in the morning on a Wednesday, she had two kids at home. Well you got to get the fuck out! Bye, bye, bye! Go home and take care of them kids before they rob me in ten years!”

A pretty clear indictment, that. Momma’s one night out = kids turning into thugs and thieves in 10 years. I’d always thought turning to a life of crime was a result of many complicated and inter-related factors, but Rock simplifies it admirably: It’s Momma’s fault! Has anyone told the FBI?

“I got a little cousin got left back in the first grade. Left back in the first grade cause his momma out getting her groove on. You know how dumb you got to be to get left back in the first grade? ‘What’s four plus four?’ ‘Jello’. That ain’t his fault, that’s the momma’s fault. That’s right, that’s the mamma’s motherfuckin’ fault. I tried to tell my cousin, ‘Tina, talk to your fuckin’ kid. Teach him some shit. You know, if you said more words to him than ‘Momma be back,’ he might know something.’”

Note again that Daddy holds none of the blame for Junior being held back. Blame is squarely on Momma’s shoulders. But Rock isn’t done yet – he decides to bring Daddy back into the picture as he sums up family life.

“The kid can’t read, that’s Momma’s fault. That’s Momma’s fuckin’ fault. Now, if the kid can’t read cause ain’t no lights in the house, that’s Daddy’s fault.”

Oh, I see! That’s why it’s not Daddy’s job to help Junior with his homework, or take care of him while Momma goes out, or even make sure he attends school. Because Daddy is busy paying the electric bill. Well, that’s important, right? Of course it is. And Daddy couldn’t possibly be expected to contribute to the household in any way other than monetarily!

Rock then explains to us viewers why it’s just SO unfair to be Daddy.

“Nobody give a fuck about Daddy. Nobody appreciates Daddy. Now Momma’s got the toughest job, I ain’t gonna front, but at least Momma is appreciated. Because every time Momma does something right, she gets a compliment. Because women need the compliments. Women need food, water, and compliments.”

Thank God Rock ain’t gonna front. Now, I’m not quite a momma yet, but I do know that the work I do around the house doesn’t earn me any compliments. I can’t see baby Buechler thanking me for feeding and changing her umpteen times a day, and I don’t think Chris is going to comment on it either. Those of you who have kids, tell me – is this the unmitigated bullshit I think it is? Do you all get a full harvest of compliments daily for everything you do for your husbands, kids, and household?

Now let me tell you what I really think. Chris Rock, in addition to being full of significantly unfunny bullshit, is just one more sucker buying into the Mommy Myth. I’m currently reading the book of the same name, and it is quite enlightening (if not a bit depressing or enraging).

“From the moment we get up until the moment we collapse in bed at night, the media are out there, calling to us, yelling, “Hey you! Yeah, you! Are you really raising your kids right?” Whether it’s the cover of Redbook or Parents demanding “Are You a Sensitive Mother?” “Is Your Child Eating Enough?” “Is Your Baby Normal?”, the nightly news warning us about missing children, a movie trailer hyping a film about a cross-dressing dad who’s way more fun than his careerist wife (Mrs. Doubtfire), or Dr. Laura telling some poor mother who works four hours a week that she’s neglectful, the siren song blending seduction and accusation is there all the time.”

The myth says that we must be perfect. The myth says that no one else can do what we do. The myth says that we can “have it all” by going out to work and raising kids at the same time (and that this should be easy). The myth says that if we do go out to work, we’re subjecting our kids to all kinds of terrifying dangers be letting someone else “raise” them. The myth says that Stay-at-Home Moms and Working Moms are constantly at war. Yes, that’s right – those “Mommy Wars” you hear about all the time are purely the invention of the media.

“Like increasing numbers of women, we are fed up with the myth – shamelessly hawked by the media – that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and that if you don’t love each and every second of it there’s something really wrong with you. We are cowed by that most tyrannical of our cultural icons, Perfect Mom. “

In the typical fear-mongering fashion, the media keeps us constantly second-guessing ourselves. One example of this was the glut of media attention devoted to missing children in the 1980s.

“These cases were, of course, horrific, and not to be trivialized. But the media exploited them and they universalized them, to draw in viewers. Wildly exaggerated figures – that as many as two million kids disappeared each year that that five thousand a year were abducted and killed – circulated in the media. Revised figures in 1988 suggested that, in fact, somewhere between two and three hundred kids nationally were abducted by strangers for any length of time, and of those, somewhere between 43 and 147 died as a result. A small number of tragic cases became a blanket of terror thrown over us all.”

Yes, 147 is still way too high a number, especially if one of those number happens to be your child. But where are the support systems to help parents realistically deal with the (relatively small) threat? Nowhere to be found, because we are too busy terrifying mothers with the implication that they must be ever-vigilant in protecting their vulnerable children, or else.

“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. It is no longer okay, as it was even during the heyday of June Cleaver, to let (or make) your kids walk to school, tell them to stop bugging you and go outside and play, or, God forbid, serve them something like Tang, once the preferred beverage of the astronauts, for breakfast.“

Over and over, the media underline the fact that this fear, this crushing responsibility, rests solely on the mother. Dad does help, these days, but the shares are still nowhere near equal and after all, would you trust this “most important job in the world” to anyone other than yourself?

“A dad who knows the name of his kids’ pediatrician and reads them stories at night is still regarded as a saint; a mother who doesn’t is a sinner.”

Nannies, babysitters or daycares are not solutions, but in fact part of the problem, as you just never know who you’re trusting with the life and well-being of your child.

“This book is about the rise in the media of what we are calling the “new momism”: the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children."

Mothers of our time, in our society, are deprived of the traditional support systems such as extended family, who in many other cultures would be on-hand to help raise the children. Instead of family members, we have the media: women’s and parenting magazines, news stories, a barrage of child development experts who bombard us with conflicting information and teach us one thing without fail: no matter what we do, it will never be good enough. And it’s probably causing long-term damage to our children.

“With intensive mothering, everyone watches us, we watch ourselves and other mothers, and we watch ourselves watching ourselves. How many of you know someone who swatted her child on the behind in a supermarket because he was, say, opening a pack of razor blades, only to be accosted by someone she never met who threatened to put her up on child-abuse charges?”

At the other blog I contribute to, a group mom-blog, someone decided the following quote would be appropriate for our sidebar: “The goodness of home is not dependent on wealth, or spaciousness, or beauty, or luxury. Everything depends on the Mother.” Where some might see the beatification of a mother’s role, the ‘compliment’ that Chris Rock insists we women need, I see the crushing pressure placed on us as mothers, the myth we buy into when we accept the premise that we are the be-all and end-all of our children’s lives. It’s not the kind of motherhood I want to experience, and not the kind my daughter deserves to see modeled. I believe we can do better, but not until we see the myth for what it is – the same bullshit Chris Rock is selling – and reject it wholeheartedly.


Anonymous said...

You need to read Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born and then take another Women's Studies course (like the one on Mothering that I had to design for my comps). If this post doesn't show critical thought, I don't know what does.


Anonymous said...

Also, Sharon Hays' The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, which is not all that rigorous in a scholarly-sense, but came up with the lable of 'intensive mothering' and describes it very effectively.


Anonymous said...

And apparently I didn't edit that last comment before posting it... sigh.

adequatemom said...

Hey Sally, you've single-handedly boosted my comment stats for the week!

Thanks for the comment on critical thinking. When I first got the poor grade in Women's Studies I thought, "Oh, I guess I'm not a very good feminist." Then I thought, "No, that's bullshit, I'm just fine as a feminist, I'm just no good at pleasing this teacher." I don't know if I'll take another WS course, though one on mothering specifically does appeal to me quite a lot! Thanks for the book recommendations! :-)

Anonymous said...

Critical thinking is not limited to feminism. Critical thinking is the keystone of post-secondary education in the humanities. My [history] students lose marks on their term papers for lack of critical thinking regardless of any feminist leanings.

That said, sometimes when WS instructors note a lack of critical thought, they really mean that there was no feminist theory in your paper. I don't know if this is the case in relation to your specific experience (requiring feminist theory in a 100-level term paper seems wrong to me).


Anonymous said...

Yes, it's clearly bullshit. And you know I don't use those words lightly. Now, let the ECE take it one further!

How about some faith in the child? Like a child is SO dumb that he needs to be actively taught everything?


Amberism said...

The whole Mommy Myth drives me insane, and how critical Moms are of each other ..ugh..

So much to say... basically, I agree with you 100%!


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