Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

March 18, 2014 by

Busting Open the Good Mother Myth

Good Mother Myth - image of bird and cracked eggThe good mother. She bakes her own challah and breastfeeds, is impeccably groomed while holding down a career or volunteer job, nurtures her family 24-7–and in today’s world, she is also spiritually attuned and a strong, independent woman.

Of course, she doesn’t exist. Avital Norman Nathman, a writer and mom living in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, has edited a collection of essays tackling this new spin on an old myth from many perspectives, introducing readers to a passel of moms who do not fit the mommy mold, and are confronting their own Good Mother Myth myth by writing their truth. Whether they struggle with mental illness, gender roles, or community expectations, the dozens of voices collected in “The Good Mother Myth” create a mosaic that is so much richer and interesting than any perfect mom could be. Nathman spoke with Lilith on one of this winter’s many snow days about media myths, policy changes, and hearing from a panoply of moms.

Sarah Seltzer: Tell me about the genesis for this collection.

Avital Norman Nathman: I’ve been writing about parenting and motherhood for a while now, in addition to my other areas of interest. And being immersed in that topic, I was hyper-aware of how the mainstream media framed their stories and discussion surrounding motherhood. Motherhood would either been seen as this sanitized ideal that we’d all supposedly aspire to or various stories would be co-opted and used as cautionary tales. i.e. “You don’t want to end up as this BAD MOM,” working the fear and judgment. 

SS: So why did you decided to do it as anthology of multiple voices instead of just yours!

ANN: It all kind of came to a head for me when Time Magazine came out with their now infamous “Are you MOM ENOUGH?” cover featuring the mother nursing her toddler (while he stood up on a chair. Yay shock value!). It felt superficial, especially when there are so many legitimate and pressing issues facing mothers and families. But those aren’t controversial or sexy enough to merit the big headlines, I guess.

So, I started thinking about a book where I would write about motherhood, not necessarily without a filter, but without intentional framing. Allow stories that just “were” so to speak. The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that if I used only my voice, I wasn’t doing much to change the current dynamic. Hence the idea to make it an anthology.

SS: As you received entries from moms of so many different backgrounds, what were some of the overarching themes or ideas you saw?

ANN: The essays really organized themselves. A handful touched on issues related to mental health, others focused on stereotypes of “bad” mothers, and some delved into topics that really pushed the traditional concept of “mother” in the first place, like Joy Ladin’s piece on being a transgender mom.

SS: I loved that. Do you think the sort of bogeywoman “Good Mother Myth” is the same for everyone? I enjoyed the section of essays where so many moms described feeling envy of another mom who seemed to have it more “together.”

ANN: I think in this media age there are some common themes that all women probably fall prey to, regardless of if they’re mothers or not: ideas around success, doing things the “right” way and so on. But at the same time, we’re all creating these narratives in our own heads about what the perfect mother should be, whether it’s accurate or not.

SS: Do you think there are ideas surrounding motherhood that are particularly present for Jewish moms?

ANN: Well, Jewish guilt is a stereotype for a reason, I think. There’s some truth there! And when you combine motherhood and Jewish guilt, it can be hard to wade through. I still find myself comparing myself to my mom or my Bubby. Am I cooking enough, are the holidays as special?

SS: That resonates with me. One thing that really touched me about the book is how we’re conditioned to see ourselves as in competition with other moms, but the reality is people needs so much support from each other.

ANN: Exactly. I know it’s a bit trite and overused, but there is truth in the “it takes a village” mentality. Especially in a society that purports to promote families, but then delivers little support policy-wise in backing that up. And then it’s easy for the media to feed into that “mommy war” mentality as well.

SS: I think it’s human nature (at least in a capitalist society) to be obsessed with validating your own choices. So moms who make different choices can be threatening in that context.

ANN: Yes, I think regardless of whether you have children or not, validation is a huge aspect of the human experience. So, add parenting to that–and how unpredictable it can be–and it creates one more thing to worry about. Competition, judgment, “experts,”–parenting has it all.

SS: If you could ask a shortlist of policy/social changes that would make motherhood easier for the whole village, what would they be?

ANN: The big one is mandated paid family leave and paid sick leave. I feel like a lot of guilt/worry around parenting could be alleviated if parents had some paid time to actually spend with their infants. Many working parents are lucky to get a week off postpartum. Especially those working minimum-wage jobs. The research also shows that companies with paid sick leave (where employees aren’t afraid of losing their jobs due to taking it) have higher productivity rates. Also: Better breastfeeding support – both at a policy level and societal level. A lot of mother guilt and judgment comes from breastfeeding. And while the medical community touts the “breast is best” party line, there’s very little real, accessible support for many women.