The Fetishization of American Motherhood

Recently, a media war erupted when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen proclaimed that Ann Romney was no expert on women’s struggles considering she had never worked a day in her life.  Romney tweeted back, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.”  The First Lady herself felt obliged to hoist the flag for Motherhood, tweeting, “Every mother works hard, and every woman deserves to be respected.”  Once again, we were off the races and the GOP War On Women took on the fervor of a 19th century revival.

As we know, this is when the Victorian notion of “The Angel Of the House” sprang into full flower.  (Charlotte Bronte complained that this insipid archetype was basically “half angel/half doll.”)  Teddy Roosevelt thundered in a speech to the National Congress of Mothers in 1905:  “Nothing good will happen “…unless the average woman is a good wife, a good mother, able and willing to perform the first and greatest duty of womanhood, able and willing to bear, and to bring up as they should be brought up, healthy children, sound in body, mind, and character, and numerous enough so that the race shall increase and not decrease.”

“There are certain old truths which will be true as long as this world endures, and which no amount of progress can alter. One of these is the truth that the primary duty of the husband is to be the home-maker, the breadwinner for his wife and children, and that the primary duty of the woman is to be the helpmate, the housewife, and mother.”

But (in the view of the oppressors) there is always an upside to slavery:  “The woman who is a good wife, a good mother, is entitled to our respect as is no one else…”   Then comes the ecstatic worship:  “The woman’s task is not easy–. .  and when she has done it, there shall come to her the highest and holiest joy known to mankind; and …she shall have the reward prophesied in Scripture…for all people who realize that her work lies at the foundation of all national happiness and greatness, shall rise up and call her blessed.”  Even the Virgin Mary looks a little slutty in comparison.

Still, the man most responsible for putting American Mom on a pedestal is a most unlikely figure:  a Russian-Jewish immigrant who headed MGM, Mr. Louis B. Mayer.  Mayer worshipped his Yiddisher Mama, and this sentiment (and sentimentality) made its way directly onto the screen: with the idyllic, nuclear Hardy family; Marmie in Little Women; Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver (she even captures a Nazi flyer singlehanded!); the sainted Mrs. O’Hara in Gone With The Wind; Irene Dunne in White Cliffs Of Dover (she loses both her husband and son to the wars). Mayer worshiped his new homeland (he claimed his birthday was the 4th of July), and this, commingled with the reverence he bore his Ma, did more than anything to sanctify Mom at the movies.

With the advent of television in the 50’s, we were deluged with a tsunami of perfect Moms:  Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson, June Cleaver; Mrs. Walton, Shirley Partridge, and perhaps the greatest of them all, that eternal “lovely lady” — Carol Brady.  None of these icons of womanhood had to deal with weighty problems, at least those which couldn’t be solved in a span of 22 minutes.  None longed for a career, except the redoubtable Shirley, but she had Mr. Kincaid to guide her, and besides, she was able to take her kids with her in that incredible rainbow bus!

Per the book The Mommy Myth:  The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women:[1]  “In the idealized myth, mothers and babies spend their days discovering the wonders of life, reading, playing and laughing. Mom wears her baby in a sling, never raises her voice and of course has unlimited time and patience. Baby grows up safe, happy and respectful.”  This is, of course, The Dream.  Reality can look a little different, with fractured families, single moms, women who have to work (sorry, Ann), and dysfunctionality which spans from infanticide to depression to abuse.  In 2008, one of four U.S. children were born into poverty.[2]  In a 2010 Pew Center Research Poll, when women were asked why they’d had their first child, 47% responded, “there wasn’t a reason; it just happened.”[3]   Obviously, this is a non-choice that has lifelong repercussions.

The Republicans, being by definition conservative and adverse to change, of course cling to the Old Notions of gender roles, where stay-at-Moms are as revered as anything Louis B. could come up with. Working moms, however, are in some form evil, Feminazis, and anti-men.[4]  As a result, many of them feel guilt, even though they have no economic choice.

What the GOP doesn’t understand is that we have entered the era of New Moms, one which provides entirely new role models.  Madonna, Britney, and Natalie can all be sex symbols and good moms; Angie can be smoking hot and still adopt foreign orphans.  Would Marilyn, in the 50’s, have been allowed to be a sex symbol and a Mom?  It seems highly unlikely, although she tried (and miscarried twice).  Back then, the Jungian archetypes of The Madonna and The Whore were too demarcated and ne’er the two could meet.  Now, we’re OK with an amalgam as long as that person is a celebrity and has a ton of money.  They are living the dream for single moms everywhere — one tabloid at a time.

You know what’s really funny?  After arguing that motherhood is in fact real work, the GOP just shot down a bill that would have helped poor moms achieve the life of an Ann Romney.  The reason?  “”There are lots of things we can describe as work. Is raising children as a mother work? Is raising children as a father work? Is washing the car work?” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked. “I’d like to be paid for washing my car, but we have to draw the line somewhere.”[5]

Ok, so raising kids is work if you’re Ann Romney, but if you’re not, it’s just a way to laze around the house.  The bloviating Republicans can’t even support their own platform for longer than a week!  So let’s join an anti-Republican — Jimmy Cagney in White Heat –as the cops close in, and he yells, “”Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” before going down in a hail of bullets.  Guns and Motherhood.  What could be more American than that?

[1] Susan Douglas, Meredith Michaels