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Sexing the Political: A Journal of Third Wave Feminists on Sexuality

Krista Jacob

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Volume Three
Number Two
May 2004

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women
Susan Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels
Free Press, 2004

Reviewed by Krista Jacob

Debunking the Mommy Myth

Thank Goddess that somebody else is as fed up with the barrage of “how to be the perfect mother” propaganda as I am.

The argument that the media inundates women with messages dictating that they must “do it all” (with success only a commercial product away) and sets unattainable standards for womanhood, motherhood, and beauty that keep women running in the proverbial hamster wheel, going nowhere while working their butts off, is not new. What is new, however, is the new ways in which these perceptions and expectations of motherhood are packaged by the media.

Douglas and Michaels coin the term “new momism,” the daughter to Friedan’s “feminine mystique” which represents the new liberation-tradition hybrid that defines many modern day women’s experiences (for both mothers and non-mothers alike).

The ‘new momism’ is a set of ideals, norms, and practices, most frequently and powerfully represented in the media, that seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your reach…The new momism seems (their emphasis) to be much more hip and progressive than the feminine mystique, because now, of course, mothers can and do work outside the home, have their own ambitions and money, raise kids on their own, or freely choose to stay at home with their kids rather than being forced to. And unlike the feminine mystique, the notion that women should be subservient to men is not an accepted tenet of the new momism. Central to the new momism, in fact, is the feminist insistence that women have choices, that they are active agents in control of their own destiny, that they have autonomy.

The authors caution, however, that despite whatever new freedoms women may have, the juggling act between selfless motherhood and self determined professionalism inherent to the “new momism” is a no win situation that can only be achieved through “the cross cloning of Mother Teresa and Donna Shalala.” These unreasonable demands leave mothers feeling guilty and incompetent, and pits mother against mother in a contest over who’s the best. A familiar dynamic, in the 1800s Friedrich Engels called it “divide and conquer,” it is the new and improved brand of women’s oppression.

Douglas and Michaels critically examine thirty-years of media, including the evening news, magazines, advertisements, and so on, and analyze the everyday impact these images have on women’s lives, their perceptions of themselves and each other. Their research is meticulous and comprehensive, but the aspect of their book that sets it apart from other similarly theoretical books is its accessibility and insistence on fighting back. Though this reader would have liked a “how to” chapter on being an activist while the baby is napping or during the commute to work, I suspect they felt it would have perpetuated the “do-it-all-all-the-time” dynamic they are opposing.

Krista Jacob, MS, is editor-in-chief and founder of Sexing the Political: A journal of third wave feminists on sexuality. She has a long history of involvement in women’s issues, including domestic violence, sexual assault, reproductive freedom, and women’s health and sexuality. She presents at state and national conferences on issues related to violence against women, third wave feminism, motherhood, images of women in the media, abortion, and adolescent women's issues. At present, she is a writer and lecturer.

Ms. Jacob’s written work has appeared in Just Sex: Students Rewrite the Rules on Sex, Violence, Activism, and Equality, (Rowman & Littlefield), The Minnesota Women's Press, and numerous feminist journals. She is the editor of Our Choices, Our Lives: Unapologetic Writings on Abortion.

Recently, Ms. Jacob was given the Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Alumni from Minnesota State University, Mankato.

If you would like to inquire about bringing Ms. Jacob to speak in your community or to set up an interview, please contact sexingthepolitical.



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