What You'll Learn
- Motherhood vs. Mothering vs. The Mother
- The Perfect Mother Myth
- Empowered Women. Oppressed Mothers.
- The Impact of The Perfect Mother on BIPOC Populations
- Letting Go of The Ideal of The Perfect Mother
- Mothering Differently: An Act of Resistance
Motherhood can be an all encompassing journey. It’s hard to know when we’re not doing enough, and when we’re doing too much. The stakes have never been higher—you are protecting and raising a human being. The weight of the responsibility is real. But should motherhood have to cost your identity? Do you truly need to devote every cell of your being to your children? Our guest Dr. Sophie Brock is a sociologist specializing in motherhood studies—her work is so interesting I’ve become a student of hers—and she’s here to help us unpack the myth of the perfect mom.
Motherhood studies focuses on the idea of motherhood as a social construct. Dr. Brock wasn’t a mom when she was working on her Ph.D, and people often asked why do you want to study motherhood if you’re not a mom? “I thought that was interesting, because it tells us what people assumed, and they assumed motherhood was this naturally occurring phenomenon. Something that’s just the way things are,” she said.
But motherhood has a history and is a cultural role. It’s been interesting during the pandemic as we have lockdowns and people talk about what state the economy would be in if mothers weren’t tending their kid, but at the same time motherhood is often ignored in scientific or academic studies.
Motherhood vs Mothering vs The Mother
The mother is a person. Mothering is the work we do, and motherhood is the role we’re playing by doing the work of a mothering.
If you think about a fish swimming around in its tank, it’s not aware that it’s in a tank. We may look at our role and take for granted that this is the way it’s always been and just kind of how things are. “It’s really hard to see beyond that,” Dr. Brock explained. “But it’s a recognition that the tank has been constructed on a specific set of values, the economic landscape—so what’s happening with the economy—the political landscape more broadly, and the historical landscape.” If we go back 100 or 200 years, the fishtank mothers lived in looks really different than now! And that happens even from generation to generation which is why we sometimes don’t relate to women who might have been mothers long before us.
We’re introduced to these expectations and socialized for this role long before we become mothers. So, a lot of things we think of as our own values have been fed to us by the society we live in. “That’s part of the reason mom guilt is so pervasive,” Dr. Brock said. We internalize and see our inability to live up to these expectations as our own fault rather than a part of the larger picture.
Different cultures and different social structures have different expectations of mothers, but there are some parts of motherhood we all know about. We look at other mothers—other fish in the tank—and assume they must be affected by the tank the same way as we are. “But motherhood is both universal and particular. And we as fish in that tank are shaped in different ways by the tank,” Dr. Brock said.
The Perfect Mother Myth
Mothers can have really different experiences based on where they are in the tank. “How they mother is impacted by where they are in the tank,” Dr. Brock explained.
The perfect mom enjoys motherhood. Motherhood comes naturally. The birth process is a particular way. She looks a certain way. She’s white, middle class, and likely married. She probably has two children one of each sex. She is economically independent but always puts her kids first. Work never comes before her kid, but she’s not relying on her partner or the state to earn money. She’s selfless and takes on all the domestic load, and she’s CEO of the household. She also takes on all the emotional and mental work. This myth is pervasive and all-encompassing.
It’s an image that kind of contorts itself to different situations. A single mom might think she has to work even harder to get back to perfect motherhood. Even self-care has become part of this. You have to take care of yourself to take care of anyone else. Are you doing a good enough job of taking care of yourself?
The perfect mom myth is the internalized expectations from a number of different areas: our upbringing, media, social media, and Hollywood has an influence, and all of these messages over time come together to form this myth. It’s an invisible bull’s eyes, we’re all trying to hit. But we can’t hit it, because we can’t see it. So, we try harder. Guilt comes in to motivate us to do even more and be even better. We try to get closer to this invisible bull’s eye. And we’re never going to get there, because it’s an unrealistic expectation.
We’re never going to get there, because it’s an unrealistic expectation.
“When we think about the expectations of what it means to be a mom, we’re almost birthed in a way ourselves,” Dr. Brock said. We may have this image of what it looks like to be a mom before we become pregnant and once we do it changes. There is also a lot of preparation for when the baby comes, but there is no preparation for how our identity and relationships will change once we have a baby.
And then there is the birth that happens again and again through motherhood. As our children grow and enter into different phases so does motherhood. A study said no matter how much we resist intensive mothering ideology we’re still subject to it. “We still feel the effects of it, because we’re living within the fish tank,” Dr. Brock said.
It’s going to take collective change to move away from the pervasive myth of perfect motherhood.
Empowered Women. Oppressed Mothers.
Feminists have done a lot of work to create opportunities for women. There is this expectation we can do whatever we want, but when you hit motherhood it feels like, “Okay, now you get to give all of this up.”
“We have been freed as women, but constrained as mothers,” Dr. Brock said.
We have been freed as women, but constrained as mothers.
Mothers are the backbone of our society. Care work is woven to the fabric of our society, because babies, children, older people, and people who may be differently abled still have to be taken care of, and it’s often the mothers who do the bulk of that.
The Impact Of The Perfect Mother Myth On BIPOC Populations
The types of feminism that we talk about and that have been given air time serve white middle class populations. But there is a whole other range of activism and voices and ways of talking about feminism aims and goals. A lot of the theory of empowering mother practices and doing motherhood a different way actually comes from black feminist writers.
When we go back to the image on our fish tank, it’s white and middle class, and anything that doesn’t fit that mold is marginalized. That affects the kind of motherhood we’re exposed to, and it also affects social policy and healthcare, biases within the healthcare industry and within doctors themselves.
Letting Go Of The Ideal Of The Perfect Mother
If we’re living our life by a standard of perfectionism and our children are living their lives in the shadow of intensive mothering it sets up a series of expectations for how they should be. “The way we live is more powerful than what we say,” Dr. Brock said. If they see us feeling guilt and shame because we can’t live up to unrealistic expectations, they’re going to do the same thing.
It’s probably better for them to hear us say, “I am a good mom. I know I’m a good mom” and watch us model doing our best through less than ideal situations. And we make a mistake, we can own it. We can use that as fuel to change our behaviour for the better rather than stewing in the guilt and trying to punish ourselves.
This shows our kids they can do the same, and that our love for them is not conditional on them obtaining some perfectionist idea, because they see us practicing self-compassion. Freeing ourselves of the perfect mother myth, also frees our children from being tied to impossible standards.
Freeing ourselves of the perfect mother myth, also frees our children from being tied to impossible standards.
This goes back to The Mother Wound, an idea we’ve talked about a lot on the podcast. When a mom martyrs herself to be the perfect mother that displays to her children and perpetuated over generations, and if the child decides to step out of that and do it differently it can even put strain on the relationship when the daughter decides to do it on her way. There’s a lot of healing work that needs to be done when we’re trying to mother differently.
Dr. Brock told us about an adult daughter who knew her mom tried to do everything for her. Her mom would say to her, “You’re my world.” But the daughter didn’t want to be the reason her mom sacrificed things she loved. Children have to separate from their parents at some point and it can be a really big burden to move away from your parents if you know you’re their whole world.
Doing things you love and having passions outside of motherhood is important. And it’s good for our children to know this is part of their upbringing. “I’m not doing this, because I can’t cope. I’m doing this because I’m a whole person and this is part of me. You’re a different person, and I want you to know it.”
Mothering Differently: An Act Of Resistance
“It’s not about choice,” Dr. Brock explained. Society and culture is based on a lot of systems of neoliberalism and the individual. “Work harder and you can get ahead.” But that’s really hard on moms. We’re carrying children as we’re trying to work harder. It’s not just free will.
Once we’ve accepted we live in a society that’s been set up a certain way, we can start to think about how we want to mother differently. Dr. Brock recommends starting by taking out a piece of paper and writing “What is the perfect mother?” at the top then just start listing out the things that come to your head.
As you write, you’ll probably realize many of those thoughts have been internalized. “It can come down to really simple things like eating. Not having any of our meal until our children have theirs, or going through the effort of making them elaborate recipes and eating their leftovers,” Dr. Brock said. It can also play out in not taking help when we need it, because we feel like that means we’re not doing a good job.
The first thing to do is to externalize these internalized processes we’ve taken on. But as we list things out, we’ll also list values that are important to us. So, the next step is to go through the list and find some things you don’t care that much about. I might cross off cooking. But the idea is to get the list closer to our values as individual women and mothers.
The idea is to get the list closer to our values as individual women and mothers.
It can help to really tune into what our values are, and give a bit of a criteria or a roadmap to this journey. When I feel like I’m being pulled as a mom, I’m able to go back to my values and decide if this is something that really is important to me or for my family and our values.
And when we do this for ourselves, we’re helping other moms! Have a playdate in your messy house. It gives the other mom the ability to have you over without cleaning too. By giving ourselves permission to imperfectly mother, we’re giving people around us permission to drop the facade.
If you feel like you’re having trouble ramming against the fish tank, the motherhood roadmap guides you through the process. It might help you out.