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The Fallacy and Danger of Mommy Stereotypes

Working mom. Stay-at-home mom. Soccer mom. PTO mom. Mom stereotypes can be hurtful.

Published on: February 05, 2020

moms pushing their kids on the swings side by side at a playground

Recently, a close friend told me that when her kids were younger, she would take them to playgrounds in Seattle’s wealthier neighborhoods. As her kids played, she would sit on a bench and watch the perfectly groomed women across the playground. “I could never work up the nerve to go talk to them.”  Why?  “I just felt that there was no way that I could relate to them or even approach them,” she told me. 

I get that.  Recently I moved from a small, upwardly mobile suburb that is economically well-off, highly educated and family-oriented. Being a mother in that small town was like living in a box with labels: PTO mom, the Perfect Mom, Soccer Mom, the Working Mom and others. I wasn’t surprised that there were boxes. After all, much of contemporary motherhood exists to fill these boxes. 

The Mommy Wars

Read any women’s magazine or blog today, and you will encounter a long list of mom stereotypes. I’m an older mom, so when I first became a mother in 1995, only two species existed: the Working Mom and the Stay-at-Home-Mom (SAHM). The media, ever a fan of a cat-and-mouse story, decided to declare war: The "Mommy Wars." 

During the Mommy Wars, a SAHM was on one side of motherhood, and the working mom was on the opposing side. SAHM’s resented working moms for the money they earned, experienced guilt for not being a “career” woman themselves, and lamented not having regular chances to leave the house to interact with adults (my latte for another adult!). 

Working moms coveted what SAHMs had — more time with their children, a slower pace and more flexibility. Putting mothers into boxes meant that it was easier to pit one against the other than understand how motherhood should work for everyone. But the problems that existed then — crippling childcare costs, job (in)flexibility, job discrimination and other issues — still exist today. Those boxes and their facile definitions didn’t solve anything. 

I was a stay-at-home mom who also worked part-time out of my home. I thought that I was straddling the Mommy War trenches, but as time went on, I realized that I was playing both sides of those wars, a double agent in all the clashing guilt, insecurity, resentment and competitiveness. Today, the Mommy Wars have expanded into a full-blown global war on motherhood, turning moms against moms. The result of all this stereotyping, well, it’s not pretty.

What the research shows 

Iowa State University psychology professor Kelly Odenweller and several colleagues recently conducted a study designed to examine how stereotypes define how we perceive other moms. Her research was based on previous studies that scrutinized how humans pre-judge each other based on race, religion and nationality. Odenweller wanted to know what moms thought of other moms.

Working from a list of seven different stereotypes commonly and variously applied to stay-at-home and working mothers (overworked; home and family-oriented; ideal; hardworking and balanced; nontraditional; traditional; lazy), she sat down with more than 500 mostly Generation Y and millennial moms and asked them, based on the stereotypes list, what they thought of each other.  Her inquiries revealed surprisingly deep divisions.

“I was really hoping to find out that we didn’t mistreat other moms,” says Odenweller. “I wanted this empirical perspective that real moms are a lot more supportive of and nicer to each other than what the media makes us seem like.”  Boy, was she ever wrong.

Instead, Odenweller found moms who felt envious. Jealous. They would verbally attack the parenting choices and lifestyles of other moms even when they knew nothing personally about them. They were candid in how they felt, says Odenweller.  Simple comments such as “Did you know her kid was in day care?” elicited disgust and sometimes verbal abuse.

While most moms, I think, would cop to having said something catty about other moms at various points in time, according to Odenweller, comments from respondents were sometimes vitriolic. 

Even though previously Odenweller thought these comments were harmless, she determined that the intensity of the responses was anything but meaningless. “They are really detrimental to our relationships with other women and how we form support networks with other moms.” 

Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of “Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families,” agrees, saying that comments like these originate from a sense of insecurity, societal conflict about moms and a sense of competitiveness, all of which stem from a society that doesn’t really understand what mothers need.

According to Steiner, women are not really looking to defeat other women. “When you feel insecure, the natural response is to put down others to make yourself feel better,” says Steiner.  What mothers really need is to feel good about their choices as parents, and ours is a society where that expectation is very unlikely to be validated or supported.

Motherhood remains a deeply personal, raw, unpredictable, transformative experience that turns most women upside down and inside out, exposing our greatest dreams and most profound insecurities.

The caretaker penalty

Consider this. Today, the average annual cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Washington state is $11,051.  Infant care is 113 percent more per year than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. (Oh, and don’t forget you will be on the hook for that, too.)  For families with two children, childcare costs represent 46 percent more than the average rent in Washington. This means that a working mother who earns minimum wage would have to work full-time for 30 weeks just to pay for child care for one infant. And who struggles the most in this dispiriting math exercise?  Low-income moms.

Couple the financially crippling cost with the scarcity of reliable child care and the difficulty of securing safe places to live, finding good schools and providing quality after-school care, and you begin to appreciate that the economics of motherhood today collide head-on with the gender wage gap in a big and irreconcilable way. While motherhood and fatherhood are changing rapidly, “Our society still remains conflicted between the ‘selflessness’ of motherhood and the genuine need women have to provide [financially] for themselves and their families,” notes Steiner.

This “selflessness” is the most entrenched and pervasive view of motherhood and it has grown like an invasive weed since after World War II. It is a perception that was framed by traditional gender relationships, laws and norms that restricted a woman’s right to earn a living. Even today, it’s an ingrained view of motherhood in our society.

Cutting some slack

Steiner contends that the worst battle of the Mommy Wars may be the one each mother fights inside her own head as she struggles to ditch the accumulated cultural baggage of motherhood. For her part, Steiner just hopes that every mother will feel good about being a mom, no matter her choices about work. “Motherhood remains a deeply personal, raw, unpredictable, transformative experience that turns most women upside down and inside out, exposing our greatest dreams and most profound insecurities,” she says.

While Odenweller wanted “moms to be more communal, more relationship-focused, kinder and gentler” despite these insecurities, societal expectations and competitive feelings, what she really found were flawed people, something we all are. In our common state of flawed humanity, of flawed motherhood, we should choose to ignore these ridiculous stereotypes. We can cut each other some slack. We can help another mom, or just listen. We can remember that moms, after all, don’t wear a halo. Mothers are people with insecurities and periodic lapses in judgment that make them merely human. 

“There is no having it all,” says Steiner. So, instead, cross the playground and be that mom who tries to make it to the day’s end intact, ego reasonably unbruised, and heart and soul firmly in place. 

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