*BEST of mamazine.com* The Mama Monologues: High Heels and the "New Momism"
Recently, I sat for an interview with a small local magazine, to talk about my blog and my children and my life as an educated stay-home mom. A photographer came to my house and set up a series of very professional lights, and snapped pictures while I expounded on the power of the Internet and the myth of the mommy wars, and my children jumped on the bed in another room. The entire experience was crazy and chaotic, particularly the part where one of my sons started crying and I had to excuse myself to go find out what had happened. I spent the last twenty minutes of the interview with a one child in time-out and another in my lap, sobbing into my shirt.
You would never know this, however, from the photo, which shows me sitting in a white armchair, my iBook balanced precariously on one arm of the chair and my legs slung seductively over the other. I'm wearing high heels. There is nary a child in sight.
It looks nothing like my real life, but it certainly looks good. And I feel a little guilty about that.
In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels explicate what they call the "'new momism': the insistence . . . that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children. The new momism is a highly romanticized and yet demanding view of motherhood in which standards for success are impossible to meet"(4). These standards are transmitted primarily through the media, in advertising and periodicals directed at women, which emphasize that while we are devoting ourselves fully to our children, we should also look nice and dress well. In a chapter titled "Attack of the Celebrity Moms," Douglas and Michaels deconstruct the celebrity mom profile, which has "refined, reinforced, and romanticized" the essential values of the new momism by giving them a face: "Celebrity mothers are invariably surrounded by pastels and suffused in white light; the rooms we often seen them in feature white or pastel furniture. Often they are backlit or simply shot against a white backdrop for a nice halo effect (113)." The new momism is all about having it all and not missing a beat. Celebrity moms never look frazzled or harried; their children never collapse into tears in the middle of a photo shoot; they never have to whisper threats or bribes to keep everything in control. They are the perfect mothers--or so it appears.
I am acutely aware that media images of celebrities have little, if anything, to do with "real" life. Celebrities have nannies and personal assistants and caterers to keep their children quiet and find their car keys and bring them lunch. I know all of this and I pride myself on being a smart consumer of media, a savvy reader of magazines, and a cautious watcher of television. So how on earth did I end up posing for the classic celebrity mom photo? Where did I go wrong?
Media critics have been asking the same thing recently about Britney Spears, wondering how on earth her stylists and advisors let her sit down with Matt Lauer looking, as the Washington Post's Robin Givhan wrote, "startlingly, slovenly wretched." Givhan goes on to expose the ubiquity of the new momism: in her interview with Lauer, Spears forgot that she was a celebrity and instead "stood in front of the public and asked not to be judged because she's just another nervous new mother, another woman trying to make her marriage work, an Everywoman just like you. Her words might have been sincere, but in her plea for understanding, her clothes delivered a sloppy, coarse, undignified message." Good mothers, Givhan seems to say, particularly good celebrity mothers, don't let themselves look like . . . well, like mothers. They look like celebrities.
Which brings me back to my own celebrity mom moment. I have mixed feelings about the magazine photo; part of me loves it, because my blog is quite often about how much I miss my high-heel wearing, martini-drinking, pre-mama life, and honestly it was fun to be that woman again, for an hour. But another part of me feels like I have become complicit in the construction of the new momism--that by writing, in a public forum, about how difficult parenting is and then promoting that forum by lounging seductively with my laptop, I am undermining everything I believe in.
Susan Wagner has a masters degree in English, with a focus on 18th-century British literature, which makes her your go-to girl for all things Jane Austen. Before becoming a mama, she spent ten years teaching literature, writing, and rhetoric. Susan lives in Oklahoma with her husband and their sons, Henry and Charlie; she is constantly on the lookout for the perfect pair of pointy-toed flats. Susan writes about fashion at BlogHer and Friday Style, about parenting at Blogging Baby, and about everything else at Friday Playdate.
Read more of Susan's The Mama Monologues column.
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