Bad Mommy

I work with a lot of highly accomplished women scientists who are invested in promoting gender equity in some traditionally male dominated areas. So I often hear lectures about new research, or meta-analysis of old research, searching for the elusive, persuasive evidence that

a) women and men are equally capable intellectually,
b) that women continue to experience discrimination in myriad forms, and
c) we should do something about it.

Almost all of these are accompanied by “d” the what and how to do it, but its easy to ignore that when you get hung up on “a”. There is a point where some women will get uncomfortable in these discussions and its usually around motherhood. This is a very stylized skirmish in the Mommy Wars that is often akin to Hari Kari.

Recently I was at a talk where the speaker was discussing the history of marriage (why this was the topic for a science crowd is too convoluted to go into) and how women’s work became almost exclusively house & child related and then devalued. How we define traditional marriage (and why) became secondary to the heated discussion around parenting choices.

The evidence that the stay-at-home mom was a phenomena limited to the 1945 – 1970 “boomer” years and TV reruns did nothing to reduce the outpouring of mommy guilt and frustration.

A lot of the women in the audience were “firsts” – first woman to attend that university, first to get that degree, first female in that department – and so on. I categorize them (not to their faces) as The Tough Old Broads. These are women who lived their lives as “Super-Women” with a marriage, a kid, a successful career and four hours of sleep a night for the last 30 years.

The 50 and under crowd was a mixed bag of married and unmarried (mostly with children), second-wave feminists, and some who don’t use the F-word about themselves.

One woman, a very senior administrator & researcher, described how she was held hostage (my words not hers) by her two children who refused to eat any food she did not prepare from scratch. She even hired a chef service for a while and they would not eat the meals.

Now I would have been very sad to watch those children get scurvy and starve to death, but I can’t imagine the depth of guilt that allowed her to put up with that.

Other women joked about husbands who didn’t know how to pack a lunch or run a washing machine, comments you often hear from working women. A few were outraged that the term “working mother” still existed when “working dad” never has.

One or two trotted out their Utopian same sex relationships where all child care and housework was split 50/50. I didn’t buy that for a minute – even the best relationship would be 60/40 most days and those are ever shifting numbers in either direction IMHO.

The real drag was that there was so much “Bad Mommy” vibe even in this rarefied atmosphere where everyone knows (intellectually at least) that we have a societal problem rather than a personal problem when it comes to parenting and work. There was such undercurrent of guilt over sacrifices made or not made as people compared choices and actions, but at least it exposed the lie that everyone but you has it all together.

When do we collectively give up the June Cleaver model and define “Good Mommy” on our own terms? I am as guilty as the next person about setting ridiculous standards and self-flagellating over what I “should” be doing. There has to be some middle ground between Roseanne, June Cleaver and the  24-hour Enjoli woman.

I jokingly made a logic model to capture my theory of parenting. Maybe I should work on a Mommy Logic Model next.  As always suggestions welcome.

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