The Motherhood Mystique is Alive and Well

Amy Marcus-NewhallToday, the lives of young mothers are the topic of heated debate. Books written for and about young mothers crowd bookstore shelves and include The Mommy Wars (Steiner, 2006), The Price of Motherhood (Crittenden, 2001), So You Want to be a Stay-At-Home Mother (Gochnauer, 1999), The Working Mother’s Guide to Life: Strategies, Secrets, and Solutions (Mason, 2002), to name only a few. Talk radio and chat shows on television often feature discussions of employed mothers versus stay-at-home mothers, much of which has taken on a decidedly political tone. Conservatives, such as radio host Laura Schlessinger, believe strongly that children are best served when their mothers are home full time. Feminists argue that both employed and stay-at-home women can be fine mothers. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion.

What is best for families? What is best for children? And, less commonly, what is best for mothers? Our research team decided that we would ask young mothers themselves about their experiences as employed or stay-at-home mothers and what they thought about mothers who were living lives different from their own. We studied a diverse group of young mothers (African-American, white, and Latina), both stay-at-home and employed. Using interviews and written surveys, we asked young (ages 18-30) mothers to tell us about their lives. This is what they told us:

Judy LeMasterMany, but not all, of these young mothers gave us answers consistent with the idea of the motherhood mystique (Hays, 1996; Hoffman, 1989; Johnston-Robed, 2000). According to the motherhood mystique, it is the essential nature of women to be mothers. Those few women who do not wish to be mothers are seen as unnatural; women who wish to be mothers and are not are to be pitied. Although the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s challenged these ideas, and large numbers of women entered the work force, some researchers believe that they have returned in a different, perhaps more stringent, form. feminist scholars have argued that the prevailing ideology in the United States is now one of “intensive mothering.” Women today are expected to be not just good mothers, but exceptional mothers (Arendell, 2000).

Judith Warner, in her book for the popular press, Perfect Madness, calls this the Mommy Mystique and suggests that the lives of today’s mothers are characterized by anxiety, perfectionism, and exhaustion caused by the current cultural demands placed on mothers. We found evidence for these notions in the responses of our participants. When we asked women to talk about their own needs and the needs of mothers in general, the mothers in our study answered in terms of the motherhood mystique, or the norm of intensive mothering. Very few of the mothers acknowledged, or seemed even to consider, their own needs and interests, or to take into account the needs and interests of mothers in general. One said, “I know it may not be what I exactly want, but my son comes first.” Another young mother told us, “My life revolves around my son.” Several young mothers explicitly said that staying home was better for children and a mother’s duty. For example, one young mother said, “I don’t believe mothers should go back to work after they have had a child. I think they should stay with them.” When asked about the benefits of being an employed mother, one stay-at-home mother replied, “Besides actual benefits to a job, I don’t see any.” Most of the stay-at-home mothers and more than a few of the employed mothers felt that children could be harmed by having an employed mother. One employed mother said, “I think all mothers would prefer to be at home with their kids.” Many felt that daycare was actually dangerous and spoke about not wanting to have their children raised by strangers. This finding is important in that women may be forgoing employment because of misconceptions surrounding daycare. Research has demonstrated that children in high quality, accredited daycare, staffed by educated and caring professionals, do well on measures of intelligence, language, and socialization. (Galinski et. al., 1994; Helburn, 1995: Howes, Phillips, and Whitebook, 1992).

Only a few mentioned the isolation and boredom that stay-at-home mothers often face (Lennen, 1998), or the positive aspects associated with being in the workforce. This finding is particularly interesting considering that earlier research has shown that working provides a psychological buffer for women (Barnett, Marshall, and Singer, 1992). Indeed, we found this in the current research.

Finally, few mothers mentioned the financial risks that accrue to being a stay-at-home mother, although the lost income of a stay-at-home mother has been estimated at more than $1,000,000 over her lifetime (Crittenden, 2001).


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