Despite the pristine images of all-encompassing, self-abnegating motherhood that dominated mid-20th-century pop culture, there were many real mothers who were miserable living that Donna Reed life. “By 1960, almost every major news journal was using the word trapped to describe the feelings of the American housewife,” wrote the historian Stephanie Coontz. “When Redbook’s editors asked readers to provide them with examples of ‘Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped,’ they received 24,000 replies.”
This widespread feeling led to several decades of organizing. In 1966, Betty Friedan, Dr. Pauli Murray, and several other women founded the National Organization for Women, which was dedicated to fighting for legal, workplace, and overall gender equality. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, women took to the streets with NOW and many other organizations, marching for legal recognition and against gender-based violence.
As a result, the federal government began to pass laws that supported fairer treatment of women at work. The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, established the principle of equal pay for equal work. In 1964 came the Civil Rights Act, which technically forbade workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.
In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed. And yet parents still had no federally mandated paid family leave, and childcare costs were just beginning their unabated rise.
The US almost had federally funded childcare
The United States came close to establishing a federally funded childcare network in 1971, but President Nixon vetoed it, with a rebuke The New York Times described at the time as “stinging.” He objected to the cost of the plan, but he also argued that government-supported childcare undermined the American family.
“We cannot and will not ignore the challenge to do more for America’s children in their allimportant early years,” Nixon said. “But our response to this challenge must be a measured, evolutionary, painstakingly considered one, consciously designed to cement the family in its rightful position as the keystone of our civilization.”
In the aftermath of that bill’s failure, federal childcare was a nonstarter, but that didn’t stop moms from taking paying jobs at all levels. As professional mothers flooded the workplace in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, despite a basic safety net, the “supermom” — a star at work and at home — became the unrealistic ideal splashed on the cover of magazines.
At the same time, real moms were running themselves ragged trying to make it work. They began to spend more hours at work and more time with their children, nearly doubling the amount of time spent on childcare between 1965 and 2012.
“If you are a good mother, you must be an intensive one,” argues Sharon Hays in “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Intensive motherhood remains the dominant middle-class mode of child-rearing in the United States — the organic-fruit-buying, code-class-enrolling, travel-soccer-boosting, so-called helicopter or snowplow mom.
This is how Hays described the “intensive” working mother in the mid-1990s:
“Effortlessly juggling home and work, this mother can push a stroller with one hand and carry a briefcase in the other. She is always properly coiffed, her nylons have no runs … Her children are immaculate and well-mannered but not passive, with a strong spirit and high self-esteem.”
We have not moved past these ideals (except maybe the part about wearing “nylons” to work). In the past two decades, we’ve simply added more expectations to the pile.
The supermom fantasy
In the early 2000s, when Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels wrote “The Mommy Myth, they showed that the flawless egalitarian marriage with a loving spouse was a new wrinkle to the madness. They described the supermom fantasy as a day when your husband gets home from work and he is so overcome with admiration for how well you do it all that he looks lovingly into your eyes, kisses you, and presents you with a diamond anniversary bracelet. He then announces he has gone on flex time for the next two years so that he can split childcare duties with you fifty-fifty.
By the 2010s, the burden of “self-care,” which also includes a commitment to staying hot forever, was thrown on top of the expectations heap. “‘Take care of yourself’ = ‘Take care of your looks,'” as the sociologist Debra Langan puts it. You can never look haggard, like the pressures and time constraints of supermotherhood are actually affecting you on any real level. You need to do it all and be it all without the forehead wrinkles that betray your efforts.
The absurdity of the “supermom” has been obvious to many women long before #selfcare became a trending topic. In a “Saturday Night Live” sketch by the late Anne Beatts that ran in 1975, a pulled-together mom enters the frame and starts unloading groceries.
ANNOUNCER: Meet Ellen Sherman, Cleveland housewife and mother.
HOUSEWIFE: Hi! I’m a nuclear physicist and commissioner of consumer affairs. In my spare time I do needlepoint, read, sculpt, take riding lessons, and brush up on my knowledge of current events. Thursday is my day at the day care center, and then there’s my work with the deaf. But I still have time left over to do all my own baking and practice my backhand even though I’m on call twenty-four hours a day as a legal aide.
ANNOUNCER: How does Ellen Sherman do it all? She’s smart. She takes Speed!
If it’s been obvious for 40 years that you need to be on stimulants and never sleep to accomplish all the things expected of a modern American mother, why do so many of us still buy into that myth, however subconsciously? And why aren’t we pressuring society — and our communities — to help support parents in ways beyond empty platitudes? As Ann Crittenden put it in her bestseller “The Price of Motherhood, all of the lip service to motherhood still floats in the air, as insubstantial as clouds of angel dust.