This post was updated to add the names of mom lit books I linked to.
The conference was called Motherlode. So it seems fitting that I required a period of gestation after it was all over, just to absorb the many thought-provoking presentations and discussions on motherhood that were featured.
Feminism, mom activism, why parents blog and whether dads can mother were just a few of the many topics covered at the four-day event held by York University's Association for Research on Mothering.
I'd like to talk about a few in this space over the next few days. Because though the conference is long over, the issues won't go away.
What better place to start than with Andi Buchanan and her talk on how "The Escalation of Cool" among modern mothers is just another way moms are being pressured to conform. You can read the whole presentation here on her blog.
One thing you should know about Buchanan is she's not afraid to tell it like it is. Or I should say, write it like it is. Three years ago, the Philadelphia writer broke ground with her book Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, which didn't shy away from how scary and bone-numbingly exhausting and lonely new motherhood can be. And in doing so she warmed the hearts of others who found comfort knowing they were not the only ones feeling lost in a foreign land.
Mother Shock hit the book stores at the height of the so-called "intensive mothering" trend, when the prevailing middle-class notion of the "good mother" was one who happily immersed herself in pureeing prunes, writing her own lullaby lyrics and skin-to-skin contact with baby 24/7 - at the expense of her own identity. Buchanan dared to write the truth about her own ambivalence and the fact that while she adored her infant daughter, life was not all bliss and Kodak moments.
Fast forward to 2006 and suddenly, the downside of motherhood has come charging out of the closet and hijacked the mainstream media. Now, if we are to believe the latest spate of mom lit, it's de rigueur to favour litchi martinis with the girls over reading Dr. Seuss. (See books like Confessions of a Naughty Mommy, Peanut Butter, Playdates and Prozac and Mommies Who Drink to name a few. Or the recent rant by a mom in Britain's
The Guardian (oops, the Daily Mail) under the headline "Sorry, but my children bore me to death!")
As Buchanan puts it, "if you aren't a bored mother, a depressed mother, an I-could-care-less mother, a mother who drinks, you are not a mother who is having an authentic experience."
Perhaps the glamourization of the "bad mom" is simply a natural overcorrection by those resisting the earlier pressure to hyperparent. But it still ticks Buchanan off. Because it's also just one more dangerous way of generalizing about the experience of motherhood. As she notes:
What does this mean for mothers who don't have this kind of "cool," "hip" experience - or whose actual experience of addiction and depression is not glamorous and trendy - and aren't they as excluded from the landscape as others were when there was a similarly non-diverse lens aimed at motherhood? And what does this say about the scarcity of our options when it comes to being a good mother?
Whining about motherhood sells. So does sniping. That's why books and newspapers fan the flames. They've done it with the increasingly irrelevant mommy wars between at-home and working moms (See Linda Hirshman, Caitlin Flanagan's To Hell With All That, Leslie Morgan Steiner's Mommy Wars, and Happy Housewives by Darla Shine). And now they're doing it with drinking, partying, naughty and unhappy mommies.
Why should we care? Because by polarizing mothers and turning them into cartoon characters, the authentic stories of the majority who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum get lost.
You don't have to look far to see the trend is flourishing. The cover of Chatelaine's November issue pitches a story called "Why I Hate Breastfeeding," on the heels of an earlier article in defence of the "too posh to push" trend of Caesarean sections on demand.
But read this month's story and you find it's not an "anti-breastfeeding" story at all, or a motherhood whinge. Instead it's an important perspective from a woman who struggled through months of pain feeding her babies and felt abandoned and judged by those who should have been helping and encouraging her. So why the misleading headline?
Because as Buchanan points out, there's something juicy about the image of a bunch of mamas duking it out. Whether it's breast versus bottle, Caesarean versus natural childbirth, working versus stay-at-home, or cool and bored versus happy and matronly.
Shame really. Because it doesn't do most of us perched somewhere between the extremes much good.
Be cool by all means. Or don't be. But let's just stop pretending that one is superior to the other or any more legitimate.