What Is a Real Mom These Days

I don't know what's happened to motherhood, but something is very different about it from the days I was a young mother I watch my daughter and her friends, and they do so much for their kids. They're exhausted from trying to keep up. It's like they're keeping score with each other. I keep telling her, "Enjoy your kids. They don't need all this stuff. They'll turn out fine not because of all this stuff, but because of who you are." She just tells me I'm out of touch, but deep down I think she's starting to realize this frantic pace isn't good for her family. When did mothering get so complicated? How did women get so far away from just doing what they know is best for their kids and just plain real mothering? What ever happened to lullabies and pat-a-cake?

—Lenore Jacobson, grandmother of nine and mother of four, Austin, Texas

Have you stopped to notice lately just how much mothering has changed since your mom raised you? It's almost as though the definition of a "real mother" has been replaced with a new meaning. My sons are college age now, and I've seen a subtle change just since raising them and, of course, a much more pronounced difference since my mom raised me. I always felt there was a difference, but it wasn't until I spoke to countless moms and had a few pivotal experiences of my own that I was certain that the popular view of good mothering has shifted these days, and it's not all for the best.

What Happened to Pat-a-Cake and Peek-a-Boo?

My first big "ah-ha" moment was at a luncheon where one of my friends announced that her daughter was pregnant. Those next minutes were a blur of cheers, tears of joy, hugs, and then endless toasts to Louise and her grandchild-to-be. The conversation then turned to what the mother would need: a bassinet, crib, changing table, car seat, stroller. Louise admitted that she'd already thought of all those "usual" necessities. What was at the top of her "must-have" list was a new book that taught sign language to babies.

"Is the baby going to be deaf?" I asked.

"Oh no," Louise assured us. "It's a new mothering method that lets us communicate with our babies even before they can talk. It's all the rage with new moms these days."

Her comment caught me off guard. Why spend so much energy teaching a young baby sign language? That has to take a lot of time. And after all, few things are more precious than a mother bonding with her child, so why not spend those moments singing lullabies or playing peek-a-boo? Or making those funny faces to her little one or just cooing and giggling? Teaching your baby sign language seems a little more complicated than just doing the natural stuff moms do. Research has shown that maybe there's some value to this, but jeez, it's just one more complex thing for moms to do on an already crowded plate. Whatever happened to those unrehearsed moments with your baby—singing nursery rhymes, giggling, playing pat-a-cake, or just cuddling up in a rocking chair?

When Did Mothering Become a Billion-Dollar Profit Center?

A few months later, I went to buy a present for Louise's new grandchild and began to get a sense that something had really shifted. My clue came when I walked into a baby store and realized that mothering had become a billion-dollar enterprise. Baby paraphernalia was everywhere; there were so many new products I didn't know where to start looking. And greeting me front and center was a colorful display of Mozart tapes promising to "stimulate brain development" if played to an unborn child. "Wow," I thought to myself, "a mother's first educational purchasing decision comes up even before the baby's born." This seemed a lot more complicated and difficult than choosing between diaper bags or strollers.

Next aisle: magnetic numbers, memory games, phonic kits, electronic vocabulary programs, and gadgets galore to motivate your budding little genius. In fact, almost every product pledged to give your kid that all-important jump-start toward academic success. Just when did mothering a baby or a toddler become so focused on achievement? What the heck happened to the days of sandboxes, blocks, and tree forts?

I felt a tad guilty asking the salesclerk for something as old-fashioned as a copy of Goodnight Moon (which I finally bought at the bookstore next door). But I was also struck with just how many choices moms have to make for their kids these days, how many products that appeal to parental anxiety about learning quickly, preparing for tests, competing, and striving ahead—and how much responsibility they must feel about making the right choices.

That same week, on a plane to visit my youngest son at college, I sat next to a lovely young mom and her adorable daughter. We greeted one another and then, for the duration of the just-under three-hour flight, I watched this mom entertain her six-year-old daughter nonstop. As soon as the seat belt sign went off, the mom pulled out a bag packed to the brim with items: from flash cards to workbooks to beginning phonic books to markers and paper—she even had a DVD player with a National Geographic movie about zoo animals. Heaven forbid an unplanned spare moment for the child, but what about her mother? I was exhausted from watching her try to make sure her child was never bored. Just when did mothering get so difficult? So draining?

But I didn't rely on just my experiences to conclude that something was quite different about mothering today. Being a teacher, writer, researcher, and mom myself, I wanted to get some real evidence, proof that this change in attitude was actually happening. So I started interviewing dozens of moms from coast to coast and surveyed hundreds more. And their stories and insights confirmed my theory. One mom shared a feeling that I'd heard from so many other mothers: "I'm just constantly on the go and feel like I'm being graded for doing all this stuff. I keep comparing myself to other moms and think I'll flunk mothering if I don't keep up."

How Did We Get from June Cleaver to Motherhood Mania?

The most important thing she'd learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.

Once upon a time, Mom and apple pie were synonymous. What better association could there be for the warmth and love and comfort of idealized motherhood than the delectable sweetness, aroma, and scrumptious taste of apple pie?

It wasn't too long ago that the ideal mother, at least in the world of TV, was June Cleaver, the mom in Leave It to Beaver. She was always calm, neat as a pin, never without her pearls, smiling, loving, and always available. When Beaver came bouncing down the stairs for breakfast, Mrs. Cleaver was always in the kitchen in her spotless sparkling white apron, busily making bacon and eggs. And when Beaver came home from school, she was always at the door, still smiling with her pearl necklace on, greeting him with a freshly baked batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Okay, it's corny, but the thing about it that I'm remembering fondly is the feeling of warmth, of being always welcomed, and the strong connection between the mother, her children, and their friends.

Fast forward. What is our image of motherhood today? How times have changed! On TV, in movies, in magazine cover stories, in countless syndicated articles, on morning talk shows, on Oprah, and on evening network news, the current image of motherhood assaults us with one clear message: motherhood has changed dramatically and not all for the best.

Calm? Neat as a pin? Smiling? Always available? Homemade chocolate chip cookies? Get real!

A typical twenty-four hours in the life of a mother today includes an intense schedule of constant activity, stress, and pressure. Feeding and dressing 2.3 kids. Carpooling to school. Shuffling countless after-school activities—skating, gymnastics, music lessons, special academic coaching, soccer practice, scouting, dance class, play rehearsals, Odyssey of the Mind, playgroups. Then there's helping with homework, science fair projects, PTA meetings, school events, making and cleaning up from dinner, then dashing off to another crazy activity, not to mention mending, cleaning, dusting, picking up after everyone, vacuuming, scrubbing, mopping, and madly trying to find the darn missing library book. If there's by any miracle thirty minutes of unscheduled time at any point during the day, Mom is likely to hop on a home exercise bicycle or dash off to a quick Pilates class. And that's just a weekday. If you think

Saturday or Sunday is going to be any different, forget it. With soccer games, dance recitals, school debates, theatrical and musical performances, slumber and birthday parties, and a host of other frenzied activities, it's a nonstop mad dash with never a moment to spare.

Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Now add all the rest of the stuff we do and it's a wonder we still can move at all by the end of the day. There's juggling things like a full-or part-time career, the relatives, medical and dental appointments, banking, shopping, and social engagements. Now go jump on that treadmill and lift those weights each day. How are you doing? Okay, now find time for your love life: throw on the negligee, light the candles, uncork the bubbly, and look seductive for your honey at the end of the day. Sure you do. Chances are you're more likely to want to pass out from shear exhaustion.

There's more. And in many ways it's the most difficult part of being a mother today. We love our children so intensely and ache so much for them to be happy and successful. The pressure and stress to prepare our children for success in life are enormous. We read and hear so much about how hard it is for our kids to get into the right schools, how hard it is to get a good job. Often from the first days of preschool, mothers are expected to do whatever it takes to help their children succeed. Never mind that many moms have to work outside the home. Never mind that many moms are single. Never mind that we're all exhausted and burned out. All moms are expected to be responsible for their children's education and skill building. All moms are supposed to get their kids on the path to success. And all moms are expected to ensure that their children are happy and secure little creatures.

In addition to all this pressure, a million ads and commercials are blasting us with the message that we'd better look good, stay thin, keep smiling, and moisturize—and it's all because we're worth it!

The Urge to Be Supermom

The result is that many moms today are suffering from what can only be described as a kind of frenzy—an abnormally high level of busyness, tension, stress, speediness, anxiety, heightened awareness, and even panic. Many moms can't get enough sleep,- they can never keep up or do enough for their kids and are feeling guilty and inadequate about it. They're overwhelmed trying to be Supermom, to fulfill the expectations placed on them. They overcompensate by taking on more and more until you might as well admit that they're in a state of Motherhood Mania. Of course, we accept those expectations. Isn't that what a good mother does?

You don't believe it? You want some proof? Here are some disturbing statistics:

■ Of the American moms surveyed, 70 percent reported finding motherhood "incredibly stressful."

■ Depression affects 30 percent of mothers of young children.

■ One-third of parents in one survey said that if they were to do it all over again, they would not start a family.

■ In the same survey, 53 percent admitted they felt significant resentment in making sacrifices as a parent.

■ In a Texas survey, 909 women said they found taking care of their kids about as much fun as cleaning their house, slightly less pleasurable than cooking, and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching TV.

■ Of the 1,306 moms in one survey, 95 percent said they experienced guilt feelings associated with parenting, and almost half said that the guilt only increased as their kids grew older.

■ Two out of three adults say that parents are doing a worse job than twenty years ago.

So how did things get this bad? How did we morph from apple pie and June Cleaver to Motherhood Mania? We know it's not for a lack of love and good intentions. Yet it's painfully obvious that things are bad, and we've got to find the reason. There's no one easy answer, but here are eleven issues to consider:

1. New knowledge about child development. We know a lot more about child development than we used to, and everyone agrees that parents do make a difference. What we say and do and how we behave with our children have a huge impact on their development. It's not just nature, its nurture.

2. Competition. Parents today want their children to excel— to do better than they did. There's a feeling that kids have to win and do better than other kids, and there's a big fear of failure, as if only the strong or successful can flourish in this age of anxiety. Moms find themselves fighting ruthlessly with other moms for slots in nursery schools or ice time on the hockey team.

3. More options. Entrepreneurs have created so many attractive choices and opportunities for kids today. Parents find themselves bombarded with seductive appeals for everything from music, athletic, and academic training to adventure camps in foreign locales that are guaranteed to enrich their children's lives or teach them a second language.

4. More media. Here is just a one-week sampling of some of the cover stories in national magazines: Atlantic Monthly: "Stop Being a Slacker Mom"; New York Times Magazine: "Mommy Madness"; U.S. News & World Report: "Mysteries of the Teen Years"; Newsweek: "Babies and Autism"; Time: "What Teachers Hate About Parents: Pushy Dads. Hovering Moms. Parents Who Don't Show Up at All. Are Kids Paying the Price?" During that same week, many TV and radio talk shows focused on parent-child crisis issues. Over eight hundred books on the concept of motherhood were published between 1970 and 2000; of those, only twenty-seven were published between 1970 and 1980. My mom had just one parenting "guru": Benjamin Spock. These days it's as though a new study comes out almost daily advising parents how to optimize their children's potential.

5. Financial pressures. It's more and more expensive to be a parent. School materials, sports equipment and tournament travel, special lessons, tutoring, computer equipment—the demand for cash seems never ending. Then there's just the "normal" stuff—clothing, food, books. With downsizing and layoffs in our roller coaster economy, parents are also concerned that their kids won't be able to find a job unless they go to the very best schools and have better skills than anyone else. It all adds to the stress and mania.

6. Guilt. We're working. We're striving. We're often away from home more than we'd like. We're trying to do the best for our kids, but it also means that sometimes we're tired and cranky and don't do everything we think we ought to be doing for our families. So we're wracked with guilt, shame, remorse, and more guilt.

7. Wanting to be liked. Many moms want to be their children's best friend. They can't stand the idea of making an unpopular decision, saying no, or (heaven forbid) disciplining their kids if doing so might cause their kids to resent them or say, "You're mean, Mom."

8. Outdoing their own moms. And then there are some moms who are still dealing with unresolved conflicts from their own childhood. The last thing they want to do is repeat the same mistakes their mother made. "I'm going to be a much better mom than she was and show her how it really should be done."

9. Lack of confidence. Some mothers feel as though they're being graded every day and may be flunking the Motherhood Test. They lack confidence in their judgment and are constantly second-guessing themselves.

10. Wanting a trophy child. Have you ever seen a mother whose child is just her favorite possession—a living representation of her own worth, an accessory? Her kid's achievements give this mom "bragging rights." This type of mother is so self-centered that she thinks of her child only as a reflection of her own achievements.

11. The test craze. These days there is no child left untested. Standardized tests. Achievement tests. Aptitude tests. PSATs. SATs. A child's current worth and potential for success are coming to be dictated by a portfolio of numbers. From the preschool admission tests to LSATs— they're making us crazy worrying that our kids aren't going to be good enough.

And is Motherhood Mania worth it? Is it worth all the time and energy and money we're spending? Do our kids really benefit from all these splendid extracurricular activities and stimulating experiences?

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