Extreme motherhood

The quest for perfection hurts moms and kids

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:10:50 PM

In the reality TV world of extreme makeovers, super nannys and decorating challenges, motherhood is quickly becoming a competitive sport, says Andrea O’Reilly, director of York University’s Centre on Research for Mothering.

“We’ve upped the ante in the last 15 years,” explains the women’s studies professor. “In the 70s and 80s we had a far more realistic vision of motherhood—women weren’t expected to spend all their time and energy on their children—and that was reflected in our culture and on TV.”

Now, says O’Reilly, reality TV shows often pit “good mothers” against “bad mothers,” and popular dramas like Desperate Housewives insist on a vision of motherhood that includes perfect houses, perfect bodies, and warm, fuzzy moments with the kids.

“There’s a way of mothering now—intensive mothering—that is advocated as the only way,” says the author and editor of seven books on motherhood. “If you’re not taking your kids to soccer, competitive skating and having them speak six languages by age three, you’re not doing enough.”

Today’s mother is pressured to buy into the myriad of intensive mothering techniques promoted in films, magazines and on TV. Extended breast feeding, yoga for infants, flash cards, the sling and the family bed are all examples, says O’Reilly. And if women don’t do it all, they feel guilty and inadequate.

“People are getting themselves horribly into debt and completely exhausted trying to mimic a fantasy lifestyle,” she says.

And while mothers are losing out, O’Reilly says we’re starting to see warning signs that our children are suffering too.

“I really think we are going to reap what we sow,” she says. “From speaking with teachers, camp counselors and parents, it’s clear to me we’re seeing a generation of children that have no initiative, no imagination and no self-sufficiency because we’ve completely coddled them, micro-managed their lives and taken away their childhoods…and, we think this is good!”

While O’Reilly sees hope in policies such as extended parental leave and a national childcare program, she says changing attitudes is much more important than changing policies. Through her research, she hopes to create a more realistic definition of motherhood and dismantle society’s obsessive expectations.

Andrea O’Reilly’s research on mothering was supported by SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants and Aid to Workshops and Conferences Programs.