Down With The Cult Of Perfect Motherhood

Mom co-sleeping with sons

Down With The Cult Of Perfect Motherhood

Our culture has a very complicated (and often hypocritical) relationship to motherhood. On the one hand, we place mothers on pedestals and tell them they have the “most important job in the world.” On the other, we provide almost no institutional support for the endeavor of raising a child. From whom much is expected, so little is given.

Our extended families are often far from us. There is no universal public or subsidized childcare. There is no national visiting nurse service for new moms. Parental leave is insufficient at best, nonexistent at worst. I am not trying to depress the hell out of you. Just trying to call a spade a spade. There is almost no structural support for a job that is considered one of the most important you can undertake and which is certifiably one of the hardest you will ever have.

And yet, we place expectations that cannot possibly be met, even with incredible support. Expectations that don’t even need to be met, because our children do better when they learn to rely on themselves and other members of their community. But that won’t stop the culture at large from sending you one consistent, loud — but completely erroneous — message: it’s all on you, and you gotta get it right.

Our Epidemic of Expectations

“We have this ideology of total motherhood,” says Joan Wolf, PhD, associate professor women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M University and author of Is Breast Best?: Taking On the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Parenthood, “which essentially tells women they are 100 percent responsible for the products they produce... We don’t hold anybody on the planet accountable in that way for anything. We certainly don’t hold fathers responsible in that way, and we don’t hold governments or communities responsible.”

“We are living in an epidemic of expectations,” agrees Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. “Women’s expectations of themselves as workers and as mothers are just totally over the top. And, for me at least, it’s the thing that pushes me over the edge. I find myself looking in the mirror and feeling like I am failing at everything.”

Hey Mom! You Are Not the Sum of Your Choices & Experiences

The things you do or do not do in pregnancy (even before pregnancy), delivery, and early parenthood — breastfeeding, formula-feeding, having medication during delivery, using cloth diapers, attachment parenting, co-sleeping, crying it out, feeding your kid organic foods, letting your kid watch Daniel Tiger, working full-time, staying home full-time, and so on — are often seen as an indication of who you are as a person and mother instead of just choices you made or experiences you had along the way.

“These choices are labeled with this moral freight,” says Wolf. “They indicate whether you are a person who cares about your child, whether you care about your health, whether you care about the environment. Pregnancy and motherhood have become this experience where any of your needs become irrelevant, and any potential risk you can eliminate for your child is worth it.”

I mean, motherhood is sometimes a power trip, but that’s a lot of power. Way more than I think anyone would want and certainly way more than we actually have. But the messaging moms get can make us second-guess or feel guilty about every choice we make or don’t make.

“Mothers have always been told that they are uniquely responsible for their children’s well-being in the largest possible sense,” says journalist Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. And that responsibility, says Warner, has roots in the individualism that defines America. So rather than looking to collective responsibility or social action to bear a large part of the responsibility of raising the next generation, we put it all on moms.

“We have a very individualized sense of what it means to succeed, and we have brought that orientation to motherhood,” says Warner, who came of age in the 1980s in a generation “that was bathed in the ethos, ‘You can do it! You can do it all! And you can do it single-handedly!’” And when those kinds of messages got filtered through the popular culture and media, says Warner, we ended up with “this emphasis on the mom and the extreme lengths women need to go to ensure their babies’ health and well-being.”

A Short History Of The Conflicting & Overwhelming Expectations Placed On Mothers Through The Ages

In her book, Warner takes readers on a tour of advice given to — and expectations placed on — mothers over the past three hundred years. Turns out, from the time of the colonies — when mothers were held responsible for nothing less than their children’s spiritual salvation — to the present day, mothers have been burdened with completely unrealistic and totally conflicting responsibilities. Let’s take a quick trip through them.

  • Keep yourself separate from your children

  • Don’t “coddle,” “spoil,” or “smother” your children

  • Don’t be “dangerously self-sacrificing”

  • Avoid being anxious, overly concerned, or neurotic

  • Make sure you are not “overattached”

  • Create a “secure attachment” to your child

  • Make sure you are not attached for the wrong reasons (for your needs, rather than your child’s)

  • Avoid “overbearing involvement”

  • Be involved in your kids’ lives!

  • Enjoy your children!

  • Meet your husband’s needs — for your children’s sake

  • Break away from the identity of being a mother

  • Be fulfilled — for yourself

  • Be fulfilled — so you don’t damage your kids’ psyche

  • Eschew motherhood altogether

  • Be happy so your children will be happy

  • Don’t work

  • Work

  • Have it all

  • Build up your children’s self-esteem

  • Don’t praise your children too much

  • Stimulate early childhood learning starting in the womb

  • Be “everything” to your children

Anybody else confused and exhausted?

My radical hope is that we can give a new generation of mothers the tools, permission, and road map for redefining what we expect of ourselves, how we take care of ourselves and our kids, and how we expect others — including government and institutions — to take care of us. To realize that what is being asked of us is not only unrealistic, but it is actually not good for us or our kids. I want us to start asking for better — from ourselves, our friends and family, and from our community.


Kate Rope is an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many publications and online outlets including the New York TimesTimeReal Simple,, ShapeGlamour UK, BabyCenter, Parade and Parenting. She is author of Strong as a Mother: How to Be Happy, Healthy and (Most Importantly) Sane From Pregnancy to Parenthood: The Only Guide to Taking Care of YOU! (May 2018) and coauthor of The Complete Guide to Medications During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding. Kate serves on the advisory board of the Seleni Institute and as an advisor of the Georgia Chapter of Postpartum Support International. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two daughters.

This excerpt from Strong as a Mother first appeared in Romper on May 1, 2018.