Once upon a time Madison Avenue created the image of a perfect housewife. She was white, pretty and well-groomed, a doting and loving stay-at-home mom, a good housekeeper and cook, and an obedient wife. Every woman should want to be just like her and, if advertising executives played their cards correctly, women would rush out to buy specific products in order to fit into that mould.
On the one hand, the image of the perfect housewife created an extremely powerful consumer group. On the other hand, it also created very specific expectations about what a good wife and good mother looks like. The responsibility for child rearing and for the family home was placed squarely on the shoulders of women, along with the lion’s share of the blame whenever something did go wrong. The advertising industry plays on the desire of women to be good mothers and their fear of being a bad mother.
If the children are doing poorly in school, it must be the mother’s fault. If the children are obese, it must be the mother’s fault. If the children are misbehaving, it must be the mother’s fault. The responsibility for the intelligence, health, and behaviour of children isn’t understood within a complex sphere of different influencing factors (as it should be). Instead, it is viewed through a lens of what the mother did or didn’t do.
This creates two broad sets of problems:
- First, the expectations that are put on mothers create a very narrow picture of what a “good mother” is. Women who do not comply with that image are criticized by society, by researchers and also by themselves. Women internalize the image of the “good mother” and feel guilty when they do not live up to that. This image fuels the so-called “mommy wars” and also fails to recognize the diverse range of ways that mothers can have a positive impact on the lives of their children and the resilience of children in persevering in spite of an imperfect mother.
- Second, it fails to recognize the potential contribution that fathers and even communities can have in raising a child. This frequently results in the contribution of men in raising children and running a household not being recognized or valued or even being stereotyped and belittled. It also fails to account of the potential of the community, or village, in raising our children.
How can we move away from placing expectations and blame squarely on the shoulders of mothers? How can we move beyond the image that Madison Avenue created and reach a place where the diverse contributions of mothers, fathers and communities in raising children are valued and balanced?