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January Jones as Betty Draper in Mad Men: a seething, controlling mother, inspiring not envy but shame.
January Jones as Betty Draper in Mad Men: a seething, controlling mother, inspiring not envy but shame.

Why do we insist on judging mothers? Add to ...

When Bonnie Fox, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, first learned of Dr. Chua's parenting style, she says she thought, "That woman is a witch. Someone should lock her up. She's dangerous to her kids."

"But my colleagues in their 30s said, 'Wait a minute, our consciences are saying, "Maybe I should do [the same]" We're very every ambivalent about it. Why? Because we are terrified for our kids."

On the other side of the maternal menagerie is Elephant Mom, practitioner of a more nurturing parenting approach that places a high value on play dates and affection - a throwback to the culture of intensive mothering that taught women to be emotionally available virtually around the clock to their needy offspring. "Tigers lead solitary lives, except for mothers with their cubs," Peter Singer, a father and professor of bioethics at Princeton University, wrote in a widely published essay in February. "We, by contrast, are social animals. So are elephants, and elephant mothers don't focus only on the well-being of their own offspring."

How mothers came to be compared to wild animals at all raises the hackles, so to speak, but it's an old game: In Germany, they have for years been firing shots at the Raven Mother ( Rabenmutter), a name to describe the working mom who abandons her babes in the nest so that she can swoop off to work in pursuit of her own selfish desires.

The term re-emerged in the mommy vernacular this winter over concerns that German women were being held back in the corporate world because of a bias against mothers. This will come as no surprise to any woman in North America who has experienced the "mommy penalty," which was cleverly proved by a team of sociologists who used faked résumés of two equal candidates - except that one had children and one did not - to test the theory that mothers remain relatively unappealing employees. The researchers found that compared with their child-free counterparts, moms were 100 per cent less likely to be hired, consistently judged as less committed or competent, and offered $11,000 (U.S) less a year in pay.

Whatever animal a mom matches up with, it's hard to see the upside. For one thing, single moms and welfare moms, burdened by double shifts and daycare bills, will find it hard to see themselves anywhere in this discussion.

All the categories send a united message: The standards "are unattainable," says Fiona Green, a women's studies professor at the University of Winnipeg, who is finishing a book on feminist mothering. She says the motherhood trap teaches that "your No. 1 focus is your children at all times. It's an expectation that women will do it all, will do it flawlessly, will do it happily. It's nonsensical and illogical, and it sets women up to fail."

You're perfect. Now, change

The moms I know, who lose library books, send kids to school in mismatched socks and have failed to properly teach multiplication tables, would admit with guilt that they fall, most days, into the category of "getting-by" mother. But demonstrating so in public might as well turn the red eye of Mordor their way.

"At the playground, I like to chat with other parents," Mindy Stricke, a London, Ont., mom and photographer, says while her toddler climbs on the play structure in sight, but well out of reach. "I don't want to be hovering, it's totally boring for me. But I am hyper-aware that people are looking at me for being so far away." She sighs. "I want to be a good mother. But I'll be honest, I am also kind of lazy. I want a life."

A reasonable desire, especially since, as sociologists have helpfully reminded us, miserable moms don't raise happy children. A new book, Good Enough is the New Perfect, does a fair job of selling this idea, though only, once again, for professional, financially comfortable women. The authors, Becky Beaupre Gillespie, a U.S. journalist, and Hollee Schwartz Temple, a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, asked American mothers to participate in a survey on work-life balance. Within 10 days, they had 1,000 replies. They then interviewed 100 women.

Their findings: Mothers who abandon the goal of optimum performance at work and home, set boundaries and proudly carry store-bought cookies to the kindergarten Christmas party are - surprise! - happier with their home and work life, twice as likely to say they have good relations with their spouses and just as likely to have advanced in their careers as those other moms, the poor "never enoughs" still striving to have it all, with spreadsheets to record diapers changes and heightened vigilance over white-bread exposure.

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