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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 ...

The authors are careful to remind us that this is not "about settling;" this is about priorities. "You choose when you are going to shoot for perfection, and when it is not important," Dr. Schwartz Temple says. Adds Ms. Beaupre Gillespie: "A lot of women have reached an exhaustion level."

Thank goodness, someone has now given us all permission to nap.

The new division of labour

But their work omits, for the most part, the missing link in this whole discussion, a voice muted, if not entirely absent, from Tiger Mom dogma and the like. For her recent book Against the Grain, Gillian Ranson tracked down 32 couples in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia who were blurring gender lines for work and family, either because they work shifts, or dad is at home while mom earns the salary, or just because they chose to - a group she calls "dual dividers." The moms - the parents - in Dr. Ranson's research have let go of maternal obligations and allowed the fathers to step in. In these families, the sociologist says, "all the things that were normally associated with mothering and all the things we normally associate with fathering got mixed up in one large container and randomly distributed."

The main reason women get caught in the motherhood trap is because the gender gap at home has not narrowed as quickly as at the office. Mothers, on average, still do more child care and housework than fathers, even when both are working. (And some American survey data suggest that when they earn more than their husbands, the husbands do even less laundry.) These couples - the ones with more balance - are hidden in the statistical averages, a small group, Dr. Ranson acknowledges. And researchers like Bonnie Fox, who has also explored the topic in her book When Couples Become Parents, suggest that there is still a long way to go before parenting duties are truly gender-neutral and not just conceived, particularly by men, as a temporary adjustment dictated, for instance, by finances.

To make equal parenting possible, Ms. Fox argues, families need to be supported, not just in their communities but in the workplace and by gender-neutral government policies. There's little sign the new Conservative majority is headed in that direction - the party has proposed during the campaign to introduce income splitting that would helpsingle-earner families, or families in which one spouse earns a higher salary, avoid a tax penalty, a policy that indirectly supports the idea of one parent (still most often mom) staying home.

Dr. Ranson argues that her group is a precursor to the way more families will look, as the new reality of job markets, female education rates and attitudes reshape parenting. "The way out of the burden and expectation that can be imposed on mothers is for fathers to become involved" - beyond the model of mom "the manager" and dad "the helper," she says.

In her families, "mom" was too big a word, and "father" too small. While they still parented differently, the tasks they performed were interchangeable and they knew the children equally well. In many cases, fathers had taken leaves when the children were born, a rising trend in Canada. (An Angus-Reid poll in 2010 found that Canadian men are more in favour of paternal leave than men in the U.S., Britain or Australia - 77 per cent supported policies that would allow both parents time off.) Couples said that having two equally involved parents required compromises. One mom, who worked outside the home, lamented feeling, in weak moments, "like a dad in a skirt." But, with few exceptions, the couples were happy with their choices, especially moms, who didn't micromanage family dinners and doctors appointments from the office.

"I fully and completely trust my partner," says Miriam Kramer, a private education consultant who works full-time while her husband, a rabbi, is the primary caregiver to their son - and would fall into the group of couples that Dr. Ranson describes. "My husband is more patient, the one better suited to be the parent. I think I am better suited to be in the office."

"The bottom-line feeling in my book from mothers was: 'It's not all down to me,'" Dr. Ranson says. "It's been drilled into women that family life is their responsibility, but that is entirely a social construction. Once you get past pregnancy and breastfeeding, there's really nothing to say that fathers can't do the job."

As Mad Men approaches its fifth season, Betty Draper has become a seething, controlling mother, inspiring not envy but shame. Her daughter has run off to New York to live with her father, an independent and clever adventuress - qualities, which we suspect her mother, confined by society, desired for her all along. There's a lesson there, surely, for the stressed-out modern mother passing out on the couch in front of the television, whose greatest desire is to find that elusive balance.

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