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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 ...

There's an iconic scene in the television show Mad Men, clearly intended to leap out at modern moms. Betty Draper, trapped miserably at home in her pretty skirts, is smoking (gasp!) with a friend, when young daughter Sally rushes into the room. A bag from the dry cleaners is pulled down over her head to her knees. Every watching mother today, having been drilled in the risks of "the most dangerous bag in the house," sees themselves rushing forward in panic, to yank it off their suffocating child. Betty glances up in annoyance: "If the clothes from that drying cleaning bag are on the floor of my closet, you are going to be a very sorry young lady," she scolds. Sally exits, face still dressed in plastic.

There's something oddly thrilling about that scene, a fleeting envy for Betty, sitting so blasé on the kitchen stool, defying us all to judge her. Oh, to be free of the guilt, the worry, the hand-wringing! No more waking up in the middle of the night fretting about forgotten homework. No more calculating the sodium content on a cereal box. No more planning weekends of "enrichment" while eating lunch at your desk. Just this week, researchers warned that children who don't have family dinners get fat - heartening news to working parents in this country. (The research was unclear on whether sandwiches in the car speeding to soccer practice count as a family meal; let's assume, this being Mother's Day weekend, that they do.) But then, as the growing mound of "science" tells us, the misguided mom has already doomed her child to a beer belly, or depression or violence, or long years on a couch in the basement. Who can blame the modern mom for fantasizing about breezy afternoons sipping martinis on the patio with absolutely no idea what her kids are up to. As one 1970s mom reminisced this week, the conversation used to go something like, "My kid's a brat. What do you do with your brat?" Today, there are no "brats," except the ones we whisper about. And, but for providing witty copy on our mommy blogs as little-rascals-destined-for-brilliance, they certainly aren't living with us.

So along comes Mother's Day, a day upon which most women, when surveyed, desire neither flowers nor pancakes in bed, but a break from being mothers. Who can blame them? Mother-bashing has a long history, but never has the sniping felt so ubiquitous, the advice so dire and conflicting, both inside the mom circle and beyond. Judging mothers is not just permissible these days, it's obligatory, as if a spanking will bring us all around. "We have one day to celebrate mothers, and then we lay a trip on them the rest of the year," observes Gillian Ranson, a sociologist at the University of Calgary. In other words, the roses are nice. But they come with (apron) strings attached.

But before you poke your eye out with the pencil that you are currently using to complete your daughter's science project, here's some consolation: the mommy wars may yet shift in our weary favour. Demographics are on our side. More women are becoming the primary breadwinners in Canada - that was the case for three in 10 families in 2004, even before the recession gutted many male-dominated industries. The next crop of moms, busily surpassing their future husbands in university degrees and ambition, are unlikely to accept the lion's share of the laundry burden - and more men taking paternity leave suggests fewer dads willing to be demoted to "assistant" in their children's lives.

Even the child development "experts" are now lightening our load, swinging the parenting pendulum once again to give us permission to be a littler lazier. (Though not before reminding us that the earnest self-esteem building and diligent face time they told us was necessary has now turned our children into over-indulged crybabies.) Whether financial reality, child development science or fed-up women make it so, we (or more likely our daughters) may eventually reach the age of the good-enough mom, free to back off and delegate.

Tigers and Elephants and Ravens, oh my!

The polemic that set most mothers chattering this year was penned by now-infamous Tiger Mom Amy Chua, who bares her claws too sharply, but gets her daughter into Harvard all the same. The Yale law professor, whose Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom detailed a tough-love approach to parenting characterized by banning boyfriends, backtalk and sleepovers, demanding top marks in every subject, disdainfully shredding homemade Mother's Day cards for bad spelling.

Her eldest daughter, after performing impressively at Carnegie Hall, rose to her mother's defence when the critics came hunting and then really did earn that coveted Ivy League acceptance - thus making moms everywhere quietly reconsider bathroom breaks during piano practice, or at least, as Dr. Chua asserted, the idea that Western parents are too soft on their kids.

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.

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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