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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.

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