by Leslie Morgan Steiner
One of the tricks about American motherhood is learning to block out the pervasive, contradictory media messages beamed to us via newspapers, magazines, advertisements and television programs. From the time we are toddlers we hear that becoming a mother is “the most important thing a woman ever does in her life.” But moms are the first to be attacked when we step outside cultural norms or when misfortune strikes our children. Perversely, when moms most need community support, we attack them.
Two recent examples:
Big news: a 66-year-old successful career woman is about to become a first-time mom. Pretty neat trick, I thought – wish I’d thought of that kind of career/kids sequencing before I took the motherhood plunge. Elizabeth Adeney, now eight months pregnant, will be one of the oldest new mothers in the world, as reported by ABC News .
Instead of inspiring amazement and support, Adeney's decision to have in vitro fertilization has been criticized as an example of "breathtaking selfishness" despite evidence that women can safely bear children, breastfeed them and raise them no matter our age (our eggs are the only part of childcare that truly expires). When she's 85 years old, her child will still be a teenager, bloggers exclaim. Horrors! An old mom! (Don’t teenagers think their parents are old no matter what?)
In my mind, this woman should be supported for the challenges she faces, praised for finding an innovative sequencing solution to the work/family juggling act, and applauded for waiting until she was truly ready to have kids (Levy and Bristol Palin, take note). Instead there is outcry about her motives that would never crop up about a 66-year-old first time father.
And then we have Kate Gosselin, the 34-year-old mom of eight and star of hit TLC Reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8 , whose season five begins May 25. Kate is her family’s primary breadwinner, working as an author and paid speaker about life with multiples, in addition to filming the reality show. The couple originally worked together, but Jon disliked the extra work and voluntarily stayed home with the children. The May 25th People Magazine reported that Jon had begun late night bar-hopping and had been photographed leaving a local bar at 2 a.m. with a 23-year-old woman.
“Jon has explained that his partying was due, in part, to the long days he spends as a stay-at-home day while Kate travels,” the Magazine wrote.
Now imagine what would be said about an at-home mother of eight children who spent her nights with strange men in bars while her husband was out providing for the family.
I still remember 1997, when I saw motherhood with fresh eyes because I was a few months pregnant with my first child. In Newton, Massachusetts, an 18-year-old British nanny shook eight-month-old Matthew Eappen  to death. Although Louise Woodward was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, what horrified me was how the media convicted the baby’s mother for being a working mom. Thirty-one year old ophthalmologist Deborah Eappen had entrusted her infant’s care to Louise Woodward so she could continue her medical career part-time. Hardly criminal activity, but in our country we praise men – not women -- for being breadwinning parents.
Instead Deborah Eappen was portrayed as cold, non-maternal, materialistic and suspicious for leaving her baby in someone else’s care, almost as if her baby’s death were her own fault. Nothing bad was ever said about her husband, and Louise Woodward was treated with leniency she did not deserve. At times it seemed no one in America felt sorry for Deborah Eappen. It was disgusting (and terrifying) how the media leveled vicious accusations at her during a time of unimaginable grief.
How can we turn on mothers this way? Here lies the root of the Mommy Wars plaguing our country. If our culture does not recognize the realities of motherhood – that providing economic stability for a family is a critical component of good parenthood, that no mother is perfect, that each woman mothers uniquely, that parenthood presents tough challenges and choices – mothers’ guilt, shame and tension will continue to be as American as apple pie.