The scarlet M

Last night I started this entry to address, in part, Britney Spear’s public designation as a ‘bad mom’. This morning, my husband opened the front door while holding our son, who suddenly turned and hit his forehead on it. Without missing a beat, my husband announced he was having a “Britney moment”.

Two recent articles bring the issue of public judgment of mothers to the forefront, and not surprisingly their subject is celebrity moms. Granted, the world of celebrities operates under its own set of rules and occupies a particular space in the current cultural landscape. I will not delve into that. But what is interesting about the pieces has little to do with that strange universe.

The May 25th CNN news link reads “Mothers to Media: Lay Off Britney”. From the outset the article reinforces the negative portrayal of Spears by describing her as “America’s most maligned mother” and as having “a way of appearing maternally challenged”. It then narrates a series of incidents that have made Spears the object of much public scrutiny (and incredibly enough, two visits from the local police department). In a disturbing sleight-of-hand, however, the article credits a ‘celebrity mommy patrol’ with passing this judgment on her: “Not good.... We’d never do that.” The ‘we’ turns out not to be the media responsible for the barrage of articles, but other moms. As if that wasn’t enough, the article then feigns shock at the fact that “fellow moms are doing something a bit surprising: defending Britney.”

It is irritating that under the guise of reporting mothers’ support for Spears, the media again pits mothers against mothers. Who, exactly, is surprised that other mothers are defending Spears? In fact, the article goes on to announce:

“None of the mothers interviewed for this piece deny that Spears has shown questionable judgment, at best. But many noted that motherhood has long been subject to changing standards. Was it so long ago, for example, that kids roamed free in the car, unbelted? How long have kiddie bike helmets been around?”

Contrary to the image of a mommy patrol ready to condemn the slightest infraction, it seems most mothers agree that parenting standards are constantly in flux. And yet, the article never addresses the real story –that there was substantial public backlash against the media because of the criticism being foisted on Spears. Instead it’s framed as a conversation between mothers and what it takes to become part of the ‘Mommy Club’.

A second article along the same vein is “Public hooked on celebrity kiddie catastrophes” (Misty Harris, CanWest News Service, May 26, 2006). This one describes the negative attention on Spears’ parenting as bloodsport, and happily goes on to note that:

“The finger-pointing is reaching a fever pitch: pop-culture blog MollyGood has giddily declared that "passing judgment on celebrity parenting is the new passing judgment on celebrity weight loss.''

The underlying assumption is that passing judgment on parenting is not just acceptable behavior, but a delightful pastime. The article gleefully produces a list of the most recent celebrity parent condemnations and, with the exception of Brad Pitt, the charges are lobbied exclusively at mothers. It seems that, even in the unreal universe of celebrities, the harsh rules of judgment and surveillance apply to mothers only.

What should not be news to anyone is that mothers have had enough.


The story of how this blog began

I have always valued my privacy. That, among others, is one of the reasons why I am a city dweller. Cities allow you to blend in, to move anonymously through your day if you so choose. Privacy is both freedom and pleasure, and I never imagined that parenthood might curtail it.

Pregnancy made me a celebrity. It was all about my "state of grace", about the spotlight on the promise of my expanding belly, and had very little to do with me: I only happened to be there. Strangers smiled at me, spoke to me unbidden, or touched me as if I were public property. I was given advice, told intimate details of pregnancies and birth experiences, given dire, graphic warnings of all that might befall me. It mattered not if I expressed interest or disgust. I was the embodiment of something bigger and- a little like the flash of Julia Robert's smile- my state of being 'with child' evoked reactions everywhere I went.

Strangely enough, I also found myself being treated like a child, or a mentally impaired adult, unable to make independent, informed decisions (particularly by the medical profession). This undermined my authority, and my pregnancy and body became "open to the general public". The principles of physical integrity or privacy ceased to apply.

Then I had my baby. Suddenly, I became not anonymous, but invisible.

I was now the child's mother, and my thirty-seven years of studying, working, and living vanished into thin air. My conversation with other adults could be described as 'motherhood musak' and its only theme was my son. I was rarely asked about work, interests, or any of the other parts of my life, and soon I stopped mentioning them myself. Occasionally, a family member or close friend would refer to the mother-formerly-known-as, and I would make a guest appearance. But I quickly tired of foraying outside of the scripted mommy dialogues, for it felt defensive. What was I defending myself from? There was also the nagging sensation that maybe I was being oversensitive, selfish, or that somehow I was at fault. And frankly, who cared what the world thought?

I came to realize, however, that I did care. Not because of me in particular, but because of what this indicated about the current state of parenthood. While I had experienced my share of being pigeonholed into social definitions, those occasions had lacked the impact that comes from being catalogued as a mother. And even worse, I had not expected the large amount of negativity that would be hurled my way by others.

This was in sharp contrast to my husband's own crossing of the parenthood threshold, where his every bit of involvement was heralded with admiration and respect. In the NICU where our son spent his first few days of life, my husband's presence was greeted with awe, his every move a testament to his status as a new father. I, on the other hand, was given small lectures on what I should or shouldn't do with my child, with a tone that underscored my ignorance and incompetence in all matters. I kept quiet, thinking that exhaustion and shock after birth complications were making me imagine things. But the contrast was so obvious that my husband remarked on it.

And that set me to thinking, and to asking questions. Why are pregnancy (and for that matter parenthood) and privacy at such odds? What is it about pregnancy that alters a woman's cultural and social status so radically? What is it about pregnancy and parenthood that makes one’s decisions open to discussion (and judgment) by everyone and anyone?

I am aware of the many positive social dynamics that surround pregnancy and parenthood. Parenthood has allowed for a different kind of intimacy and understanding in relationships with other adults, and has reshaped my public personality for the better. Those experiences are worth considering and writing about. But there is something compelling about the sometimes strange behavior elicited by a mother-to-be, perhaps because it points to the cultural ambivalence that still exists towards women, their role in procreation, and their work as mothers (to say the least).

These first unanswered questions are the catalyst for this blog. Since privacy, as I knew it, will never return, I may as well make my presence felt. Rather than just follow the current discussions on mothers, parenthood and children, this will be a space from which to tackle those cultural behemoths.