The Chameleon’s Cult of Intensive Motherhood

I had the privilege to interview Brigid Schulte for our next issue of the magazine […]


I had the privilege to interview Brigid Schulte for our next issue of the magazine (out the doors in the next month!), The Work and Play Issue. Schulte, who is a columnist at the Washington Post and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, is also a mother, a busy mother, who found herself entwined a life that was bordering on madness. Her book is the story of coming to grips with this modern busyness–a busyness she found was more universal than just her, just mothers, or even just women. Instead, she found that, while human beings have always been strung out and tired, we’ve never quite tried to be everything as we are trying now.

Schulte talks about “role overload,” the propensity for people to schedule their lives away with “roles” they can’t possibly accommodate, given the givens. Chief exemplar being, duh, the working mother, who must also be the stay-at-home mother, as well as the undaunted employee, as well as the kempt keeper of the house.

I’m obviously not a mother, but to some degree, this role paranoia (and its side effects) have parallels anywhere. The overload for us all really lies in where we tend to believe we’re not keeping up or, as Schulte describes it, blending in. Which is another potent descriptor of the Law: it’s not that accomplishing the law of intensive motherhood distinguishes mothers as excellent, it’s that it merely allows the chance to blend in. The law can only distinguish in the negative.

Unlike the days before the pill or fertility treatments, couples today have fewer children, have them later in life, spend more on them, and tend to plan them. “Smaller family size contributes to the idea that each child is more precious, so you become more invested that each one turns out well,” University of Maryland sociologist Melissa Milkie told me. “It’s the worrying about that that makes mothering so much more intense.”

UNITED STATES OF TARACultural ideals, like the ideal mother, are by their very nature unattainable, Milkie explained. “But the gap has never been as wide as it feels now between what we expect of a good mother and who we are.”

So powerful has the ideal mother become that even the academics who study intensive mothering are not immune from her demands. Social psychologist Carin Rubenstein admitted ruefully in her book The Sacrificial Mother that she tracked down a classics scholar for her third grader to interview for a class project. Rebecca Dean, the chair of the political science department at the University of Texas, Arlington, found herself spending hours baking cookies, serving on the PTA, and organizing Friday Lunch Bunch at her son’s school. “My husband tells me, ‘You’re too intensive a mother. Why do you volunteer so much at school?'” she said. “And I say, ‘Because it’s important that his principal sees me, that his teacher knows that I’m that mother, the one who is there, not one of those mothers, who isn’t.'”

That mother, who, of course does not work and does not need help…casts a long shadow, Deen and her colleague Beth Anne Shelton, a sociologist, found. In their study of the mother culture in school communities, they describe working mothers acting like “chameleons” and seeking to “pass” in the full-time mom “uniform” of sweatpants, casual clothes, or jeans. No one talks about whether she works or the flexible schedules or extravagant shuffling necessary to be at the school or a PTA meeting in the middle of the day…Sometimes, a working mother would be found out only if she sent an e-mail from a work address. “These mothers view themselves as full-time moms, and they just add on their work identity…Which leaves no time for anything else.”

The cult of intensive motherhood, I was discovering, runs on guilt, fear, and ambivalence.

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2 responses to “The Chameleon’s Cult of Intensive Motherhood”

  1. I am a mother, and I know exactly what you mean.
    I’ve written on it many more times since then, but usually as a part of a broader critique of modern womanhood and feminism. That old post is directly on point.

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