Gwyneth Paltrow. Kate Hudson. Reese Witherspoon. Courtney Cox-Arquette. These beautiful, young, successful movie stars have come to represent the Hollywood Elite. Yet, despite high-powered careers in one of the most competitive jobs on the earth, these women seem to be everywhere talking about the most unglamorous subject in Hollywood. These movie stars have become the pre-eminent spokeswomen for motherhood — “Cover Moms” spreading the “gospel of good motherhood” across America. And it’s pissing me off.
Now understand, I’m pissed off at the magazines that exploit this stuff, rather than the new mothers themselves. After all, I understand where their mommy-crowing is coming from. In fact, when I gave birth to my daughter, I was so in love with her that I was giddy. Like all new moms, I thought my baby was beautiful, and I sometimes found myself moved to tears by the beauty of how truly amazing she was. She was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. She completed me in a way that made me feel whole. And I wanted to shout out my epiphany to everyone in the world.
Only I wasn’t world famous and I didn’t have paparazzi following me around town as I embarked on my own mommy journey. And so I crowed mostly to myself, but did occasionally elaborate to a few close friends.
“What’s it really like?” my curious childless friends would ask.
“It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done,” I’d say. “Everything else pales in comparison. It feels so right, and I can’t believe how empty my life was before.”
And so, I can’t blame Gwyneth Paltrow when she gushes in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, “It’s like being the most in love you’ve ever been . . . but mixed with the worst heartbreak because she’s so tender, because life is filled with so much difficulty, because one day you’re not going to be together anymore.”
Had I been asked, I’m sure I would have joyfully sung the praises of motherhood to Entertainment Weekly, too. I think, “Welcome to MY world, Gwyneth.” And in some ways, it feels good to have my own insights, perspective, and values validated in print for the world to see, in the form of a stylish new spokeswoman. For a moment, it even feels like a slight victory to see the unglamorous topic of motherhood make it to the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
So why do I suddenly feel so catty and defensive? Why do I sit around with the other moms at our children’s soccer practice, pass around the latest issues of People, Us, and Entertainment Weekly, and roll my eyes and say, “Oh puh-leeze. Where does Reese Witherspoon get off? Sure she LOOKS great, but she has a personal trainer and a nutritionist and she’s practically a teenager. Besides I hear her husband is a drug addict.”
I hate to admit that this stuff bothers me, but it does. And I also hate to admit that I’ve become somewhat fascinated (okay, obsessed) with celebrity moms, but I have. I even caved in and tuned into Vh1’s All Access: “Hot Mama,” until I screamed at my husband to turn the channel because it was all too upsetting to me. I know, nobody’s making me watch, but still I can’t resist. Just like I can’t resist buying celebrity magazines featuring celebrity cover-moms. Not that I can escape their influence, since they seem to inhabit every check-out line in every supermarket in America.
But my own fascination aside, what’s really going on here? In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels explain that these seemingly innocuous “Celebrity Mom Profiles” are actually powerful stuff in that they “promote standards of child rearing impossible to achieve.” Douglas and Michaels explain:
“Feminists and women humorists like Erma Bombeck and Judith Viorst said in the 1970’s and ’80’s what June Cleaver never could or would: that having children made your stomach and ass fall down to your knees, and that sometimes all you wanted to do was murder the kids and bury them near the septic tank. . . . The celebrity mom profile banished all such negativity: No ambivalence, not even a mouse-squeak of it, was permitted.”
Like a lot of women I know, I’m full of maternal ambivalence and don’t relate to the superficiality of motherhood as portrayed in celebrity profiles. Of course, I love my children more than life itself. But, sometimes being the mom, is overwhelming, stifling, and just plain monotonous. And I agree with Andi Buchanan, author of Mother Shock, who boldly explored this ambivalence in the essay, “Loving Every (Other) Minute of It.” Andi explains that it doesn’t make someone a bad person or a bad mother to admit that they are conflicted and that they don’t love every single minute of motherhood — especially, every minute of watching Elmo videos, having interrupted sleep, dealing with public temper tantrums, or sorting through mountains of soiled laundry.
But that’s not what most celebrity moms would have us believe. And that’s what makes their stories such powerful, and potentially damaging, stuff. According to Douglas and Michaels, “If women who have been at the top of their career — ‘A-List’ actresses — with whopping salaries, professional success, and international recognition, and envy of millions; if they say working isn’t worth it compared to playing Chutes and Ladders, then how are you — waitress, bank-teller, real-estate agent, mid-level manager, teacher — supposed to set you priorities?”
The Entertainment Weekly interview suggests that Gwyneth Paltrow is a perfectly fulfilled celebrity moms who is content to stay home changing dirty diapers rather than make Oscar acceptance speeches or have front row seats at the latest Stella McCarthy fashion show. The title of the interview reads: “The Lady Vanishes” — implying that Gwyneth has chosen to disappear completely from her high-profile, public life and will blend in with the rest of us invisible mothers. And Gwyneth herself says, “I can’t imagine going back to shoot a movie.”
But I’m curious to know exactly WHAT Gwyneth DOES see herself doing as a mother in the next year or two. Does she truly imagine that motherhood is all endless smiling, cooing, and singing Coldplay lullabies? I wonder if she can also imagine being so sleep-deprived, hormonally-unbalanced, postnatally depressed, and isolated that she screams at her precious baby to “stop fucking crying before I shoot myself”? Because I’m not ashamed to say that those words have escaped from my lips once . . . and maybe even twice.
Not that the blissful ignorance that Gwyneth exudes is that different from the maternal ignorance that I myself once held onto. During my first year of motherhood, when people asked me when I was going back to work, I’d answer: “I really don’t know. I’m really happy being home with my baby right now. And I can’t imagine leaving her. This is the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t need a job anymore to define me — anymore.”
Or so I thought. With my rose-colored, new-mommy goggles on, I had no idea how complex life as a mom really was. I was like the excited rookie who is interviewed after his first time at bat in the major leagues. I was savoring a glorious moment, and it didn’t matter whether I hit a homerun or struck out. I was just happy to be playing at all. I also didn’t imagine that “good mothers” worked outside the home. And even though I was a feminist who always wanted a career, I somehow bought into the idea that my babies COULD and SHOULD fulfill me completely.
I was in for quite a shock when I finally realized that my babies were not put on this earth to complete me or fulfill my every need. I had done what I thought I was supposed to do: stepped off the fast track, “opted out,” and sat back and expected a “happy ending.” I struggled and fought conflicting feelings for years until I realized that it wasn’t my babies’ responsibility to fulfill me. And by giving up everything for them, I had put an incredible burden on their shoulders. How can a child possibly make a mommy happy who doesn’t take responsibility for her own happiness?
Some of my unrealistic expectations came from socialization and my own maternal role models. But I was most definitely influenced by the media, as well. Douglas and Michaels explain that “celebrity mom portraits resurrect so many of the stereotypes about women we hoped to deep-six 30 years ago: that women are, by genetic composition, nurturing and maternal, love all children, and prefer motherhood to anything else, especially work, so should be the main ones responsible for raising the kids.”
As mega-star Julia Roberts prepares to give birth to her babies, celebrity magazines are working overtime to re-cast Julia in a maternal glow. The headlines on Us Magazine are already speculating, “Will She Quit Her Career?” And while I don’t believe it is Julia or Gwyneth’s intention to make the rest of feel bad about ourselves — THEY DO. How can we, normal American moms, compete or live up to the standards set by Julia Roberts? If she does continue to work after motherhood, those of us who stay home will feel worthless and ashamed, thinking how can we complain about how hard this is when Julia Roberts can make four blockbuster films a year while nursing twins? If Julia decides to quit working completely (which I find highly unlikely), those of us who continue to work will feel guilty and ashamed, thinking how come Julia is content “just to be a mom” and we aren’t? Either way, moms everywhere are left thinking “what’s wrong with me?”
In The Mommy Myth, Douglas and Michaels, explain that “rising out of the ashes of feminism, and repudiating its critique of the narrow confines of middle-class motherhood, the celebrity mom profile was an absolutely crucial tool in the media construction of maternal guilt and insecurity, as well as the romanticizing of motherhood, in the 1980’s and beyond.”
When I read finished reading the Gwyneth Paltrow interview in Entertainment Weekly, I admit that I was a feeling a bit snarky, wanting to scream: “Sure Gwyneth it’s all roses right now, but how long do you think the new-baby euphoria lasts? And with this romanticism you’ve built about motherhood, will you even be emotionally-prepared when the dreary realities of motherhood are finally revealed? You, my dear, are setting yourself up for a massive fall.”
Snarkiness aside, there’s a part of me that wants to reach out to Gwyneth, welcome her into the sisterhood, take her by the hand, and gently guide her down the twisted path of motherhood. I want to tell her that she is one of us now and that as maternal sisters we will show her all that we know. For we truly understand the awesome and powerful transformation she is going through.
But I also want to warn her that she can never go backwards on the path — to the person she was before. And that is scary. I want to warn her that there are dark days ahead, mixed in along with the light. And that is frustrating. I want her to know that life can be a balancing act when you are suddenly responsible for someone else’s needs that are at times greater than your own. And that is overwhelming, confusing, and complicated.
And I want her to know that she isn’t alone — that there are millions of mothers in this world, who are trying to find our ways too and we’ve taken a silent vow not judge each other. And that is comforting. Even if we don’t look or live like Cover Moms.