LONDON — This is a month when competing images of motherhood are floating through the spring air in England.
In store windows, signs gently remind passersby that March 30 is Mothering Sunday, or Mother's Day. In shops, racks of pastel-colored cards bear serene and loving messages, idealizing maternal roles.
But newspapers tell a different story as they describe the everyday realities of child-rearing. "Stress drives chauffeur mothers to distraction," a headline in the Daily Telegraph reads.
A survey of more than 500 road-weary mothers finds that one quarter have been involved in accidents as they shuttle children to school, music lessons, ballet classes, and sports events. Nearly 70 percent have exceeded the speed limit, and more than half have run red lights. The mothers complain that children's fighting, arguing, and shouting distracts and unnerves them.
No wonder the study's sponsor, an auto-glass repair company, titled the report "Mums on the Run."
If these "chauffeur mums" need reassurance that their efforts on their children's behalf are not in vain, they could take comfort in a headline in The (London) Times. It reads: "Pushy mothers give children a head start." Stephen Bell, a professor at the University of London's Institute of Education, finds that successful middle-class children are the product of "intensive mothering." These determined mothers, he explains, can affect their children's achievements even more than the children's own abilities do.
Take a bow, mums. Yet this success comes at a price. As Professor Bell notes, "Responsibility weighs heavily on the mother in a whole variety of senses."
It's enough to make newspaper readers wonder how these domestic chauffeurs and stage mothers have time to hold paying jobs, considering all their obligations on the home front. Yet many do work, of course.
By focusing on mothers, the studies emphasize traditional child-rearing roles. "Chauffeur dads" and "pushy fathers" may exist in families, but they are nowhere to be found in these headlines. To his credit, Bell gives a nod to both parents when he says, "Pushy mums and dads are vital because they encourage their children to exceed their own achievements, and that's the way society progresses."
Other potential progress comes in a third survey released here last week. It reports that nearly half of all new fathers claim they would like to stay home to care for their children if they could. Among 1,000 men, 4 out of 5 say they would like to spend more time with their offspring.
Beginning April 6, more of them will be able to make good on those claims. That's the day new fathers in England will qualify for two weeks of paid paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child. They will receive £100 a week, the same amount mothers get for maternity leave.
Overscheduled children, overextended parents. These are becoming the new norms of family life on both sides of the Atlantic. Only the terms are different. In the United States, "chauffeur mothers" are sometimes referred to as "SUV moms." That, in turn, is a trendy update on the overworked 1990s phrase, "soccer moms," describing a group once ardently wooed by politicians and now politely ignored.
As hurried, harried parents in both countries ferry children and create a home climate that encourages achievement, they are refining another 1990s word, juggling.
Who knows? The studies released in England this month could even inspire greeting card companies to include new sentiments next year, reflecting 21st-century realities. "Happy Mothering Sunday to my favorite mum on the run" could have possibilities. But "Happy Mothering Sunday to the best pushy mother ever"? Sorry - that will never have quite the right ring.