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Motherhood climbs back on the pedestal

Many women feel heavy pressure - from peers, church, themselves - to be 'perfect' moms

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2004

Carla Barnhill knows a stereotype of perfection when she sees one, especially when it involves mothers. As senior editor of Christian Parenting Today, an evangelical publication, she meets many women who are striving valiantly, and not always successfully, to fulfill their church's idealized expectations of child-rearing.

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"The definition of what makes you a good Christian is: You are a good mother," says Mrs. Barnhill, who explores the subject in a new book, "The Myth of the Perfect Mother." Many evangelical churches, she explains, portray the "good" Christian mother as someone who is "always loving, always patient, always happy, always ready to serve her family."

As women's roles and responsibilities have expanded in recent decades, so has the degree to which they are judged - or judge themselves - as successful mothers. These days, social observers say, a growing religious conservatism is intensifying stereotypes of maternal perfection. At the same time, secular culture creates its own expectations of perfection. As Barnhill, who has two children, notes, magazines portray the "good mom" as someone who is "very creative and loves making smiley faces on sandwiches." This time of year, she's also expected to create perfect holidays for her family.

Call this approach to parenthood the new momism, extreme mothering, intensive mothering, or exclusive mothering. Whatever the name, this romanticized version of motherhood takes many forms, secular and sacred.

"Most of my images have come from TV shows, Hallmark greetings, Norman Rockwell, Martha Stewart, and the 'perfect' churchwoman," says Susan Wehrley, a mother in Brookfield, Wis. "They're all illusions of motherhood."

For those trying to be the "perfect churchwoman," the pressure can be subtle. "I don't think the church has intentionally gone out and said, 'A mother has to look like this,' " Barnhill says. "This has grown out of good intentions. As the church has felt more threatened by the secular culture, there's been an effort to circle the wagons around the family and create a sense of safety."

In the secular world, the quest for perfection manifests itself in other ways. When Christine Walker was expecting her first child, well-meaning friends and even strangers peppered her with guilt-producing questions: Are you exercising? Taking prenatal vitamins? Avoiding caffeine? Staying away from certain foods?

"The striving to be the perfect mom begins when you're pregnant," says Mrs. Walker, a mother of three in Winnetka, Ill. Noting that this striving continues through every stage of child-rearing, she adds, "The pressure to be Martha-Stewart-meets-June-Cleaver is really hard."

For Jamie Farrell of Revere, Mass., even bottle- feeding her baby, rather than breastfeeding, drew critical comments from others. "If you use formula, you are made to feel almost criminal," she says. "I felt I could never be a 'perfect mother' because I wasn't able to perform something that is presented as such a simple task."

Some women look to their own mothers as models - and come up short by comparison. "My mom never used a cake mix," says Mary Boone of Tacoma, Wash. "Everything was from scratch. I can't even tell you the last time I baked something from scratch."

And then there is that other beloved icon of perfection, June Cleaver. By today's standards of parenthood, she had it easy. "June Cleaver never worried about whether she breastfed long enough, if she should get sealants on her kids' teeth, or if the favors she chose for her 3-year-old's birthday party would be well received," says Stephanie Gallagher, author of "The Gallagher Guide to the Baby Years." Calling herself a "recovering perfectionist," she adds, "I've agonized over those things and more."

Debates about working or not working also produce insidious doubts. Most days, Mrs. Boone feels relatively satisfied with her ability to mother her two preschoolers. But on Thursdays, everything changes. That's the day she takes her 4-year-old daughter to ballet class. As the only working mother in the group, Boone feels a nagging inadequacy as the others talk about their children's many activities.