The Good Mother Myth ed. by Avital Norman Nathman

The Good Mother Myth
Have you heard the one about the 'good' mother? White, middle class, heterosexual, neither too young nor too old, maintaining a fulfilling career, cooking healthy meals and still having regular, good sex. Yes, she's a hilarious fairy tale, but somehow she still seems to be everywhere. A new collection of essays, edited by Avital Norman Nathman, wants to remind us she's fictitious...

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality brings you stories from the frontline of childrearing. Written by a string of accomplished feminist voices including Jessica Valenti, Soraya Chemaly and Lisa Duggan, it covers wide ground, from dropping babies on their heads, to using pot as a coping mechanism, to the torture of depression.

This is a book mothers will want. That’s because this is an incredibly sparse area of publishing – only Kate Figes’s 1998 book Life after Birth springs to mind as such an honest account of what motherhood can do to a woman. That book was a publishing success because it was passed around by women at antenatal groups who desperately wanted to understand the ways their lives had changed. It’s likely The Good Mother Myth will hold a similar place in the hearts and playgroups of mothers in this decade.

Although The Good Mother Myth has less explicit guidance for confused mothers, the value of the book lies in the wide variety of experiences. Each reader’s parenting is unique to her. If she doesn’t find something that chimes with her in one essay, she’ll be sure to find it in the next one. Whether you relate to it or not, almost every essay has a gem of advice that shines brightly out of the rather blank coalface of motherhood truths.

The stand-out essay is one of the simplest. Amber Dusik’s There’s a Zombie Cavewoman in All of Us describes the distress a simple visit to the supermarket with young children can cause to a tired and fragile mother, especially when she sees another woman looking well-groomed with clean and happy kids.

In the early days it's hard to recognise that life will not be permanently filled with vomit, stress and tears. Mothering feels relentless, but it does evolve. Understanding that is such a useful piece of knowledge when in the deepest pit of sleepless despair.The beauty of this little parable is that a few months later she realises today she is that well-groomed woman. In the early days it’s hard to recognise that life will not be permanently filled with vomit, stress and tears. Mothering feels relentless, but it does evolve. Understanding that is such a useful piece of knowledge when in the deepest pit of sleepless despair.

That apparently perfect woman in the supermarket is the spectre at the feast of motherhood, she represents the huge burden of judgement that mothers feel. It appears self-imposed and to some extent, as Soraya Chemaly explains in her essay The Unapologetic No, it can be shaken off with some careful re-thinking. But this judgement does not exist in a vacuum – these women develop their understanding of what the world expects of them as mothers from their earliest days.

Motherhood can be quite specific to the country you live in, whether it’s access to healthcare or the nature of barriers to work. So the fact the voices are US-based can make the tone feel slightly distant. A wonderful extension of this project would be to publish a similar set of essays from UK writers. A further rankle is that the stories in this book were very varied, but the position from which they come has a tendency to feel rather middle-class. Small grumbles aside, The Good Mother Myth warmly invites you to think about your own understanding of motherhood and asks you to be honest with others about how hard it can be. That’s an idea and a book worth sharing.

by Rosalyn Ball (@GenderDiary)