When mothers are working their hearts out for their kids, society still judges us by how we look, and how we fail to live up to the standard expected of women.
It’s a near impossibility for a mother to be a properly attractive woman. Constant articles mock mothers for “mom hair” (thank you for that, New York Times) “mom jeans,” and “mom bodies”—all forms of momification extinguishing the attractive woman she once was. But to embrace sexiness as a mom is also unthinkable. MILF is a self-mocking term, the humor deriving from putting the word fuck next to the word mom—how ridiculous to imagine a mom fucking! Or being fuckable. And if you try to be a sexy mom, an attractive mom, you’re a selfish bitch who cares more for herself than for her kids.
Underpinning this double-bind—damned for not taking care of yourself, damned for taking too much care of yourself—are conflicting ideals about what a woman is, what a mom is, and where the fairy tale ends.
Women are supposed to be pretty, and our worth as women (obnoxiously, unfairly) is tied to our appearance. Women’s magazines, TV, and movies hold up standards for women to emulate, and we internalize these standards. Women are expected work toward being pretty—and all the women’s magazines will tell us how to dress, what to eat, how to exercise, and what skin creams to use to attain that goal. Of course, individuals can resist this and choose otherwise. But if women aren’t pretty—if we don’t produce an appropriately feminine appearance—we pay a high social and economic price.
Then there are the moms. Legions of tired, hard-working moms, haggard, unwashed, wearing yoga pants. Melodramas give us images of good moms—self-less, sacrificing, unappreciated moms who die and are mourned (too late!) by their daughters. (But note the main character in the melodrama is the daughter, not the mom. Moms don’t get to be protagonists, with conflicting desires, their imperfect actions portrayed sympathetically.)
The reality is that caring for kids is hard, often dirty work. You might not have any time to shower with a newborn; your 4-year-old will happily spread the sunscreen all over your clothes; and yoga pants are damn practical for getting around and on the floor with your kids.
Which might be fine if society actually valued the work of caring for kids. But instead, 1,000 voices critique mothers 70 ways from Sunday. If society valued the work of child-rearing, we would have paid maternity leave for at least six months, or a year like our neighbor to the north, childcare providers would make more money, and the government would subsidize daycare and summer camp.
Instead, articles and individuals mock women for their “mom hair,” for not putting the time, money, and energy into keeping up with fashion and haircuts. When mothers are working their hearts out for their kids, society still judges us by how we look, and how we fail to live up to the standard expected of women.
At the same time, if a mother takes time away from her kids to care for herself, she’s selfish. She’s a bad mother for prioritizing her “self,” her appearance, over her children. You know she’s a bad mom because she cares more about herself than her kids.
In fact, to look like a mom is to not look like a (sexy, attractive) woman. “Mom” and “woman” are opposed.
But why do these two terms contradict each other?
Part of the answer lies in how we see marriage. Marriage is the culmination of a woman’s life—her “success,” the end of a fairy tale. The beautiful princess snags the prince, and they live happily ever after. The romcom heroine gets her man. The curtain drops.
Marriage ends the story of women, and moms are on the other side of that story. Marriage takes the woman off the market, her looks aren’t needed to catch a man anymore. Marriage “locks a woman down,” as is said colloquially: It is supposed to close off the possibility of sex.
We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a mom having sexual desire and being sexy. This plays into another double-bind for women: virgin or whore. Moms have had sex, but to be a good woman is to be a virgin, not a whore. Moms are supposed to be like the Virgin Mary. To have sexual desire is to be a whore, a bad woman, and a bad mom.
Moms are supposed to be above desire, fulfilled by their kids, while they are at the same time pitied for their lack of desire and desirability. Sexual desire is inherently selfish—you want something for yourself, and moms are supposed to be selfless. Moms are mocked for being outside the game of desire, and mocked if they are in it.
In the end, there’s no way to win. We expect women to be pretty, which takes time, money, energy, and work; we expect moms to be selfless and pour all their energy into their kids, but we judge them for caring about their appearance and trying to be attractive and lose the “mom jeans.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and, by the way, it’s all your fault for caring too much or not enough or wanting sex or not wanting sex. Whatever you’re doing as a mom, it’s wrong.
I wish that we could be seen as individuals, instead of bit players in someone else’s fantasy or narrative. I wish that we could simply be seen as our complicated selves. I wish that we weren’t always being measured against how pretty we are and how much we care about our appearance. I wish that instead of constantly measuring mothers and finding us inadequate, we could simply be seen as people who are often overwhelmed and under-supported in a society that gives lip service to motherhood while giving substantive support the finger.
Yael D Sherman has two children and Ph.D. in Women’s Studies. You can find her articles on Role Reboot, and in Feminism at the Movies, Exposing Lifestyle Television, and thirdspace.