Mothering as self-expression

This is me! Portrait of attractive haughty ginger girl in sweater pointing at herself and looking at camera with arrogance

I’ve written in the past about performative mothering, a central feature of contemporary parenting culture. I framed the discussion as comparing a fictional grandmother Myrna to her fictional granddaughter Mira.

When it came to raising John, Myrna might have feared the judgments of her mother and mother-in-law but she did not particularly fear the judgment of her peers since they were all doing the same thing. Everyone went to the hospital to have a baby; everyone was unconscious at the moment of birth; everyone bottle fed. For better or for worse, there was incredible uniformity in parenting practices.

Mira, in contrast, faces not merely the judgment of her peers, but she actively submits herself to the judgment of the larger world by engaging on Facebook. Mira is a stylist of motherhood, selecting from parenting identities and practices to present a meticulously crafted mothering persona designed for the gaze of other mothers.

Which raises the question: how did mothering transmute from raising children to a form of self-expression.

A new book published just this week, The Problem with Parenting: How Raising Children Is Changing across America, addresses this issue.

Its central claim:

…[B]eginning in the 1970s, the family was transformed from a social unit that functioned as the primary institution for raising children into a vehicle for the nurturing and fulfillment of the self.

Though the dominant contemporary philosophy of natural mothering (aka intensive mothering) advertises itself as child-centered, it is in reality mother-centered and governed by the mother’s therapeutic imperative.

The book identifies the source of change in mothering as the sociological upheavals of the late middle 20th Century including women’s employment outside the home, the sexual freedom that arrived with The Pill and the easy access to divorce.

The author declares:

In the context of the shift away from a sense of common purpose toward the pursuit of self-fulfillment above all, reforms that might have appeared unequivocally positive permanently undermined the child-centered family.

Mothering, which used to about meeting the needs of children has been transformed to meet the therapeutic needs of mothers.

It developed into a full-fledged mode of childrearing that emphasized the parent-child relationship over the family, expert advice over instinct, commitment to the self over society, and lifestyle over a Good life… Parents would unwittingly transform childrearing into an act of their own self-expression confusing their own needs with those of their child and making themselves and their children miserable in the process.

The parent child relationship:

As Americans embraced the ethos of the “‘Me’ Decade,” namely that their highest purpose should be self-fulfillment within a single lifetime, they began to balk at traditional notions of childrearing. Adults who aspired to cast off their inhibitions and be themselves now hoped to raise their children to avoid these inhibitions altogether…

Expert advice:

The zeal to improve Parenting led to a culture of “chasing” research. Parents and policy makers alike overinterpreted academic research. For instance, a single study conducted in 1993 that seemed to show that listening to classical music created short-term enhancement of spatial reasoning spawned a multimillion dollar industry of children’s toys, CDs, and videos claiming to make children smarter, despite the fact that the effects observed were temporary and observed in young adults, not in children. The impact of infant brain development hadn’t been studied at all!

The changeable nature of Parenting advice in combination with the idea that every moment spent with children was of lasting importance worked to undermine parents’ confidence. Would a deviation from official advice, such as formula feeding instead of breastfeeding or allowing a toddler to “cry it out” cause permanent damage down the line? Parents constantly doubted themselves and other people second-guessed their decisions.


Parents raised post-1970 … were finding it hard to square their own sense of self with the inevitable self-sacrifice of parenthood. They chronicled their angst in the wave of memoirs … each a variation on the themes of their struggle to be the kind of parents they aspired to be without allowing their own sense of self to be swamped by the demands of Parenting. Many parents of this generation resolved the conflict by transforming their childrearing into an act of self-expression. This brought them into direct conflict with other people, and any individual or rule that called their parenting into question became a personal slight.

The irony, however, is that intensive mothering, which is ostensibly designed to raise happier, healthier, more successful children has done nothing of the kind. To my knowledge, not a single parameter of child mental health has improved in the past half century and many — like child suicide — have actually gotten worse.

That’s just what you’d expect when mothering changes from nurturing children to maternal self-expression.