Friday, April 30, 2010

what is the ideal mama?

When speaking with fellow mamas in our small rural college town, I've been struck by how different their ideals for mothering are from the ones held by moms in Norway.

One mama I interviewed, who majored in women's studies and has a Master's in social work, talked to me about how she wants her son to see her as a person of her own, not just a mama the way she grew up seeing her selfless stay-at-home mom. She is also a devout attachment parenter who wants to be present for her child, and so she was home with him for the most part till he was one and has only worked part time after that when either her spouse is home with their son, or when her mom can watch him. When he turned 2, he was in daycare a few hours a week, and when he turned 3, he started at the Montessori pre-school in town. This has opened up some more hours for her to work.

It seemed to me she had attained a perfect balance for herself, based on her feminist and attachment parenting deals. Yet at the end of our interview, she expressed guilt for not living up to the ideal mama; a mama who's always home and present, not sending her son to daycare or pre-school.

In Norway, on the other hand, the ideal mama is a mom who returns to work full time after her paid parental leave (which she can take a full year of or split with her husband). This is the norm for urban middle class moms who set the leading standard for everyone else. This means that most children in Norway are in daycare from they're one, and it's not really questioned.

That's a very different situation from the "mommy wars" in the US between working moms and stay-at-home moms.

Working moms in Norway might complain about the time crunch they find themselves in, but there aren't really any discussion like those in the work it, mom! blog or Mama in Wonderland where moms either working or not discuss how it might in fact get busier as children grow older, and thus harder to juggle work and family. Meaning that stay-at-home moms who expect they'll go back to work when their children spend longer days in school, might find that this won't work so well after all. In the US, highly educated women might thus prefer to continue staying home after all. In Norway, this would never happen.

How can this be? Is a culture's dominating ideology so powerful that it allows parents not to question their choices and just go with the flow?

Recently, Norwegian journalist Simen Tveitereid committed a cultural crime by questioning the norm of placing children in daycare when they might not be ready for it, so that moms (and dads) can return to work. In accordance with developmental psychology where the emphasis is on the child's need for building a few attached relationships the first two to three years of a child's life, Tveitereid's book Hva skal vi med barn? (2008, Why do we have kids?) criticizes the focus in Norwegian daycares on teaching children to acquire competences rather than providing a nurturing environment of attached relationships between qualified caretakers and children. Critics admonished Tveitereid for making parents feel badly about the way they raise their children and for insinuating that moms should stay home longer before returning to work.

Norway is known for its great achievement towards gender equality in the work place and at home. Questioning the norm where mothers return to work full time at the end of their parental leave, is perceived as highly politically incorrect. 

In the US, on the other hand, this discussion is alive and relevant for many. "What are some of the issues that moms are facing with regards to work and childcare?" asks CuriousK over at Theory to Action. A college student in a women's studies seminar, she's studying the impact of maternal employment on infant/child cognitive development. CuriousK, who grew up with a stay-at-home mom, wonders if the nurturing environment she was provided with has helped her cognitive development. But she also wonders if she missed out on acquiring some of the independence her friend displays who grew up with a working mom. And she recognizes how her friend was provided with better role models towards gender equality whereas she herself grew up in a traditional household where the mom took care of the domestic chores.

Most poignantly, CuriousK reflects on how she used to think that she would finish college, work for a while, but then give up her job when it came time to stay home with her children.

Back when I used to teach, I was always frustrated by my female college students who didn't pause to question this typical path the way CuriousK does. What's the point of a college degree if you're just going to stay home with your kids?

But are we to feel guilty about our higher degrees if we do decide to stay home? As Shan writes in Mama of Wonderland, she sometimes sort of wish she had not gotten her higher degree, feeling great worry and guilt about potentially not going back to work as a psychologist.

Here I am with my Ph.D., a former college prof, now a stay-at-home mom, at least most of the time while I also get to write part time. I never thought I'd find myself in this situation. Perhaps since I grew up in Norway, where the norm wasn't questioned.

Building awareness about this issue with all its complexities inspires me to believe that something can be done to improve things. I have some hope now for us mamas and mamas-to-be in the US where discussion about issues facing moms regarding work and childcare now takes place not just as mommy wars, but among moms who share and commiserate, and college students who wonder about their future and what choices they have.


  1. Awesome post, Anne! Thanks for the links too. :) It is so fascinating to me to learn about the differences in Norway regarding this issue. Such a completely different perspective!

  2. Yes, thanks for the cross-cultural comparison. You touch on a key point when questioning the power of the dominant ideology. Perhaps questioning and acting on uncertainty remains the driving force of feminisms. But for how many centuries must we keep arguing and having to prove that mothering, in whatever form it takes, is valuable work?


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