Menu Close

How happiness becomes a burden of identity as a wife and mother

Life is naturally sunny for the ‘happy mother’ of social mythology, which makes it doubly difficult for mums when they are miserable. Shutterstock/FamVeld

This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.

Why are housewives “happy” and feminists “angry”? Why are queens blithely labelled “tragic”, trannies “sad” and spinsters “bitter”? One of the intriguing things about identity stereotypes is how cultural constructions of identity are aligned with emotional regimes. This has long been an issue of contention for feminists, who are, as Sara Ahmed has eloquently argued, habitually castigated as “killjoys”.

Being labelled bitter, sad or tragic is certainly marginalising, but so too can the expectation of happiness be a burden. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the onslaught of seraphic images that make up the myth of motherhood – celebrity mummies pushing prams on magazine covers, yummy mummies with fashion spreads on Facebook, or the age-old stereotype of mothers in advertising who remain ubiquitously obsessed with cleaning products and “alpine fresh” scents.

Even if you consciously reject the media images, these ideas about what a mother ought to be and ought to feel are there from the minute you wake up until you go to sleep at night.

In an age of increasing workplace demands, so too the ideals of motherhood have become paradoxically more – not less – demanding. The new credos of motherhood – whether they are called “Intensive Mothering” or “Natural Parenting” – are wholly taken up with a narrowly prescribed way of doing things.

In the West, 21st-century child rearing is becoming increasingly time-consuming, expert-guided and, above all else, emotionally all-absorbing and incredibly expensive.

It is no longer just a question of whether you should or should not eat strawberries or prawns or soft cheese – or, heaven forbid, junk food – while you are pregnant, or whether you should or should not breastfeed for the required two years. The issue of what you should or should not feel has come under intense scrutiny.

The construction of new emotional disorders for mothers is something of a pop-psychology pastime. The old list of mental disorders is expanding from pre-natal anxiety, post-natal depression, post-partum psychosis and the baby blues, to include postnatal stress disorder, maternal anxiety and mood imbalance, and tokophobia — the latter being coined at the start of the millennium to designate an unreasonable fear of giving birth.

Suck it up, princess? Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, faces even higher expectations than most to be a good and happy mother. EPA/Hannah McKay

In all of this, the message is clear. A good mother is a happy mother. A sad mother is a bad mother. A sad mother is not only unnatural but certifiably insane.

The rise of Parenting Hate

Little wonder such miserable standards of perfection triggered a backlash. The decades of the seeming triumph of the ideologies of Intensive Mothering and Natural Parenting also led to the rise of the “Parenting Hate Read”, an outpouring of books and blogs written by mothers who frankly confessed that they were depressed about having children for no reason other than the fact that it is frequently exhausting and occasionally dreadful.

The first in the genre was Heather Armstrong’s Dooce blog. This went on to make Armstrong the 26th-most-influential woman in the American media, according to Forbes Magazine. This was followed by blogs like Scary Mommy and Rants from Mommyland, or books by writers such as Alice Bradley who declared:

Mommy blogging is a radical act.

In marked contrast to the yummy mummies featured in the media, what these parenting blogs tend to give their readers is the messy lived experience in between. Parenting Hate is an ironic misnomer because almost every posting ends with a ritualistic endorsement of children and family life.

The mainstream media has been quick to cash in on the trend. Coca-Cola ran an ad for “Coke Life” in Argentina in which a toddler relentlessly destroys his parents’ home, if not their lives, piling up the kiddie trash, the green goo and dirty nappies on the living room floor.

Fiat ran the “Welcome to the Motherhood” ad for its 500L car, which features a fashionable albeit dishevelled mother rapping amidst the toys and cornflakes on the living room floor. She may not “have it all” but clearly “does it all”.

Fiat tapped into the ‘Parenting Hate’ trend with its ‘Welcome to Motherhood’ ad.

The Parenting Hate trend was accompanied by the startling findings of Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman that American women ranked child care among the least pleasurable activities of their entire life, on a par with housework – a finding replicated by a range of social scientists.

Motherhood as misery contest

The Parenting Hate phenomenon might have gone some way to shattering the myth of maternal bliss, but it also runs the risk of turning motherhood into a kind of misery competition.

It should come as no surprise that in America, which has no government support for childcare, no statutory right to maternity leave and few social services, that women should be more miserable than – for example – their Scandinavian counterparts.

Another problem may well be that Western ideas about happiness have grown impoverished. Happiness, as it is commonly construed in the English-speaking world, is made up of continuous moments of pleasure and the absence of pain.

These popular assumptions about happiness are quite culturally specific. They are also comparatively recent historically. Their origins can be found in the works of liberal philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (father to John Stuart) who argued that people act purely out of self-interest and the goal to which self-interest aspires is happiness.

Bentham and Mill were political progressives in their day. Their ambition to ameliorate the existence of their fellow human beings perhaps disguised — for a time, at least — the fact that utility and self-interest might not be all there is to goodness or, indeed, to happiness.

Nevertheless, popular Western assumptions about happiness have remained broadly utilitarian and self-interested. This has readily transformed into an endless string of television commercials showing families becoming happier with every purchase, or sad people being transformed by motivational coaches selling the idea that self-belief can overcome all odds.

Key is to recast relationships

There may be uncomfortable realities to be faced. Unless you are Mother Teresa, you probably spent your life in a naively self-involved way until you had children. You went out to parties and came home drunk. You worked hard through the day and slept in on the weekend.

Babies have other ideas. They stick forks in electric sockets, go berserk with their mashed bananas and throw up on your work clothes. They want to be carried around through the day and wake up in the night.

Babies challenge the central tenets of our liberal individualistic society and its endless privileging of “me, me, me”.

Anne Manne has bravely talked about the ways in which mothering entails relationships and responsibilities that do not sit well with the individualistic language of late capitalism or, indeed, certain strands of feminism. However, there is something deeply uncomfortable in some of the political lessons that Manne extrapolates from the supposedly transformative social power of a mother’s love, even when it goes under the safe-sounding catchphrase, an ethic of care.

It excludes women who do not have children. It excludes men. It excludes teenagers and the elderly. In many ways it excludes children, too.

It may be a fallacy to understand children as resilient, fully independent creatures, as Manne argues. But it is equally false not to recognise the activity of children — to understand them only as passive recipients of “mothering”. Donald Winnicott, author of the theory of the Good Enough Mother, would surely have questioned the idea that endless amounts of mothering would help children grow into autonomous, flourishing human beings.

Mothers, as Elisabeth Badinter has argued, are not chimpanzees. Yet questions of motherhood are too often structured around deeply flawed arguments about what is “natural”. Of course there is biology. But lives are also constructed through culture.

If society can solve its social problems, then maybe motherhood will cease to be a misery competition — mothers might not be happy in a utilitarian or hedonistic sense, but will lead rich and satisfying lives. And then maybe a stay-at-home dad can change a nappy without a choir of angels descending from heaven, singing Hallelujah.

This article is based on an essay in the collection On Happiness: New Ideas for the Twenty-First Century (UWA Publishing, June 2015).

You can read other articles in the series here.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 122,500 academics and researchers from 3,928 institutions.

Register now