Advertising Motherhood: Variations on a Theme

mr clean
From The Gender Ads Project. Not certain of the year, but… seriously?

A few months ago, I wrote this post about how our cultural ideal of motherhood is portrayed in parenting magazines. Not surprisingly, the messages were variations on two main themes: 1) only mothers know how to properly parent, and 2) they enjoy every moment of said proper parenting. In the comments on that post, we talked about how surprised we were that advertisements still perpetuated these ideas about motherhood, but how we ultimately knew that advertisements are not reality.

Well, yes and no. As Jean Kilbourne says, we need to do something we rarely do: take advertising seriously. Advertisements sell not only products, but ideas about normalcy. And they must influence us, or advertisers would not spend $4 million for a 30-second SuperBowl spot.

Last week, I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post about how it’s okay if parents don’t love every minute of parenting. While I am thrilled that my piece was published there, I was surprised to see that the editors tagged the article as “Mom Confessions” and “Parenting Confessions.” Not loving every minute of parenting is a confession? What sin have I committed?

Well, my latest parenting magazine arrived {I subscribed after that last post so I could conduct some research}, and I can see why admitting that not enjoying diapering and taking care of sick children might be considered a transgression of the commandments of parenting.

Are you ready for the joy ride?

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And remember, mama, you’re the only one who can do this…

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I’ve never been to a Gymboree class, so I cannot verify that it is only moms who attend. Guess all those dads are working the 9 to 5.

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Okay, this baby is adorable. I’m sure Dad would like to give him a bath, too?

Even an article about not spoiling our children with too much “stuff” perpetuates gender stereotypes of what boys and girls should play with:

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Harry Potter goes to the circus with trucks and construction materials…
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… while sister dresses up as a princess and joins the Lollipop Guild. But hold the sweets for her, please? {see caption}

And if those lollipops make them sick? That’s all good and fun, too!

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Have you noticed all of these Tylenol ads feature women taking care of the sick child?
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I’m pretty sure this is the last thing I would do with my child upon hearing “My tummy hurts!” {And why isn’t she wearing pants?}

Oh good! Mom confession time:

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Seriously, that’s a confession? I call that “every week.”

Not everything was about joy and perfection. I liked that they recommended this read, about why parents don’t like parenting:

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Maybe it’s because magazines make us think it’s supposed to be all fun?

And I liked this article about some of the things to expect — the milestones — of new motherhood {like accidentally hurting your child, and discovering your new body}:

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… until a few pages later, I saw this ad that lets you know what you need to do upon discovering what that new body looks like:

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So it continues. If you’d like to read variations on a different theme, about the nuance and ambivalence and roller-coaster ride of motherhood, here are some of the books that I have read recently that I think are fascinating looks at modern motherhood:

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner

Warner describes a new “problem that has no name:”: the “Mommy Mystique.” “The feeling has many faces but it doesn’t really have a name. It’s not depression. It’s not oppression. It’s a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort.” A fascinating look at why so many mothers today suffer from anxiety and guilt and exhaustion.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women by Elisabeth Badinter

Badinter is a French feminist, but I found her analyses applicable to American motherhood as well. She writes about cultural ideals of motherhood, as well as how our assumptions about the “naturalism” of motherhood impact women today. And she has some fascinating insights on ambivalence.

Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

Valenti also tackles the naturalism fetish about motherhood today, and considers how our language about motherhood {“it’s the hardest job in the world!”} affects mothers today.

Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn

Alcorn writes of her experiences balancing work and motherhood — you can read my review here.

The Good Mother Myth edited by Avital Nathman Norman

A collection of essays by mothers describing what real motherhood is like. You can read my review here.


I realize all these titles sound like diatribes against motherhood — they’re not! I think some of the titles are about generating buzz and attracting interest. They are written by mothers who love their children, and love being mothers … just not all the time.

And I think we should take them seriously, too.

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    Oh my word!! Your captions are hilarious!! “why isn’t she wearing pants!” That one had me rolling! Also, I call not giving my son a bath for 72 hours every weeks as well! At age 4.5 you can’t actually grab him, undress him and plop him in the water if he doesn’t want to! I basically have to say I dumped sugar in the water to get him to take one happily! (he’s a sugar addict)!
    Goldi recently posted…Guest Posting at When The Kids are BoredMy Profile

  2. says

    I love your observations throughout the post and most of all this statement about the true power of advertising: “take advertising seriously. Advertisements sell not only products, but ideas about normalcy.” It’s such a strong statement, even disturbing when you realize, through reading this post, what are some of the ideas presented as “normal” by advertisers.
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  3. says

    I’ve actually unsubscribed from every parenting email and magazine that I got when Tucker was a newborn but mostly because I found the milestone stuff depressing. Which means that I don’t see as much of the advertising any longer, but so relate to this in that so many of them are geared to making us feel like we’re “NORMAL” (again, why I unsubscribed as my son is um, not). And, neither am I for having him at 40 so the ads piss me off (well that’s too strong – maybe “make me feel badly about myself is better).
    Also I hate the fact that moms not loving every minute is a “confession.” It’s just reality. Buddha and other. Love this, Sarah.

  4. says

    “Perfect Madness” is one of the few books I have read that actually legitimized my feelings of exhaustion and sometimes even boredom with this whole raising a human being adventure. I thought many of the same things that you wrote here when I flipped through the Parenting magazine recently. Unfortunately for them, there was not one article I wanted to actually read. I have been completely turned off all the mainstream parenting magazines lately. I suppose it’s true that not many men read those magazines so they are addressed toward women, but I wish they were more focused on reality too.
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  5. says

    When I saw the first ad, I thought, “OMG, really???” and didn’t stop until the end. This post is very amusing… and VERY disturbing. I applaud your campaign to make people take a closer look at how motherhood is depicted all around us. This is such an important issue. (I am reading a book that you would LOVE. It’s an advanced reader’s copy. I need to tell you about it! )
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  6. says

    I love these, but still so not surprised.
    I went to Gymboree for 4 years. I met a lot of dads there, so they are doing themselves a dis-service by not including them. It was fun, I wouldn’t dis them, but come on. Reach out to a larger audience people.
    HOWEVER one point. I definitely think the target audience of parenting magazines is women not men. It took a painful twist of my husband’s arm to ever get him to look at one. So as much as I am all “right on!” about your point, I also recognize that an effective marketer targets it’s audience. I don’t so much think that they are saying the only parent who does these things is mom, as much as they are saying the only parent who reads these magazines is mom.
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  7. says

    Sarah, I think about new moms and how much more willing they seem to be to pass judgement on “transgressions.” I know I was that way- I’d never wear yoga pants, I’d lose the baby weight immediately…. I hope that with the tidal wave of parents speaking out about the blessings of imperfection and the damage that the good mother image presents, eventually even non moms and dads, or soon to be moms and dads will be aware of the dynamism of the imperfect parent?
    Jean recently posted…I’m finally putting on my teacher hatMy Profile

  8. says

    Yup. Nail – on the head. There is certainly a portrayal of motherhood, parenting, and being a woman with a child that is pervasive.
    I loved The Good Mother Myth as well (writing a review for my Interwebs space). Also, that book that is in the magazine is actually supposed to be amazing. I will see if I can tweet the NYT review to you.
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