Mommy shame and “Star” power

During law school, I subscribed to Star Magazine as my Friday afternoon treat (promptly followed by my real reward: imbibing too many apple martinis in a dive bar where everyone knew my name, less because they liked me and more because I forgot my credit card there once a week). When I entered the workforce, I decided it was time to cancel my subscription. After all, a mature working woman requires a modicum of believability and hedging in her pre-party celebrity gossip (e.g., “A source who has spent time near the family reports that Brad ‘looked askance’ when Angelina appeared to mention the possibility of adopting triplets.”). So I ordered People instead.

But in the Safeway checkout line, as the kids chatted with the San Francisco firefighters whom we essentially stalk, my eye wandered and a headline grabbed it. The Star cover purported to have identified Hollywood’s “Best & Worst Moms.”

Intrigued, I purchased the issue and read the enclosed article, entitled “Celebrity Mom Report Card” and captioned “it’s midterms season, and while some of these celebrity moms get straight As, others need to apply themselves more or risk a flunking grade!” A distillation of the twenty-ish separate evaluations produces three rules for maternal success offered by Star to its largely female readership.

Rule number one: you and your child must be perfect at all times. Don’t be like Gwyneth Paltrow who received a D because she “pulled out in front of a bus.” And definitely don’t emulate Jennifer Lopez who landed a D- because “there was that time she used Emme’s hair as a leash.”

Even if your parenting is perfect, you can still earn reprobation if your kids aren’t. Selma Blair whose toddler son has been known to “throw many tantrums for no reason” and Katie Holmes whose daughter is “regularly cranky” get poor marks.

Puh-lease! I have almost allowed my double stroller to roll into 40 mph traffic because I bent to pick a piece of cookie up off the sidewalk (mine, not theirs, but in my defense it was the most chocolaty bite). I have pulled my daughter by her hair, clothes, and various appendages during moments of danger or exasperation. And Lord knows my kids, um, express their own frustration in public from time to time.

I know I am an A+ mom anyway.

That’s because ideal parenting does not require perfection. In fact, remaining perpetually upbeat and patient would do your kids a disservice. Seriously, imagine the kind of complex you’d have if your mother had never had a bad day or made a poor judgment call. Kids need to see their parents struggling to surmount moods, unforeseen circumstances, and mistakes so that they’re capable of doing so as well.

Rule number two: you must personally satisfy all your child’s needs. The moms with the highest marks spend lots of time caring for their kids: Jessica Simpson is “a hands-on mom who changes diapers and dotes on her kids,” Gwen Stefani “regularly takes her boys on kid-friendly outings” (and when her son fell she “‘raced over to comfort him’”), Sarah Jessica Parker “wants to be involved in every part of their lives,” Duchess Kate is a “hands-on-mom [who] insisted on breast-feeding,” and Jennifer Garner “is rarely seen in public without her . . . brood.” Jennifer Lopez, on the other hand, takes home the lowest grade awarded because her twins “‘are really being raised by nannies.’”

Praising a mother caring for her child rather than paying someone else to do it makes sense if the woman (1) is good at caring for children, (2) can afford to spend time in that manner, and (3) enjoys it more than doing something else, like working. If any one of those three conditions doesn’t apply, urging a mother to be more “hands-on” is total bullshit that’s not good for the kid or the mom (this coming from a very happy stay-at-home mother).

(Star also delineates a subsection of this second rule in situations involving food preparation. Jessica Simpson gets an A+ because she “‘has a full-time chef, but she is the one preparing Maxwell’s meals.’” Same with Sarah Jessica Parker: “Even though she has nannies . . . [s]he personally gets up and makes them breakfast and cooks them dinner.” Maybe I’m lazy, but this seems all wrong to me. How is hiring people specifically to cook for your family and then spending your time in the kitchen duplicating their efforts a good thing?)

Rule number three (of which rule number two is arguably a corollary): you must sacrifice yourself for your child. What pisses me off most about “Best & Worst Moms” is the implication—nay, virtually explicit declaration—that a woman who prioritizes her own interests over spending time with her child is a bad mom. Melissa McCarthy gets a C- since “her busy . . . career [leaves] little time for her two daughters.” Angie Harmon lands a C because she “refuses to allow her daughters to be raised in L.A. [where she works and] they miss their mom.”

A mom who subordinates herself and her professional opportunities to her child, however, wins the tabloid’s approval. Duchess Kate “cut back on her public appearances to spend more time with [her son].” Sandra Bullock “would only take the demanding role [in Gravity] if producers made the set engaging and safe for [her son].” Michelle Williams took a role “specifically to please her daughter” and said “‘I consider myself a mother first and an actress second.’” Snooki “ditched the party-girl lifestyle” and “‘has changed her life for Lorenzo.’” Beyonce “has regular demands on her time but insists on making Blue Ivy her priority”; “says Beyonce, 32, ‘My life’s about being a mother now.’”

Twice the Starticle mentions actual indications of parenting prowess, saying Angelina’s “family is in need of boundaries” and criticizing Zolciak for smoking while knowingly pregnant. These statements are the clear outliers, however. Even when chastising Katie Holmes with a preachy but objectively correct admonition regarding “the importance of a good night’s sleep to a healthy and happy child,” the magazine thinly veils the assertion that the actress’s social and professional life burdens her daughter: “It’s tough work being a single mom, but that doesn’t excuse the 34-year-old’s habit of dragging Suri out for late night dinners and meetings.”

Though I think the whole “bad mom” theory—which says most modern mothers are self-flagellating perfectionists and all-sacrificing martyrs—is blown out of proportion, this article illustrates why some are and why those who aren’t have to fight hard to stay that way. Mothers today are asked to swallow a bitter pill of societal pressure to not only be perfect when they are parenting but also to always subvert their own desires to those of their children. Worse yet, this “Mom Report Card” shows how the pill can be deceptively candy-coated, cloaked in the seemingly innocuous guilty pleasure of celebrity idolization and censure.

In condemning JLo and lionizing Beyonce, Star degrades itself and any female who seeks to be both a mother and a woman. For shame, Star, for shame.

One thought on “Mommy shame and “Star” power

  1. I love that you read Star and People. It’s my favorite guilty pleasure during a mani-pedi to immerse myself in the exploits of the rich and famous. However, instead of letting the 10 Worst Moms grab my attention I’m more interested in the10 Worst Bikini Bodies. Stars with cellulite make my day.

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