Why the ‘Good Mother’ Myth Has Got to Go: A Q&A With Avital Norman Nathman


The “good mother” myth is an amalgamation of all the supposed good or “right” things a mother should be. The myth is rooted in white, heteronormative, upper-class, patriarchal ideals of goodness. The best, most stereotypical example of this myth is actress Donna Reed—a middle- or upper-class doting mother who puts her family first, always has a presentable house, makes perfect meals, is unassertive, and so on. It’s simply not reality. Today’s “good mother” is even more unattainable. Add in the pressures to work while still maintaining a happy home life, being “Pinterest perfect,” and volunteering at school, and it can be too much. More importantly, it’s a narrative that leaves a lot of women out. Yet we’re all still being measured by this mythological yardstick.

RH Reality Check recently spoke with Avital Norman Nathman, editor of The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, a collection of essays about toxic ideas of perfection, parenting, and gender. Contributors to the book include T.F. Charlton, KJ Dell’Antonia, Soraya Chemaly, and Jessica Valenti.

Nathman’s work, which places a feminist lens on topics such as maternal health and reproductive rights, has been featured in Bitch magazine, the New York Times, CNN, RH Reality Check, and other outlets.

RH Reality Check: How does the good mother myth (GMM) manifest in ways that are unhealthy to women, families, and humans?

Avital Norman Nathman: There’s definitely a snowball effect. The GMM hits women first and hardest but then extends to their partners, their families, and society in general. My biggest gripe with the GMM is that it tends to draw our focus from issues that are actually affecting women and families. Sure, it might make for a “sexier” headline or draw higher ratings or page views to write about the manufactured “mommy wars,” but I know many families who would rather read about why the United States still doesn’t have mandated paid family leave or paid sick leave, the poor status of maternal health in this country, and so on.

Beyond the red herring aspect, the GMM can also be physically, emotionally, and mentally unhealthy for women. One of the essays in the book is from a mother who was told that she would probably not be able to breastfeed because of the daily, necessary medications she took. Before she even got pregnant she felt as if she had failed at being a good mother. And instead of talking about ways we can support mothers who still might want to breastfeed or provide breast milk in these situations, they usually devolve into debates over breast milk versus formula and which is best, and none of that helps anyone.

Look at the rates of postpartum depression (PPD). A recent study found that diagnosis rates have increased in the last six years. I’d personally love to attribute that to better diagnostic methods or just general awareness of PPD in general, but a part of me wonders how much of it is due to the incredible amounts of stress new mothers are put under, both by themselves and society, much of it enabled by this so-called myth of perfection.

RHRC: The word “selfish” is in many of the essays in this book. Can you comment on how the concept of selfishness functions in the GMM?

ANN: I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that there’s a stereotype that dictates mothers be selfless. They have to give of themselves to their families first and foremost. So, to go against that automatically marks them as “bad.” But in reality, these women aren’t being selfish in a way that impedes on others. They’re doing so in ways that enhance their roles as mothers, and their families in general. It’s like that oft repeated in-flight instruction that you need to get your oxygen mask on first before helping to place your child’s on. It’s the same thing in motherhood—we need to take care of ourselves before we’re in a space where we can best care for others. But to those who cling to the stereotypical ideal of what a mother should be, that comes off as selfish. Which is unfortunate and can be harmful, especially to those women who truly need support or help in order to be the best they can be: person, mother, friend.

RHRC: The essays in the book cover a wide range of demographics and identities—race, class, gender, age, sexuality, religion. Tell us about the importance of intersectionality in the book.

ANN: One thing that makes it easy for the GMM to continue to be perpetuated is the notion that motherhood is this monolith, that we’re all the same. Obviously, the reality is really different, but it’s a matter of who has the platform to talk about it. The more stories that showcase the diversity of motherhood and the women within it, the better chance we have of destroying this myth. Also, my hope in providing a range of stories was that anyone anywhere could pick up this book and find at least one essay—if not many!—that they can connect with.

RHRC: Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how even when we know how toxic the GMM is, we’re drawn to it anyway. Can you comment on that?

ANN: I think regardless of our roles in life, the need for approval is great. It’s innate really. And the GMM falls right into this. We want to feel like we’re succeeding in our jobs—and honestly, parenting is a job—so we look outward to see what everyone else is doing, what the experts say, and how we measure up. It’s a cycle that is really hard to get out of. I even fall for it, and I helped write the book trying to dismantle it! I think we all have moments of guilt or uncertainty about our parenting, and it’s so, so easy to fall down that black hole of questioning everything we do.

RHRC: What’s your advice about combating the GMM?

ANN: I’ve mentioned this before and I will continue to do so: support. We need to push for better policies that support women, mothers, and families. This starts with having better support for reproductive choices, access to better prenatal care, better postpartum support, and more. The list is endless. Our society, especially when compared to others, sorely lacks in support of parents and families. We need to begin there so we have the basic infrastructure to ensure that families, and new mothers in particular, are starting off in a more secure spot, regardless of background.

We also need to help support each other on more basic levels. Whether that’s by creating our own intentional villages in our communities on the ground, or finding like-minded and supportive folks online. It amazes me how many people have said that just sharing their story helps them feel better about themselves and their supposed shortcomings. Hearing you’re not alone is huge. Leave the petty judgment and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality elsewhere, and find folks who will be there for you, whether it’s to provide a space for you to whine or vent or to distract you when things feel too much.

And lastly, we need to talk about our mothering experiences as if they matter—because they do. The more “real” and diverse stories of motherhood we get out there, the better chance we have at rewriting this narrative to be more inclusive, to be less stereotypical, and to be more forgiving of ourselves and our parenting.

It would also be huge if we could somehow make those tabloid covers where they grade celebrity moms illegal. That would be awesome.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • stevenearlsalmony

    We appear to live in a time in which humankind’s perception has fractured schizophrenogenically and clarity of vision has been lost; when incoherent minds determine what was real; a period of abject intellectual dishonesty and the absence of moral courage. Political convenience, economic expediency, specious demographics, ideological idiocy, social status quo, religious dogma, cultural prescription and incomprehensible greed rule the world, reign supreme, darken the surface of Earth and threaten future human well being and environmental health.

  • badphairy

    I have been far healthier since telling my budding psychopath maternal parent never to contact me again. I think it’s important to educate others that sometimes mothers aren’t good mothers and that the emancipated son/daughter is still a ‘good’ person. In fact, probably a better person since getting out from under a myth wielded like a brickbat.

    • Ella Warnock

      I hear you.

    • HeilMary1

      Had to do something similar regarding all of my nasty Catholic extremist relatives, not just my abusive mom.