At some point late last Monday night, a few complaints started to trickle onto Twitter, directed at the TV network Nickelodeon. Apparently, somebody’s child was up sick at 10 p.m. — and another’s child was just awake — and when their mothers turned on Nick Jr., the preschool channel, what did they find? Snarky women holding wine glasses and talking about sex!
Yes, there is now officially no escape from the reach of sarcastic mommycentrism. Last week marked the advent of NickMom, a new programming block that runs on the preschool network from 10 p.m. to midnight, and is not intended to be seen by children. It consists of a stand-up comedy show dedicated to parenthood issues, a reality series about two Missouri moms with a webcast, a tongue-in-cheek talk show about mommy stuff, and “What Was Carol Brady Thinking?” — a series of Brady Brunch reruns overlaid with pop-up thought bubbles, suggesting the gently subversive ideas that might have been going through Carol’s brain.
“Gently subversive” is the operating tone of NickMom, and that’s very of-the-moment — as is the notion that what mothers want to see, when they turn on the television or fire up the computer, is something along the lines of “MomMomMomMommyMomMom.” We are in the midst of a weird cultural battle over how much motherhood is supposed to define women’s lives, and, admittedly, it’s hard to draw the lines. In Slate, Katie Roiphe recently expressed horror at the “voluntary loss of self” that women practice when they use pictures of their kids as their Facebook avatars. (Question one: Isn’t that what Facebook is for? Question two: This is the debate we’re having about modern feminism?)
I’m on record saying Unbaby.me, a program that erases baby photos from your Facebook feed, seems a little disturbingly anti-parent. But this mommification of culture has the opposite effect. Sometimes I wonder when we’ll reach a saturation point of bad-mom-celebrations; when publishers will stop green-lighting snarky books that pretend to celebrate bad parenting and have titles like “Sh*tty Mom”; when we won’t feel the need to remind ourselves, so often, that nobody’s perfect. What’s a better escape from the stress of parenting, after all: Watching people joke about motherhood for two solid hours, or watching Andre Braugher chew the scenery inside a nuclear submarine?
NickMom grew out of the notion that moms are not, by any means, finished talking about themselves — nor are they satisifed, completely, with their lives. Bronwen O’Keefe, the network’s senior vice president, told me that the network did extensive market research, and found that women were burdened with the notion that as mothers, they weren’t fun.
“As moms, we are doing so many things for our family,” she told me. “We are chef, accountant, chauffeur, social secretary. We are disciplinarian . . . And it’s hard, when you are all of those things, to just stop and drop everything and get down and dirty.”
This is not, in fact, a new idea — that motherhood is a fun-sucker, and that saying so out loud will somehow free your soul. It happened to be a key point of “The Feminine Mystique,” said historian Stephanie Coontz, whose book, “A Strange Stirring,” documents the effect Friedan’s 1963 book had on suburban housewives.
At the time, Coontz told me, women were expected to be satisfied, completely, with their identity as wives and mothers. (And the “wife” part, she emphasized, was as important as the “mother” part.)
Women “weren’t supposed to want to have fun,” Coontz wrote me in an e-mail. “They were just supposed to revel in delivering everyday, mundane services to their families. When they found themselves dissatisfied, they thought there was something wrong with themselves.”
Today, the struggles for mothers have changed, and so has the way their dissatisfaction is channeled. What started with some rumblings on the blogosphere is, by now, a full-on commercial activity, celebrated by networks and consumer product companies.
It all makes for decent escape, and it might have cheered up women in Betty Friedan’s time. But it feels a little empty, too. Friedan gave women permission to complain about their lives, but she “also told them they could do something about the discontent other than watch TV without their kids and with a glass or two of wine,” Coontz points out. “Plenty of them were already doing that.”