The story of American motherhood lately is drowning in drama, crisis and buffoonery. Barraged by popular culture torpedoes that project mothers as fumbling imbeciles who cannot succeed as adults — never mind raise successful children without oceans of drama — we naturally arrive at the conclusion that women who parent are misfits doomed to fumble the upbringing of the next generation.
The prominent narratives of maternity we adhere to recently in television and movies have little to do with the reality of the majority of the thriving 43.5 million women ages 15 to 50 who are mothers in this country to 95.8 million children. More than a third, or 36 percent, of those mothers are single or unmarried.
Not all of us are idiots or scheming drama queens. Most of us are getting it done.
The ongoing defamation of motherhood on the big and small screens has a cast of culprits responsible for its sullied image. Dare I mention the Duggars?
“Catastrophe” is an Amazon-based series that treats parenthood, well, like a catastrophe. The new illustrated book “Hurts Like a Mother: A Cautionary Alphabet,” by Jennifer Weiss and Lauren Franklin, advises that A stands for “Amy overdid the pinot grigio at the parent potluck.”
Not to be judgmental or humorless, but millions of mothers are working too hard at both home and in the workplace to surrender downtime to wine. And yes, to be fair, fathers are also depicted as bumbling fools. This does not make it any better.
The film “Mother’s Day,” which opened recently with a star-filled cast including Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston, is another madcap romp of highly entitled white parents who look magnificent while they are committing crimes against common-sense parenthood.
Even the Bridget Jones sequel, “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” with the beloved character expecting a baby fathered by whomever, appears to be just another hilarious version of silly, silly mothering.
Although the formula for privileged off-kilter motherhood may seem as if it is relegated to white families only, “Fresh Off the Boat,” an ABC television series, proves that Asian American parents are our incompetent parental unit neighbors. “Black-ish,” has a sense of humor about its foibles of two professional parents, and to its credit has successfully updated itself as a replacement in the archives for the now permanently stained image of prosperous black families in “The Cosby Show.”
“Motherhood is one of the most enduring rites of passage to adult femininity for women,” writes sociologist Krista Whitehead in a recent issue of Canadian Review of Sociology.
So why have we devalued the rite and created the conviction that competence in the American family is boring?
I am certainly not advocating a definition of family as one father plus one mother. No, I mean any parent or combination of adults of any age, gender or description who can get through a day doing what needs to be done without making a mess of their children’s lives. Dare I say, they are thriving?
Yes, it is good news that we have moved on from the nothing-ever-happened family plotlines in my youth of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
But the modern problem is that when competent parenthood is absent or minimized in our cultural diet, we absorb the message that being a good parent is extraordinary or not even possible.
And yes, the literary examples of bad mommies have stretchmarks back as far as Euripides’s Medea with scores of horrific mothers sprinkled throughout history. More recently there was “Roseanne,” but she was honest in her shortcomings and did not create drama for drama’s sake. She was human.
But it seems as if recently an off-kilter mom is almost always at the center of the media family constellation.
It may be human nature to want to observe characters and icons in similar roles doing worse, acting more ridiculous and failing more often just so we can feel better about our own track record. Maybe it is entertaining, maybe it is a relief, maybe it is cathartic to watch other family train wrecks, just so we feel reassured that we are on track.
Yes, I can embrace a flawed heroine. But the Slapstick Mom who dominates maternal images is not an accurate reflection of the lives of millions of mothers — and fathers — who make it work and do right by their children every day. Yes, they — we — make mistakes, but we don’t generally think it’s hilarious if our child urinates into a stranger’s purse.
Seeking another point of view, I asked my youngest son, Colin, 22, why he thought the images of American moms as idiots are commonplace.
“Conflict is at the heart of every enduring story,” he responded. “No one would tune in to watch a nice, boring family.”
Okay, but I say bring on the boredom.
Michele Weldon is emerita faculty at Northwestern University and a senior leader with the OpEd Project. Her most recent book, “Escape Points,” is a memoir of raising her three sons as a single parent.
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