THERE is a story we like to tell around Mother's Day, and it's one that hasn't changed much since the 1950s.
It is that mums are what make the world go round, and that their unrecognised hard labour at the coalface of childcare requires a huge, but clearly inadequate, thank you. In the run-up to Mother's Day, I feel the burden of needing to thank my own mother, despite the insufficiency of such a gesture. I get so caught up in this that I find myself forgetting that I too am a mother, a fact that to me seems to neither need nor merit any thank-yous, but just is.
The idea that mothering is an unpaid sacrifice, a giant labour of love, has become bound up with Mother's Day, which in spite of the celebration's diverse histories here and in America, has come to stand for the reward, the payback and the gratitude deserved for all the martyrdoms of mothering. The day itself seems, rather like Valentine's Day, a repeated, rather depressing practical joke, in which the thank-yous and the presents are never going to feel enough.
This is a day that, with all its current marketing, leaves many a woman questioning whether what she has done is good enough or if it is appreciated enough. I often wonder if I don't feel I deserve Mother's Day thanks because I work part-time, because I haven't given every second of my time and energy to my children, and because, in fact, there are many others in my children's lives who are performing the work traditionally called "mothering". Pink, flowered cards could justifiably go out to my husband, my childminder, my friends and those other family members who also merit them.
It's easy to feel that only the perfect mum – the one who keeps an immaculate house, takes her child to every possible class, bakes constantly and co-ordinates a perfect social world for her children – deserves the Mother's Day thanks. The last 12 months could be seen as a year of thanking and praising that domestic goddess, and nowhere has this been more striking than in the field of advertising.
What makes a good mother? According to recent commercials, she does it all. "Behind every Christmas, there's Mum," declared last winter's Asda advert. There she was in the run-up to the big day, rattling single-handedly through preparations, huffing and puffing as if on an assault course. Dad was scarcely visible on the sidelines, haplessly choosing the wrong Christmas tree and piping up: "What's for tea, love?"
Morrisons' seasonal offering had a similar vibe, casting Everymum as the do-it-all festive fixer whose efforts culminate in a boxing ring "woman-on-bird" battle with a turkey. "Never enough hands, never enough time," she sighs. "It's hard work, but it's Christmas and I wouldn't have it any other way." She looked bewildered and dazed, settling down at the table at the end with a lost, hundred-mile stare (which mercifully did turn into a gentle smile). This commercial hinted at the costs of such perfection, and the pressures involved in creating it.
The main mum-focused advertising event of 2012 was, of course, the Olympics, with cleaning products manufacturer Procter & Gamble deciding that mothers were the real force behind our sporting heroes. In the UK, that took the form of a commercial in which sporting stars said "thank you" to their mums. In its attempt to sell cleaning products to women, it reminded us that good mothers are the Judy Murrays of the world: those who are always cheering at the sidelines and who don't balk at driving hundreds of miles to get their kids to a game or contest. P&G, "proud sponsors of moms", were even more direct in their praise of mothers in their American Olympics-themed advert. Following a similar theme, while reeling out footage from the childhood of US Olympians, it climaxed on the slogan: "The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world."
This notion is one that young American feminist Jessica Valenti has objected to in her recent book, Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores The Truth About Parenting And Happiness. Valenti finds the "most important job in the world" sentiment troublesome – particularly when it comes from politicians like Mitt Romney.
"If you think motherhood or parenting is so important," she said recently, "why don't we have paid leave? Why don't we pay moms? And why don't more men do it?" She notes in the book that the more we cling to attitudes like this, the longer women will go "unrecognised and undermined in public life, and the more frantic and perfectionist we'll become in our private and parental lives". More personally, she adds: "My daughter is my daughter, not my job."
I agree. Labelling motherhood a job seems to undermine it – and, dispiritingly, makes it seem more like an unrecognised economic labour than the full-blown life experience it is. Of course, historically, it is a female activity that has been undervalued, but statements like this only pay lip-service to appreciating its true worth. There are echoes of the 1950s: a era when, post-war, women were being encouraged to excel at housework and take pride in the domestic sphere.
Calling motherhood the hardest or most important job in the world seems mildly patronising, particularly when it comes from male politicians who aren't doing that job. At the same time, it encourages competition between mothers, and other parents, and a view of mothering as a contest in which we are all trying to win the most gold stars.
But for me, the biggest problem with these adverts is the way they push dad out of the picture, relegating him to a role of domestic incompetence and sloth, to sitting in front of the TV. Contrast all those mum-focused adverts with commercials about dads, particularly those celebrating Father's Day, and we get a very different picture. A significant number seem, rather depressingly, to be about sperm, jokingly reducing fatherhood to a biological fact. Take the following Durex ad: "To all those who use our competitors' products – Happy Father's Day."
Another advert, for gin, declares: "Motherhood is a fact, fatherhood a hypothesis. Need a drink? Happy Father's Day." It seems to me that this trend reflects not just our anxiety about the single mother and absent dad, but also a way in which we have failed to find a language for the real, day-to-day activity of fathering that is already going on across society.
Scott Coltrane, author of Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework And Gender Equity, notes: "In common English language usage, to father a child means to provide the seed, to donate the biological raw material, to impregnate - To speak of mothering implies ongoing care and nurturing of children. Fathering, on the other hand, has typically implied an initial sex act and the financial obligation to pay."
More dispiritingly, where adverts do deal with the very real act of parenting, they often imply that men don't really have the gift. They try hard, but when it comes to the smooth running of domestic life, only a woman can be relied on to pay attention, as one mother does, gliding through a Weetabix ad catching a mini Weetabix flying through the air, while her husband stares dopily into his own breakfast bowl.
But these adverts do not necessarily reflect the real world. In my own household, as in many others I spend time in, what I see is single mothers, single dads, gay couples, step-parents and heavily involved stay-at-home fathers. Most of all, I see dads who are efficient and who often know best about domestic affairs. In my own home, my husband and I often find ourselves passing the baton of childcare, each stumbling with it in our own different ways. He is the one who fusses over whether the children's hair is combed, and who will dash downstairs with a smart shirt to replace the scruffy jumper in which I have dressed son for a birthday party. Getting things "right", in the way that mothers are supposed to do, is one of his talents, not mine.
Of course, we are just one example. But it's worth reminding ourselves when we see these advertising images of perfect mums and hapless dads, or fathers who seem to view parenting as a matter of buying the right car for their kids, that they are far from representative of the breadth of relationships out there. So are we really witnessing a backlash against feminism, or simply a pile of advertising industry twaddle?
In fact, it's a surprise to see the perfect mum still around. Many a feminist, after all, has already tried to slay her. In Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman presented a manifesto "to rebel, to embrace the very identity we are afraid of, to loudly proclaim ourselves bad moms - We resist and resent the glorification of the self-abnegating mother." French feminist Elisabeth Badinter has long declared the good mother "a myth". We might simply replace the notion of the "good mother" with that of the "good enough" mother, or indeed the "good enough" father.
Yet still, the spectre of the perfect mum lingers. And why? Partly because we middle-class women keep her going, as we yield to the pressure to do what we think is best for our kids, whether it be ferrying them to dance and music classes, reading to them every night, or making cakes for the school bake sales. But it also lingers because there haven't been sufficient policies to open up domestic life to men. In Sweden, decades of progressive policies on issues such as shared parental leave have had a striking impact on attitudes towards fatherhood, with research showing that dads there are much more confident than their British counterparts about their role in domestic life.
I don't write all this just because I want more women in the workplace, but because I think more men should have the chance to enjoy the rewards of involved family life. Much of this "mum does it best" propaganda revolves around the belief that the divvying up of labour into male and female roles is a natural state for humanity. Just as we are told women don't belong in the workplace, we are told men aren't made for the home. But this is a cultural practice, not a natural one.
Look at other human societies and we don't always see the male and female worlds diverged. Anthropologists John and Beatrice Whiting studied six cultures and observed two basic societal types with regard to gender. In one, a man was involved in the domestic life of his family – he slept with them and ate with them, and joined in the household work. But in another, he led a separate life, his leisure time spent gossiping with other men with whom he often ate and slept as well.
This may be a personal preference, but I know which of these worlds I would rather live in, and it's not the one in which men and women inhabit separate universes. Nor is it the half-way house where the man sits in the corner, saying: "What's for tea, love?"
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.