The perfect Christian mother (choose one):
A. Stays home and home-schools
B. Keeps an immaculate house, cooks from scratch and sews all the family's clothing
C. Looks like a fashion model, but with more modesty
D. Never raises her voice
E. Reads the Bible every day and volunteers for Sunday school
F. Avoids TV shows like Desperate Housewives
G. All of the above—and always more.
As books like Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead, Feb.) protest the stress on contemporary mothers, some Christian writers and publishers are zeroing in on how Christianity idealizes an image that women can't achieve.
"I think the pendulum is kind of swinging the other way to compensate for all this pressure that we put on our moms," says Therese Borchard, author of several books on Catholic themes for publishers like Doubleday, Orbis and others.
She fell into imperfection calamity on Ash Wednesday of 2004. With her four-month-old daughter strapped to her chest, the Annapolis resident was helping a pair of two-year-olds—her son and a friend's boy—feed ducks. Borchard's toddler pushed the other boy into Chesapeake Bay, which she says was frigid and at least 15 feet deep. A man eating his lunch nearby dove in and saved the child. The next day, her birthday, the event was featured in a front-page newspaper story.
After other mothers came forward with their own horror tales, she solicited stories for an anthology she is editing, The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World, to be published by Broadway in April 2006. Contributors include authors Muffy Mead-Ferro, Confessions of a Slacker Mom (Pince-Nez Press, 2004); Kathryn Black, Mothering Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within (Viking, 2004); and Andrea Buchanan, Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (Seal Press, 2003).
Borchard says, "Moms have always been imperfect, but Ithink moms today drive themselves crazy trying to be perfect. Previous generations just accepted they were imperfect, and so be it. They didn't fret over every single move like we do today." And many agree that being religious adds to the pressure.
The Andrea Yates Example
Carla Barnhill, former editor of Christian Parenting Today, says she wrote The Myth of The Perfect Mother: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women(Baker Books, 2004) in response to the Andrea Yates case. Yates was a home-schooling Christian mom who, in an act blamed on depression and psychosis, drowned her five children.
"I thought, 'Here was a woman who was trying really hard to live up to a certain set of expectations,' " says Barnhill, whose children are eight, four and two months. "I just started to think about how many women I know who thought they were failing all the time."
She says society in general tends to be critical of mothers instead of supporting them. But the Christian community—more so in evangelical churches than in mainline—has been promoting a more rigid understanding of good parenting: this kind of discipline, these books, these movies. The intentions are good, Barnhill says, but, "we've created something that almost takes away parents' ability to parent their family the way they think God wants them to parent."
Angela K. McKinney, marketing manager for Baker Books & Chosen Books, says there seem to be many Christian mothers questioning the "overwhelming amount of pressure" they feel to be perfect. It is, she says, "an unseen, unspoken expectation that they get from books, church leaders and even their extended families."
McKinney says Christian women are pressured to raise children in a particular way in the face of perceived negative influences from media, public education and peers. Barnhill has done an "exceptional job" in meeting mothers where they are and in questioning expectations, McKinney says. Sales have been steady for The Myth of the Perfect Mother, which was promoted in a five-month print and broadcast publicity campaign; ads in Today's Christian Woman, Christianity Today and Marriage Partnership magazines; and a month-long book feature and giveaways on Woman's Day's Web site, www.womansday.com.
Chrys Howard—co-owner of Howard Publishing, mother of three, and grandmother of 10—knows that parenting is a huge responsibility, and imperfection is the reality. In January, the press released Gigi Shwikert's I'm a Good Mother: Affirmations for the Not-so-Perfect Mom. Says Howard, "It's telling every mom: all moms worry whether they have done a good job."
Howard cofounded the new Web resource Motherhood Club, www.motherhoodclub.com, with former Facts of Life star and author Lisa Whelchel as spokeswoman. The club's first conference, "It's a Mom Thing," will be August 27 in West Monroe, La. (where Howard Publishing is based), and feature Shwikert, Whelchel, author Karol Ladd and Christian comedian Chonda Pierce.
Howard says, "Sometimes in the Christian community moms feel more pressure to do a good job and to make sure their kids are perfect. And I don't think it should be that way."
Mothers have always felt anxiety over their competency, she says, but today's moms feel more need to protect their children. Even though many of today's fathers are better hands-on parents than fathers in the past, Howard says, the accountability still falls mainly on mothers.