Motherhood is not all fun and games. Everyone knows it, but few people want to talk about it.
Except Jane Swigart. In her new book, “The Myth of the Bad Mother” (Doubleday, $19.95), she explores the emotional realities mothering and upbraids a society that she believes simultaneously idealizes and devalues mothers, but has done little to understand and support them.
She discusses society’s reluctance to go beyond the convenient myths of the “good” and “bad” mother and explore the sometimes overwhelming experience of child rearing — an experience she believes requires the participation of society as a whole, not just mothers.
“We live in a society that is cruel to mothers,” Ms. Swigart said. “Businesses ignore the needs of working mothers and even penalize them for having child-rearing responsibilities.”
Ms. Swigart referred to a recent incident in which former “Today” show co-host Deborah Norville was criticized for posing for a People magazine picture that showed her nursing her infant. The criticism was that “it jeopardized her credibility,” Ms. Swigart said. “The corporate attitude is brutal. Women are punished for being maternal, and nurturing is devalued. Women are looked down upon if they stay at home, and if they are in the work force they are accused of being neglectful.”
Ms. Swigart is a mother of two, in her “late 40s,” who immersed herself in the subject of mothering after doing research for a doctoral dissertation in psychology and literature at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
In this culture, she said, we “know a tremendous amount about children . . . but we know nothing about ourselves as nurturers.
“What I’ve discovered is an area of darkness in our culture that we have only begun to examine,” she said. “So little has been written on how important the mother’s well-being is to the child.”
To Ms. Swigart, the “perfect mother” and the “bad mother” are both false images, created by a society that fails to explore the need for mothers to be heard, cared for and understood; both labels conveniently blame either of these mothers for the success or failure of the child.
Ms. Swigart asserts that nurturing is not instinctive, but requires great support for the mother.
“There is a terrible myth that nurturing is easy. It doesn’t come naturally and it’s not easy. What comes naturally is that you fall in love with your child and become protective. But the day-to-day care giving is learned, and it is subject to economic and social pressures.”
For her book, Ms. Swigart drew upon her own experience as a mother and a psychotherapist; she interviewed scores of parents, mental-health professionals, teachers and pediatricians.
One thing she found was that mothers were reluctant to talk about their anxieties and inadequacies.
“Women are ashamed if they have any other feelings except love for their children,” Ms. Swigart said. “They are ashamed of those other feelings, the ones when they are exhausted or impatient, or get possessive or feel envy. These are things that are very, very difficult for women to talk about.