“Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies”: Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative Mothering in Mommy Blogs

“Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies”: Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative Mothering in... Abstract The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering. Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has previously described antagonisms between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and practices. In this article, we engaged in a feminist critique to identify how 30 mommy bloggers make sense of the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy wars. This sensemaking, we contend, lends important critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sustaining, and ultimately resolving the mommy wars. Mothers in the United States are currently navigating an “epoch of unsettled mothering” (Macdonald, 2009, p. 413), where mothering ideologies have multiplied and solidified. Since the late 1980s, the metaphor of the mommy wars has described the “Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths: going to work, or staying home to care for their kids” (Darnton, 1990, para. 1). This opposition between stay-at-home and working mothers positions mothers into two antagonistic and isolated categories (Douglas & Michaels, 2004) and overlooks mothers who work part-time or who shift in and out of the paid workforce (Peskowitz, 2005). The “mommy wars” metaphor has since evolved to refer to an expanded set of rivalries between mothering philosophies and practices, and is undergirded by the ideology of combative mothering, which mandates that mothers be in constant competition with one another to be the best mother (Milkie, Pepin, & Denny, 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016). Now more than ever before, mothers appear to be fragmented into smaller and smaller camps, often defending their own parenting choices as best for their children. Social media have provided mothers with more opportunities than ever before to voice their lived experiences of motherhood and dialogue about what constitutes ideal mothering. Mommy blogs, in particular, provide a forum for mothers to contemplate and reflect upon the cultural conditions of motherhood and their own interactions with other mothers. Given the prominence of the mommy wars in U.S. culture, and its relevance to both the institution of motherhood and the practices of mothering, we analyze blog posts about competition between mothers. Specifically, we critique how 30 mommy bloggers describe the mommy wars, explain the origins of the mommy wars, and offer resolutions to the mommy wars. We elaborate upon how the ideology of combative mothering structures most bloggers’ contemplations. Ultimately, this online communication about the metaphor constrains possibilities for better and less antagonistic relationships due to the neoliberal and patriarchal legacies imbued in combative mothering. Moms online Since the 1990s, mothers have used the Internet to communicate with one another across time and space about their experiences of having and raising children. Mothers’ use of the Internet as an organizing tool (Dasgupta & Dasgupta, 2011), important source of health information (Wigginton, Gartner, & Rowlands, 2017), and form of social support (Johnson, 2015) illuminates the ways in which web technologies have “opened the door, just a crack, to new ways of being a mom” (Samuel, 2011, p. xiv). Indeed, the Internet’s potential as a site of connection and empowerment as well as shame and judgment suggests that motherhood in online contexts is complex and multifaceted, thereby necessitating the need to resist monolithic understandings of the experience of mothering in a digital world. Digitally networked communication The Internet affords constant, connected communication and personalization in ways that were not possible in the past (Wellman et al., 2003). Digitally networked communication, with its participatory potential, promised freedom from hierarchical and unidirectional mass media in favor of horizontal and deterritorial many-to-many patterns of information flows (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). Early theorizations of the Internet espoused a democratizing vision for the medium, where a person could easily create content and be exposed to a plurality of ideas in the public sphere, free from gender, race, and class markers (Crawford, 2002; Dahlberg, 1998). Although networked communication has enabled large-scale activist organizing and activism (Castells, 2015; Pal & Dutta, 2012), and “people can learn far more than they could before, and they can learn it much faster” (Sunstein, 2008, p. 93), digitally networked communication does not necessarily lead to better democratic participation or more exposure to differing ideas, due to market colonization, state censorship, elite appropriation, social control by citizens, and anti-democratic voices (Cammaerts, 2008). Further, individuals often self-select their exposure to media content (Kim, 2016). This ability to filter and personalize enables individuals with shared interests, experiences, and identities to gather across time and space (Fullerton & Rarey, 2012; Moore, 2014). However, this personalization has also been critiqued for creating niches that serve as homogenous echo chambers that are hostile to opposing ideas, resulting in ideological balkanization (Sunstein, 2008). For example, participation in radical ideological online communities, such as neo-Nazi forums, can intensify extremism (Wojcieszak, 2010). In practice, the potentiality of digital communication lies somewhere in-between full democratic participation and total fragmentation, where the Internet affords possibilities that are realized within complex systems of individual, relational, and structural constraints. One such context includes blogs about motherhood. Mommy blogs Blogs about motherhood, often termed “mommy blogs” within the “mamasphere,” chronicle the lives of mothers as they raise their children. The journaling and storytelling that occurs on mommy blogs is sometimes antithetical to the intensive mothering ideal of the “good mother” that mass media often presents (Barak-Brandes, 2017). Whereas parents have long used websites and online discussion forums to seek information, advice, and support (Lupton, Pedersen, & Thomas, 2016), mothers often blog to specifically enhance psychological well-being through connecting with others, seeking mental stimulation, enhancing self-validation, contributing to the welfare of others, and enhancing their skills and abilities (Pettigrew, Archer, & Harrigan, 2016). Motivations for blogging interrelate with personal identity, community participation, social support, and relationship formation online (Webb & Lee, 2011). Mommy blogging provides mothers with a forum to share their trials and tribulations of motherhood, and connect with other mothers across time and space. Scholars have lauded mommy blogging as a resistant practice (Lopez, 2009; Powell, 2010). Mommy blogging has been called a “radical act” that collapses public and private spheres voicing private struggles of motherhood in the public, where exposure of the “ugly side of motherhood has the potential to be liberating and beneficial for all women” (Lopez, 2009, p. 744). The act of blogging therefore provides mothers a space in which to resist the good mother–bad mother dichotomy and create new subjectivities (Powell, 2010). Although blogging can be liberatory, it also has the potential to constrain identities and practices. Mommy blogs are sites of social surveillance, where readers judge the intimate details of bloggers’ lives, as well as sites of digital memory, where readers find solidarity (Orton-Johnson, 2017). The term “mommy blogger” itself is not neutral, and although the term carries marketing value, it may offer limited agency by locking mothers into the nurturing prototype signified in the word “mommy” (Chen, 2013). The emancipatory potential of mommy blogging may be further diluted through the monetization of blogs. Although advertising on blogs can viewed as “entrepreneurial” and therefore a step forward for mothers, this has resulted in backlash against mommy bloggers (Lopez, 2009). Adding advertisements to blogs, selling products, and curating content can result in a loss of authenticity, which dampens the possibilities for building community (Hunter, 2016). As blogs become more commercialized, visitors can be interpreted more as audience members who are witnessing performances of aspirational motherhood rather than community members who share in the gritty experiences of motherhood (Hunter, 2016). The monetization of blogs, then, contradicts the democratizing potential of blogging, as mothering ideologies enable and constrain digital communication about motherhood. Making sense of mothering ideologies Multiple mothering ideologies have been identified in the literature, including intensive mothering (Hays, 1996), competitive mothering (Tronto, 2001), combative mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016), and integrated motherhood (Dow, 2016). Intensive mothering is often regarded as the dominant mothering ideology that defines what a “good mother” ought to be in the United States since World War II (Hays, 1996). Intensive mothering demands child-centered and expert-guided childrearing, along with complete devotion to children’s desires in terms of labor, emotion, and finances (Hays, 1996). Although Hays wrote that intensive mothering is in contradiction with the ethic of neoliberal competition in the United States, others have argued that mothers are indeed in competition with one another to be the best mom (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Moore & Abetz, 2016). For example, economically-advantaged women engage in competitive mothering when they hire nannies or au pairs to give their children a competitive edge in their development (Cox, 2011; Tronto, 2001). Intensive mothering, then, is an ideology that is primarily achievable by privileged women, who are often heterosexual, partnered, white, and middle- to upper-class. The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016). Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has described antagonisms between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and choices (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Milkie et al., 2016; Odenweller & Rittenour, 2017). The metaphor of the mommy wars problematically pits mother against mother, overshadowing social and structural issues of motherhood that negatively impact working families, such as paid parental leave and flexible scheduling (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Zimmerman, Aberle, Krafchick, & Harvey, 2008). In the contemporary mommy wars, mothers become separated into competing factions based on their parenting philosophies, where they must justify and defend their own choices and practices against contradictory philosophies (Moore & Abetz, 2016). The mommy wars metaphor, along with other motherhood labels such as “supermom,” “soccer mom,” “alpha mom,” and “yummy mummy” (Littler, 2013; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010), strip women of agency by constraining possibilities for maternal identities. However, mothers’ experience of criticism seems to be very common, with a recent poll indicating that 61% of mothers have been shamed for their parenting choices (C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2017). Analyzing combative mothering in mommy blogs Whereas scholars have explored how mommy blogs reify and resist intensive mothering ideals (e.g., Pedersen, 2016), these blogs also have the potential to lend insight into how mothers make sense of combative relationships. Specifically, we seek to identify how mommy blogs talk about the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy wars and competition between mothers over parenting philosophies. We each used Google to search for key terms like “mommy blog mommy wars” and “mommy blog competition” to locate individual women’s writings about their own experiences with, and reflections upon, the mommy wars or competition between mothers. To analyze this, we engaged in purposeful sampling by gathering 30 individual blog posts authored by 30 mothers that that provided some type of explanation for why the mommy wars—or competition between mothers more broadly—exist. As Tracy (2013) argues, “Good qualitative researchers, at the very least, engage in purposeful sampling, which means that they purposefully choose data that fit the parameters of the project’s research questions, goals, and purposes” (p. 134). These posts, published between May 2010 and June 2017 (with three undated), originated from a variety of websites, including women’s individual blogs hosted on their own domains, blog posts on parenting websites (e.g., mom.me, Scary Mommy), and blog posts on major news websites (e.g., Huffpost, The New York Times). Although not all bloggers identify where they are located, the 30 posts are in English and seemingly U.S.-centric. The results of the current study therefore must not be extrapolated beyond the U.S. context in which they are situated. As critical-qualitative feminist scholars interested in the communicative construction of gender, we began with a grounded analysis to identify the multiple ways that bloggers made sense of what constitutes the mommy wars and the origins of the mommy wars. We engaged in an inductive approach to coding and categorization to begin our analysis, where we generated an initial list of first-level codes and then combined them into second-level themes (Tracy, 2013). It quickly became clear that many bloggers also offered their own perspectives about why the mommy wars have sustained and intensified, as well as their own visions of how to solve the mommy wars. Thus, as our analytical categories took shape, we collaboratively identified multiple themes to describe bloggers’ sensemaking until we reached theoretical saturation, when no new themes emerged (Tracy, 2013). Bloggers’ explanations for why the mommy wars exist and how to solve them provided a starting point to engage in a feminist critique of our interpretive data (Manning & Denker, 2015). Although there is no single overarching feminist framework or method to critique communication practices, feminist communication researchers often analyze the role of communication practices in circulation of gender ideologies, including critical analysis of mediated discourse (Dow & Condit, 2005). In our critique, we sought to interrogate how first-person accounts of the mommy wars are informed, constrained, and complicated by the ideology of combative mothering and how motherhood itself operates as a site of cultural and institutional inequality. Thus, we critique how gendered cultural arrangements structure women’s sensemaking about the mommy wars. Making sense of the mommy wars in mommy blogs Through our critique of bloggers’ explanations for the origins, amplifications, and resolutions to the mommy wars, we argue that blog posts about the mommy wars rarely work outside of the logic of combative mothering, where individual mothers feel compelled to shame and blame themselves and other mothers. We contend that bloggers’ sensemaking about the mommy wars—specifically what they are, where they come from, what amplifies them, and how to resolve them—lends important critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sustaining, and ultimately ending the mommy wars, with little reflection about how the mommy wars are couched within a broader competitive ideology. “I bet I’m being judged right now”: articulating the mommy wars Consistent with recent research about the evolving formation of the mommy wars (Milkie et al., 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016), bloggers convey that there are many different mothering identities constituted in various mothering philosophies and practices (e.g., feeding, sleeping, discipline). Some blog posts give credence to “the age old question of who has it harder—working or stay-at-home moms,” while simultaneously emphasizing that this question has spiraled into judgments that impact “just about every facet of life a child may face” (#30). These new mommy wars are referred to by one blogger as “the ‘everyday’ mommy wars,” which “are about methods of baby feeding, sleep training, working mothers and sometimes even screen-time” (#19). This evolution beyond the stay-at-home versus working mother indicates that combative mothering relies on fragmentation and particularization as debates about new philosophies and practices proliferate: A “mommy war” happens when a mom or a few moms think that their way of parenting is better than another mom’s way of nurturing her child. Instead of quietly disagreeing, moms debate with one another on why their parenting way is “best.” Mothers are then often left hurt and upset: this is what could be the beginning of a “mommy war.” (#27) In these blog posts, mothering choices are used to impose certain conditions of subjectivity where good mothering relies on continued self-improvement and individual empowerment to make the best decisions for their families. This competition creates rivalries and sustains divisions between mothers, ultimately constraining opportunities for vulnerability and support across differences in parenting practices. In addition to divisions between parenting philosophies, mommy-shame is central to contemporary mommy wars. Mom-shaming is calling a mother out, in-person or online, for a parenting choice she has made. One blogger observed that “moms can be shamed from anything these days” (#18), through statements like, “Did you see how she’s feeding her baby? I can’t believe she thinks that’s ok?!” “He goes to bed where? What kind of parent would let their child sleep that way?” (#17). Another stated that “Whether a mum works or stays home, breastfeeds or bottle feeds, co-sleeps or sleep trains. (…) there is still so much ‘mummy shaming’ out there” (#10). A different blogger categorized five types of “competitive mommies” who “make you feel like schmidt and make herself feel better,” including the “can’t help herself” mother, “the one-upper” mother, “the pretend to be concerned” mother, “the soccer stalker mom,” and the “mean and evil” mother (#21). Sectioning and labeling mothers into particular identities based on their parenting philosophies, practices, or competitive type disciplines mothers’ subjectivities into pre-packaged containers with little room to maneuver beyond the predetermined boundaries (Moore & Abetz, 2016; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010). The mommy wars do not simply describe antagonisms between mothers, or mothers’ perceptions of different types of mothers, but also describe a dominant mothering ideology that has morphed over time to keep up with the changing landscape of motherhood. Specifically, the ideology of combative mothering is perpetuated and sustained through mothers’ anticipation and experience of judgment from others mothers. One blogger shared an experience of feeling shamed, where the other mothers were not trying to make her feel bad: “it’s a habit of we modern moms. We’re conditioned to feel the burn of judgment—or the defensive suspicion that we were being judged. It’s something we’ve come to expect” (#16). This ideology operates within a broader neoliberal framework that recasts mothering as “a competitive exercise in highly personalized decision-making” (Steiner & Bronstein, 2017, p. 60). As a blogger declared, “Welcome to the Mommy Wars, ladies.” She continued, “We are horrible to each other online, in playgroups, and in tight little huddles in the preschool parking lot. Our parenting beliefs are not as easy to hide as religion and politics, so we use them as weapons” (#17). Although the mommy wars may take on a different formation than they did in the 1990s, the premise remains the same: negative emotions are weaponized as mothers battle one another to be the best mom. “I ache to be told I’m doing well at this”: explaining the origins of the mommy wars Mommy bloggers explain the origins of the mommy wars in various ways, but most attribute competition between mothers to interpersonal judgments that manifest through shaming and blaming about parenting choices. Simultaneously, most of the blog posts convey a desire to belong and discuss the security that comes with being “tethered together by similar parenting beliefs” (#17). In this way, the wars stem, at least in part, from craving support and validation from other mothers, which intensifies differences among mothers in the search for similarities. The limitless boundaries of the way mothers can be judged cultivates a deep-longing in mothers to feel they are doing something right. Contrasted with a job composed of benchmarks for success and evaluations of progress, bloggers point to the elusiveness of measuring oneself as a good mother. Many bloggers explain that the judgment of other mothers comes in large part because mothers feel insecure about their own imperfect mothering. One blog argued that “We are breaking each other down because we’re crumbling inside, our pre-motherhood identity slowly disintegrating,” and “We hate each other for being someone else’s version of perfect, when the truth is that we hate ourselves for not being Pinterest-ing enough” (#17). Criticism of other mothers’ lives is explained as an effort to “affirm our choices” (#26), choices that are not clearly right or wrong. “Shaming other moms,” wrote one blogger, comes from “a need to make myself feel like I am doing ANYTHING right in my own home, with my own kids” (#20). These blog posts convey that the mommy wars are created by women’s own lack of confidence in their choices and abilities. Many expressed an underlying fear that other mothers have it more together, more figured out, than they do. When this fear takes over, mothers “cannot help but notice all the ways we fall short,” and “Once we realize we can’t be all of them, we resort to option number two: judgment” (#28). Bloggers thus point to how other mothers’ judgments fuel the mommy wars. “Here is the truth: Men judge, women judge,” one blogger explained, “The mommy wars are built on it, suggesting that moms have the corner on this whole judgment market” (#23). This explanation for the origins of the mommy wars epitomizes an individualist emphasis on personal choice and responsibility. Similarly, bloggers suggest that because no matter how mothers make choices (or have life circumstances chosen on their behalf) there is no perfect way to balance all of what mothers want when they want it (#6). Over a decade ago, Douglas and Michaels (2004) suggested that in contemporary motherhood, “women have choices, they are active agents in control of their own destiny, they have autonomy” (p. 5). What these bloggers now allude to is a stark sense that failure as the inevitable outcome pervading this discourse of choice: “Today, no matter who you are or how you are raising your children, someone thinks you are doing a shitty job” (#9). Thus, mothers’ continued judgments of other mothers’ parenting choices are explained as the origination of the mommy wars. “Collapsing our confidence one snarky Facebook comment at a time”: amplifying the mommy wars online Bloggers often attributed Internet technology to the amplification of the shame and blame that constitute the mommy wars. Many argue that judging others is human nature, and assert that the social media breeds divisiveness in the quantity and quality of how that judgment is communicated. “The reason we are hearing so much about ‘mommy judgment’ and ‘mommy wars’ now is the Internet. It serves as a public platform for the same old judgment to now be amplified” (#19). Women’s individual insecurities and imperfections, along with their propensity to “naturally” judge one another, is magnified because “Especially with social media, you can’t really escape it” (#30), because “God forbid any of us have a moment when we weren’t perfect broadcast on national television and dissected by every laptop crusader with the gift of Stellar Parenting” (#9). The Internet, according to these bloggers, affords more opportunities to engage in the mommy wars. Part of this affordance stems from how easily anonymity and niches are created online. The ability to consume and interact namelessly online, some bloggers argue, leads to dehumanizing other mothers during online disagreements. One suggests that because mothers are looking at a device rather than a person, they “reduce those who offend us to all their imagined worst traits” (#1). Some bloggers also elaborate on dangers of a mother self-selecting what already aligns with her views, further solidifying philosophy-specific niches. It is common for online mothering communities to be dominated by a single mothering practice (e.g., extended breastfeeders, screen-free mamas, attachment parenting). These communities create a sense of belonging, reinforce beliefs, and strengthens convictions. “New motherhood can be lonely,” wrote one blogger, “We all want to belong, and it helps to have a group of people who think like we do” (#17). These blog posts convey that competition between mothers is a product of social media’s division and organization of mothers, territorializing mothering and “sorting us into camps” (#12). Additionally, the sheer amount of information available online that surrounds ideal mothering amplifies the mommy wars. Bloggers describe the flood of opinions as constant and relentless: “in the age of the Internet, and with the proliferation of parenting communities online, the media has become part of everyone’s neighborhood” (#25). Other posts emphasize that it is not just “big topics like breastfeeding or vaccines”; rather, it is “everything” (#29). Wolf (2011) calls this a “risk culture,” where scientists and other experts supply an ongoing amount of ever-changing advice. Bloggers illustrate how this advice impacts mothers who must take personal responsibility for eradicating all risks to children at any cost. From discipline to screen-time to feeding practices to playground etiquette, mothers are engulfed and oversaturated by information about how to mother, but amidst this vast amount of information, there is no marker of a good mother, no benchmark she can reach on the path to good mothering. Coupled with the constant flow of information is the controlled presentation of perfection on social media. Social media present identities, but they blur the line between real and ideal. These blog posts convey the physical and emotional exhaustion of motherhood and household labor while pulling at the strategic online omission of the messiness of everyday life. One blogger argues, “We go online and filter out the sweat and the stains and the screaming with pretty photo filters. Why do we lie to each other about real life?” (#17). From pictures of their baby bump to posting their children’s lunches online, bloggers address the fundamental incongruence between the experience and the presentation of motherhood in the sharing of pictures. Indeed, mothering within neoliberal family structures means that mothers assume responsibility not only for child-rearing and household management but their own well-being, self-care, and well-chosen work-family balance (Rottenberg, 2014). Intensely individuated, the impacts of maternity are rhetorically erased where even the maternal body becomes a “weapon of choice” (O’Brien Hallstein, 2015, p. 3) that helps women be all things online. “Moms, I need you. We need each other”: resolving the mommy wars In addition to deliberating about the origins of and forces that contribute to the mommy wars, bloggers muse about what it would take to end competition between mothers. Overwhelmingly, these solutions do not challenge the ideology of combative mothering, and instead shame and blame mothers for not keeping judgments to themselves or believing that the mommy wars exist. For example, some bloggers suggest that mothers need to relax and refrain from seeing others’ actions as a personal affront to their own mothering choices. A few also assert that judgment is natural and essential, and therefore identify the problem as the expression of judgment, not the judgment itself. “Unless you’re prepared to drop the gloves and take a few punches,” one blogger wrote, “you may consider avoiding the following Mommy War-sparking conversations all together” (#5). Avoiding expressing judgments, they argue, will keep mothers united and extinguish the competition. This reduces the conflict to individual mothers in a hopeful yet patronizing manner. If only mothers avoided judgment the way they “avoid politics and religion at the dinner table,” they might be successful in ending the mommy wars (#5). Additionally, ceasing to believe in the mommy wars is also proclaimed as a way to end them, again placing the burden on individual women for resolving combative mothering. Bloggers convey that mothers as individuals sustain the mommy wars through buying into the idea of competition. “How do I escape from all the mom-petition? My answer is always this: If you need it to disappear, stop believing in it” (#4). Describing that feeling judged is a self-centered way to live, blogs subtly target mothers’ behavior for both the existence and sustainment of the mommy wars. Others suggest that the label “war” may be a better characterized as “skirmishes between mamas who are hurting and feeling the heavy hand of judgment and the rather desperate need to defend their choices” (#20), implying that mothers are the ones who have blown competitive relations with each other out of proportion, even while acknowledging that some combativeness exists. Alternatively, a minority of bloggers assert that one way to chip away at the mommy wars is to embrace vulnerability and talk openly about the challenges, insecurities, worries that accompany motherhood. They suggest this openness can be cultivated through a deliberate focus on friendship, which they contend may sound simple but is a stark source of absence in many mothers lives. Indeed, “it’s a sad, lonely journey” when women stop sharing and learning from one another (#16). The ability to “nourish and those relationships and handle conflict without being drawn into toxicity is not a frivolous luxury” (#25). While a focus remains on supporting the individual choices of other mothers, bloggers also point to the fear of sharing instilled by the mommy wars that inhibits conversation and shuts down important sources of support. In their call to log off social media and initiate contact with a friend in which you “tell her the truth about motherhood” (#17), there is a sense of hope that mothers can still have a village. However, the responsibility remains on individual mothers end the mommy wars. Conclusion The ideology of combative mothering clearly pervades many mothers’ interpersonal communication and relationships with one another, as evidenced by the stories told about judgmental shame and blame in many mothers’ blog posts. Thus, the mommy wars are not just a myth created by mass media (Steiner & Bronstein, 2017). Instead, we contend that due to the sustained cultural relevance of the mommy wars, combative mothering should be acknowledged as a dominant mothering ideology in the United States that is distinct from intensive mothering and new momism (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Hays, 1996; Moore & Abetz, 2016). Mothers are not only compelled to devote themselves completely to their children, through time, energy, resources, and knowledge (Hays, 1996), but are also obliged to compete to be the best mother, superior to all other mothers, in a zero-sum battle where some mothers are winners and other mother are losers. This competition emerges from the current neoliberal moment championing personal responsibility and consumer choice, as well patriarchal culture that promotes the fragmentation of womanhood. Neoliberalism encourages mothers to embrace and replicate privilege to benefit their own children at a time when public services and state supports are increasingly privatized (Giles, 2014), and are linked to the white, heterosexual family ideal, which serves to invisibilize economically disadvantaged mothers whose children are not deemed worthy of debate (Zimmerman et al., 2008). Indeed, mother blame has focussed on white, middle-class, working mothers endangering their children by working outside the home, while simultaneously criticizing poor women of color for their reliance on welfare (Hays, 1996; Zimmerman et al., 2008). The pitting of mother against mother can also be contextualized as part of a much broader patriarchal ideology that undermines female solidarity and positions women as their own worst enemies who could never unite across difference. This “divide and conquer” strategy weakens women’s potential to resist existing patriarchal structures. From dating to beauty competitions to the creation of quotas for women in the workforce, female competition persists despite the fact that it does not benefit women (Tanaenbaum, 2002). As Tanenbaum argues, “Many women compete over things they think men value (…) The most dangerous outcome of this is self hatred; girls and women disparage themselves and dissociate from other females” (p. 47). Resentment between women is an integral part of this systemic misogyny that relentlessly pushes the message that women are not one another’s allies. Thus, combative mothering presents a contemporary articulation of multiple historical ideals that, when couched within the mommy wars metaphor, obscures its ideological legacies. Naming combative mothering illuminates this reconfigured manifestation of entrenched ideological forces. The ideology of combative mothering, at its core, is built upon an ethos individualism, which normalizes and rationalizes shame and blame toward oneself and other mothers. This ideology undergirds bloggers’ explanations of the beginning, middle, and end of mothers’ competitive relationships with one another. With a few exceptions, these bloggers rarely contemplate the mommy wars outside of the logic of combative mothering. Even in reflections upon proposed solutions to the mommy wars, it is individual mothers who must stop voicing judgment—even though feeling judgmental is acceptable. This judgment contributes to the interpellation of subjects who then regulate themselves by “freely” adhering to certain parenting philosophies and practices. Of course, transforming interpersonal communication practices is potentially a positive force in lessening the mommy wars, but this solution is only partial. If the ideology of combative mothering continues to reinforce many women’s sensemaking about the mommy wars, where women are in competition to be the best mother even when working to solve the mommy wars, it appears inevitable that mothers will continue to often have dehumanizing conversations with one another over differing parenting philosophies and practices. Paradoxically, digitally networked communication technologies that have given mothers a voice to speak truth to their own lives in ways that were not previously possible in the public sphere have likely also contributed to the fragmentation and labeling of ever-smaller parenting niches (Lopez, 2009). Mothers have more platforms than ever before to discuss their preferred childrearing practices with larger networks than ever, which is viewed by some readers as a personal attack and by others as unjustified complaining. Donath (2017) provides a useful explanation for why, when mothers discuss the mommy wars, they are so easily dismissed: Women and mothers are judged according to a broader social perception that we live in a “whining era,” that we are afflicted with an epidemic of self-indulgence (…) Thus, exactly because more and more diverse social groups are “allowed” to speak out—undermining the “natural course” of oppressive social arrangements—it is unbearable to listen to what mothers say without branding them as spoiled, insane, and weak, or claiming that they must be exaggerating. (Donath, 2017, p. 160, emphasis in original) When bloggers insist that the mommy wars don’t exist, or if they would just be ignored they will go away, they contribute to this notion of women as complainers. When bloggers speak openly about the mommy wars, they create a space where the realities of motherhood can be openly discussed. These mothers appear to be caught in a double-bind, where talking about the mommy wars contributes to its perpetuation while not talking about the mommy wars prohibits mothers from fully understanding and humanizing one another. Thus, the solution to the mommy wars may not lie in more or less communication, but instead in a critical interrogation of mothering ideologies that sustain this double-bind. To critically examine an ideology requires looking beyond individual shame and blame toward oft-unacknowledged cultural expectations about how mothers should relate to one another. Metaphors “that govern our thoughts are not just matters of intellect,” wrote Lakoff and Johnson (1980), “they also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane detail” (p. 3). Metaphors, in other words, are powerful constructions that constitute ideas and actions. Although the metaphor of the mommy wars was prevalent in the 30 analyzed blog posts by design, competition between mothers has also been evidenced more broadly (C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2017; Cox, 2011; Milkie et al., 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016). If the metaphor of the mommy wars prevails in cultural and interpersonal discourse, mothers will continue to understand themselves as combatants in high-stakes conflicts that are purportedly for the sake of the children but in actuality lead to few favorable outcomes for mothers, their children, their families, and their friendships. But what would it take to move from a culture of enemies to a culture of allies? A minority of bloggers lend insight. One noted that “we offer very little in terms of support to parents and we expect them to never make a mistake and raise perfect little beings” (#19), and therefore women and men must acknowledge the “value of communal relations and call to bring back sisterhood” (#10), and should expose how mothers are constrained within “cultural, social and economic conditions within these crucial choices are made” (#7). Thus, ending the mommy wars requires two simultaneous moves across micro and macro levels. First, mothers’ friendships with other mothers can embody a “socially situated character of relationality which is shaped by material resources and social positioning as well as emotional interconnections (…) forms of inclusive intimacy contributed to a relational sense of self that is composed through practices and bonds of motherhood and domestic friendship” (Cronin, 2015, p. 673). In combative mothering, the choices and practices of individual mothers evolve into their own brand of mothering devoid of any sort of collectivity or interdependence between women. In a culture of sisterhood, mothers may work to cultivate strong bonds that foster emotional and practical support. These friendships, unlike the mommy wars, “are not sites for the creation of individualistic self-identity, but instead centre on practices of inclusive intimacy and an expansive, relational sense of self” (Cronin, 2015, p. 667). Second, new metaphors of relating between mothers can be cultivated in mass media and social media. This does not entail an insistence that the mommy wars don’t exist, but that the mommy wars don’t determine how mothers relate to one another. This will require a greater shift than reframing “wars” to “skirmishes” (#20), as one blogger suggested, to move outside the logic of combative mothering. A metaphor of kinship and connection may bolster the existing metaphor of sisterhood. Indeed, this kinship opens up a space “for a productive exploration of conflict” (Winch, 2013, p. 198) between women. At its core, this metaphor allows mothers the ability to work through the problems of neoliberal girlfriend culture that foregrounds choice and empowerment for individual women, not collective action for all. Kinship represents a social invitation to ask how negative emotions like envy and judgment of other mothers may be the first step toward recognizing social inequality (Winch, 2013). Of course, a kinship metaphor is not without its own issues. Families can also be competitive, unsupportive, and dysfunctional. However, the metaphor still provides a potential framework for reorienting women’s relationships with one another. 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“Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies”: Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative Mothering in Mommy Blogs

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Abstract

Abstract The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering. Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has previously described antagonisms between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and practices. In this article, we engaged in a feminist critique to identify how 30 mommy bloggers make sense of the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy wars. This sensemaking, we contend, lends important critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sustaining, and ultimately resolving the mommy wars. Mothers in the United States are currently navigating an “epoch of unsettled mothering” (Macdonald, 2009, p. 413), where mothering ideologies have multiplied and solidified. Since the late 1980s, the metaphor of the mommy wars has described the “Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths: going to work, or staying home to care for their kids” (Darnton, 1990, para. 1). This opposition between stay-at-home and working mothers positions mothers into two antagonistic and isolated categories (Douglas & Michaels, 2004) and overlooks mothers who work part-time or who shift in and out of the paid workforce (Peskowitz, 2005). The “mommy wars” metaphor has since evolved to refer to an expanded set of rivalries between mothering philosophies and practices, and is undergirded by the ideology of combative mothering, which mandates that mothers be in constant competition with one another to be the best mother (Milkie, Pepin, & Denny, 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016). Now more than ever before, mothers appear to be fragmented into smaller and smaller camps, often defending their own parenting choices as best for their children. Social media have provided mothers with more opportunities than ever before to voice their lived experiences of motherhood and dialogue about what constitutes ideal mothering. Mommy blogs, in particular, provide a forum for mothers to contemplate and reflect upon the cultural conditions of motherhood and their own interactions with other mothers. Given the prominence of the mommy wars in U.S. culture, and its relevance to both the institution of motherhood and the practices of mothering, we analyze blog posts about competition between mothers. Specifically, we critique how 30 mommy bloggers describe the mommy wars, explain the origins of the mommy wars, and offer resolutions to the mommy wars. We elaborate upon how the ideology of combative mothering structures most bloggers’ contemplations. Ultimately, this online communication about the metaphor constrains possibilities for better and less antagonistic relationships due to the neoliberal and patriarchal legacies imbued in combative mothering. Moms online Since the 1990s, mothers have used the Internet to communicate with one another across time and space about their experiences of having and raising children. Mothers’ use of the Internet as an organizing tool (Dasgupta & Dasgupta, 2011), important source of health information (Wigginton, Gartner, & Rowlands, 2017), and form of social support (Johnson, 2015) illuminates the ways in which web technologies have “opened the door, just a crack, to new ways of being a mom” (Samuel, 2011, p. xiv). Indeed, the Internet’s potential as a site of connection and empowerment as well as shame and judgment suggests that motherhood in online contexts is complex and multifaceted, thereby necessitating the need to resist monolithic understandings of the experience of mothering in a digital world. Digitally networked communication The Internet affords constant, connected communication and personalization in ways that were not possible in the past (Wellman et al., 2003). Digitally networked communication, with its participatory potential, promised freedom from hierarchical and unidirectional mass media in favor of horizontal and deterritorial many-to-many patterns of information flows (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). Early theorizations of the Internet espoused a democratizing vision for the medium, where a person could easily create content and be exposed to a plurality of ideas in the public sphere, free from gender, race, and class markers (Crawford, 2002; Dahlberg, 1998). Although networked communication has enabled large-scale activist organizing and activism (Castells, 2015; Pal & Dutta, 2012), and “people can learn far more than they could before, and they can learn it much faster” (Sunstein, 2008, p. 93), digitally networked communication does not necessarily lead to better democratic participation or more exposure to differing ideas, due to market colonization, state censorship, elite appropriation, social control by citizens, and anti-democratic voices (Cammaerts, 2008). Further, individuals often self-select their exposure to media content (Kim, 2016). This ability to filter and personalize enables individuals with shared interests, experiences, and identities to gather across time and space (Fullerton & Rarey, 2012; Moore, 2014). However, this personalization has also been critiqued for creating niches that serve as homogenous echo chambers that are hostile to opposing ideas, resulting in ideological balkanization (Sunstein, 2008). For example, participation in radical ideological online communities, such as neo-Nazi forums, can intensify extremism (Wojcieszak, 2010). In practice, the potentiality of digital communication lies somewhere in-between full democratic participation and total fragmentation, where the Internet affords possibilities that are realized within complex systems of individual, relational, and structural constraints. One such context includes blogs about motherhood. Mommy blogs Blogs about motherhood, often termed “mommy blogs” within the “mamasphere,” chronicle the lives of mothers as they raise their children. The journaling and storytelling that occurs on mommy blogs is sometimes antithetical to the intensive mothering ideal of the “good mother” that mass media often presents (Barak-Brandes, 2017). Whereas parents have long used websites and online discussion forums to seek information, advice, and support (Lupton, Pedersen, & Thomas, 2016), mothers often blog to specifically enhance psychological well-being through connecting with others, seeking mental stimulation, enhancing self-validation, contributing to the welfare of others, and enhancing their skills and abilities (Pettigrew, Archer, & Harrigan, 2016). Motivations for blogging interrelate with personal identity, community participation, social support, and relationship formation online (Webb & Lee, 2011). Mommy blogging provides mothers with a forum to share their trials and tribulations of motherhood, and connect with other mothers across time and space. Scholars have lauded mommy blogging as a resistant practice (Lopez, 2009; Powell, 2010). Mommy blogging has been called a “radical act” that collapses public and private spheres voicing private struggles of motherhood in the public, where exposure of the “ugly side of motherhood has the potential to be liberating and beneficial for all women” (Lopez, 2009, p. 744). The act of blogging therefore provides mothers a space in which to resist the good mother–bad mother dichotomy and create new subjectivities (Powell, 2010). Although blogging can be liberatory, it also has the potential to constrain identities and practices. Mommy blogs are sites of social surveillance, where readers judge the intimate details of bloggers’ lives, as well as sites of digital memory, where readers find solidarity (Orton-Johnson, 2017). The term “mommy blogger” itself is not neutral, and although the term carries marketing value, it may offer limited agency by locking mothers into the nurturing prototype signified in the word “mommy” (Chen, 2013). The emancipatory potential of mommy blogging may be further diluted through the monetization of blogs. Although advertising on blogs can viewed as “entrepreneurial” and therefore a step forward for mothers, this has resulted in backlash against mommy bloggers (Lopez, 2009). Adding advertisements to blogs, selling products, and curating content can result in a loss of authenticity, which dampens the possibilities for building community (Hunter, 2016). As blogs become more commercialized, visitors can be interpreted more as audience members who are witnessing performances of aspirational motherhood rather than community members who share in the gritty experiences of motherhood (Hunter, 2016). The monetization of blogs, then, contradicts the democratizing potential of blogging, as mothering ideologies enable and constrain digital communication about motherhood. Making sense of mothering ideologies Multiple mothering ideologies have been identified in the literature, including intensive mothering (Hays, 1996), competitive mothering (Tronto, 2001), combative mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016), and integrated motherhood (Dow, 2016). Intensive mothering is often regarded as the dominant mothering ideology that defines what a “good mother” ought to be in the United States since World War II (Hays, 1996). Intensive mothering demands child-centered and expert-guided childrearing, along with complete devotion to children’s desires in terms of labor, emotion, and finances (Hays, 1996). Although Hays wrote that intensive mothering is in contradiction with the ethic of neoliberal competition in the United States, others have argued that mothers are indeed in competition with one another to be the best mom (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Moore & Abetz, 2016). For example, economically-advantaged women engage in competitive mothering when they hire nannies or au pairs to give their children a competitive edge in their development (Cox, 2011; Tronto, 2001). Intensive mothering, then, is an ideology that is primarily achievable by privileged women, who are often heterosexual, partnered, white, and middle- to upper-class. The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016). Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has described antagonisms between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and choices (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Milkie et al., 2016; Odenweller & Rittenour, 2017). The metaphor of the mommy wars problematically pits mother against mother, overshadowing social and structural issues of motherhood that negatively impact working families, such as paid parental leave and flexible scheduling (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Zimmerman, Aberle, Krafchick, & Harvey, 2008). In the contemporary mommy wars, mothers become separated into competing factions based on their parenting philosophies, where they must justify and defend their own choices and practices against contradictory philosophies (Moore & Abetz, 2016). The mommy wars metaphor, along with other motherhood labels such as “supermom,” “soccer mom,” “alpha mom,” and “yummy mummy” (Littler, 2013; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010), strip women of agency by constraining possibilities for maternal identities. However, mothers’ experience of criticism seems to be very common, with a recent poll indicating that 61% of mothers have been shamed for their parenting choices (C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2017). Analyzing combative mothering in mommy blogs Whereas scholars have explored how mommy blogs reify and resist intensive mothering ideals (e.g., Pedersen, 2016), these blogs also have the potential to lend insight into how mothers make sense of combative relationships. Specifically, we seek to identify how mommy blogs talk about the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy wars and competition between mothers over parenting philosophies. We each used Google to search for key terms like “mommy blog mommy wars” and “mommy blog competition” to locate individual women’s writings about their own experiences with, and reflections upon, the mommy wars or competition between mothers. To analyze this, we engaged in purposeful sampling by gathering 30 individual blog posts authored by 30 mothers that that provided some type of explanation for why the mommy wars—or competition between mothers more broadly—exist. As Tracy (2013) argues, “Good qualitative researchers, at the very least, engage in purposeful sampling, which means that they purposefully choose data that fit the parameters of the project’s research questions, goals, and purposes” (p. 134). These posts, published between May 2010 and June 2017 (with three undated), originated from a variety of websites, including women’s individual blogs hosted on their own domains, blog posts on parenting websites (e.g., mom.me, Scary Mommy), and blog posts on major news websites (e.g., Huffpost, The New York Times). Although not all bloggers identify where they are located, the 30 posts are in English and seemingly U.S.-centric. The results of the current study therefore must not be extrapolated beyond the U.S. context in which they are situated. As critical-qualitative feminist scholars interested in the communicative construction of gender, we began with a grounded analysis to identify the multiple ways that bloggers made sense of what constitutes the mommy wars and the origins of the mommy wars. We engaged in an inductive approach to coding and categorization to begin our analysis, where we generated an initial list of first-level codes and then combined them into second-level themes (Tracy, 2013). It quickly became clear that many bloggers also offered their own perspectives about why the mommy wars have sustained and intensified, as well as their own visions of how to solve the mommy wars. Thus, as our analytical categories took shape, we collaboratively identified multiple themes to describe bloggers’ sensemaking until we reached theoretical saturation, when no new themes emerged (Tracy, 2013). Bloggers’ explanations for why the mommy wars exist and how to solve them provided a starting point to engage in a feminist critique of our interpretive data (Manning & Denker, 2015). Although there is no single overarching feminist framework or method to critique communication practices, feminist communication researchers often analyze the role of communication practices in circulation of gender ideologies, including critical analysis of mediated discourse (Dow & Condit, 2005). In our critique, we sought to interrogate how first-person accounts of the mommy wars are informed, constrained, and complicated by the ideology of combative mothering and how motherhood itself operates as a site of cultural and institutional inequality. Thus, we critique how gendered cultural arrangements structure women’s sensemaking about the mommy wars. Making sense of the mommy wars in mommy blogs Through our critique of bloggers’ explanations for the origins, amplifications, and resolutions to the mommy wars, we argue that blog posts about the mommy wars rarely work outside of the logic of combative mothering, where individual mothers feel compelled to shame and blame themselves and other mothers. We contend that bloggers’ sensemaking about the mommy wars—specifically what they are, where they come from, what amplifies them, and how to resolve them—lends important critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sustaining, and ultimately ending the mommy wars, with little reflection about how the mommy wars are couched within a broader competitive ideology. “I bet I’m being judged right now”: articulating the mommy wars Consistent with recent research about the evolving formation of the mommy wars (Milkie et al., 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016), bloggers convey that there are many different mothering identities constituted in various mothering philosophies and practices (e.g., feeding, sleeping, discipline). Some blog posts give credence to “the age old question of who has it harder—working or stay-at-home moms,” while simultaneously emphasizing that this question has spiraled into judgments that impact “just about every facet of life a child may face” (#30). These new mommy wars are referred to by one blogger as “the ‘everyday’ mommy wars,” which “are about methods of baby feeding, sleep training, working mothers and sometimes even screen-time” (#19). This evolution beyond the stay-at-home versus working mother indicates that combative mothering relies on fragmentation and particularization as debates about new philosophies and practices proliferate: A “mommy war” happens when a mom or a few moms think that their way of parenting is better than another mom’s way of nurturing her child. Instead of quietly disagreeing, moms debate with one another on why their parenting way is “best.” Mothers are then often left hurt and upset: this is what could be the beginning of a “mommy war.” (#27) In these blog posts, mothering choices are used to impose certain conditions of subjectivity where good mothering relies on continued self-improvement and individual empowerment to make the best decisions for their families. This competition creates rivalries and sustains divisions between mothers, ultimately constraining opportunities for vulnerability and support across differences in parenting practices. In addition to divisions between parenting philosophies, mommy-shame is central to contemporary mommy wars. Mom-shaming is calling a mother out, in-person or online, for a parenting choice she has made. One blogger observed that “moms can be shamed from anything these days” (#18), through statements like, “Did you see how she’s feeding her baby? I can’t believe she thinks that’s ok?!” “He goes to bed where? What kind of parent would let their child sleep that way?” (#17). Another stated that “Whether a mum works or stays home, breastfeeds or bottle feeds, co-sleeps or sleep trains. (…) there is still so much ‘mummy shaming’ out there” (#10). A different blogger categorized five types of “competitive mommies” who “make you feel like schmidt and make herself feel better,” including the “can’t help herself” mother, “the one-upper” mother, “the pretend to be concerned” mother, “the soccer stalker mom,” and the “mean and evil” mother (#21). Sectioning and labeling mothers into particular identities based on their parenting philosophies, practices, or competitive type disciplines mothers’ subjectivities into pre-packaged containers with little room to maneuver beyond the predetermined boundaries (Moore & Abetz, 2016; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010). The mommy wars do not simply describe antagonisms between mothers, or mothers’ perceptions of different types of mothers, but also describe a dominant mothering ideology that has morphed over time to keep up with the changing landscape of motherhood. Specifically, the ideology of combative mothering is perpetuated and sustained through mothers’ anticipation and experience of judgment from others mothers. One blogger shared an experience of feeling shamed, where the other mothers were not trying to make her feel bad: “it’s a habit of we modern moms. We’re conditioned to feel the burn of judgment—or the defensive suspicion that we were being judged. It’s something we’ve come to expect” (#16). This ideology operates within a broader neoliberal framework that recasts mothering as “a competitive exercise in highly personalized decision-making” (Steiner & Bronstein, 2017, p. 60). As a blogger declared, “Welcome to the Mommy Wars, ladies.” She continued, “We are horrible to each other online, in playgroups, and in tight little huddles in the preschool parking lot. Our parenting beliefs are not as easy to hide as religion and politics, so we use them as weapons” (#17). Although the mommy wars may take on a different formation than they did in the 1990s, the premise remains the same: negative emotions are weaponized as mothers battle one another to be the best mom. “I ache to be told I’m doing well at this”: explaining the origins of the mommy wars Mommy bloggers explain the origins of the mommy wars in various ways, but most attribute competition between mothers to interpersonal judgments that manifest through shaming and blaming about parenting choices. Simultaneously, most of the blog posts convey a desire to belong and discuss the security that comes with being “tethered together by similar parenting beliefs” (#17). In this way, the wars stem, at least in part, from craving support and validation from other mothers, which intensifies differences among mothers in the search for similarities. The limitless boundaries of the way mothers can be judged cultivates a deep-longing in mothers to feel they are doing something right. Contrasted with a job composed of benchmarks for success and evaluations of progress, bloggers point to the elusiveness of measuring oneself as a good mother. Many bloggers explain that the judgment of other mothers comes in large part because mothers feel insecure about their own imperfect mothering. One blog argued that “We are breaking each other down because we’re crumbling inside, our pre-motherhood identity slowly disintegrating,” and “We hate each other for being someone else’s version of perfect, when the truth is that we hate ourselves for not being Pinterest-ing enough” (#17). Criticism of other mothers’ lives is explained as an effort to “affirm our choices” (#26), choices that are not clearly right or wrong. “Shaming other moms,” wrote one blogger, comes from “a need to make myself feel like I am doing ANYTHING right in my own home, with my own kids” (#20). These blog posts convey that the mommy wars are created by women’s own lack of confidence in their choices and abilities. Many expressed an underlying fear that other mothers have it more together, more figured out, than they do. When this fear takes over, mothers “cannot help but notice all the ways we fall short,” and “Once we realize we can’t be all of them, we resort to option number two: judgment” (#28). Bloggers thus point to how other mothers’ judgments fuel the mommy wars. “Here is the truth: Men judge, women judge,” one blogger explained, “The mommy wars are built on it, suggesting that moms have the corner on this whole judgment market” (#23). This explanation for the origins of the mommy wars epitomizes an individualist emphasis on personal choice and responsibility. Similarly, bloggers suggest that because no matter how mothers make choices (or have life circumstances chosen on their behalf) there is no perfect way to balance all of what mothers want when they want it (#6). Over a decade ago, Douglas and Michaels (2004) suggested that in contemporary motherhood, “women have choices, they are active agents in control of their own destiny, they have autonomy” (p. 5). What these bloggers now allude to is a stark sense that failure as the inevitable outcome pervading this discourse of choice: “Today, no matter who you are or how you are raising your children, someone thinks you are doing a shitty job” (#9). Thus, mothers’ continued judgments of other mothers’ parenting choices are explained as the origination of the mommy wars. “Collapsing our confidence one snarky Facebook comment at a time”: amplifying the mommy wars online Bloggers often attributed Internet technology to the amplification of the shame and blame that constitute the mommy wars. Many argue that judging others is human nature, and assert that the social media breeds divisiveness in the quantity and quality of how that judgment is communicated. “The reason we are hearing so much about ‘mommy judgment’ and ‘mommy wars’ now is the Internet. It serves as a public platform for the same old judgment to now be amplified” (#19). Women’s individual insecurities and imperfections, along with their propensity to “naturally” judge one another, is magnified because “Especially with social media, you can’t really escape it” (#30), because “God forbid any of us have a moment when we weren’t perfect broadcast on national television and dissected by every laptop crusader with the gift of Stellar Parenting” (#9). The Internet, according to these bloggers, affords more opportunities to engage in the mommy wars. Part of this affordance stems from how easily anonymity and niches are created online. The ability to consume and interact namelessly online, some bloggers argue, leads to dehumanizing other mothers during online disagreements. One suggests that because mothers are looking at a device rather than a person, they “reduce those who offend us to all their imagined worst traits” (#1). Some bloggers also elaborate on dangers of a mother self-selecting what already aligns with her views, further solidifying philosophy-specific niches. It is common for online mothering communities to be dominated by a single mothering practice (e.g., extended breastfeeders, screen-free mamas, attachment parenting). These communities create a sense of belonging, reinforce beliefs, and strengthens convictions. “New motherhood can be lonely,” wrote one blogger, “We all want to belong, and it helps to have a group of people who think like we do” (#17). These blog posts convey that competition between mothers is a product of social media’s division and organization of mothers, territorializing mothering and “sorting us into camps” (#12). Additionally, the sheer amount of information available online that surrounds ideal mothering amplifies the mommy wars. Bloggers describe the flood of opinions as constant and relentless: “in the age of the Internet, and with the proliferation of parenting communities online, the media has become part of everyone’s neighborhood” (#25). Other posts emphasize that it is not just “big topics like breastfeeding or vaccines”; rather, it is “everything” (#29). Wolf (2011) calls this a “risk culture,” where scientists and other experts supply an ongoing amount of ever-changing advice. Bloggers illustrate how this advice impacts mothers who must take personal responsibility for eradicating all risks to children at any cost. From discipline to screen-time to feeding practices to playground etiquette, mothers are engulfed and oversaturated by information about how to mother, but amidst this vast amount of information, there is no marker of a good mother, no benchmark she can reach on the path to good mothering. Coupled with the constant flow of information is the controlled presentation of perfection on social media. Social media present identities, but they blur the line between real and ideal. These blog posts convey the physical and emotional exhaustion of motherhood and household labor while pulling at the strategic online omission of the messiness of everyday life. One blogger argues, “We go online and filter out the sweat and the stains and the screaming with pretty photo filters. Why do we lie to each other about real life?” (#17). From pictures of their baby bump to posting their children’s lunches online, bloggers address the fundamental incongruence between the experience and the presentation of motherhood in the sharing of pictures. Indeed, mothering within neoliberal family structures means that mothers assume responsibility not only for child-rearing and household management but their own well-being, self-care, and well-chosen work-family balance (Rottenberg, 2014). Intensely individuated, the impacts of maternity are rhetorically erased where even the maternal body becomes a “weapon of choice” (O’Brien Hallstein, 2015, p. 3) that helps women be all things online. “Moms, I need you. We need each other”: resolving the mommy wars In addition to deliberating about the origins of and forces that contribute to the mommy wars, bloggers muse about what it would take to end competition between mothers. Overwhelmingly, these solutions do not challenge the ideology of combative mothering, and instead shame and blame mothers for not keeping judgments to themselves or believing that the mommy wars exist. For example, some bloggers suggest that mothers need to relax and refrain from seeing others’ actions as a personal affront to their own mothering choices. A few also assert that judgment is natural and essential, and therefore identify the problem as the expression of judgment, not the judgment itself. “Unless you’re prepared to drop the gloves and take a few punches,” one blogger wrote, “you may consider avoiding the following Mommy War-sparking conversations all together” (#5). Avoiding expressing judgments, they argue, will keep mothers united and extinguish the competition. This reduces the conflict to individual mothers in a hopeful yet patronizing manner. If only mothers avoided judgment the way they “avoid politics and religion at the dinner table,” they might be successful in ending the mommy wars (#5). Additionally, ceasing to believe in the mommy wars is also proclaimed as a way to end them, again placing the burden on individual women for resolving combative mothering. Bloggers convey that mothers as individuals sustain the mommy wars through buying into the idea of competition. “How do I escape from all the mom-petition? My answer is always this: If you need it to disappear, stop believing in it” (#4). Describing that feeling judged is a self-centered way to live, blogs subtly target mothers’ behavior for both the existence and sustainment of the mommy wars. Others suggest that the label “war” may be a better characterized as “skirmishes between mamas who are hurting and feeling the heavy hand of judgment and the rather desperate need to defend their choices” (#20), implying that mothers are the ones who have blown competitive relations with each other out of proportion, even while acknowledging that some combativeness exists. Alternatively, a minority of bloggers assert that one way to chip away at the mommy wars is to embrace vulnerability and talk openly about the challenges, insecurities, worries that accompany motherhood. They suggest this openness can be cultivated through a deliberate focus on friendship, which they contend may sound simple but is a stark source of absence in many mothers lives. Indeed, “it’s a sad, lonely journey” when women stop sharing and learning from one another (#16). The ability to “nourish and those relationships and handle conflict without being drawn into toxicity is not a frivolous luxury” (#25). While a focus remains on supporting the individual choices of other mothers, bloggers also point to the fear of sharing instilled by the mommy wars that inhibits conversation and shuts down important sources of support. In their call to log off social media and initiate contact with a friend in which you “tell her the truth about motherhood” (#17), there is a sense of hope that mothers can still have a village. However, the responsibility remains on individual mothers end the mommy wars. Conclusion The ideology of combative mothering clearly pervades many mothers’ interpersonal communication and relationships with one another, as evidenced by the stories told about judgmental shame and blame in many mothers’ blog posts. Thus, the mommy wars are not just a myth created by mass media (Steiner & Bronstein, 2017). Instead, we contend that due to the sustained cultural relevance of the mommy wars, combative mothering should be acknowledged as a dominant mothering ideology in the United States that is distinct from intensive mothering and new momism (Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Hays, 1996; Moore & Abetz, 2016). Mothers are not only compelled to devote themselves completely to their children, through time, energy, resources, and knowledge (Hays, 1996), but are also obliged to compete to be the best mother, superior to all other mothers, in a zero-sum battle where some mothers are winners and other mother are losers. This competition emerges from the current neoliberal moment championing personal responsibility and consumer choice, as well patriarchal culture that promotes the fragmentation of womanhood. Neoliberalism encourages mothers to embrace and replicate privilege to benefit their own children at a time when public services and state supports are increasingly privatized (Giles, 2014), and are linked to the white, heterosexual family ideal, which serves to invisibilize economically disadvantaged mothers whose children are not deemed worthy of debate (Zimmerman et al., 2008). Indeed, mother blame has focussed on white, middle-class, working mothers endangering their children by working outside the home, while simultaneously criticizing poor women of color for their reliance on welfare (Hays, 1996; Zimmerman et al., 2008). The pitting of mother against mother can also be contextualized as part of a much broader patriarchal ideology that undermines female solidarity and positions women as their own worst enemies who could never unite across difference. This “divide and conquer” strategy weakens women’s potential to resist existing patriarchal structures. From dating to beauty competitions to the creation of quotas for women in the workforce, female competition persists despite the fact that it does not benefit women (Tanaenbaum, 2002). As Tanenbaum argues, “Many women compete over things they think men value (…) The most dangerous outcome of this is self hatred; girls and women disparage themselves and dissociate from other females” (p. 47). Resentment between women is an integral part of this systemic misogyny that relentlessly pushes the message that women are not one another’s allies. Thus, combative mothering presents a contemporary articulation of multiple historical ideals that, when couched within the mommy wars metaphor, obscures its ideological legacies. Naming combative mothering illuminates this reconfigured manifestation of entrenched ideological forces. The ideology of combative mothering, at its core, is built upon an ethos individualism, which normalizes and rationalizes shame and blame toward oneself and other mothers. This ideology undergirds bloggers’ explanations of the beginning, middle, and end of mothers’ competitive relationships with one another. With a few exceptions, these bloggers rarely contemplate the mommy wars outside of the logic of combative mothering. Even in reflections upon proposed solutions to the mommy wars, it is individual mothers who must stop voicing judgment—even though feeling judgmental is acceptable. This judgment contributes to the interpellation of subjects who then regulate themselves by “freely” adhering to certain parenting philosophies and practices. Of course, transforming interpersonal communication practices is potentially a positive force in lessening the mommy wars, but this solution is only partial. If the ideology of combative mothering continues to reinforce many women’s sensemaking about the mommy wars, where women are in competition to be the best mother even when working to solve the mommy wars, it appears inevitable that mothers will continue to often have dehumanizing conversations with one another over differing parenting philosophies and practices. Paradoxically, digitally networked communication technologies that have given mothers a voice to speak truth to their own lives in ways that were not previously possible in the public sphere have likely also contributed to the fragmentation and labeling of ever-smaller parenting niches (Lopez, 2009). Mothers have more platforms than ever before to discuss their preferred childrearing practices with larger networks than ever, which is viewed by some readers as a personal attack and by others as unjustified complaining. Donath (2017) provides a useful explanation for why, when mothers discuss the mommy wars, they are so easily dismissed: Women and mothers are judged according to a broader social perception that we live in a “whining era,” that we are afflicted with an epidemic of self-indulgence (…) Thus, exactly because more and more diverse social groups are “allowed” to speak out—undermining the “natural course” of oppressive social arrangements—it is unbearable to listen to what mothers say without branding them as spoiled, insane, and weak, or claiming that they must be exaggerating. (Donath, 2017, p. 160, emphasis in original) When bloggers insist that the mommy wars don’t exist, or if they would just be ignored they will go away, they contribute to this notion of women as complainers. When bloggers speak openly about the mommy wars, they create a space where the realities of motherhood can be openly discussed. These mothers appear to be caught in a double-bind, where talking about the mommy wars contributes to its perpetuation while not talking about the mommy wars prohibits mothers from fully understanding and humanizing one another. Thus, the solution to the mommy wars may not lie in more or less communication, but instead in a critical interrogation of mothering ideologies that sustain this double-bind. To critically examine an ideology requires looking beyond individual shame and blame toward oft-unacknowledged cultural expectations about how mothers should relate to one another. Metaphors “that govern our thoughts are not just matters of intellect,” wrote Lakoff and Johnson (1980), “they also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane detail” (p. 3). Metaphors, in other words, are powerful constructions that constitute ideas and actions. Although the metaphor of the mommy wars was prevalent in the 30 analyzed blog posts by design, competition between mothers has also been evidenced more broadly (C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 2017; Cox, 2011; Milkie et al., 2016; Moore & Abetz, 2016). If the metaphor of the mommy wars prevails in cultural and interpersonal discourse, mothers will continue to understand themselves as combatants in high-stakes conflicts that are purportedly for the sake of the children but in actuality lead to few favorable outcomes for mothers, their children, their families, and their friendships. But what would it take to move from a culture of enemies to a culture of allies? A minority of bloggers lend insight. One noted that “we offer very little in terms of support to parents and we expect them to never make a mistake and raise perfect little beings” (#19), and therefore women and men must acknowledge the “value of communal relations and call to bring back sisterhood” (#10), and should expose how mothers are constrained within “cultural, social and economic conditions within these crucial choices are made” (#7). Thus, ending the mommy wars requires two simultaneous moves across micro and macro levels. First, mothers’ friendships with other mothers can embody a “socially situated character of relationality which is shaped by material resources and social positioning as well as emotional interconnections (…) forms of inclusive intimacy contributed to a relational sense of self that is composed through practices and bonds of motherhood and domestic friendship” (Cronin, 2015, p. 673). In combative mothering, the choices and practices of individual mothers evolve into their own brand of mothering devoid of any sort of collectivity or interdependence between women. In a culture of sisterhood, mothers may work to cultivate strong bonds that foster emotional and practical support. These friendships, unlike the mommy wars, “are not sites for the creation of individualistic self-identity, but instead centre on practices of inclusive intimacy and an expansive, relational sense of self” (Cronin, 2015, p. 667). Second, new metaphors of relating between mothers can be cultivated in mass media and social media. This does not entail an insistence that the mommy wars don’t exist, but that the mommy wars don’t determine how mothers relate to one another. This will require a greater shift than reframing “wars” to “skirmishes” (#20), as one blogger suggested, to move outside the logic of combative mothering. A metaphor of kinship and connection may bolster the existing metaphor of sisterhood. Indeed, this kinship opens up a space “for a productive exploration of conflict” (Winch, 2013, p. 198) between women. At its core, this metaphor allows mothers the ability to work through the problems of neoliberal girlfriend culture that foregrounds choice and empowerment for individual women, not collective action for all. Kinship represents a social invitation to ask how negative emotions like envy and judgment of other mothers may be the first step toward recognizing social inequality (Winch, 2013). Of course, a kinship metaphor is not without its own issues. Families can also be competitive, unsupportive, and dysfunctional. However, the metaphor still provides a potential framework for reorienting women’s relationships with one another. 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Communication, Culture & CritiqueOxford University Press

Published: May 15, 2018

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