Women As Mothers




Stereotyping is a device that is often used by the media to evoke humor or some other emotional response. The question of the ethics of using such devices is raised by the following essays. Each essay has its own page and begins after the list. These essays are taken from:

Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media
Paul Martin Lester, editor
California State University, Fullerton
Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. Westport, CT
Permission is granted by the editor to use the following essays on this WEB site.

  1. Moral Requirements and Picture Choice / Deni Elliott, University of Montana
  2. Media Victims / James W. Brown, Indiana University School of Journalism at IUPUI
  3. Newspaper Stereotypes of African Americans / Carolyn Martindale, Youngstown State University
  4. Women as Mothers/ Dona Schwartz, University of Minnesota
  5. Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Lesbian and Gay People and the Media/ Larry Gross, University of Pennsylvania
  6. Stereotyping of Media Personnel / Walter B. Jaehnig, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
  7. Common Ground and Future Hopes/ Clifford G. Christians, University of Illinois

Women as Mothers
Dona Schwartz
University of Minnesota

        At the conclusion of my first prenatal checkup twelve years
ago, the obstetrician's receptionist offered me copies of two different
magazines for expectant mothers, American Baby and Expecting.
Each time I came in for a checkup I would pick up the new issue,
free of charge.  Reading these publications produced a mixed
response: I was eager to read whatever I could find that promised to
prepare me for the upcoming birth of my first child, yet at the same
time, reading American Baby and Expecting was somewhat
unsettling, rather like morning sickness.  The smiling faces of happy
women, men, and babies overwhelmed me.  I resolved to save my
growing collection for future research so that I might examine the
image of mothering they presented.
        For years my mommy magazines lay untouched, awaiting the
analysis I'd promised.  They moved with me from house to house.  In
the intervening years the academic literature devoted to the subject
of mothering has grown1 and at the same time, the number of
publications targeting the so-called "childbirth market" has
mushroomed, coincident with the "echo boom" of the late 1980s.
These changes and another pregnancy provided me with the impetus
to collect a new set of magazines and investigate the images they
offer parents, especially women, the majority of their readership.
        My discussion here focuses on childbirth and parenting
magazines available on the newsstand: Parents, Working Mother,
Child, and Parenting and several magazines distributed free to
expectant and new parents.  Among the subscription-based
magazines, Parents is the eldest and most traditional of the
magazines, emerging in 1926.  Working Mother first appeared in
1977 to capitalize upon the increasing presence of mothers in the
labor force.  Child in 1986 and Parenting in 1987 were positioned to
exploit baby boomers on the nest.
        Cahners Publishing Company, a division of Reed Publishing
USA, produces American Baby (in publication since 1938) one of the
complimentary magazines available in the waiting rooms of
obstetricians.  At childbirth education classes Cahners distributes
Childbirth as part of a prenatal "sampling and couponing package,"
they call the American Baby Basket for Expectant Parents.  And
American Baby's First Year of Life arrives via the American Baby
Basket for New Mothers, delivered to the hospital room.
        In 1991 Time Warner purchased Baby Talk, a magazine
published since 1935.  The recently formed Parenting Group of Time
Publishing Ventures includes its free publications, Baby Talk and
Baby on the Way, along with Parenting, mentioned above.  Baby Talk
appears monthly, making its way to new and expectant mothers at
doctors' offices, in diaper service bundles, and in the baby
departments of stores like Sears, Macy's, JCPenney, Best, Target,
Walmart, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, and Marshall Fields.
        Baby on the Way, an annual, also appears in a version called
Baby on the Way: Basics, targeting women who "read at a grade
school level or are just learning English."  The editorial content of the
two magazines is similar even though Basics is written at a fifth
grade level.2  Although the editorial copy is not updated, Baby on the
Way is issued in March and September to allow for the insertion of
new advertising.  The Basics edition is slimmer, with shorter, less
detailed articles, and significantly fewer ads.  Baby on the Way is
available in doctor's offices, while Basics is primarily distributed
through clinics, state health departments, WIC programs, schools, and
literacy programs.
        The sample described here (with the exception of Baby on the
Way: Basics) represents the range of childbirth and parenting
magazines middle class women typically encounter in their doctors'
waiting rooms.  These publications provide an authoritative resource
for contemporary mothers seeking reliable information.  While
female kin may once have served this function, industrialization's
dispersal of the extended family makes such expertise inaccessible to
many women.  Even when such first-hand knowledge is available, it
is often devalued and treated as lore or "old wives' tales," inferior to
the printed word or the wisdom of the medical establishment.
        Stuart Ewen traces the displacement of familial authority
during the early twentieth century.3  He argues that the growth of
consumer capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s depended on investing
patriarchal authority in industrialists, enabling them to instruct
families in "proper living," including appropriate patterns of
consumption.  Thus, consumer capitalism transformed the family
from a unit of production into a unit of consumption.  This transfer of
authority created a need for new sources of information, a role that
could be assumed in part by mass circulation magazines.  As Time
Warner explains to potential advertisers,

                New mothers rely on a host of information resources--
pediatricians, friends and relatives,           childcare books and
childcare magazines.  Magazines play a vital role in their passionate
                search for information.

        Childbirth and parenting magazines exemplify corporate
capitalism's penetration of the domestic sphere.  Their pages affirm a
consumerist view of family life.  The range of the topics covered
varies little from publication to publication, although a distinctive
style may create an illusion of difference among them.  The annuals,
Childbirth, Baby on the Way, and First Year of Life, focus their stories
on pregnancy and prenatal care, labor and delivery, and infants'
growth, development, care and feeding, along with articles advising
prospective and new parents on "essential" purchases: maternity
clothes, the layette, furnishings, toys, car safety seats and the like.
        The remaining magazines present the same topics as the
annuals with these additions to the mix: fashions for mothers and
babies; exercise; home management advice, including recipes,
laundry tips, housework strategies, activities to keep kids (and their
mothers) busy; childcare options; marital relations; fathers and
fathering; child discipline; infant, child, and maternal health;
employment and employment-related issues.  Working Mother,
targeting women who work both inside and outside the home,
presents a nearly identical lineup, complete with articles on such
topics as bathroom cleaning.  Only its heavier emphasis on
employment-related issues distinguishes Working Mother from the
        Magazines compete for their share of readers by offering an
impressive slate of expert consultants and columnists representing
the medical establishment.  Baby on the Way takes this strategy
furthest, placing the seal of the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists on the cover.  The smiling face of its president greets
the reader on page one and his message to the "mother-to-be,"
placed where the editor's column typically appears, suggests he plays
an important role in the magazine's production.
        While the editorial copy found in these magazines
acknowledges, at least superficially, the changes affecting
contemporary mothering, the visual messages present hollow
stereotypes.  The images of mothers illustrating both editorial and
advertising copy evoke a world of blissful, predominantly Anglo,
dual-parent childrearing.  On these pages everyone smiles broad
toothy grins (except for the infants).  With remarkable uniformity
women appear well rested, well dressed, well groomed, and in
control of both baby and domestic surround.  Even in childbirth,
women maintain their composure and their polish.  They are shown
at each stage of labor and delivery, absorbed in the task at hand,
exerting genuine effort while keeping every hair in place.
        The babies and children who appear solo or with their mothers
(or, on occasion, with their fathers) reflect the same well being and
contentment.  Nestled in their mothers' arms, they offer no resistance
to being fed; they show no evidence of colic or fussiness of any kind.
They attentively listen to the books their loving mothers read.  Their
faces beam as they sit ensconced in their swings and strollers, or
play with their toys.  Their cute clothes never suggest that babies
regularly spit up and mash food on themselves.  These kids don't get
        Despite claims that they address contemporary parents, the
magazines show mothers almost exclusively.  Fathers occasionally
join mothers in the admiration of their offspring, play with them, or
tenderly administer to their needs.  But more often men appear in
illustrations accompanying articles about pregnancy, childbirth, or
postpartum sexual relations.  In this way, men are primarily shown
as husbands not fathers, associated with their wives instead of their
children.  Men fade from view altogether as magazines embrace
topics concerning childrearing practices, household maintenance, and
self preservation (that is, articles about fashion, exercise, cosmetics,
or domestic survival skills).
        The world of childbirth and parenting magazines is
overwhelmingly white.  Fair-haired Anglo babies gambol across the
pages of article after article, ad after ad.  A sprinkling of Asian,
African American, and Latino children signals the existence of a non-
Anglo middle class population.  When children of color do appear
they symbolize multiple races and ethnicities simultaneously through
their ambiguous identity.  All of the babies and children on these
pages have extremely light skin; they can interchangeably represent
African American, Latino, Mediterranean, Native American or Middle
Eastern populations.  This polysemy accomplishes two tasks: First,
magazines require fewer images of children of color to
simultaneously represent a variety of communities, and second, the
light skinned children presented in these pages more easily blend
into the white terrain, diminishing their claim on the reader's
attention.  Non-Anglo mothers are seldom seen.  When they do
appear, in almost all cases they too have light brown skin; non-Anglo
fathers are virtually non-existent.
        In these pages, mothers and children pose and do little more.
Pictures that show women working rarely appear.  Articles
instructing women on bathing their infants or breastfeeding show
them engaged in a task.  Ads for strollers may show women pushing
them (or they may simply stand alongside them, posing like a man
with his new car, a genre found in many family photo albums).
Women occasionally appear reading to their children or playing with
them.  Women themselves are depicted reading while their infants
sit pacified in a mechanical swing.  No one tires, no one sweats, no
one frets.  Motherhood is presented as a series of appealing
        Images of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering presented to
women through mass circulation magazines offer a mythological
representation far removed from everyday life.  They depict a
narrowly circumscribed world of Anglo nuclear families aglow with
happiness and plenty.  Framed as informative resources for women,
they serve most effectively as training manuals in the practice of
purchasing goods and services.  Heeded well, they offer the promise
of fulfillment they so relentlessly represent.
        Ewen persuasively argues that industrialization wrested the
wife's productive role from her and transformed her into a domestic
manager whose primary responsibility was to marshal family
consumption of mass produced goods.4  This extended to her
performance as a mother:

        Even in the area of motherhood, women were told to rely on
the guidance provided by ads and other corporate agencies of
information.  Motherhood had become a profession sustained by
industrial production.  Women were told of dangers in their homes,
to their children, and told of commodity solutions.5

        Contemporary publications continue to provide that guidance.
Through advertising and editorial copy, mothering magazines help to
inculcate an approach to domestic life that perpetuates industrial
capitalism by simultaneously promoting consumerism and offering
solutions to the problems it creates.
        Examining the media kits publishers prepare for potential
advertisers corroborates the motivations suggested by these
representations.  The Time Warner kit for publications in its
Parenting Group trumpets:

        More than 1.7 million women receive Baby on the Way early in
their pregnancies, before all the many purchases required for baby
have been made.

        Baby Talk reaches expectant and new mothers every month
through a targeted circulation system that ensures that readers
receive Baby Talk just as they're seeking information, forming brand
loyalties, deciding on purchases.  52% of the magazine's circulation is
via point-of-sale newsstand-type displays in the baby departments
of nearly 5,000 leading retail stores....This means your audience is
getting your message in the right place and at the perfect time--
when they're ready to buy.


        Everyone knows that parenting is a demanding job.  It's also
inspiring, challenging, enlightening, emotional and rewarding.
Because of all those things and more, today's parents need products
and services that respond to their changing needs.  As their family
grows, so does their need for new products and services.  And those
needs are growing by leaps and bounds.

        Likewise, competitor Cahners boasts:

        American Baby's circulation is concentrated in the key baby
product buying cycle: the last trimester of pregnancy through the
baby's first two years.

        Childbirth reaches expectant parents at the most critical time--
as they're about to form the brand loyalties that will influence
purchases for the next two years.  It's the time when the bulk of
baby product purchases are made.  And it's the time when parents
are more receptive to new information and products than they've
ever been before, and may ever be again.

        Our 3.2 million readers know they can trust First Year of Life.
It's why First Year of Life is preferred two-to-one over other
postnatal annuals.  And it's why you'll find new parents remarkably
receptive to the products showcased within it.

        That these and many other magazines targeting women (and
men) promote consumption seems unremarkable.  Yet several points
merit further note.  The strategy evinced in these representations
underscores John Berger's arguments regarding the methods and
consequences of advertising.6  These depictions of mothers suggest
very little of the actual labor involved, or the context in which that
labor takes place.  They present static idealizations that fail to
encompass the challenges contemporary mothers face.  Berger
suggests that publicity tends to be "retrospective and traditional"
because it "cannot itself supply the standards of its own claims."7
The images in childbirth and parenting magazines evoke the world
inhabited by Donna Reed or June Cleaver, images of perfection
familiar to baby boom mothers.
        Berger argues further:

        The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally
dissatisfied with his present way of life.  Not with the way of life of
society, but with his own within it.  It suggests that if he buys what
it is offering, his life will become better.  It offers him an improved
alternative to what he is.8

        Both publicity images and editorial illustrations in mothering
magazines offer readers fantasy.  Images of dual-parent families,
unhurried, and without want fail to ring true, yet hold out the
promise of fulfillment achieved through appropriate consumption.
The regular introduction of newer and better products to improve
women's lives continually defers satisfaction and insures perpetual
inadequacy, thus renewing the cycle.
        Publicity performs an important social function, according to
Berger, and my analysis leads to a similar conclusion.  He writes:

        Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.
The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of
significant political choice.  Publicity helps to mask and compensate
for all that is undemocratic within society.  And it also masks what is
happening in the rest of the world.9

        Magazine images of motherhood mask the everyday realities of
women's lives.  A brief survey of recent U.S. statistics makes the
fissure between image and reality clear.  Magazine media kits
emphasize the existence of an "echo boom" that has produced,
according to Time Warner, a "new mother market:"

        Every 21 months, this market totally recycles itself, with a
whole new crop of expectant and new mothers to step in and
purchase more and more products, year after year.  And since the
birthrate is projected to remain high well into the first decade of the
21st century, the new mother market will remain a powerful and
sizable purchasing force.

        Census data provides detail lacking in this pitch.  Fertility rates
reported for those from underrepresented groups were 95.2 per
1,000 Latina women and 69.2 for African American women,
compared to 61.6 for Anglo women.  While Latina women ages 15-44
represent 9% of all women in the United States, they accounted for
14.3% of all births.  Of the 35 million families with children in 1992,
nearly 30% were headed by a single parent; 86% of those single
parents were mothers.  In 1990 45% of female-headed families with
children lived in poverty.  In 1989, only 26% of custodial mothers
who were awarded child support received the full amount.  In 1993
57.9% of mothers with children under six worked outside of the
home, an increase of about 50% since 1975.  Of 59.8 million owner-
occupied housing units listed in the 1991 census, just under 90%
were owned by Anglos, 8% by African Americans, and 4% by Latinos.
Among the homeless population, families with children are estimated
at 36%.  The 1992 median state AFDC grant for a family of three fell
short of the monthly poverty threshold by more than $500.  Reports
of child abuse and child neglect have nearly tripled since 1980.10
        Some of these same statistics can be found in media kits, but
the magazine images presented to women readers are unresponsive
to the data.  Rather than deal with the real circumstances of women's
lives, the publications promote allegiance to a false, if appealing
ideal.  Except for Baby on the Way: Basics, these magazines target a
middle class readership primed and ready to make the purchases
considered necessary to childrearing.  The socialization middle class
women undergo shapes the experience of poor women as well, as the
undifferentiated imagery of Basics demonstrates.  For poor women,
domestic management and the consumption it dictates present
greater challenges; poor women's perceptions of their own
inadequacy may be more profound.
        Social statistics make it clear that capitalism has failed to
insure the well being of women and children.  The family wage
system engendered by industrialization maintained the supremacy of
the husband within the nuclear family, while cementing the wife's
dependency.11  That social and economic contract no longer holds,
and we have witnessed the "feminization of poverty."  Today, the gap
between those who can sufficiently provide for their families and
those who cannot continues to widen.  Most needy of all are women
and their children.  Childbirth and parenting magazines obscure
these statistics and the social consequences they portend.
        As a representative of the primary audience for whom these
messages are intended, I can testify to their seduction.  Like the first
time I discovered them in the obstetrician's waiting room, I eagerly
paged through all of the magazines I encountered during my recent
pregnancy.  I marveled at the improvements in products
manufactured since my first child's birth.  I bought some new stuff.
But the unsettling feeling I experienced twelve years ago has grown
to full blown nausea.  The more I have learned about motherhood
the less these messages charm.  The problems they mask have
multiplied, their reach has extended, and I know fantasy cannot
expunge reality.  As the emptiness of these images becomes
increasingly salient, they may provoke unexpected responses from
the women whose interests they undermine.

1 See Arnup, Katherine, Andree Levesque, and Ruth Roach Pierson,
eds. (1990)  Delivering Motherhood: Maternal Ideologies and
Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  London: Routledge; Bassin,
Donna, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, eds. (1994)
Representations of Motherhood.  New Haven: Yale University Press;
Glenn, Evelyn Nakano, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds.
(1994)  Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency.  London:
Routledge; Kaplan, E. Ann (1992)  Motherhood and Representation:
The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama.  London: Routledge;
Kaplan, Meryle Mahrer (1992)  Mothers' Images of Motherhood: Case
Studies of Twelve Mothers.  London: Routledge; Koven, Seth and
Sonya Michel, eds. (1993)  Mothers of a New World: Maternalist
Politics and the Origins of Welfare States.  London: Routledge; O'Barr,
Jean F., Deborah Pope, and Mary Wyer, eds. (1990)  Ties that Bind:
Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy.  Chicago: University of Chicago
Press; Phoenix, Ann, Anne Woollett, and Eva Lloyd, eds. (1991)
Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and Ideologies.  London: Sage;
Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen (1994)  Mother with Child: Transformations
through Childbirth.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Rich,
Adrienne Cecile (1986)  Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience
and Institution. New York: Norton; and Rothman, Barbara Katz (1989)
Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal
Society.  New York: Norton.
2 It may be worth noting that of the two versions, in 1993 only Baby
on the Way: Basics included an article on methods of birth control.
This disparity suggests the point of view that such information is
more urgently needed by economically or educationally
disadvantaged women than by their middle class counterparts in
order to slow the reproduction rate within underrepresented
3 Ewen, Stuart (1976)  Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and
the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture.  New York: McGraw-Hill.
4 Op. Cit.
5 Ewen, p. 169.
6 Berger, John (1972)  Ways of Seeing.  New York: Viking Press.
7 Berger, p. 139.
8 Berger, p. 142.
9 Berger , p. 149.
10 These data were compiled from the following sources: The
Universal Almanac, 1994 edition, and The State of America's
Children, the 1994 yearbook of the Children's Defense Fund.
11 Ehrenreich, Barbara (1983)  The Hearts of Men: American Dreams
and the Flight from Commitment. New York: Anchor.


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