Representations of Motherhood

Emily Belle

Class Summary

Motherhood is represented in a diverse spectrum of ways across different media types, and again in a multitude of ways within each form of media. The hardest part about pinning down one overarching representation of motherhood is that its virtually impossible, all mothers are different. Each mother has her own strengths and weaknesses, and learns how to parent in her own unique way. However, despite the overwhelming possibilities of individual differences and circumstances that come along with having children, there are a few unifying concepts about motherhood that could be considered virtually universal. The first is that all mothers, despite the difficulty of their circumstances, are doing the best that they can to provide a good life for her children. Whether this means working multiple jobs, showing up to every soccer game, or helping with homework, mothers will do as much as they can to better the lives of their children. The second is that regardless of what we think during our teenage years, our mothers truly love and want the best for us. A mother’s love for her children is something that can cross all barriers, languages, and distances. The third is that all mothers are ultimately human, just like the rest of us. Despite the fact that many of us believe our mothers to be almost supernatural, they all make mistakes and are not perfect one hundred percent of the time. Over the course of this class, we have seen everything from the most positive to the most negative portrayals of motherhood, proving that it is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, and perhaps one of the most overlooked. As the semester comes to a close I am left with only a slight inkling of how hard it would be to be a mother, and a immense amount of gratitude for what my own mom has done for me.

Motherhood in Novels

Motherhood in all novels would be virtually impossible to summarize, so I will focus on motherhood within The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. This novel represents mothers in an almost overly honest way. The relationship between Siddalee and her mother Viviane Walker is strained to say the least. They fight with each other, often refusing to speak or hear the other out. As the novel progresses, Sidda learns about her mothers past, and in doing so, comes to understand and appreciate her mother as a person, rather than focusing on her mistakes as a mother. Viviane has been through a lot, and when Sidda recognizes this they are able to reconnect and recognize their love for each other.
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Motherhood in Children & Teens Fiction

Mothers are represented in a purely positive fashion within children’s literature. These books often focus on the more stereotypical characteristics of mothers as caretakers. They feature moms putting their kids to sleep, helping them get dressed, or feeding them dinner. Mothers tell their children how much they love them through these normal, routine actions, creating a recurring theme of a mother’s deep love for her children across youth literature. Teen fiction features two main types of mothers: the strong, independent, sometimes overpowering type, and the meek, child-like, passive type. Because most of teen fiction features adolescents as characters, the mother-child relationships are relate-able to the audience.

Motherhood in the Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique was the first time a woman spoke out about the truths of being a housewife in 1950’s America. Much of the definition of housewife at the time overlapped with the definition of motherhood. Women were expected to get married, bear children, keep a tidy house, and never question this as their destiny. The Feminine Mystique reveals the inner feelings of inadequacy and in-completion that many mothers were experiencing in solitude, allowing for a larger discussion of women’s role within the home. This illusion of the perfect housewife and mother who is perfectly satisfied in cleaning, cooking, and care taking was shattered with the publication of the book. Mothers around the country were able to feel understood for the first time in their lives. This revelation allowed for the evolution of mothers into other roles outside the home, and within the workplace, university, and community.
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question-- 'Is this all?”
― Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Motherhood in Magazines

The portrayal of motherhood in magazines has reflected gender roles across time. In the early 60’s women were just beginning to be seen in roles outside of the household thanks to the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Up until this point women’s magazines had generally only contained articles concerning cooking, cleaning, beauty, and fashion. As gender roles began to shift and come into the forefront of discussions across the country, women’s magazines followed that trend. They began to feature articles about health, parenting, and world issues. Although they still featured the more traditional articles, this step into featuring world issues and intellectual content was huge as far as opening up the world outside the home to women.
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Motherhood in Films

For the motherhood in film assignment I watched Mary Poppins. Since the children’s biological mother is not featured in a great deal of the movie, Mary Poppins fills the traditional mother role for Michael and Jane. She cooks for them, helps them with their school work, and tucks them in at night. She teaches them valuable lessons about life like, “just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Mary also teaches the children about right and wrong. She is portrayed as loving and caring, but tough and holds high expectations. Mary is seemingly always in control and quite literally has an endless bag of tricks to help her with the children. She makes motherhood look organized and neat, and reinforces the value of family.
Mary Poppins - A Spoonful Of Sugar (from "Mary Poppins")

Motherhood in Disney Films

Mothers are often absent in Disney films, especially the classic animated films that most of us watched as children. Many mothers have died in a tragic accident before the film even began, or die early on in the plot of the movie. When mothers figures are featured they are usually portrayed as evil, overprotective and controlling, or slightly crazy. The evil step mothers in stories like Cinderella or Snow White are good examples of this. In Sleeping Beauty, even though the mother is alive and even shown on screen, there is little to no mention of her at any point in the story that is separate from her husband. The lack of mothers significance in Disney films allows for the main character to develop more fully, since many of the movies are shorter in length.

Motherhood in Television

Mothers in television have changed immensely over time. When television was just beginning moms were portrayed as the home maker and housewife, like Carol Brady and Lucille Ball. Now, moms are often used for comic relief in television shows. Moms like Kitty from “That 70’s Show” and Laurelai from “Gilmore Girls”, provide a glimpse into the ups and downs of being a mother, while adding a tone of humor to the ‘downs’ of life. Although most television mothers have some type of maternal instinct, there are a few cases when the irresponsible, partying mother is featured, often in cartoons.

Motherhood in the News

The news paints two very different pictures of mothers that stand in complete opposition to one another. News about moms comes in two forms. The first is an overt, tear-jerking appreciation story of a mothers love, overcoming illness, protecting a child, or performing some type of heroic act. The second, is the polar opposite; moms killing their own children, locking them in their rooms for weeks, refusing to feed their children properly. However these polarized views of motherhood reflect a pattern that is present in the news in general. People either want to hear the best news or the worst news, and there is no in between. The portrayal of motherhood here reflects this trend.

Motherhood in Advertising

Motherhood in advertising is portrayed in a few different ways. Ads that feature mothers are often created for special occasions- mothers day, Christmas, Easter. These ads often portray mothers in a traditional sense, with their family, making dinner, taking care of children. On the other hand, there are some advertisements that are created for special events like the Super Bowl, Olympics, and other major sporting events, and these ads portray mothers in a heroic way. They are the foundation that builds great athletes and competitors, and these ads often say thank you for all that the moms do for their children.
Olympics P&G - Thank You Mom Commercial

Motherhood in Music

Mentions of motherhood in traditional popular music are few and far between. Other than children’s songs or lullabys music generally does not feature mother as much of a theme. The songs that do sing about motherhood are usually in two forms; either very sincere, or comedic. Sincere songs usually give thanks to the singer or songwriter’s mother, honors her memory if she has passed, or speak about the strength of mothers in general. More comedic songs often talk about moms before they had children or moms in situations that are not typically part of the role of parent. There are almost no mentions of bad mothers in music, the portrayal here is overwhelmingly positive.


The survey portion of this course allowed us to ask real mothers questions about how motherhood was represented across all of these categories above. The largest lesson that I took away from the survey responses was that there is almost nothing that can truly represent motherhood in any medium. Motherhood is something that is not only different for everyone, but also hard to articulate. It is more than a full time job, and the only way that someone can truly understand motherhood is to experience it for themselves. It is simultaneously the most frustrating and rewarding experience, and the ups and downs are never ending. Most of the moms seem to genuinely love their role as mother however they choose to express it.