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Soccer Mom Hate

The disdain toward motherhood is the logical extension of misogyny

Photo by Seb [ P34K ] Hamel on Unsplash

“There was no mother I wanted to be,” writes Meaghan O’Connell in her parenting memoir, And Now We Have Everything.

A mom was your servant. A mom picked up the wrong things at the supermarket. A mom needed to stop and get stamps on the way home from soccer practice and you hated her for it. A mom wore a white, collared shirt and stood at the kitchen island selling cereal in television commercials. Moms clustered on benches in the playground pulling snacks out of their bags. They took up the whole sidewalk with their goddamn strollers. Moms nagged. Moms were stressed out.

Try it yourself, and your own list will fill in pretty quickly: Moms are square, moms are sentimental. Moms are smug. Moms post 15 baby pictures an hour on Facebook. Moms use Pinterest like they’re painting the Sistine Chapel. Moms plan a child’s birthday party like it’s the Academy Awards. Moms wear a pussyhat and attend one march and call it radical activism. Moms drink wine and make bad puns and call it a personality.

Moms age and gain weight, and unlike the “dad bod,” this isn’t attractive. Moms overinvest in their children, talk too much about them, think too much about them, and unlike involved dads, who are admirable… look, moms are just worse than dads, okay?

In 1996, the New York Times proclaimed the rise of a new kind of woman. A woman who “turned up where she was expected,” at “the sidelines of her children’s games.” A woman who wore Keds and drove minivans. A woman who “at her most flashy might be found in a television commercial, peddling an improved brand of tuna fish.” A woman who, according to the Times, “wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘I don’t have a life. My kids play soccer.’”

It’s odd to consider, especially if your own mother is of less recent vintage. But 1996 may go down in history as the year we invented Mom. Or Soccer Mom, anyway.

The soccer mom was an explicitly political creation — a supposed swing voter in the 1996 election. The Times published at least four articles on soccer moms in 1996 alone. The Boston Globe declared it “The Year of the Soccer Mom.” The Associated Press named her a top trend of the year. Slate’s #slatepitch was that swing-vote soccer moms did not exist.

1996 may go down in history as the year we invented Mom.

They don’t. Suburban white mothers tend to vote the same way as their suburban white husbands do, which is to say, they’re Republicans. But if the soccer mom as swing vote was overhyped, the soccer mom as phenomenon was just beginning.

In the Times, soccer moms were formerly ambitious working women who “have kicked off their high heels and replaced them with Keds.” In another ’96 description quoted by Slate, she’s a “well-heeled superparent whose primary mission in life is to do too much for her children.” This woman — simultaneously overambitious and unambitious, overprivileged and overworked — has been our predominant cultural image of motherhood, and our favorite punching bag, for the past 20 years.

“I definitely felt an intense desire to be a ‘cool mom,’ by which I meant a version of a mother that was acceptable to my childless friends,” journalist Anne Theriault says. “I remember having these very serious conversations about how motherhood wasn’t going to ‘change’ me, and that I was still going to be a cool, fun person who had an active social life. I made a lot of snide remarks about ‘those moms’ who ‘lose themselves’ in motherhood and are ‘too obsessed’ with their kids.”

Nearly every woman I spoke to mentioned this — the overwhelming pressure not to be Those Moms, to maintain the same social persona they had before the baby. If they didn’t fear it for themselves, other women feared it for them.

“I think a lot of people I knew wondered aloud if I would lose my spark, so to speak, when I became a mom,” says Lesley Bunnell, who works as a grant writer and fundraiser at a nonprofit. “I think it sorta attaches to how women who are moms are either portrayed or perceived — boring, self-absorbed, and/or dour, I guess?”

The soccer mom may never have existed, but she felt true. Her image summed up qualities that sexism had always attributed to women — vapidity, conventionality, a tendency to lose any shred of sex appeal after the age of 30 — and endowed them with a satisfying specificity, cramming everything that was wrong with womankind into a Dodge Caravan and a pair of high-waisted jeans.

Over the years, we’ve added updates to the “_________ Mom” formulation. Obsessive “Pinterest moms” do too much crafting and overplan family events. Neglectful “wine moms” are too busy boozing it up in their sweatpants or getting hot to Magic Mike to pay attention to their children. It can seem as if there’s no way to avoid falling into at least one of these stereotypes. The Pinterest mom is obsessed with her children; the wine mom ignores them. The Pinterest mom is desexualized, and the wine mom has the gall to think she’s still sexy. Women are always too much like their pre-baby selves or not enough like them, doing too much mothering or too little.

And if the soccer mom is cruel to those who fit the stereotype, she’s worse for everyone else. Black women, Bunnell reminds me, contend with a whole other set of stereotypes about their mothering style.

“You’re not just dealing with someone making assumptions about your mothering because you’re a woman—it’s because you’re a Black woman,” she writes. “People wonder how you feed your children, how you live, where you live, who the father is, are you with the father, are you on SNAP or WIC benefits, do you know how to breastfeed, are you working, do you even have a good job, who takes care of your child… like, it is endless.”

Women are always too much like their pre-baby selves or not enough like them, doing too much mothering or too little.

The price of imperfect motherhood is sky-high. Multiple women I spoke to mentioned being stopped and questioned by strangers for their parenting choices, or publicly shamed. Other women, nearly all single mothers of color, have had their children taken away for leaving them alone during job interviews, for letting them play alone in a public park, for failing to prevent minor bumps and scrapes (like “Mercedes,” a mother whose 11-month-old pulled a hot curling iron off the counter while her back was turned), or for simply not being able to watch them every second, like a case where a five-year-old snuck out of bed and walked across the street to her grandmother’s house while her mother was taking a bath.

If Mom seems obsessive about parenting, or driven by a compulsion to look Pinterest-perfect at all times, or just plain tired, well, Mom has reasons. Though we may swear we won’t be Those Moms, we don’t live in a society that provides many other options.

And now, the shrinking brains. The absurdity was described by a commodity trader, interviewed by the New York Times in June, who had glowing performance reviews until she announced her first pregnancy. At that point, her male colleagues started circulating articles around the office about pregnancy-induced brain changes.

“It was like they assumed my brain had totally changed overnight,” she said. “I was seen as having no more potential.”

Pregnant people do experience brain changes, but research indicates that maternal brains actually become “more efficient” and better at certain cognitive tasks. Either way, it’s a minor adjustment, not Flowers for Algernon. But the assumption that women “lose themselves” in motherhood, becoming duller or less ambitious the moment a baby enters the picture, has material consequences.

That same Times report found that the biggest U.S. companies “systematically sideline pregnant women.” Women are laid off or have the brakes put on once-promising careers. The gender wage gap is a product of motherhood: While child-free women experience a slight disadvantage and new fathers get an income boost, mothers incur a huge hit to their earnings potential with their first child.

This doesn’t mean child-free women are safe. Employers often refuse to hire or promote women they suspect of wanting to become pregnant. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch allegedly warned his law students that women apply for jobs at law firms to scam them out of maternity benefits; he denied the claim but would not say whether he thought employers should be able to ask female job candidates about their pregnancy plans.

We pour contempt on women for being too committed to their roles as mothers, but we don’t seem to think they should be able to fill any other roles. Mothers are steadily edged out of the public sphere — through workplace discrimination, through a lack of affordable daycare options, through shame — even as we condemn them for not doing something more serious with their lives.

Elizabeth Seward, who performs as Collapsi, is one of my oldest friends. When we were in our twenties, she was the glamorous one of our group — she’d gone on tour with her band and done drugs you’d never heard of and rejected labels that wanted to tone down her art. She’d casually pick up modeling gigs. Random rock stars would just turn out to be in her apartment, like, happy craft day! Here’s that guy! That kind of friend.

Then she got pregnant. Early in her pregnancy, Elizabeth collapsed with severe abdominal pain. Doctors found a three-pound ovarian tumor. The tumor could not be biopsied for cancer unless it was removed, and it could not be removed without a risk of miscarriage. Elizabeth kept the tumor. She was put on bed rest and — though she was adamant about trying for vaginal childbirth — was ultimately given a C-section. The epidural never completely took. Elizabeth had nightmares and flashbacks to the birth for a year before figuring out she had PTSD.

For a long time, there were no concerts.

“My comfort level with public performance had always been tied into my comfort level with my physical appearance, and I just straight-up didn’t like how I looked or felt in my postpartum body,” Elizabeth wrote me from her new home in Portland. “Music is especially intertwined with coolness for a lot of people, and not only did I not feel cool at all, I felt like I was barely keeping anything together.”

Elizabeth still wrote, she says, but because of the PTSD, “I’d become jittery around people and couldn’t imagine myself on stage.” Getting married and starting a family had changed how people treated her, particularly men: “Am I not interesting now that I’m wearing a ring? Or is it that I was never interesting? My neurosis kind of took hold for a while.”

Glamour seemed irrelevant. And, to be fair, being stereotyped — caught up in the world’s general contempt for moms’ uncoolness and lack of sexual availability — did too.

Motherhood does change women.

“I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time even thinking about moms,” Elizabeth told me. “When I thought of what motherhood looked like at that point in time, I think it was just this blurry image of exhaustion and stress. And honestly, I think that blurry image — that stereotype of a frazzled person who’s lost herself amid the chaos of pregnancy, birth, and child rearing — I think it was correct when I pair it with my experience.”

Motherhood does change women. And some women, yes, experience that change as a felt loss of coolness or sexiness or ambition, at least for a while. But those transformations often stem from harrowing experiences that we’ve lacked the empathy to investigate. Mothers are people, often very cool people, who have valid concerns that extend beyond whether they seem fun or fuckable. While we complain about what mothers do, or look like, we neglect to ask what they feel, or need.

“The mother is hopelessly female, isn’t she?” Meaghan O’Connell writes to me in an email. “Motherhood is a real nightmare of gender essentialism. I think pregnancy and then childbirth and new motherhood is for many women a radicalizing experience, seeing politics played out in their body, experiencing a real felt loss of autonomy maybe, if they’re lucky, for the first time in their lives.”

There is no separating the mom from politics. To conservatives, she signifies liberal softness: Men grumble about “left-wing soccer moms and gender-neutral dads who are afraid of guns,” or grudgingly accept Ivanka Trump’s family leave plan because “it gets soccer moms to stop voting Democrat.” On the left, she’s the face of centrist complacency: Hillary Clinton is a “wine mom,” or, derogatorily, “Mother,” and the attendees at the Women’s March were “soccer mom centrists.”

In that 1996 analysis of the soccer mom, the Times quotes a man named Warren T. Farrell, an “expert on gender politics.”

“Soccer mom is a bad label,” he says. “A better label would be the Potentially Rejected Moms or the ‘First Wives’ Moms. When she begins to fear the end of her marriage or it does end, she begins to look to the government to become a substitute husband. The Democrats play the role of the government as substitute husband better than the Republicans.’’

Farrell is the author of a book called The Myth of Male Power — which, for those unfamiliar, is the founding document of the Men’s rights movement and the militantly anti-feminist Red Pill community it has pawned. The relationship of soccer mom stereotypes to misogyny has never been subtle. From the beginning, a certain sort of man has always had a vested interest in blaming Mom.

“Mom” doesn’t really hold together as a political identity. But mothering, nonetheless, is a politicized one; a mother is valued or devalued depending on how we see her role in the culture. In turning away from the uncool mom, we also tune out her unpaid labor and the toll it takes on the women who do it: “In order for me to grow up and have the privilege of not wanting her life,” O’Connell says, “my mother had to do decades of thankless daily caregiving work.”

In her domesticity, her segregation from the public sphere, her enforced tenderness and uselessness, the mother is a figure through which we vent our frustrations and contempt for femininity itself. Whether we can stop hating mothers depends on an old question: Can we see and value the unpaid, untaught, female work of love?

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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