Are Babies the New Hot Accessory?
The recent spate of books on motherhood, magazine covers with celebrity moms and popular television shows about housewives seems to be embracing motherhood, showing it to be hip.
This new image of motherhood, which appears aimed primarily at affluent moms, is characterized by chic maternity clothes, innovative and expensive baby products, such as the $700 Bugaboo stroller, the style-savvy web site UrbanBaby.com, and "hip hotels with a kid-friendly vibe," as written about recently in The New York Times.
"When the beautiful people embrace parenting, it becomes sexy," mom Jana Platina-Phipps says, referring to actresses and magazine cover models Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brooke Shields.
Moms even have the attention of television. Gone is Sex and the City about four single girlfriends in New York. This season's big hit is the dramatic series Desperate Housewives, while two different networks each have shows about wives who swap places and nannies who tame unruly children.
But as mainstream media put a new gloss on motherhood, moms and other observers point out that the underlying conditions of mothering in America have not undergone any substantial change. Real mothers are still worn out by broken sleep, worries about how to split their time between paying work and child-rearing and what to do about child care.
"We still have many policies that are counter to motherhood and need to be improved in order to make motherhood something that's manageable for women at all different income levels," says Avis Jones-DeWeever, a study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.
Jones-DeWeever points to the lack of maternity leave and flexible schedules for many working moms, including some Washington mothers featured in an upcoming report from the institute who have needed to rely on federally-subsidized child support (welfare) as a form of maternity leave.
Not a 'Liberation Moment'
"I don't feel like it's such a liberation moment," says Ariel Gore, who founded hipMama, a print zine and web site, as her senior project 10 years ago when she was a 23-year-old single mom struggling to finish college.
Back then, being a young single mom was "such an anti-hipster thing," Gore says. While her friends were going out after class, she was rushing home to relieve the babysitter. That is why, with her tongue in cheek, she named her zine hipMama, then took on serious issues such as child support, family leave, domestic violence and public education.
"When I see pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, I think that's chic and hip for them," says Amy Harte, 38, the mother of a 3-year-old boy and a 4-month-old girl, living in the suburbs outside New York City. "My personal experience is that it's not chic or fashionable. It's absolutely the best thing you can do, but it ain't pretty. There are some beautiful moments and a lot of hard stuff in between."
"I think this hipness is a creation of Madison Avenue," says Jones-DeWeever. "It's hip for affluent mothers."
But motherhood's image makeover also extends to less affluent moms, who can buy designer maternity clothes at the discount store Target. And it crosses racial lines as well. Black publications Jet and Ebony have recently featured articles about black celebrity moms and black mothers choosing to stay home.
'Is it All Just Marketing?'
"Has motherhood become hip or is it all just marketing?" wonders writer Amy Sohn, who addressed the subject recently in her Mating column for New York magazine.
"As women are having babies later, all these companies have realized that these people want to spend money on their kids," she says. "And these companies are there to cater to them."
According to the latest Census report, the average age of women who gave birth for the first time was 25 years old, a record high. And, of the 4 million women who have babies each year, more than 100,000 are 40 years and older.
"Are we just doing the hip mom thing in order to round up an audience to sell minivans to," Gore asks, "to make you feel like you have to buy a lot of stuff? 'No, you're not washed up. We've got some really cute bags for you. You don't have to lose your Sex-and-the-City edge.'"
Platina-Phipps, 37, who owns a design and branding studio in New York City, admits that she fears losing her edge now that she's the mother of 17-month-old Giovanna. "I almost want to act out being hip now because I don't want to look like a mom," she says. "I just cut my bangs super short and started wearing dark lipstick to combat the dark circles under my eyes."
But she would rather be called a "creatively conscientious mother," she says. "In reality what I am is a mother who juggles a lot of different things and I try to have fun doing it."
For her, the upside to this new image of motherhood is that women of her generation seem to be freer from the old social strictures about motherhood. For example, she says a lot of her friends, once working full-time pursuing business careers, have chosen to scale back work to spend more time parenting. And although Platina-Phipps works full-time, she takes her daughter with her on business trips.
Harte, the co-owner of a graphic and web design studio who works from home, agrees. "It does seem like there is a real focus on the family," she says.
But Jones-DeWeever is quick to point out that with the country's current conservative swing and President Bush's agenda to promote marriage, only a certain kind of motherhood is considered hip and fashionable. Women who are poor or chose to become mothers outside of marriage or in same sex relationships are still subject to moralistic overtones.
"I think it's important that we embrace motherhood in the variety of different forms that it takes," she says.