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.