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Dorothy Thomas   MA  fashion  journalism  dissertation.  December  2009.  London  College  of  Fashion   Bad  Mothers?  Representations  of  motherhood  in  women’s  magazines      

Conclusion As a mother you learn what it is to be both martyr and devil. (Cusk, R. 2003 [2001]: 8)

Looking at the representation of mothers in contemporary women’s magazines, it is not immediately apparent who is today’s typical mother. Mothers are more difficult to categorise than they were when their chief role was home-maker and carer.

As mothers have joined the paid workforce in increasing numbers over the past few decades and widened their sphere beyond the home, as celebrity mothers and yummy mummies have glamorised motherhood, and as older women have been able to bear children thanks to advances in science, mothers no longer fit within the editorial remit of popular women’s magazines.

Magazines often don’t pretend to address mothers at all, even if their readership comprises them: in interviews for this dissertation, Prima editor Maire Fahey talked of addressing ‘women rather than mothers’ (Fahey 24/9/09), while Psychologies editor and former editor of Good Housekeeping, Louise Chunn, was keen to promote GH as ‘being there for you, rather than going on about mothers.’ (Chunn, 22/10/09)

The mother represented in magazines has moved from being a visible presence as a housewife stereotype to a more subliminal presence as other socio-cultural constructs, be they yummy mummies, ‘stay-at-home’ mums or mothers who appear to have attained a work-life balance.

However, it is clear who is represented as a ‘bad’ mother. Mothers are held up against an unattainable, mythical ideal, and in both media and socio-cultural discourse, not living up to that ideal can mean you are perceived as a ‘bad mum’. Many of the mothers interviewed for this dissertation laughingly described themselves as ‘bad mums’ because they did not feel they were doing a good job if they had to work late or were tired and shouted at their children, or simply forgot their packed

lunch. They were joking, but comments like these show an awareness that to be less than perfect as a mother is not considered good enough.

The ‘bogey mum’? In media terms, ‘bad mum’ may encompass the spectrum of mothers who are regarded as putting their career or social life before their children, and those guilty of abuse or neglect, and there may be little differentiation used to describe the behaviour of mothers at either end of the spectrum. Sixty-six-year-old first time mother Elizabeth Adeney is described as ‘singularly selfish’ by columnist Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail (Platell, 21/5/09). A similar accusation is levelled at 22year-old mother of four, Rebecca Stevenson, who left her young children alone at home while she went out partying, and is reported as having ‘preferred to satisfy her own personal gratification rather than care for her children,’ in the Daily Telegraph. (Anon., 16/11/09)

Because the prevailing ideology is that mothers are expected to be beyond reproach, mothers who commit crimes are given disproportionately heavy coverage compared to criminal fathers. On an extreme level, the stories of Karen Matthews and Josef Fritzl, which commanded the headlines in 2008, reveal a double standard in the way in which a mother’s and father’s crimes are differently reported, yet similar language used to describe them. Matthews, a 33-year-old mother from West Yorkshire, falsified the abduction of her nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, in February 2008 to try to claim reward money for her ‘kidnap’. Shannon was found, physically unharmed, concealed under a bed in the home of Karen Matthews’s accomplice. Karen Matthews was described as ‘pure evil’ by the police officer who led the investigation. (Anon., 4/12/08)

Around the same time, Austrian Josef Fritzl, was accused, and subsequently found guilty, of imprisoning his daughter for 24 years, raping her and fathering seven children by her. Fritzl was also called ‘pure evil’ (Google search, 26/11/09) Some commentators wondered how the same words could be used to describe these different crimes. (Pitcher, 18/3/09). Each is abhorrent, and neither can be excused, but Matthews was revealed as delusional and inept, Fritzl unimaginably cruel and calculating. Yet ‘media hysteria’ surrounded Matthews’s case (Bowcott, 23/1/09) while the media sometimes appeared more concerned with the Austrian judicial system than with the horror of Fritzl’s crimes, as observed by journalist and human rights campaigner, Joyce McMillan. (McMillan, 21/3/09) As one mother put it, with reference to crimes perpetrated by mothers: ‘It’s considered infinitely more shocking if it’s a mother.’ (Catherine L., 60s, mother of one, London)

Still not ideal Real mothers do not match the stereotypical ideal, but, as has been examined in the research informing this dissertation, they are expected to. They must not rock the boat and trouble the benefits system if they are unable to find affordable childcare, nor complain if their employer does not allow them to work more flexibly to spend time with their children. They must not be too much older than the average age of a first time mother, nor single, nor too young. Just as women in general have impossible media ideals to which to aspire, so do mothers. However, mothers have the additional burden of dealing with headlines that blame them for any problems that arise with children, from delinquency to obesity, that have an impact on wider society, but that may be beyond the mother’s control. Women’s magazines sidestep issues such as this.

Louise Chunn, editor of Psychologies, believes ‘magazines should be an escape, a treat, not reminding mothers of everyday life’. (Chunn, 22/10/09)

Mothers may disagree: What frustrates me is that nothing about mums is ever looked at in depth in the magazines I see. You don’t need to be that media aware to realise that these stories about Katie Price or whoever, are just about making headlines and I think that’s doing damage to the way we look at ourselves, value ourselves as mums. I also think they [the media] play mums off against each other. We should be more supportive of each other instead of criticising working mums or stay-at-home mums or whatever. So yes, although I don’t pay that much attention to what’s in magazines, I do get annoyed with stuff on working v stay-at-home mums so what they’re [magazines] saying about us does matter. (Anna T., 38, mother of two)

What about dad? The role of fathers has not been addressed within the remit of this dissertation, but it is important to note its significance. Many fathers now play an increasingly active, ‘hands-on’ part in their children’s lives, one that is unrecognisable from the dad of the 1950s. A study of modern fatherhood in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published in September 2009, found that today’s dads want a better relationship with their kids than they had with their own fathers. (Hauari and Hollingworth 18/9/09).

Organisations such as the Fatherhood Institute campaign for legislation ‘to reinforce the changed role of fatherhood in the context of the modern family.’ (Carpenter, 17/6/05) Issues such as paternity rights, ‘stay-at-home’ dads, and child access

FQ, July/August 2009.

and contact rights for fathers separated from their partners continue to gain media coverage.

Dads are even addressed in their own glossy magazine Fathers’ Quarterly (pictured on previous page): ‘Targeting all fathers and men whose lives and perspective have changed as they’ve entered fatherhood.’ (, n/d) It includes features familiar to any man’s magazine: celebrities (dads in this case), parenting and relationships, shopping, finance, gadgets and motoring. There is no UK equivalent to FQ for mothers, and when mothers interviewed for this dissertation were asked whether they would be interested in a magazine for mums, most said that they wouldn’t. The reasons given included:

Any magazine that’s specifically for mums would be patronising and telling you what to do. (Katy T., 30s, mother of two)

A mums’ magazine? I can’t think of one that wouldn’t be about babies. It just says ‘mumsy”’to me. (Sally B., 43, mother of one, Leeds) I actually don’t think women want to read about mum stuff. Topics like juggling kids and work and what to do with feeding and sleeping patterns etc are done through word of mouth… or buy a mum and baby mag. For me personally, I want to escape, the further away from real life the better. (Landy S., 40s, mother of three, London) I don’t think I would buy a mag aimed at mums. I think women like to be identified as mothers when they first have kids and during the hard slog years when the children are small but as they grow up, I think you become interested in yourself again. It becomes possible to put yourself first a bit more often. Obviously you are changed and affected by the experience of motherhood but there comes a point when you don’t want to be defined by your children. (Jess D., mother of three)  

These mothers appear to associate the word ‘mum’ or ‘mother’ either as something old-fashioned and undesirable, or to do with things associated with children rather than them as women. Conversely, a magazine with the word ‘Father’ in the title appears to empower men who are fathers and successfully combines content on subjects related to being a father and general men’s interest. It is as if in magazine terms, you can be a man and a father, but either a woman or a mother.

One father interviewed for this dissertation believes that the FQ formula works because it has become fashionable to be a father: ‘After Beckham [England footballer, David Beckham, who FQ readers voted ‘Celebrity Dad of the Year’ in the winter 2009 issue] became a dad, being a dad became cool, he was someone loads of men wanted to be like and if he was a dad and looked like he was enjoying it, then it must be OK’. (Craig T., 44, father of two, London). Previous generations of mothers marvel at how ‘hands-on’ today’s fathers are:

I can’t believe how much the fathers do with their children now. It’s incredible to me. When I was bringing up my two [in the 1960s and 1970s], the mother did everything, all the housework, everything to do with the children, the shopping and cooking, getting up in the night if the children were sick, even if you worked part time, as I did. (Sylvia T., 74, mother of two, Wales)

There are mothers who may still feel that is a familiar scenario, and many who do the bulk of the work around the home as well as going out to work: ‘It is well known that in couples where both parents work full time, the mother generally does far more than her fair share of housework and childcare,’ comments Rachel Cusk in her book on motherhood, A Life’s Work (2003: 5). However, one mother interviewed for this dissertation believes it should be remembered that life is much improved for mothers now compared to 50 or even 30 years ago:

We have achieved so much, really. I know that there’s still lots wrong with life for mums like not enough affordable childcare and the whole idea that the kids are our job, but it is so much better for us than our mums. I mean at least dads will do stuff, even if you do have to ask them to do it, without batting an eyelid, not like our dads who didn’t go near a nappy. (Sally B., 43, mother of one, Leeds)

There is still a stigma attached to the father who cares for his children full time, as identified on the Dad at Home website: People will question why a man has taken on such a role […] and will jump to the conclusion that he does not have the earning power of his partner. Worse are those who believe [the stay-at-home dad] has sacrificed his self-esteem and any hope of a worthwhile career by being suckered into the role of staying at home to raise his children. (, n/d)

This stigma will persist as long as mothers are seen to be the carers and fathers the ‘breadwinners’. Director of the Demos independent think tank, Richard Reeves, said in a feature in The Observer in November 2009:

The real change needed now is in the lives of fathers. Men are more engaged in their children's lives than ever […] but their working patterns have not altered significantly. For women to have more equality at work, we need more equality at home. (Reeves, 8/11/09)

John Bull magazine, 17 October 1959. The Advertising Archives

Tomorrow’s mother As documented in this dissertation, motherhood has been changing rapidly over the past few decades, and magazines, previously designed for the traditional housewife and mother, struggle to represent the 21 st century model. As circulations

fall, and mothers increasingly turn to the internet for news, advice and support, magazines no longer play the same role in a mother’s life.

Younger mothers in particular favour the internet over magazines. Based on research by mums’ website,, when they do read magazines, they prefer the ‘quick read’ weekly celebrity magazines to the glossy monthlies (Bounty 1 and 2). The average mother, according to Bounty research is C1 demographic (Bounty 3), whereas the typical reader of a glossy monthly such as Red is AB1 (Red media pack 2009). Based on this demographic and reading preference, as they get older, these mothers are unlikely to switch to a more upmarket title, making these magazines more likely to represent an ever-narrower idea of motherhood.

Although the traditional family structure is still the most typical, more women are having babies than getting married, according to social trends research from 2009. (Office for National Statistics, 3) Women who are not married are more likely to have a child at a younger age than those who are married. (Dixon, 16/4/09) Research from parenting website,, suggests that Bounty members (who comprise nearly half of all UK women aged 18 to 34 – Bounty 6) appear to have started having children younger. (Bounty 7) These young mothers may have a different perception of motherhood than the previous generation, which will contribute to the changing nature of what it is to be a mother.

The increase in non-traditional family types such as the ‘blended’ family, families headed by single parents, and older mothers is likely to further weaken the position of women’s magazines as representative of today’s mother.

Ultimately, not until parenting is accepted and supported socio-culturally, politically and economically as a responsibility to be shared, will mothers and motherhood have the chance of being better represented in their diversity. Maybe then mothers will no longer be, as Friedan expressed it, ‘confined to their biological role.’ (Friedan, 1972 (1963): 33)

6 Dorothy Thomas, MA dissertation, conclusion  

subliminal presence as other socio-cultural constructs, be they yummy mummies, ‘stay-at-home’ mums or mothers who you, rather than going on...

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