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“Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies”: Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative Mothering in Mommy Blogs

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Abstract

The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative mothering. Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has previously described antagonisms between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and practices. In this article, we engaged in a feminist critique to identify how 30 mommy bloggers make sense of the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy wars. This sensemaking, we contend, lends important critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sustaining , and ultimately resolving the mommy wars.
Communication Culture & Critique ISSN 1753-9129
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Welcome to the Mommy Wars, Ladies:
Making Sense of the Ideology of Combative
Mothering in Mommy Blogs
Jenna Abetz
1
& Julia Moore
2
1 Department of Communication, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC 29414, USA
2 Department of Communication, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA
The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers, espe-
cially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed combative
mothering. Combative mothering manifests discursively through the metaphor of the
mommy wars, which has previously described antagonisms between working and stay-
at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to describe animus between myriad par-
enting philosophies and practices. In this article, we engaged in a feminist critique to
identify how 30 mommy bloggers make sense of the origins of, and solutions to, the
mommy wars. This sensemaking, we contend, lends important critical insight into pow-
erful cultural constructions of individual mothers as responsible for the creating, sus-
taining, and ultimately resolving the mommy wars.
Keywords: Combative Mothering, Ideology, Mommy Blogs, Mommy Wars, Motherhood.
doi:10.1093/ccc/tcy008
Mothers in the United States are currently navigating an epoch of unsettled moth-
ering(Macdonald, 2009, p. 413), where mothering ideologies have multiplied and
solidied. Since the late 1980s, the metaphor of the mommy wars has described the
Tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths:
going to work, or staying home to care for their kids(Darnton, 1990, para. 1). This
opposition between stay-at-home and working mothers positions mothers into two
antagonistic and isolated categories (Douglas & Michaels, 2004) and overlooks
mothers who work part-time or who shift in and out of the paid workforce
(Peskowitz, 2005). The mommy warsmetaphor has since evolved to refer to an
expanded set of rivalries between mothering philosophies and practices, and is
undergirded by the ideology of combative mothering, which mandates that mothers
be in constant competition with one another to be the best mother (Milkie, Pepin,
Corresponding author: Jenna Abetz; e-mail: abetzjs@cofc.edu
265Communication Culture & Critique 11 (2018) 265281 © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on
behalf of International Communication Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.
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& Denny, 2016;Moore & Abetz, 2016). Now more than ever before, mothers appear
to be fragmented into smaller and smaller camps, often defending their own parent-
ing choices as best for their children. Social media have provided mothers with
more opportunities than ever before to voice their lived experiences of motherhood
and dialogue about what constitutes ideal mothering.
Mommy blogs, in particular, provide a forum for mothers to contemplate and
reect upon the cultural conditions of motherhood and their own interactions with
other mothers. Given the prominence of the mommy wars in U.S. culture, and its
relevance to both the institution of motherhood and the practices of mothering, we
analyze blog posts about competition between mothers. Specically, we critique
how 30 mommy bloggers describe the mommy wars, explain the origins of the
mommy wars, and oer resolutions to the mommy wars. We elaborate upon how
the ideology of combative mothering structures most bloggerscontemplations.
Ultimately, this online communication about the metaphor constrains possibilities
for better and less antagonistic relationships due to the neoliberal and patriarchal
legacies imbued in combative mothering.
Moms online
Since the 1990s, mothers have used the Internet to communicate with one another
across time and space about their experiences of having and raising children.
Mothersuse of the Internet as an organizing tool (Dasgupta & Dasgupta, 2011),
important source of health information (Wigginton, Gartner, & Rowlands, 2017),
and form of social support (Johnson, 2015) illuminates the ways in which web tech-
nologies have opened the door, just a crack, to new ways of being a mom
(Samuel, 2011, p. xiv). Indeed, the Internets potential as a site of connection and
empowerment as well as shame and judgment suggests that motherhood in online
contexts is complex and multifaceted, thereby necessitating the need to resist mono-
lithic understandings of the experience of mothering in a digital world.
Digitally networked communication
The Internet aords constant, connected communication and personalization in
ways that were not possible in the past (Wellman et al., 2003). Digitally networked
communication, with its participatory potential, promised freedom from hierarchi-
cal and unidirectional mass media in favor of horizontal and deterritorial many-to-
many patterns of information ows (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). Early theorizations
of the Internet espoused a democratizing vision for the medium, where a person
could easily create content and be exposed to a plurality of ideas in the public
sphere, free from gender, race, and class markers (Crawford, 2002;Dahlberg, 1998).
Although networked communication has enabled large-scale activist organizing and
activism (Castells, 2015;Pal & Dutta, 2012), and people can learn far more than
they could before, and they can learn it much faster(Sunstein, 2008, p. 93), digi-
tally networked communication does not necessarily lead to better democratic
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participation or more exposure to diering ideas, due to market colonization, state
censorship, elite appropriation, social control by citizens, and anti-democratic
voices (Cammaerts, 2008).
Further, individuals often self-select their exposure to media content (Kim,
2016). This ability to lter and personalize enables individuals with shared interests,
experiences, and identities to gather across time and space (Fullerton & Rarey, 2012;
Moore, 2014). However, this personalization has also been critiqued for creating
niches that serve as homogenous echo chambers that are hostile to opposing ideas,
resulting in ideological balkanization (Sunstein, 2008). For example, participation in
radical ideological online communities, such as neo-Nazi forums, can intensify
extremism (Wojcieszak, 2010). In practice, the potentiality of digital communica-
tion lies somewhere in-between full democratic participation and total fragmenta-
tion, where the Internet aords possibilities that are realized within complex
systems of individual, relational, and structural constraints. One such context
includes blogs about motherhood.
Mommy blogs
Blogs about motherhood, often termed mommy blogswithin the mamasphere,
chronicle the lives of mothers as they raise their children. The journaling and story-
telling that occurs on mommy blogs is sometimes antithetical to the intensive moth-
ering ideal of the good motherthat mass media often presents (Barak-Brandes,
2017). Whereas parents have long used websites and online discussion forums to
seek information, advice, and support (Lupton, Pedersen, & Thomas, 2016),
mothers often blog to specically enhance psychological well-being through con-
necting with others, seeking mental stimulation, enhancing self-validation, contrib-
uting to the welfare of others, and enhancing their skills and abilities (Pettigrew,
Archer, & Harrigan, 2016). Motivations for blogging interrelate with personal iden-
tity, community participation, social support, and relationship formation online
(Webb & Lee, 2011). Mommy blogging provides mothers with a forum to share
their trials and tribulations of motherhood, and connect with other mothers across
time and space.
Scholars have lauded mommy blogging as a resistant practice (Lopez, 2009;
Powell, 2010). Mommy blogging has been called a radical actthat collapses public
and private spheres voicing private struggles of motherhood in the public, where
exposure of the ugly side of motherhood has the potential to be liberating and ben-
ecial for all women(Lopez, 2009, p. 744). The act of blogging therefore provides
mothers a space in which to resist the good motherbad mother dichotomy and cre-
ate new subjectivities (Powell, 2010). Although blogging can be liberatory, it also
has the potential to constrain identities and practices. Mommy blogs are sites of
social surveillance, where readers judge the intimate details of bloggerslives, as well
as sites of digital memory, where readers nd solidarity (Orton-Johnson, 2017). The
term mommy bloggeritself is not neutral, and although the term carries
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marketing value, it may oer limited agency by locking mothers into the nurturing
prototype signied in the word mommy(Chen, 2013).
The emancipatory potential of mommy blogging may be further diluted through
the monetization of blogs. Although advertising on blogs can viewed as entrepre-
neurialand therefore a step forward for mothers, this has resulted in backlash
against mommy bloggers (Lopez, 2009). Adding advertisements to blogs, selling
products, and curating content can result in a loss of authenticity, which dampens
the possibilities for building community (Hunter, 2016). As blogs become more
commercialized, visitors can be interpreted more as audience members who are wit-
nessing performances of aspirational motherhood rather than community members
who share in the gritty experiences of motherhood (Hunter, 2016). The monetiza-
tion of blogs, then, contradicts the democratizing potential of blogging, as mother-
ing ideologies enable and constrain digital communication about motherhood.
Making sense of mothering ideologies
Multiple mothering ideologies have been identied in the literature, including inten-
sive mothering (Hays, 1996), competitive mothering (Tronto, 2001), combative
mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016), and integrated motherhood (Dow, 2016).
Intensive mothering is often regarded as the dominant mothering ideology that
denes what a good motherought to be in the United States since World War II
(Hays, 1996). Intensive mothering demands child-centered and expert-guided child-
rearing, along with complete devotion to childrens desires in terms of labor, emo-
tion, and nances (Hays, 1996). Although Hays wrote that intensive mothering is in
contradiction with the ethic of neoliberal competition in the United States, others
have argued that mothers are indeed in competition with one another to be the best
mom (Douglas & Michaels, 2004;Moore & Abetz, 2016). For example,
economically-advantaged women engage in competitive mothering when they hire
nannies or au pairs to give their children a competitive edge in their development
(Cox, 2011;Tronto, 2001). Intensive mothering, then, is an ideology that is primar-
ily achievable by privileged women, who are often heterosexual, partnered, white,
and middle- to upper-class.
The mothering ideology that normalizes constant competition between mothers,
especially in terms of parenting philosophies, practices, and choices, is termed com-
bative mothering (Moore & Abetz, 2016). Combative mothering manifests discur-
sively through the metaphor of the mommy wars, which has described antagonisms
between working and stay-at-home mothers, but more recently has shifted to
describe animus between myriad parenting philosophies and choices (Douglas &
Michaels, 2004;Milkie et al., 2016;Odenweller & Rittenour, 2017). The metaphor of
the mommy wars problematically pits mother against mother, overshadowing social
and structural issues of motherhood that negatively impact working families, such
as paid parental leave and exible scheduling (Douglas & Michaels, 2004;
Zimmerman, Aberle, Krafchick, & Harvey, 2008). In the contemporary mommy
wars, mothers become separated into competing factions based on their parenting
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philosophies, where they must justify and defend their own choices and practices
against contradictory philosophies (Moore & Abetz, 2016). The mommy wars meta-
phor, along with other motherhood labels such as supermom,”“soccer mom,
alpha mom,and yummy mummy(Littler, 2013;OBrien Hallstein, 2010), strip
women of agency by constraining possibilities for maternal identities. However,
mothersexperience of criticism seems to be very common, with a recent poll indic-
ating that 61% of mothers have been shamed for their parenting choices (C.S. Mott
Childrens Hospital, 2017).
Analyzing combative mothering in mommy blogs
Whereas scholars have explored how mommy blogs reify and resist intensive moth-
ering ideals (e.g., Pedersen, 2016), these blogs also have the potential to lend insight
into how mothers make sense of combative relationships. Specically, we seek to
identify how mommy blogs talk about the origins of, and solutions to, the mommy
wars and competition between mothers over parenting philosophies. We each used
Google to search for key terms like mommy blog mommy warsand mommy blog
competitionto locate individual womenswritingsabouttheirownexperienceswith,
and reections upon, the mommy wars or competition between mothers. To analyze
this, we engaged in purposeful sampling by gathering 30 individual blog posts
authored by 30 mothers that that providedsometypeofexplanationforwhythe
mommy warsor competition between mothers more broadlyexist. As Tracy
(2013) argues, Good qualitative researchers, at the very least, engage in purposeful
sampling, which means that they purposefully choose data that ttheparametersof
the projects research questions, goals, and purposes(p. 134). These posts, published
between May 2010 and June 2017 (with three undated), originated from a variety of
websites, including womens individual blogs hosted on their own domains, blog posts
on parenting websites (e.g., mom.me,Scary Mommy), and blog posts on major news
websites (e.g., Hupost,The New York Times). Although not all bloggers identify where
they are located, the 30 posts are in English and seemingly U.S.-centric. The results of
the current study therefore must not be extrapolated beyond the U.S. context in which
they are situated.
As critical-qualitative feminist scholars interested in the communicative con-
struction of gender, we began with a grounded analysis to identify the multiple ways
that bloggers made sense of what constitutes the mommy wars and the origins of
the mommy wars. We engaged in an inductive approach to coding and categoriza-
tion to begin our analysis, where we generated an initial list of rst-level codes and
then combined them into second-level themes (Tracy, 2013). It quickly became
clear that many bloggers also oered their own perspectives about why the mommy
wars have sustained and intensied, as well as their own visions of how to solve the
mommy wars. Thus, as our analytical categories took shape, we collaboratively iden-
tied multiple themes to describe bloggerssensemaking until we reached theoreti-
cal saturation, when no new themes emerged (Tracy, 2013).
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Bloggersexplanations for why the mommy wars exist and how to solve them
provided a starting point to engage in a feminist critique of our interpretive data
(Manning & Denker, 2015). Although there is no single overarching feminist frame-
work or method to critique communication practices, feminist communication
researchers often analyze the role of communication practices in circulation of gen-
der ideologies, including critical analysis of mediated discourse (Dow & Condit,
2005). In our critique, we sought to interrogate how rst-person accounts of the
mommy wars are informed, constrained, and complicated by the ideology of com-
bative mothering and how motherhood itself operates as a site of cultural and insti-
tutional inequality. Thus, we critique how gendered cultural arrangements structure
womens sensemaking about the mommy wars.
Making sense of the mommy wars in mommy blogs
Through our critique of bloggersexplanations for the origins, amplications, and
resolutions to the mommy wars, we argue that blog posts about the mommy wars
rarely work outside of the logic of combative mothering, where individual mothers
feel compelled to shame and blame themselves and other mothers. We contend that
bloggerssensemaking about the mommy warsspecically what they are, where
they come from, what amplies them, and how to resolve themlends important
critical insight into powerful cultural constructions of individual mothers as respon-
sible for the creating, sustaining, and ultimately ending the mommy wars, with little
reection about how the mommy wars are couched within a broader competitive
ideology.
I bet Im being judged right now: articulating the mommy wars
Consistent with recent research about the evolving formation of the mommy wars
(Milkie et al., 2016;Moore & Abetz, 2016), bloggers convey that there are many dif-
ferent mothering identities constituted in various mothering philosophies and prac-
tices (e.g., feeding, sleeping, discipline). Some blog posts give credence to the age
old question of who has it harderworking or stay-at-home moms,while simulta-
neously emphasizing that this question has spiraled into judgments that impact
just about every facet of life a child may face(#30). These new mommy wars are
referred to by one blogger as the everydaymommy wars,which are about meth-
ods of baby feeding, sleep training, working mothers and sometimes even screen-
time(#19). This evolution beyond the stay-at-home versus working mother indi-
cates that combative mothering relies on fragmentation and particularization as
debates about new philosophies and practices proliferate:
Amommy warhappens when a mom or a few moms think that their way of
parenting is better than another moms way of nurturing her child. Instead of
quietly disagreeing, moms debate with one another on why their parenting way
is best.Mothers are then often left hurt and upset: this is what could be the
beginning of a mommy war.(#27)
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In these blog posts, mothering choices are used to impose certain conditions of sub-
jectivity where good mothering relies on continued self-improvement and individ-
ual empowerment to make the best decisions for their families. This competition
creates rivalries and sustains divisions between mothers, ultimately constraining
opportunities for vulnerability and support across dierences in parenting practices.
In addition to divisions between parenting philosophies, mommy-shame is cen-
tral to contemporary mommy wars. Mom-shaming is calling a mother out, in-
person or online, for a parenting choice she has made. One blogger observed that
moms can be shamed from anything these days(#18), through statements like,
Did you see how shes feeding her baby? I cant believe she thinks thats ok?!”“He
goes to bed where? What kind of parent would let their child sleep that way?(#17).
Another stated that Whether a mum works or stays home, breastfeeds or bottle
feeds, co-sleeps or sleep trains. () there is still so much mummy shamingout
there(#10). A dierent blogger categorized ve types of competitive mommies
who make you feel like schmidt and make herself feel better,including the cant
help herselfmother, the one-uppermother, the pretend to be concerned
mother, the soccer stalker mom,and the mean and evilmother (#21).
Sectioning and labeling mothers into particular identities based on their parenting
philosophies, practices, or competitive type disciplines motherssubjectivities into
pre-packaged containers with little room to maneuver beyond the predetermined
boundaries (Moore & Abetz, 2016;OBrien Hallstein, 2010).
The mommy wars do not simply describe antagonisms between mothers, or
mothersperceptions of dierent types of mothers, but also describe a dominant
mothering ideology that has morphed over time to keep up with the changing land-
scape of motherhood. Specically, the ideology of combative mothering is perpetu-
ated and sustained through mothersanticipation and experience of judgment from
others mothers. One blogger shared an experience of feeling shamed, where the
other mothers were not trying to make her feel bad: its a habit of we modern
moms. Were conditioned to feel the burn of judgmentor the defensive suspicion
that we were being judged. Its something weve come to expect(#16). This ideol-
ogy operates within a broader neoliberal framework that recasts mothering as a
competitive exercise in highly personalized decision-making(Steiner & Bronstein,
2017, p. 60). As a blogger declared, Welcome to the Mommy Wars, ladies.She
continued, We are horrible to each other online, in playgroups, and in tight little
huddles in the preschool parking lot. Our parenting beliefs are not as easy to hide as
religion and politics, so we use them as weapons(#17). Although the mommy wars
may take on a dierent formation than they did in the 1990s, the premise remains
the same: negative emotions are weaponized as mothers battle one another to be the
best mom.
I ache to be told Im doing well at this: explaining the origins of the mommy wars
Mommy bloggers explain the origins of the mommy wars in various ways, but most
attribute competition between mothers to interpersonal judgments that manifest
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through shaming and blaming about parenting choices. Simultaneously, most of the
blog posts convey a desire to belong and discuss the security that comes with being
tethered together by similar parenting beliefs(#17). In this way, the wars stem, at
least in part, from craving support and validation from other mothers, which inten-
sies dierences among mothers in the search for similarities. The limitless bound-
aries of the way mothers can be judged cultivates a deep-longing in mothers to feel
they are doing something right. Contrasted with a job composed of benchmarks for
success and evaluations of progress, bloggers point to the elusiveness of measuring
oneself as a good mother.
Many bloggers explain that the judgment of other mothers comes in large part
because mothers feel insecure about their own imperfect mothering. One blog
argued that We are breaking each other down because were crumbling inside, our
pre-motherhood identity slowly disintegrating,and We hate each other for being
someone elses version of perfect, when the truth is that we hate ourselves for not
being Pinterest-ing enough(#17). Criticism of other motherslives is explained as
an eort to arm our choices(#26), choices that are not clearly right or wrong.
Shaming other moms,wrote one blogger, comes from a need to make myself feel
like I am doing ANYTHING right in my own home, with my own kids(#20).
These blog posts convey that the mommy wars are created by womens own lack of
condence in their choices and abilities. Many expressed an underlying fear that
other mothers have it more together, more gured out, than they do. When this
fear takes over, mothers cannot help but notice all the ways we fall short,and
Once we realize we cant be all of them, we resort to option number two: judg-
ment(#28).
Bloggers thus point to how other mothersjudgments fuel the mommy wars.
Here is the truth: Men judge, women judge,one blogger explained, The mommy
wars are built on it, suggesting that moms have the corner on this whole judgment
market(#23). This explanation for the origins of the mommy wars epitomizes an
individualist emphasis on personal choice and responsibility. Similarly, bloggers
suggest that because no matter how mothers make choices (or have life circum-
stances chosen on their behalf) there is no perfect way to balance all of what
mothers want when they want it (#6). Over a decade ago, Douglas and Michaels
(2004) suggested that in contemporary motherhood, women have choices, they are
active agents in control of their own destiny, they have autonomy(p. 5). What
these bloggers now allude to is a stark sense that failure as the inevitable outcome
pervading this discourse of choice: Today, no matter who you are or how you are
raising your children, someone thinks you are doing a shitty job(#9). Thus,
motherscontinued judgments of other mothersparenting choices are explained as
the origination of the mommy wars.
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Collapsing our condence one snarky Facebook comment at a time: amplifying
the mommy wars online
Bloggers often attributed Internet technology to the amplication of the shame and
blame that constitute the mommy wars. Many argue that judging others is human
nature, and assert that the social media breeds divisiveness in the quantity and qual-
ity of how that judgment is communicated. The reason we are hearing so much
about mommy judgmentand mommy warsnow is the Internet. It serves as a
public platform for the same old judgment to now be amplied(#19). Womens
individual insecurities and imperfections, along with their propensity to naturally
judge one another, is magnied because Especially with social media, you cant
really escape it(#30), because God forbid any of us have a moment when we wer-
ent perfect broadcast on national television and dissected by every laptop crusader
with the gift of Stellar Parenting(#9). The Internet, according to these bloggers,
aords more opportunities to engage in the mommy wars.
Part of this aordance stems from how easily anonymity and niches are created
online. The ability to consume and interact namelessly online, some bloggers argue,
leads to dehumanizing other mothers during online disagreements. One suggests
that because mothers are looking at a device rather than a person, they reduce
those who oend us to all their imagined worst traits(#1). Some bloggers also elab-
orate on dangers of a mother self-selecting what already aligns with her views, fur-
ther solidifying philosophy-specic niches. It is common for online mothering
communities to be dominated by a single mothering practice (e.g., extended breast-
feeders, screen-free mamas, attachment parenting). These communities create a
sense of belonging, reinforce beliefs, and strengthens convictions. New mother-
hood can be lonely,wrote one blogger, We all want to belong, and it helps to have
a group of people who think like we do(#17). These blog posts convey that compe-
tition between mothers is a product of social medias division and organization of
mothers, territorializing mothering and sorting us into camps(#12).
Additionally, the sheer amount of information available online that surrounds
ideal mothering amplies the mommy wars. Bloggers describe the ood of opinions
as constant and relentless: in the age of the Internet, and with the proliferation of
parenting communities online, the media has become part of everyones neighbor-
hood(#25). Other posts emphasize that it is not just big topics like breastfeeding
or vaccines; rather, it is everything(#29). Wolf (2011) calls this a risk culture,
where scientists and other experts supply an ongoing amount of ever-changing
advice. Bloggers illustrate how this advice impacts mothers who must take personal
responsibility for eradicating all risks to children at any cost. From discipline to
screen-time to feeding practices to playground etiquette, mothers are engulfed and
oversaturated by information about how to mother, but amidst this vast amount of
information, there is no marker of a good mother, no benchmark she can reach on
the path to good mothering.
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Coupled with the constant ow of information is the controlled presentation of
perfection on social media. Social media present identities, but they blur the line
between real and ideal. These blog posts convey the physical and emotional exhaus-
tion of motherhood and household labor while pulling at the strategic online omis-
sion of the messiness of everyday life. One blogger argues, We go online and lter
out the sweat and the stains and the screaming with pretty photo lters. Why do we
lie to each other about real life?(#17). From pictures of their baby bump to posting
their childrens lunches online, bloggers address the fundamental incongruence
between the experience and the presentation of motherhood in the sharing of pic-
tures. Indeed, mothering within neoliberal family structures means that mothers
assume responsibility not only for child-rearing and household management but
their own well-being, self-care, and well-chosen work-family balance (Rottenberg,
2014). Intensely individuated, the impacts of maternity are rhetorically erased where
even the maternal body becomes a weapon of choice(OBrien Hallstein, 2015,p.
3) that helps women be all things online.
Moms, I need you. We need each other: resolving the mommy wars
In addition to deliberating about the origins of and forces that contribute to the
mommy wars, bloggers muse about what it would take to end competition between
mothers. Overwhelmingly, these solutions do not challenge the ideology of combat-
ive mothering, and instead shame and blame mothers for not keeping judgments to
themselves or believing that the mommy wars exist. For example, some bloggers
suggest that mothers need to relax and refrain from seeing othersactions as a per-
sonal aront to their own mothering choices. A few also assert that judgment is nat-
ural and essential, and therefore identify the problem as the expression of judgment,
not the judgment itself. Unless youre prepared to drop the gloves and take a few
punches,one blogger wrote, you may consider avoiding the following Mommy
War-sparking conversations all together(#5). Avoiding expressing judgments, they
argue, will keep mothers united and extinguish the competition. This reduces the
conict to individual mothers in a hopeful yet patronizing manner. If only mothers
avoided judgment the way they avoid politics and religion at the dinner table,
they might be successful in ending the mommy wars (#5).
Additionally, ceasing to believe in the mommy wars is also proclaimed as a way
to end them, again placing the burden on individual women for resolving combative
mothering. Bloggers convey that mothers as individuals sustain the mommy wars
through buying into the idea of competition. How do I escape from all the mom-
petition? My answer is always this: If you need it to disappear, stop believing in it
(#4). Describing that feeling judged is a self-centered way to live, blogs subtly target
mothersbehavior for both the existence and sustainment of the mommy wars.
Others suggest that the label warmay be a better characterized as skirmishes
between mamas who are hurting and feeling the heavy hand of judgment and the
rather desperate need to defend their choices(#20), implying that mothers are the
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ones who have blown competitive relations with each other out of proportion, even
while acknowledging that some combativeness exists.
Alternatively, a minority of bloggers assert that one way to chip away at the
mommy wars is to embrace vulnerability and talk openly about the challenges, inse-
curities, worries that accompany motherhood. They suggest this openness can be
cultivated through a deliberate focus on friendship, which they contend may sound
simple but is a stark source of absence in many mothers lives. Indeed, its a sad,
lonely journeywhen women stop sharing and learning from one another (#16).
The ability to nourish and those relationships and handle conict without being
drawn into toxicity is not a frivolous luxury(#25). While a focus remains on sup-
porting the individual choices of other mothers, bloggers also point to the fear of
sharing instilled by the mommy wars that inhibits conversation and shuts down
important sources of support. In their call to log osocial media and initiate contact
with a friend in which you tell her the truth about motherhood(#17), there is a
sense of hope that mothers can still have a village. However, the responsibility
remains on individual mothers end the mommy wars.
Conclusion
The ideology of combative mothering clearly pervades many mothersinterpersonal
communication and relationships with one another, as evidenced by the stories told
about judgmental shame and blame in many mothersblog posts. Thus, the
mommy wars are not just a myth created by mass media (Steiner & Bronstein,
2017). Instead, we contend that due to the sustained cultural relevance of the
mommy wars, combative mothering should be acknowledged as a dominant moth-
ering ideology in the United States that is distinct from intensive mothering and
new momism (Douglas & Michaels, 2004;Hays, 1996;Moore & Abetz, 2016).
Mothers are not only compelled to devote themselves completely to their children,
through time, energy, resources, and knowledge (Hays, 1996), but are also obliged
to compete to be the best mother, superior to all other mothers, in a zero-sum battle
where some mothers are winners and other mother are losers.
This competition emerges from the current neoliberal moment championing
personal responsibility and consumer choice, as well patriarchal culture that pro-
motes the fragmentation of womanhood. Neoliberalism encourages mothers to
embrace and replicate privilege to benet their own children at a time when public
services and state supports are increasingly privatized (Giles, 2014), and are linked
to the white, heterosexual family ideal, which serves to invisibilize economically dis-
advantaged mothers whose children are not deemed worthy of debate (Zimmerman
et al., 2008). Indeed, mother blame has focussed on white, middle-class, working
mothers endangering their children by working outside the home, while simulta-
neously criticizing poor women of color for their reliance on welfare (Hays, 1996;
Zimmerman et al., 2008).
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The pitting of mother against mother can also be contextualized as part of a
much broader patriarchal ideology that undermines female solidarity and positions
women as their own worst enemies who could never unite across dierence. This
divide and conquerstrategy weakens womens potential to resist existing patriar-
chal structures. From dating to beauty competitions to the creation of quotas for
women in the workforce, female competition persists despite the fact that it does
not benet women (Tanaenbaum, 2002). As Tanenbaum argues, Many women
compete over things they think men value () The most dangerous outcome of
this is self hatred; girls and women disparage themselves and dissociate from other
females(p. 47). Resentment between women is an integral part of this systemic
misogyny that relentlessly pushes the message that women are not one anothers
allies. Thus, combative mothering presents a contemporary articulation of multiple
historical ideals that, when couched within the mommy wars metaphor, obscures its
ideological legacies. Naming combative mothering illuminates this recongured
manifestation of entrenched ideological forces.
The ideology of combative mothering, at its core, is built upon an ethos individ-
ualism, which normalizes and rationalizes shame and blame toward oneself and
other mothers. This ideology undergirds bloggersexplanations of the beginning,
middle, and end of motherscompetitive relationships with one another. With a few
exceptions, these bloggers rarely contemplate the mommy wars outside of the logic
of combative mothering. Even in reections upon proposed solutions to the
mommy wars, it is individual mothers who must stop voicing judgmenteven
though feeling judgmental is acceptable. This judgment contributes to the interpel-
lation of subjects who then regulate themselves by freelyadhering to certain par-
enting philosophies and practices. Of course, transforming interpersonal
communication practices is potentially a positive force in lessening the mommy
wars, but this solution is only partial. If the ideology of combative mothering con-
tinues to reinforce many womens sensemaking about the mommy wars, where
women are in competition to be the best mother even when working to solve the
mommy wars, it appears inevitable that mothers will continue to often have dehu-
manizing conversations with one another over diering parenting philosophies and
practices.
Paradoxically, digitally networked communication technologies that have given
mothers a voice to speak truth to their own lives in ways that were not previously
possible in the public sphere have likely also contributed to the fragmentation and
labeling of ever-smaller parenting niches (Lopez, 2009). Mothers have more plat-
forms than ever before to discuss their preferred childrearing practices with larger
networks than ever, which is viewed by some readers as a personal attack and by
others as unjustied complaining. Donath (2017) provides a useful explanation for
why, when mothers discuss the mommy wars, they are so easily dismissed:
Women and mothers are judged according to a broader social perception that
we live in a whining era,that we are aicted with an epidemic of self-
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indulgence () Thus, exactly because more and more diverse social groups are
allowedto speak outundermining the natural courseof oppressive social
arrangementsit is unbearable to listen to what mothers say without branding
them as spoiled, insane, and weak, or claiming that they must be exaggerating.
(Donath, 2017, p. 160, emphasis in original)
When bloggers insist that the mommy wars dont exist, or if they would just be
ignored they will go away, they contribute to this notion of women as complainers.
When bloggers speak openly about the mommy wars, they create a space where the
realities of motherhood can be openly discussed. These mothers appear to be caught
in a double-bind, where talking about the mommy wars contributes to its perpetua-
tion while not talking about the mommy wars prohibits mothers from fully under-
standing and humanizing one another. Thus, the solution to the mommy wars may
not lie in more or less communication, but instead in a critical interrogation of
mothering ideologies that sustain this double-bind.
To critically examine an ideology requires looking beyond individual shame and
blame toward oft-unacknowledged cultural expectations about how mothers should
relate to one another. Metaphors that govern our thoughts are not just matters of
intellect,wrote Lakoand Johnson (1980),they also govern our everyday func-
tioning, down to the most mundane detail(p. 3). Metaphors, in other words, are
powerful constructions that constitute ideas and actions. Although the metaphor of
the mommy wars was prevalent in the 30 analyzed blog posts by design, competi-
tion between mothers has also been evidenced more broadly (C. S. Mott Childrens
Hospital, 2017;Cox, 2011;Milkie et al., 2016;Moore & Abetz, 2016). If the meta-
phor of the mommy wars prevails in cultural and interpersonal discourse, mothers
will continue to understand themselves as combatants in high-stakes conicts that
are purportedly for the sake of the children but in actuality lead to few favorable
outcomes for mothers, their children, their families, and their friendships.
But what would it take to move from a culture of enemies to a culture of allies?
A minority of bloggers lend insight. One noted that we oer very little in terms of
support to parents and we expect them to never make a mistake and raise perfect
little beings(#19), and therefore women and men must acknowledge the value of
communal relations and call to bring back sisterhood(#10), and should expose
how mothers are constrained within cultural, social and economic conditions
within these crucial choices are made(#7). Thus, ending the mommy wars requires
two simultaneous moves across micro and macro levels. First, mothersfriendships
with other mothers can embody a socially situated character of relationality which
is shaped by material resources and social positioning as well as emotional intercon-
nections () forms of inclusive intimacy contributed to a relational sense of self
that is composed through practices and bonds of motherhood and domestic friend-
ship(Cronin, 2015, p. 673). In combative mothering, the choices and practices of
individual mothers evolve into their own brand of mothering devoid of any sort of
collectivity or interdependence between women. In a culture of sisterhood, mothers
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may work to cultivate strong bonds that foster emotional and practical support.
These friendships, unlike the mommy wars, are not sites for the creation of indi-
vidualistic self-identity, but instead centre on practices of inclusive intimacy and an
expansive, relational sense of self(Cronin, 2015, p. 667).
Second, new metaphors of relating between mothers can be cultivated in mass
media and social media. This does not entail an insistence that the mommy wars
dontexist, but that the mommy wars dontdetermine how mothers relate to one
another. This will require a greater shift than reframing warsto skirmishes
(#20), as one blogger suggested, to move outside the logic of combative mothering.
A metaphor of kinship and connection may bolster the existing metaphor of sister-
hood. Indeed, this kinship opens up a space for a productive exploration of con-
ict(Winch, 2013, p. 198) between women. At its core, this metaphor allows
mothers the ability to work through the problems of neoliberal girlfriend culture
that foregrounds choice and empowerment for individual women, not collective
action for all. Kinship represents a social invitation to ask how negative emotions
like envy and judgment of other mothers may be the rst step toward recognizing
social inequality (Winch, 2013). Of course, a kinship metaphor is not without its
own issues. Families can also be competitive, unsupportive, and dysfunctional.
However, the metaphor still provides a potential framework for reorienting
womens relationships with one another.
Clearly, the bloggers represented in this manuscript care about ending the
mommy wars and having better relationships and conversations with other mothers
in their lives. However, the preeminence of the ideology of combative mothering
at least in the United Statesappears to make it challenging for mothers to make
sense of relationships between mothers outside of a mandate to be the best, which
requires being better than other mothers. Even so, in their longing for new ways of
relating, we sometimes witness the power, and often the wisdom, of what women
seek and in friendship could lead future generations into lives of dignity, hope, and
peaceful coexistence(Yalom, 2015, p. 348).
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... During that period, women encounter numerous messages regarding appropriate motherhood in their social environment (Choi et al., 2005). Mothers must negotiate their responsibilities to both work and family (Blair-Loy, 2003), as well as to various mothering ideologies (Abetz & Moore, 2018). Although previous research has demonstrated the coexistence of various mothering discourses in Western cultures (e.g., Dow, 2016;Hays, 1996;Perälä-Littunen, 2007), little is known about how mothers construct the meaning of motherhood through the interplay between these discourses. ...
... These media influences have increased since the 1980s in the United States, in line with the rise of the intensive mothering ideology and antifeminist backlash in popular culture (Cotter et al., 2011). Social media has further facilitated a competition between mothers regarding who is best (Abetz & Moore, 2018). According to Abetz and Moore (2018), mothering ideologies have multiplied and solidified, making it necessary to defend one's own parenting choices as the best for one's children. ...
... Social media has further facilitated a competition between mothers regarding who is best (Abetz & Moore, 2018). According to Abetz and Moore (2018), mothering ideologies have multiplied and solidified, making it necessary to defend one's own parenting choices as the best for one's children. ...
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... We encourage CFC scholars to conduct intersectional explorations of familial identities. For instance, how might an intersectional lens illuminate gender, race, class, dis/ability, and sexual subjectivities in families (e.g., Abetz & Moore, 2018)? ...
... The hail is not the moment of interpellation; rather, it is that moment when an individual recognizes ideology's address as legitimate is when interpellation occurs. In that instant, a concrete individual becomes a liberal, a conservative, a White supremacist, a concerned citizen, a real woman (Hintz, 2019), an alcoholic, a working mother or a stay-at-home mother (Abetz & Moore, 2018), as examples. This, according to Althusser (2001), is the most important function of ideology: to provide individuals with meaningful and useful subjectivities that support the social and economic order. ...
... The first, a type of intense, all-in, perceived perfect motherhood, goes by a few different names. They are related to a concept called the "mommy wars" in which mothers compete against each other to be the best mother (Abetz & Moore, 2018). One of these types of motherhood is referred to as intensive mothering. ...
... This theory has its roots in psychology and will be integral to this work because it is examining the ways that mothers compare themselves to motherhood blogs. This theoretical framework will be important because research has shown that people tend to compare themselves to the dominant image of their peers (Festinger, 1954), which, in the case of motherhood is a form of perfect motherhood (Abetz & Moore, 2018). ...
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The prominence of social media in contemporary life has led more mothers to search for parenting information through various Internet and social media channels. The following study examines the impact that Instagram mommy blog content has on the perceived parenting skill of the typical American mother. In this experiment, participants were exposed to one of two types of Instagram motherhood blogger content. The first type of content did not address the struggles of motherhood (referred to as an “alpha-mom” blogger content), while the second type of content (referred to as a “realistic” blogger content) did. After reviewing the content, participants will be asked a series of Likert-type scale questions to gauge their perceived parenting skill. We hypothesized that participants who were exposed to the “alpha-mom” content would have a lower belief in their own parenting skill than those who were exposed to content from the “realistic” blogger. The hypothesis was not supported. However, we did find that participants who received some of their parenting information from Internet sources had a lower belief in their parenting skill than participants who did not receive their parenting information from online sources, regardless of the content to which they were exposed.
... Studies often note constraints on the resistance to dominant discourses. For instance, Abetz and Moore (2018) find that mothers discussing motherhood online are constrained by the narrative of the "mommy wars" because they are positioned as combative. The authors call for new metaphors to exit the "logic of combative mothering" (p. ...
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In this thesis, I investigate the German-speaking attachment-oriented parenting community on Instagram. Focusing on a debate about new-right activities in the community, I analyze how motherhood (self-)conceptions were discursively entangled with questions of resistance to and tolerance of the new right. Two questions guide my thesis: 1) How was attachment-oriented motherhood conceptualized in the debate? How were these conceptions classed and racialized? 2) How did the community produce openness for the appropriation by the new right? How did the community resist appropriation? To answer these questions, I conduct a critical discourse analysis of 45 Instagram posts and their comment sections. My thesis is grounded in motherhood theories, in particular Hays's intensive mothering, and theories that take seriously the intersectionality of power structures. I also refer to Skeggs's theory on gender, class, and respectability, and work on whiteness and femininity by Ahmed and Shome. I find diverse conceptions of attachment-oriented motherhood that differed with regard to their resistance to and reinforcement of intensive motherhood and far-right ideologies. Resistant motherhood concepts sought collective action and mobilized mothers' responsibility for the opposition against the new right. Investment in the respectability of attachment-oriented motherhood on the other hand obstructed the discussion about new-right activities, diverting attention away from politics. Concepts of motherhood from New-Age community members not only tolerated far-right ideology, but at times even reproduced it, in particular in the concept of conspiritual motherhood.
... Some note the potential for such groups to act as sites of resistance to normative gender and mothering expectations (Johnson 2015;Madge and O'Connor 2006). Despite a common perception that mothers fear the judgement of other mothers (Abetz and Moore 2018), studies suggest that mothers view mothers with whom they have an 'experiential overlap' (Davis 2015, 168) as important sources of trustworthy and relevant information (Xie et al. 2021). ...
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