The Fantasy of the Supermom
This paper is concerned with understanding the cultural ideal of perfect corporate working mothers which first appeared in the 1970s and continues to be a point of fixation in the 2010s. The “supermom” and the “woman who has it all” are the figures presented in the popular press as the ultimate goals for middle class women in America. The paper examines the evolving cultural representations in the 1980s through Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Second Shift, and in the 2010s primarily through Anne Marie Slaughter’s debate provoking article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I use the psychoanalytic concepts of fantasy and melancholy as described by Joan Wallach Scott in The Fantasy of Feminist History to analyze how the ideal continues to operate in the media while simultaneously being recognized as unattainable. Fantasy, in this sense, is understood as the setting for unconscious desire where collective identity can be established. I argue that a collective fantasy in search of unity sustains the cultural ideal of the “woman who has it all.” Furthermore, I use Nancy Chodorow’s book, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, to illuminate how childhood desires for the maternal create and reinforce the fantasy of the perfect working mother. Melancholy emerges when women feel they personally failed at “having it all,” but still insist that the ideal is achievable. Through melancholic communication in the popular press, working mothers like Slaughter perpetuate the fantasy of the supermom they are purporting to undermine.
In 2012, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, became the first active CEO of a Fortune 500 company to give birth to a child, providing evidence for how the meaning of the term “working mother” has expanded from its initial conception. The figure of the working mother in the United States has evolved over the last 20 years as women have entered more powerful positions in business. Yet, the cultural image portrayed in America still resembles what Arlie Hochschild, in her 1989 book, The Second Shift, terms “supermom”: the 1970-80s image of the ideal working mother simultaneously carrying a briefcase and a child. This model of a corporate mother produces and represents the goal for middle class women: to have it “all” by leading a successful career while concurrently being the perfect mother. In recent years, some women have publicly responded to the perceived cultural image in the popular press by claiming that women cannot have it all, which suggests that this ideal may be more of a fantasy than a reality. Joan Wallach Scott introduces the psychoanalytic concept of fantasy as a method of analysis for feminist theory in The Fantasy of Feminist History. In this paper, I will use Scott’s theorization of fantasy to explore the function of the “supermom” cultural image and Scott’s idea of melancholy to understand reactions to these images.
Hochschild, a sociologist who researched two-income American families in the 1970s and 1980s, begins The Second Shift with a description of a composite of working mothers that she has seen in magazine advertisements. “She has that working-mother look as she strides forward, briefcase in one hand, smiling child in the other. Literally and figuratively, she is moving ahead” (Hochschild 1). The “striding” woman evokes thoughts of a person walking purposefully and without internal conflict. She is not juggling the representations of her job and her family; rather she balances her work and her child, whose happiness is unaffected by the mother’s career. “Her hair, if long, tosses behind her; if it is short it sweeps back at the sides, suggesting mobility and progress. There is nothing shy or passive about her. She is confident, active, ‘liberated’” (Hochschild 1). The movement of her hair suggests the effortlessness with which she lives her life. She is in control of her life and is free to choose her path. “She wears a dark tailored suit, but with a silk bow or colorful frill that says, ‘I’m really feminine underneath’” (Hochschild 1). She easily fits both roles into her outward image—professional businessman and pretty lady. She can appear the same as her male coworkers while reminding them that she is special because she is a woman.
The cultural image described above represents the seamless fusion of opposite sides of a debate in the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s about how to achieve equality with men. The sameness side argued that women should prove that they are no different from men while the difference side argued that to do so would further degrade qualities labeled as feminine. Therefore, the difference side advocated for women to retain their feminine qualities and demonstrate the strength of the feminine. Hochschild writes of the supermom image: “She has made it in a man’s world without sacrificing her femininity. And she has done this on her own. By some personal miracle, this image suggests, she has managed to combine what 150 years of industrialization have split wide apart—child and job, frill and suit, female culture and male” (1). The figure in the advertisement reveals that the apparently opposing representations of femininity and masculinity are actually compatible within one person. Women do not have to choose between acting manly (having a career) and acting womanly (being a mother). Further, the cultural imagery suggests mothers can assume both roles and should desire to “have it all” because the position of working mother is the best choice available to women. The advertisements “make the working mother seem exciting” (Hochschild 11) and encourage middle-class mothers in the 1970-80s who have been unfulfilled with their roles in the home to enter the workforce and lead stimulating lives. The woman with the briefcase and the baby, captured by Hochschild as “the woman with the flying hair” (2), offers women a seemingly simple path to life satisfaction through combining motherhood and a career outside the home in a flawless manner.
The child and the briefcase are the iconic symbols of the combination of mothering and working in American popular press from the 1970s through the 2010s. Hochschild describes the front cover of the September 9, 1984 issue of The New York Times Magazine: “A working mother walking home with her daughter…the daughter is smiling as she lugs her mother’s briefcase” (22). In this depiction, the child is happily bearing the load of her mother’s work, already carrying the “baggage” of being raised by a working mother, and possibly as Hochschild suggests, “the child is a mini-supermom already” (22). Children of working mothers also strive to emulate the powerful image. The accompanying article is titled “The Working Mother As Role Model” and focuses on how children of working mothers are psychologically and socially affected. The author suggests that future women, because they were raised by working mothers, “may be able more easily to combine career and family life” (Shreve 52). The author recognizes that contemporary working mothers have a hard time fulfilling both roles but observes that they are providing their daughters with the ability to “have it all” when they grow up.
Also pairing a mother’s briefcase with a child, the March 31, 1986 cover of Newsweek shows an open briefcase next to a smiling baby. The baby is reaching into the briefcase, which contains planners, papers, and pens, as well as a child’s toy. The text reads “America’s Mothers: Making It Work: How Women Balance the Demands of Jobs and Children.” The image and the text imply that joining motherhood together with a professional career may not be easy and trying to separate the two worlds has become difficult. Accordingly, the article inside the magazine is entitled, “A Mother’s Choice” and addresses the issues working mothers are facing as they try to navigate embodying the ideal types of the “Perfect Mother” of the 1950s and the “Supermom” of the 1970s. “Today the myth of the Supermom is fading fast—doomed by anger, guilt, and exhaustion…but for a growing number of mothers the recognition that they can’t have it all—at least not all at the same time—is tempered by encouraging evidence that there are ways to make it work” (Kantrowitz). Like the previous article, the author acknowledges that juggling a briefcase and a child is challenging but indicates that the difficulties can be resolved.
Twenty-six years later, the cover of The Atlantic June/July 2012 issue pictures a skirt-wearing woman shown only from the waist down, carrying a briefcase with an infant perched inside the leather satchel and headlines the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. The contemporary image continues to capture both the feminine (skirt) and the masculine (briefcase) contained within the working mother’s role. The baby-carrying briefcase suggests that, like the label “working mother”, the act of working and the job of mother cannot simply be free of each other’s impacts and further, that the child weighs heavily on the job. The images combined with the titles of the 1986 Newsweek and 2012 Atlantic Monthly purport to reveal the troubles of the supermom ideal by declaring the world of the perfect working mother as not-so-perfect. Yet the magazine covers, through the depictions of how mother and work are combined, produce the very cultural image they are aiming to undermine.
Though the portrayal of the briefcase and child are not always the same, the use of the briefcase suggests that the “mothers” to whom the supermom label applies are those with white-collar jobs and thus, middle-class women. Further, more recent cultural references are moving the standard from middle-class to upper-class women. Debora Spar, in a 2012 Newsweek article titled “American Women Have It Wrong,” defines perfect mothers as those “who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels.” The reference to high-end food like organic quinoa and to luxury brands like Manolo Blahnik squarely places the ideal working mother in a wealthy class. In addition, the reference to an initial stock offering of a company implies a corporate executive role for the mother. The cultural image is evolving as women break into the upper echelons of corporations and are recognized in lists of “Most Powerful Women,” which first appeared in Fortune and Forbes magazines around the turn of the 21st century. In 1989, Hochschild separates “moms who work” from “men who head companies,” comparing the appeal of each role due to cultural idealization in the popular press: “The image of the on-the-go working mother is very like the glamorous image of the busy top executive” (23). However, in 2013, the working mother is also the high-ranking executive, which combines Hochschild’s images and leads to a further reaching ideal.
Marissa Mayer epitomizes the “raising of the bar” even further for the ideal working mother in 2013: she is the CEO of a top corporation who took two weeks of “working” maternity leave and then promptly returned to the office. Two months after the birth of her baby, Mayer was quoted as saying, “the baby’s been way easier than everyone made it out to be” (Dvorak). Mayer reinforces the idea that women can have it all, at the highest levels, and without much friction, but at the same time highlights that some women share stories of difficulty in motherhood. Consequently, Mayer’s comments stirred up the conversation about whether her experience as a working mother was realistic for middle-class mothers, similar to dialogue observed by Hochschild about the 1970s and 1980s cultural icon. Hochschild writes of the working mothers with whom she talked: “they envied the apparent ease of the woman with the flying hair, but she didn’t remind them of anyone they knew” (2). Working mothers of the 1980s and 2010s idealize women in the popular press who seem to “have it all,” but they recognize that these women are separate from their realities. Thus, they still believe in and desire to be the cultural image; without a familiar model, they are not confident in their personal ability to resemble her.
Though the ceiling is now higher for women in 2013, the idealized working mother image continues to evoke questions about the individual competence of middle-class women today as it did in 1989. Because women do still believe that “having it all” is attainable for some women, they “feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)” (Slaughter). Executive mothers like Marissa Mayer who appear to “have it all” reproduce the cultural ideal leading middle-class women to ask what is wrong with themselves when they have “failed.” Similarly, Hochschild writes that a 1984 popular press article “gives the impression that the working mother is doing so well because she is personally competent, not because she has a sound social arrangement.” (23). Women are led to believe that it is something within the perfect mother that makes her able to have a successful career and wonderful children impeccably. “When the working mothers I talked with considered the image of the supermom, they imagined a woman who was unusually efficient, organized, energetic, bright, and confident” (Hochschild 23). Women think they know what individual qualities lead to a successful combination of working and mothering. Thus, middle-class women believe their personal characteristics are hindering the achievement of the ideal rather than considering the possibility that the cultural image is unrealistic. Therefore, women collectively reinforce the illusion of a working mother who has it all by attaching real personality traits to an idealized image.
Furthermore, mothers who have reached positions of power in the corporate world and the government share the “rules” for becoming the “supermom.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a mother, professor, and former State Department high-ranking official, describes these imperatives as “the stories we tell ourselves, the clichés that I and many other women typically fall back on when younger women ask us how we managed to ‘have it all.’” Tales, with common themes that indicate what aspiring women need to do in order to be the ideal working mother, sustain the cultural image. Powerful mothers repeat the platitudes that they have heard about attaining supermom status and recreate the figure, telling women: “It’s possible if you are just committed enough” (Slaughter). The first condition of “having it all” is steadfast dedication. Thus, if a woman experiences difficulty, it is because she is not fully devoted to being perfect. Furthermore, young women are told “it’s possible if you sequence it right” (Slaughter), meaning that women who have children too young are in turn risking their careers. Sheryl Sandberg, mother and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Inc., in a speech at all-women Barnard College commencement in 2011, instructed the graduates to “lean in” to their jobs before they have children, indicating that becoming mothers before they are established in their career is why women have failed at reaching the ideal. In 2013, Sandberg published a book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead that purports to provide the keys to having a successful career while being personally satisfied but also promises to reveal, in the ninth chapter, “the myth of doing it all.”
Sandberg notes that women need help as her eighth chapter, “Make Your Partner a Real Partner,” indicates. Similarly, Slaughter states the final condition for working mothers is: “it’s possible if you marry the right person.” If women have partners who hold half of the responsibility at home, working mothers will be able to have it all. Powerful women themselves preach the commonly known terms of the cultural ideal and uphold the dream of having it all for young women. Moreover, the image of the supermom becomes more than a woman with a briefcase and a child. She has been gifted with the perfect mix of traits, has done everything in the right order and has managed to find the perfect husband. Women in power positions have helped the cultural image of the “woman with the flying hair” in 1989 to survive and have also added dimensions to the persona that have developed into the figure of 2013. The ideal working mother in 2013 occupies higher positions in both society and the workplace. The image concedes that women cannot do it without help from their husbands, but indicates it is still up to the woman to select that perfect partner. The 1989 supermom is different from the 2013 supermom, but both evoke a professional working mother who is offered it “all.”
As we have seen in these cases, women participate in creating the ideal and defining the “all” that they measure themselves against. Yet, women at times do question whether anyone actually is fully satisfied with their success as working mothers. The March 25, 2013 cover story of New York Magazine, entitled “The Retro Wife,” focuses on “feminists who say they’re having it all—by choosing to stay home” (Miller). The author, Lisa Miller, describes a working mother who struggled to fulfill her role as mother until she left her job. Miller outlines the troubles of doing it all and notes that “Marissa Mayer never explain[s] how [she does] it all, I suspect, because [she has] teams of nannies and housekeepers on the payroll.” Marissa Mayer may achieve the “all” of the “working” part in the sense that she has reached the top of the corporate ladder, and while she is a mother, it is debatable whether she personally does what is necessary to be the “perfect mother.”
When women criticize Mayer for openly declaring mothering is easy and imply she has help with her child, they are furthering the idea that the mother part of “working mother” has to involve certain activities. Thus, women declare that Mayer does not actually “have it all” while simultaneously offering up the “real” ideal. The paradox, illustrated by the continued facilitation of an image in the face of no real supermoms, may be explained by fantasy. Fantasy can illuminate why women would unite around a standard that is not achievable. Scott, in The Fantasy of Feminist History, argues that psychoanalysis and fantasy, specifically, provide ways to understand seemingly irrational facets of culture “because people are not simply rational, goal-oriented beings, but subjects of unconscious desire” (Scott 19). In order to comprehend why women across periods of time coalesce around and perpetuate a myth of perfection about the role of working mother, we have to understand more about fantasy.
Scott uses fantasy as a means to answer “questions about how identity [is] established,” (48) and is focusing on women specifically in her analysis. Scott describes “fantasy as a formal mechanism for the articulation of scenarios that are at once historically specific in their representation and detail and transcendent of historical specificity” (49). What it means to be a “woman” at any point in history is distinct but also “women” has survived across history to represent a sex category. Similarly, “working mother” means vastly different things across time, but still implies the idea of a mother working outside the home rather than her work as a mother being considered a job. Thus, fantasy can illuminate how categories can be consistent while also connoting diverse definitions. The cultural image of the working mother can be analyzed as one fantasy operating to strengthen identity of “women.” Further, the fantasy establishes the continuity of the identity of the working mother. Scott lays out three features of psychoanalytic fantasy starting with the first: “Fantasy is the setting for desire” (49). Scott notes that the fantasy itself is not what is desired, but that fantasy is where desire is expressed. Further, “in the fantasized setting, the fulfillment of desire and the consequences of this fulfillment are enacted” (49). Thus, not only is desire revealed through fantasy, but also as a setting, fantasy outlines how one’s desire can be satisfied and what will happen as a result of this satisfaction. The fantasy of “the woman who can have it all” is the setting where the competing feminist desires of sameness and difference discussed earlier can be combined. Women desire to be the same as men and to remain differentiated through femininity and the fantasy of the working mother allows both of those desires to play out simultaneously.
Scott outlines the second feature: “Fantasy has a double structure, which at once reproduces and masks conflict, antagonism, or contradiction” (49). Fantasy is itself contradictory—it hides the very opposition that it serves to recreate in its operation. Further, “fantasy maintains and masks divisions within society…by attributing to reviled others…the causes of one’s own (or a group’s) lack of satisfaction: “they” have stolen “our” jouissance. The we-versus-they construction consolidates each side as an undifferentiated whole and effaces the differences that produce hierarchy and conflict among ‘us’” (Scott 50). Fantasy delineates the separation between groups while erasing any inconsistency within one’s group. The fantasy of the feminist movement places women against men, while assuming that all women are the same. The collective fantasy of the working mother maintains a division between men and women while also obscuring the conflicts among women who work, mothers, and working mothers by supposing the ultimate goal for women is to be perfect working mothers.
Moreover, placing the blame on the others for what the group has not been able to find draws the distinction between groups. Through fantasy, the opposing group is made to be the reason why, up to this point, desire has not been satisfied. While women may individually fault themselves, the collective fantasy unifies women toward a common explanation. The fantasy blames men for why working mother’s dual desires have not been fulfilled. Men have taken women’s jouissance by not helping out at home and limiting opportunities for women in the workplace. Scott defines the term jouissance which comes from Slavoj Zizek: “[Jouissance] is that orgasmic sensation that exceeds articulation and seems, momentarily at least, to satisfy desire. But desire is ultimately unsatisfiable since it seeks to restore an imagined wholeness and coherence, the end of the alienation associated with the acquisition of individual selfhood” (50). Desire may falsely appear to be satiated but desire can never be fulfilled because it tries to seamlessly bring together the identities of the working mother in a unity that was never really there.
Scott notes the third feature: “Fantasy operates as a (tightly condensed) narrative” (50). Fantasy progresses along the story of desire. Scott elaborates, “contradictory elements (or for that matter, incoherent ones) are rearranged diachronically, becoming causes and effects” (50). Fantasy forms causal relationships between aspects related to the desire rather than intertwined associations. The fantasy of the supermom creates an underlying causal structure whereby “having it all” is a result of being a working mother when in reality, the concept of “having it all” helped create the ideal of the working mother. The working mother in the sense of the cultural image discussed earlier did not exist before the notion of “having it all” was conceived. Without the concept of “having it all,” a mother cannot be considered as “working.” Moreover, the fantasy produces the pre-conditions of “having it all” (marrying the right person, having kids at the right time, and steadfast commitment) when actually the causes and the effect are mutually constitutive. By lining up components in a temporal fashion, fantasy allows the creation of a linear history but may hide these more complicated relationships of construction.
The linear history then assists in establishing subjects and categories. “Fantasy is at play in the articulation of both individual and collective identity…it enables individuals and groups to give themselves histories” (Scott 50-51). Fantasy is not simply an individual phenomenon. Fantasy, through providing a site for desire to play out and giving a false sense of unity around that desire, organizes minds around a common understanding of the past and the future. In turn, “fantasy can help account for the ways subjects are formed, internalizing and resisting social norms, taking on the terms of identity that endow them with agency” (Scott 51). Individuals identify with others through fantasy, creating groups of social identification that empower individuals with choice. When middle-class women identify with the fantasy of the ideal working mother, they feel they are offered agency in ways they were not when the choice to work outside the home was nonexistent. The fantasy of the working mother aligns women together as feminists fighting for mothers in the workplace.
Scott uses the analytical lens of fantasy to describe how the category of women has been solidified through feminist history. As Scott notes, there is not just one single fantasy of feminist history but “many fantasies have been produced to consolidate feminist identity” (54). We have seen that the working mother fantasy is one of those fantasies. Scott describes the first of her two examples of fantasies of feminist history: the orator. “The fantasy of the female orator projects women into masculine public space where they experience the pleasures and dangers of transgressing social and sexual boundaries” (Scott 54). The idea of a woman making a public speech places women into a forum dominated by men where the desire for power in the male arena can be played out. Scott notes several examples of images of the female orator, which represent specific women and describes how the figure conjured up in feminist history does not accurately represent the reality of the individual cases. Despite this, stories about women at the lectern are passed on and create the illusion that the speaker’s desire was fulfilled through her oration. Further, the images inspire women to replicate the action while the context of the situation is lost. Though the individual female orator scenarios are different in content, time, location and transgression, they come together to create fantasized icons and form a common identity that provides continuity to feminist history.
The post 1970s woman-worker image is an extension of the female orator fantasy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The appearance of a woman standing at the podium represents the orator’s passage into the world of men while the figure of the female carrying a briefcase symbolizes the entrance of women into men’s work. The details of most women’s experiences as working mothers—what kind of jobs they have, the level of help they have behind them, and how they mother— are erased by the image of the woman with the flying hair which at the same time, strengthens “working mother” as a coherent category. Like those of the female orator, “these details…were incidental to the collective identification enabled by the fantasy scenario” (Scott 57). Women identify with the desire of the cultural image and believe desire can be satisfied, overriding concern about the specifics of each working mother example and perpetuating the fantasy of the supermom. As we saw earlier, certain qualities are associated with the image whether or not they accurately reflect a woman who actually has it all. Further, women identify as working mothers and strive for “having it all” even if the details of their experiences are vastly different from the image.
Scott’s second example of fantasies of feminist history is also crucial to analyzing the cultural image of “the woman who has it all” as a fantasy: “the feminist maternal fantasy” (54). “While the orator wrestles with her inappropriate masculinity, the mother embodies acceptable femininity, fulfilling as she does her designated reproductive role. Despite its apparent endorsement of normative gender relations, maternity has sometimes served to consolidate feminist identification” (Scott 59). Scott juxtaposes her two fantasies along the line of sexual categories. The female orator enters a man’s world trying to exhibit manly qualities but the mother rejoices in the feminine. Even though the mother fantasy seems to be an acceptance of a limiting female role, Scott insists the fantasy has rallied feminists throughout history. Scott is describing two prominent fantasies of feminist history that are also two perspectives on the method for feminist success discussed earlier: sameness (orator) and difference (mother). Further, the perfect working mother fantasy of 1970s-2010s combines the desires of the fantasy of the female orator with the desires of the fantasy of the maternal. Scott notes that while the orator and mother fantasies may seem contradictory, they are actually compatible because they both look for sameness in their core desire. Scott argues that the fantasy of the mother can be understood not strictly in terms of difference from men, but in the strong bonds between people created by women through mothering. “It is a utopian fantasy of sameness and harmony produced by maternal love” (Scott 54). The fantasy infuses the motherly role with a great power to join women together through the unique love only a mother can provide.
Nancy Chodorow, a feminist theorist and psychoanalyst, can help to further illuminate this maternal love fantasy through her work, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. Chodorow outlines the contradictory ideas about mothering prevalent in feminist thought including the mother as scapegoat and the mother as perfect. Both conceptions accord power to the mother to impact her children. “Blame and idealization of the mothers have become our cultural ideology. This ideology…gains meaning from and is partially produced by infantile fantasies that are themselves the outcome of being mothered exclusively by one woman” (Chodorow 90). Thus, fantasies about mothers come from our own childhood experiences with our mothers. Because we are mothered, we retain a desire for the maternal—not necessarily our own mothers, but the idea of mothering. Further, both Scott and Chodorow note that this desire is sometimes characterized as sexual while other times sexuality is disassociated with the mother. “These fantasies don’t evoke the maternal body and its flesh directly, if at all; rather they refer to the ineffable quality of love. This love both avows and denies an explicitly sexual longing of and for the mother” (Scott 62). The fantasy is about a special kind of love between a mother and a child and not about whether this love is sexual or not. The maternal love is something we all have in common because we all have mothers and further, only women can experience both sides of the love because only women can be mothers. Thus, the fantasy of maternal love is what links women together and furthers the idea that the mother is synonymous with women.
The fantasy of the mother may help us understand why women continue to want to become mothers even if they are not able to “mother” like the collective fantasy of the perfect mother would prescribe. The idea of the perfect mother highlights the significance and persistence of childhood fantasies in adulthood. “Fantasy weaves together infantile, childhood, and adult desire in a labile mix, expressed variously in dreams, reveries, and stories” (Scott 20). Desire from infancy remains with individuals and combines with new desires that play out in collective fantasies that become cultural myths. Furthermore, Scott describes how fantasy specifically operates to manage the difficulty society has with defining identity through sexual difference. The struggle exists because sexual difference is ultimately unable to be known—a desire to know that cannot be adequately satisfied. “Fantasies are the myths cultures develop to answer questions about the origins of subjects, sexual difference and sexuality” (Scott 49). Childhood fantasies emerge once the bisexuality of infancy is discovered to be false. Children realize that they must be either male or female. Thus, fantasies are centered on providing substance to what it means to be a man or a woman in society. “Psyche and culture merge here and reflexively create one another” (Chodorow 90). A child’s unconscious desire interacts with cultural myths to develop revised fantasies that attempt to explain gender identity. Collective childhood fantasies about mothers solidify mothering for women. The childhood desire for the ultimate power and love held by mothers illuminate why middle-class women fought to enter the workforce but will not sacrifice the mothering role and thus, fantasize about “having it all.”
As we have seen, the cultural image of the supermom can be understood as a fantasy and fantasies are stories that support the normative categories associated with sexual difference by creating a linear history that obscures specificity. However, fantasies can also challenge normative categories through the way they bring people together as a group. Scott explains, “people aren’t mobilized according to purely objective interests, but rather according to interests created for them by collective fantasies. Such fantasies infuse interest with desire and seem to provide an answer to the impossible question of identity, to the subjects’ quest for wholeness and coherence, by merging them into a group” (19). The fantasy of feminist history brought women together to critique cultural norms at the same time that it reaffirmed “women” as a category by bolstering the identity as consistent and unifying. Similarly, the fantasy of the supermom challenges the idea that workers should be masculine while confirming mothers as feminine, which supplies women with an identity that seemingly fulfills “all” childhood desires. The collective fantasy allows the working mother to feel unity, as part of feminist history at the same time that her identity feels fractured between desires to be male and female.
As we saw earlier, the fantasy continues to operate even as components are revealed to be misleading or false. However, once the fantasy is called into question through the revelation of a discontinuous history that illuminates differences with the group, the desire that joins people together is threatened. Scott outlines how the destabilization of the coherence of “women” as a category endangered the future of feminism. When faced with the loss of their object of desire (women), feminists reacted with melancholy rendering them unable to move forward, feeling lost and disjointed. Scott contrasts the different responses to the loss of a person, concept, or ideal through psychoanalytic concepts: “Unlike mourning, which consciously addresses the loss, melancholy is an unconscious process; the lost object is not understood as such” (31). The melancholic does not believe that the ideal has been lost and thus, continues to insist on acknowledging that it is possible. In the case of the fantasy of the perfect working mother, we have already seen that many women believe that the ideal still exists even though they personally have not been able to achieve it. As Scott notes, “the melancholic identifies with the lost object and displaces her grief and anger onto herself” (31). Thus, rather than understanding the ideal as impossible, women in the 1980s and 2010s become melancholic with the loss and blame themselves. “Turned in on herself, the melancholic dwells only in the past” (Scott 31). Further, many women still think about the past and see a fantasized history of what the feminist movement fought for. Slaughter writes, “women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation”. Like feminists being unable to let go of “women” as a group because of feminism’s history, working mothers are unwilling to give up on the ideal of the supermom that feminism made possible and so they dwell at the height of the feminist movement to feel part of something bigger.
While Hochschild, Slaughter, and Spar appear to acknowledge the loss of the supermom, they actually may still be holding on to the possibility of “making it work” by pointing to societal structures that impede working mothers. Hochschild notes from her 1980s studies: “the exodus of women into the economy has not been accompanied by a cultural understanding of marriage and work that would make this transition smooth” (12). Thus, Hochschild, while arguing that the woman with the flying hair is not real, at the same time is suggesting that the image could be achieved if society recognized that changes in institutions are necessary for women to be able to have it all. Slaughter, in arguing “Why Women Can’t Have It All”, outlines how employers need to alter practices and thought about successful careers including offering and not penalizing flexible work arrangements, allowing for “breaks” in upward mobility, and operating with a “family-first” mentality. Spar explicitly states that “no woman can have it all” but also proposes that “making a world that is better for women also demands that women work together”. If women help each other out, working mothers may be able to have it all. Thus, melancholy, when the loss is not fully acknowledged because the ideal may still be possible, can serve to reinforce the fantasy. Scott argues that escaping from melancholy requires moving on and further, “to be able to think about the future means to be willing to separate oneself from the lost object, avow the loss and find a new object for passionate attachment” (31). Once the melancholic truly recognizes the falsity of an ideal and replaces it with a new one, group cohesion is no longer threatened.
Scott’s use of melancholy changes the fantasy of feminist history. She reveals that “women” were not actually the object of desire, but rather critical study was the desire all along. Thus, the object of feminism is not lost but had actually been obscured. Feminism can survive with women collectively desiring critique, which will never fully be satisfied. Thus, fantasy will again support group continuity. Understanding the case of the perfect working mother as a fantasy brings to light questions about the desire that is playing out. Through the fantasy analysis, the desire of women has been characterized as wanting to achieve both sameness and difference with regards to men and specifically, difference as maternal love. If the desire is for the concurrent sameness and difference, it remains unclear whether the melancholy described above is reacting to the loss of sameness or difference. Melancholy could be for the loss of sameness because the pull of mothering is too strong for women to believe they can be the same as men. On the other hand, melancholy could be for the loss of difference due to the strides women have made in the workplace, removing the excitement from transgressing in a man’s world.
However, using Scott’s analysis, perhaps the “jouissance” that women are searching for in the fantasy of the working mother is really ambition or the thrill of constant struggle. Women’s jouissance may be the desire to feel ambitious or to have a goal to strive for and to leave younger generations pushing for a goal, even if it is unreachable. “We seem stuck today in a purgatory of perfection—each of us trying so hard to be everything that inevitably, inherently, we fail. So what then are we to do? One possibility of course is simply to give up; to acknowledge women’s destinies as something different from men’s and stop complaining about it. This, however, hardly seems fair, either to the generations who fought so hard for women’s freedoms, or to those who have not yet had the opportunity to give these freedoms a try” (Spar). The struggle of the feminist movement is invoked repeatedly in relation to ambition to explain why women should keep fighting to “have it all.” Thus, perhaps the fantasy is where women can continue to unite around a common, unending battle, playing out a desire for ambitious struggle.
The fantasy of the working mother remains in place while some high-profile working mothers have entered a state of melancholy, leaving the cultural image of the supermom intact even as the women explain why they could not have it all. Slaughter, in particular, attributes her desire to leave her prominent job to the nagging sensation that she was not being a good mother due to the demands of work. The analysis of the cultural image of “the woman who has it all” through Scott and Chodorow’s conceptions of fantasy highlights just how crucial the “mother” part is to “having it all” because of the deep-seated infantile fantasies and resulting seemingly irrational desire to mother at the cost of one’s career success. When the image of the working mother first emerged in the 1970s, mothers tended to be the primary caretakers of children. With the changes in childcare brought about by middle-class women entering the workforce, it is possible that the different interactions with the mother will alter the fantasy of perfect mother. Consequently, if childhood fantasies do not include a strong desire for the maternal, the strong tug of mothering for working women may be loosened. “Having it all” may then not require being a perfect mother, but the fantasy of “having it all” could still remain if it is the setting for desire for continual struggle. In another conception, if the unconscious desire for the maternal is lost, the idea of “having it all”, through difference from men and the sameness of maternal love, will not exist. The use of fantasy helps to illuminate why “having it all” is the standard for women, but not for men in American culture. Mothering remains an integral piece of women’s collective identity, solidified through unconscious desire.
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