Peggy Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)–Are mothers goddesses? Or are we responsible for everything that’s wrong with our children, our families and the world?

We hail mothers as life-givers and supreme nurturers, then blame them–and ourselves–when children and families develop problems.

Cultural convenience continues to define good and bad mothering, just as it has through the ages. Mothers have traditionally been viewed as saints, victims or villains. It wasn’t that long ago when clinicians thought mothers caused autism and schizophrenia, along with 70 other psychopathologies. Even today, mothers are easy targets of blame when children develop disorders of one kind or another or when marriages go sour.

But just as the heavy burden of blame misses the mark so does the myth of the good mother and perfect family. As mothers, we internalize these myths, turning on ourselves our doubts about our mothering abilities or achievements. We even blame ourselves for feeling ambivalent about mothering.

Yet despite the pressure to live up to unrealistic, idealized images of motherhood, most mothers are doing their jobs well, showing remarkable strength and competence, often in the face of daunting odds. What’s more, as American women progress in professional and public life, they are increasingly using their experience as mothers to influence public policy and provide leadership that can make a difference to children and families on a broader scale.

Political Leadership by Mothers

Just consider the efforts and accomplishments of some of our female politicians who are also mothers.

Louisiana’s Senator Mary Landrieu and her state face unprecedented challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The needs of Louisiana’s children and families have increased exponentially, as the state struggles to rebuild its infrastructure. Landrieu is now actively pursuing funding for levees and support for small business. While much remains to be done to meet the needs of children and families, Landrieu’s record shows her interest in making progress in this area.

The mother of two adopted children, Landrieu believes that all children deserve a loving and nurturing family. She is a supporter of domestic and international adoption, co-sponsoring the Safe and Stable Families Act to ease adoption and working to increase the adoption tax credit, reform the foster care system and help families committed to international adoption. She has helped launch early childhood programs to prepare children for school and has sponsored legislation aimed at relieving poverty.

"Senators who are parents made a difference in the development of public policy," Landrieu told Women’s eNews, "because as parents, we understand what other parents go through. We understand the challenges of raising children."

Congresswoman Barbara Lee took her experience as a mother and grandmother, social worker and California state representative to the U.S. House when she was elected to fill a vacant seat in 1998. Lee has become a vocal advocate of civil rights, free speech and efforts to fight HIV-AIDS. In 2001, she received international attention as the lone dissenting voice in Congress to oppose a resolution authorizing President Bush to "use all necessary and appropriate force" in the war against terrorism.

Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1993 at age 33. Five years later, she became the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Senate and was re-elected by a wide margin in 2004. Sen. Lincoln also mothers two children and is a vocal proponent of child protection laws, daycare programs and anti-child abuse legislation.

Championing Women’s Causes

Washington Senator Patty Murray, a mother and a grandmother, makes the needs of working families her primary concern, focusing on health care, closing the pay gap between men and women, and increasing access to child care. She was also a key player in the passage and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and 2002.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, while not always in political agreement, are both mothers who have impressive records on child welfare, abortion rights, children’s health care, and working to end sexual discrimination.

New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, a former educator and mother of two daughters, led efforts in the Congress to ensure post-Sept. 11 funding for New York’s schools. Former co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, Maloney advocates for women’s and family issues, particularly funding for women’s health, reproductive freedom and international family planning.

Many mothers have also shown that you don’t have to be an elected official to effect social change. One daughter I know of told her mom with great excitement that she’d been accepted on the cheerleading team. The mother’s response: "I won’t let you do it. If you’re interested in a sport, you play it, not cheer it." Today that daughter is a highly regarded pediatrician and a mother herself.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving was started in 1980 by a group of brokenhearted mothers. Today, it is the world’s largest crime victims’ assistance organization, with more than 3 million members and supporters.

The Million Mom March for gun control grew out of a New Jersey mother’s horror about a gunman who randomly shot at a group of children in Granada Hills, Calif., in 1999. Today, 75 chapters promote sensible gun laws in their state legislatures.

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was launched in 1972 by a mother enraged that her son had been beaten at a gay rights protest while police looked on. Now PFLAG reaches families through more than 500 chapters nationwide.

Building Character and Confidence

It’s increasingly clear that even without the presence of a strong father, mothers are fully capable of engendering character, self-confidence and ambition in their children. Just ask San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom; bicyclist and cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong; and former President Bill Clinton. All credit their single mothers by circumstance as instrumental in their success.

Strong mothers raise strong daughters, too. California’s Sanchez sisters, Linda and Loretta, are the first sisters to serve in Congress. Loretta, a businesswoman and ranking woman on the House Armed Services Committee, is serving her fifth term. Linda, an attorney and labor leader, is an advocate for working families in her second term in Congress. Two of seven children of immigrant parents from Mexico, the sisters credit their mother Maria for their early start in politics.

In "Raising Boys Without Men," my study of lesbian couples and single mothers by choice and circumstance, I write about strong women who are fostering feelings of forbearance and protectiveness in their children–not shame about their unconventional families and moms. These mothers, who tend to be older and better off than most, must also possess the determination to become parents via donor insemination or adoption, parenting independent-minded, progressive children who, like their mothers, will alter the terms of society and the family.

After a century of industrialization that separated work life from family life, women are restoring the balance, says Landrieu. "We want to have a society where people can be good workers and good parents. You need both to maintain a healthy society. So the policies that we women fight very passionately and emotionally for are those that we believe are the future of the country."

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., author of "Raising Boys Without Men," (Rodale, 2005) is an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Her Web site is

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For more information:

Mothers Against Drunk Driving:

Million Mom March:

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: