“I can’t have two dreams?” reads the bumper sticker line in the film, Ricki and The Flash, now in theaters.
It is a question that haunts working mothers everywhere.
The question comes from Ricki, a daring, asymmetrically-braided rocker mom played by Meryl Streep. After her divorce, Ricki leaves three growing children in Indianapolis with their father so that she can play rock star in a honkytonk bar in the small California town of “Tarzana.” Her dream: make it to the big time.
Here, Ricki is the female version of the dominant Tarzan male archetype, impossible to domesticate. But not uncommon on the other side of the gender divide. In fact, she’s merely doing her best to have what most men assume is their birthright—a family, and passion for what she does. Circumstance forces her to make the historically male choice—the “Mick Jagger choice,” as she calls it—to put her music first.
Granted, this is just one movie. It earned in $14 million at the box office in its first two weekends, a paltry return compared to the $300 million raked in by the testerone fest of Tom Cruise’s latest “Mission Impossible.”
But Ricki repeats a story that has been told across platforms and generations in the United States; from “Mommie Dearest” to “Mom.” (This last Emmy-winning sitcom starring Allison Janney features not one, but two generations of mothers who can’t get it right.)
True, Alicia Florick in “The Good Wife” is both a kick-ass lawyer and a good mom. Miranda Bailey of “Grey’s Anatomy” has stood up for single working mothers across America. But more often than not, the media depicts working mothers as harried, dysfunctional, pleading bundles of hormonal chaos. Take for example Claire in “Modern Family” or Frankie in “The Middle,” both drawing on the Roseanne Barr archetype of the resentful smart-mouth, forever 12 steps away from a smooth transition into a balanced life.
Maybe moms who are desperately seeking balance are more fun to watch. But what we need is a new role model for women—someone who can be both professionally or artistically fulfilled and a good mother—at the same time.
“Oh my god, she’s parenting, someone get a camera,” one of Ricki’s sons says snidely in Ricki and The Flash.
Streep herself knows real life isn’t always like this. Alongside her killer career, she raised a family of four children. Her co-star in Ricki and the Flash is her real daughter Mamie Gummer, who graduated from Northwestern University in 2005, where I taught for 18 years. I know that her mother visited her daughter’s campus performances regularly.
Streep is not alone as a real-life, two-dream mom. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of all women in this country with children under 18 are working. When you look just at single mothers, 8 out of 10 women work, according to a 2015 study by Catalyst.
I raised three sons as a single working mother—sole custody, sole support. Yes, I had a somewhat flexible schedule as a university assistant professor, journalist and author. I could write and grade papers any time of the day or night. I still clocked in between 60 and 70 hours of work each week. And I attended nearly all of their wrestling matches, tournaments and parent-teacher conferences. I am neither a martyr nor extraordinary. All my friends do the same.
Mothers have been working outside the home in this country for 150 years and more. Millions of women are getting it all done. Not all of them are wracked with regret, despite what Hollywood would have you think.
Mater competentia—that is my Latin made-up phrase for competent mothers—are underrepresented on the big and small screen alike. Yet women who can do some of it, most of the time are everywhere. We’re not extremely wealthy, but we’re extremely ambitious. We make it work. We are the Two-Dream Sisters. And we are rocking it at home and work in every city in this country.
A recent study from the University of Toronto reveals as much. In their treatise, “Stress and the Multiple-Role Woman; Taking a Closer Look at the Superwoman,” researchers Monika Sumra and Michael Schelaci write: “The results of our study therefore suggest that multiple role engagement in women, even at a relatively high level as experienced by ‘superwomen’ is not associated with significantly higher stress, or reduced life satisfaction.”
They go on to explain that there are two ways to look at the mixed role of the working mother. One is the “depletion hypothesis,” which suggests that one role is ideal, and that multiple roles lead to overload, stress and strain. The other is the “enrichment hypothesis” (my preference), which assumes that wearing multiple hats “enhances an individual’s resources, social connections, power, prestige and emotional gratification.” Amen.
“Instead of making you less powerful, less central, motherhood should make you more so—more connected to others, more part of the swim and swirl,” Katha Pollitt writes in her re-released 2015 memoir, Learning To Drive. Pollitt’s book has been made into a movie starring Patricia Clarkson, in theaters August 21. I can’t wait to see—on the big screen—a woman who manages to raise her daughter and her professional profile at the same time, with all the honesty of Ricki, and none of the full frontal fallouts.
Writer Diablo Cody, who wrote the screenplay for “Ricki and The Flash,” said in a recent interview that professional mommy angst is a topic she wanted to explore.
“I want to write about the choices women make as mothers and maybe the regrets they have as they grow older.” A successful mother herself, Cody adds, “It’s tough because I genuinely don’t feel that men have to apologize for providing for their kids. It’s just considered the default, whereas women actually feel like they’re making a selfish decision just by being productive.”
I say we encourage younger women to feel strong in their choices, not selfish, by giving them realistic role models. Let’s show them happy, satisfied working moms—mater competentia—on the big screen. It will make us all feel better. At the very least, it can’t make us feel worse.