Slacker Mom? It's OK
PARK CITY - At an appearance for an informal parenting group here, author Muffy Mead-Ferro leads a discussion about the trials of modern motherhood.
Women talk about being ashamed to bring store-bought potato salad to parties, or about avoiding parties altogether because keeping up appearances is just too much work.
They feel they have to match other parents who rent magicians and inflatable moon bounces for children's birthday parties, schedule organized play dates and cart their kids to every extracurricular activity imaginable.
"Is there a baking pan you can put frozen lasagne in?" one asks.
These are just the type of women Mead-Ferro writes about in her two books, Confessions of a Slacker Mom and, now, Confessions of a Slacker Wife: affluent, successful in their careers and pushing themselves to be the best at everything. They tend to marry later and have fewer children, but have more resources to lavish on them.
In short, they're a lot like Mead-Ferro, who married in her mid-30s and had her first baby, daughter Belle, at 38 - after she already had established herself as a formidable businesswoman.
"We tend to bring that same competitive zeal to our house and child rearing. I think my books speak to that demographic," she says. "I always get some slacker mom/slacker wife stories, wherever I go."
Living in posh Park City may seem enviable to many Utahns, but for some who live there, feelings of inadequacy persist - or perhaps are even worse.
"People got here because they've worked really hard to achieve the dream, and the dream often turns out to be somewhat empty. It doesn't feel the way they thought it would," said Rita Baden, a therapist with a practice in Park City who believes so strongly in the slacker mom concept that she is organizing a class on how to be one.
"What I see is women, and sometimes men, who feel a sense of frustration because they've built a 45,000-square-foot house and have a Hummer, and things are still 'eh,' " Baden said.
"She brings out the truth in a great way, so we can laugh at it and it really sinks in," said Barbara Fontaine, a Park City resident who attended the reading.
The books tell amusing snippets of Mead-Ferro's life. She didn't start out to write a book about the sociology of parenting, she says, but she couldn't help but muse on some of the ways she saw herself as different from other modern moms.
She doesn't claim to be a slacker at work or even at home - she is still a high-powered advertising executive, and her house is neat and beautifully appointed, if not spotless. But when it comes to raising kids, she says, it's time for moms to back off.
Her late mother is her inspiration. As a tough woman working a Wyoming ranch, she was very different from some of the affluent urban mothers Mead-Ferro saw around her, who shuttled their kids from one activity to the next and were proud of how much of their own lives they sacrificed for their offspring.
Like her mother, Mead-Ferro is teaching her kids to make their own meals, clean their own rooms and do their own laundry. On a typical afternoon in the family's east-side Salt Lake City house, Mead-Ferro's 5-year-old son Joe makes himself a pickle, mustard and cheese sandwich under the supervision of the family baby sitter, who comes by three days a week. When mom goes outside without him or off to work, he hardly seems bothered.
"How wonderful it was to be raised with a little bit of independence," Mead-Ferro said. These days, "you don't see kids out playing without adult supervision, and that's a great tragedy. . . . It's good for them to know they're not the center of the planet."
Clearly, Mead-Ferro's books have hit a nerve with American women: Slacker Mom became a quick best seller in Utah and California, then sold more than 100,000 copies total, and both books have been featured in national print and television. They tap into the frustrations of trying to handle not only a career, family, home and social life, but also do them all well.
Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families and author of Marriage: A History, says women are overwhelmed in a society that tells them they are responsible for all these things and piles on the guilt rather than help.
"Both in marriage and in parenting, we are imposing higher standards than any generation before,'" Coontz said. "There's a good side to that: We expect more intimacy and fairness and communication. . . . But the other side is, we've piled these demands on, especially on women."
It's all part of a culture that makes women feel they can't be thin enough, dressed well enough, productive enough or have clean enough houses - or successful-enough children. After all, if women were happy how they are, who would buy all those cleaners, magazines, clothes and weight-loss products?
"Guilty people are great targets for advertising," Coontz said.
"We just kind of have to resist this consumerist pressure that you can buy an answer to this."
Mead-Ferro's background makes her unusually equipped to comment on such pressures.
"The fact that I come from advertising is extremely relevant, because I've become jaded about marketing. Do [advertisers] have my best interests at heart? Absolutely not," she said. "I do wish that people would look at marketing with a more jaundiced eye."
During commercial breaks from one episode of "Desperate Housewives," Mead-Ferro paid attention to the ads - and found message after message about room fresheners, cleaners and paper towels. "I thought, 'No wonder the housewives are so desperate.' " And don't even get her started on the how many women feel compelled to keep their homes "anti-bacterial," despite increasing evidence that being exposed to germs actually strengthens kids' immune systems.
Although Slacker Mom has struck a chord with some, not everyone likes the book. One Amazon.com reviewer said, "The author's entire point seems to be 'Here is how I was raised, and it's clearly superior.' . . . In other words, it's the same old parenting-advice guilt trip in slightly different packaging."
Mead-Ferro also has gotten criticism from a few women who find her selfish. During an appearance on "Oprah," another guest castigated her for saying her relationship with her husband was more important than that with her children.
No matter how much they'd like to get off the motherhood merry-go-round, women don't feel safe doing so even if it means jeopardizing their identities and even their marriages, Mead-Ferro says. With them, the most persuasive argument is that her approach is better for the kids.
"There's this scare tactic, you know, that your kids will be on drugs if you don't look after them all the time," Coontz said. "Marriage is more fair and intimate, but you also have to work harder at it. But they're being told that if they don't spend all this time with their kids, then their kids will fail."
Women "basically just want someone to tell them it's OK, that my child will be OK if I opt out of this," Mead-Ferro said. "They want their kids to be able to compete. In fact, your kids might be better able to compete if you leave them alone once in a while."
Are you a slacker mom? (Don't worry if you are)
* Perfect mom: Cleans kids' rooms, even making
* Slacker mom: Teaches kids to clean their own
rooms, or shuts their doors
* Perfect mom: Takes kids to karate, violin,
ballet, swimming and Chinese
* Slacker mom: Feels lucky to get kids to school on time
* Perfect mom: Gives children all the latest in
* Slacker mom: Gives kids cardboard boxes and
wooden blocks, or just sends
them into the back yard to play
* Perfect mom: Brings homemade hors
d'oeuvres to friends' parties
* Slacker mom: Brings potato chips and onion