College admissions scandal points to challenges of modern mothering
Operation Varsity Blues, the government investigation of a college admissions scandal with more than 30 parent indictments so far, reveals a disturbing picture of parents seemingly willing to break the law to ensure their children’s admission to elite universities. The images of two mothers involved in the scandal, actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are particularly compelling.
As a researcher of mothers and culture, I believe that our recent fascination with these women — who are mothers in real life and on screen — points to bigger questions about modern mothering.
While both mothers and fathers allegedly engaged in Operation Varsity Blues, it is the mothers who have taken center stage. The idea of mothers breaking federal laws in their efforts to secure admissions to competitive universities may be shocking, but it points to a cultural phenomenon researchers, such as sociologist Sharon Hays, call “intensive mothering.”
This phenomenon suggests that our culture uniquely burdens mothers, more so than fathers, with a wide range of responsibilities for their children’s well-being physically, socially and, yes, academically. In a world full of risks both real and imagined, it is the mother’s task to mitigate potential dangers or hardships for her child. She demonstrates “good” mothering through endeavors that can be time-consuming and costly, such as accessing experts’ advice and services to help her child overcome hardships.
More recently, the term “lawnmower parent” expresses a parent who removes — or mows over — any obstacle in the child’s path. Of course, mothers cannot possibly prevent their children from experiencing life’s difficulties, but these cultural expectations of good mothering suggest that it is nevertheless her responsibility to do so.
Under this logic, mothers are judged by their children’s successes and failures. Those perceived successes and failures may not be related to what is in the child’s, or the mother’s, best interest. While Huffman and Loughlin are celebrities, these cultural expectations for mothers hold for the not-so-rich and famous, too. All mothers are subject to these impossible standards, whether or not they have access to the privileges, as in this scandal.
In a now well-quoted Twitter post days before her arrest, Huffman wrote, “To all the moms out there, you’re all superheroes and you’re all good enough. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.” Ironically, in a misplaced effort to help their children, Huffman and Loughlin demonstrated just how far they were willing to go to be good enough.
While their cases may demonstrate intensive mothering at an extreme, it serves as an example of a culture that judges parents — particularly mothers — harshly on their children’s capabilities. These pressures go beyond the daily responsibilities that parents take on to keep their children safe, healthy and happy. Instead, such cultural expectations around mothering create unreasonable and unrealistic expectations for what mothers can and should control for their children.
We should question how the culture of intensive mothering harms not only women, but ultimately their children, too. Operation Varsity Blues signals the pressures even ordinary mothers face today.
Katherine Hampsten, Ph.D., explores intersections of gender, work and family as an associate professor of communication studies at St. Mary’s University. Her most recent research examines media representations of working parents.