- What Does it Take to Be a “Good Mother?”: Contemporary Motherhood Ideology and the Feminist Potential of Lisa Loomer’s Dramaturgy
Two recent plays by Lisa Loomer, Living Out and Distracted, are set in a historical moment in which a particular, and arguably patriarchal, definition of a “good mother” has become entrenched in the public imagination. Living Out, which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 2003 and in New York City at Second Stage Theatre (2003), chronicles the parallel stories of two women juggling work and motherhood; a wealthy suburban lawyer, and the Latina nanny she hires to care for her baby. Loomer tells their stories in often overlapping scenes that theatricalize the parallels between them, but also highlight their class differences and the discrepancy in what is at stake for each. In Distracted, which also premiered at the Mark Taper Forum (2007) and was later produced in New York City by the Roundabout Theatre (2009), a mother struggles to come to terms with her son’s behavior, potential diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD),1 and treatment options in the midst of bombarding and conflicting messages—from neighbors, teachers, doctors, newspapers, her husband—all the while trying to hold on to a bit of her professional identity and her marriage. This essay argues that Loomer’s plays do contradictory cultural work; on the one hand, they put the experience of twenty-first-century mothering center-stage, but on the other, they participate in a discourse that sustains the hegemony of contemporary motherhood ideology. The former provides fertile ground for productive moments of exhilaration for feminist spectators, but the latter reinforces patriarchal notions of what constitutes “good mothering.”
My investigation is informed by a feminist perspective; I consider how the plays’ themes engage with current debates pertinent to women’s lives, whether and how the plays represent and validate female characters and their experiences, and whether the plays offer a critique of patriarchal ideologies, specifically the cultural construct of the “good mother.” I also examine the significance of Loomer’s position as a female playwright aiming for commercial success, as gender inequities in American theatre have received much media attention in the last several years. [End Page 5] “Feminist critique,” scholars Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra note, “fundamentally emphasizes the operations of power, whether economic, social, ideological or representational.”2 My analysis aims to reveal the material and ideological stakes of contemporary representations of mothers and mothering in a cultural moment many have labeled “postfeminist,” and argues that because this ideology has created impossible standards for women to meet, “attention must be paid.”3 Contemporary motherhood ideology is part of a broader discourse of postfeminist culture in which, as scholar Angela McRobbie explains, feminism is seen as a “spent force” which is “no longer needed.”4 In response to this new paradigm, feminist critic Jill Dolan has made this suggestion: “Many American feminist performance theorists and critics have historically looked to the outside or the margins for effective, socially critical theatre. Perhaps it is now time to acknowledge the potential of looking inside as well, and to address feminism as a critique or value circulating within our most commercial theatres.”5 My analysis considers Loomer’s plays themselves, as well as the critical reaction they received and the cultural context in which they operate, to illuminate the potential the plays and their performances hold for offering a feminist critique of contemporary mothering ideology.
Loomer’s protagonists find themselves in the midst of a specific cultural moment. Sociologist Sharon Hays argues, “the ideology of intensive mothering is . . . the dominant ideology of socially appropriate child rearing in the contemporary United States.”6 Hays defines the parameters of this ideology: “The model of intensive mothering tells us that children are innocent and priceless, that their rearing should be carried out primarily by individual mothers and that it should be centered on children’s needs, with methods that are informed by experts, labor-intensive, and costly.”7 The ideology of intensive mothering has generated a virtually unattainable ideal for “good mothering” which negates maternal agency and “works to regulate women by demanding impossible-for-most-women-to-meet standards...