Just when we think we understand what it means to be a mom in 21st-century America, along comes a whole new category of motherhood that could send many of us into paroxysms of insecurity and inadequacy.
Forget soccer moms and stay-at-home moms and three-martini moms. The hip, new moniker for success as a parent puts mom squarely at the forefront of all things: She is alpha mom.
According to recent news accounts, alpha mom is the current label for America's high-tech, media-savvy, consumer-trendy mother. She wields a BlackBerry in one hand, an additional cell phone in the other, and when she's not sitting behind the wheel of her SUV (a Hummer fits the image nicely), she's parked in front of her laptop doing "consumer research" (aka shopping).
Not only does alpha mom control 85% of her family's household spending, she and her alpha cohorts represent $500 billion in total consumer spending.
$500 billion — that's a lot of Cheerios.
Of course, the reason alpha mom is so attractive to marketers isn't just the power she exerts over the purse strings in her own home but her willingness to spread the word about the very latest stuff she has purchased for her children and herself. She's a bona fide authority on everything cool. If alpha mom buys something, it's the thing to have.
Alpha mom is raising so-called alpha kids, the first ones on the block to see the latest movies, for example, and own the collateral products that support the debut of the film. (By now, the alpha kids on your block have seen Shrek the Third more than once and know all the songs from the movie because they already have loaded the tunes into their IPods, and they own the movie's spinoff game for Nintendo Wii).
Even the Joneses couldn't keep up with alpha mom. She's raised our standard for parenting to a corporate-level executive post.
Now, if you happen to be reading this while waiting for your laptop calendar to synchronize with your PDA, please forgive me. I'm not out to offend anyone.
But let me just say this about alpha moms: Oh, please.
First off, my own mother would tell you that "alpha" is just another word for "mom" anyway. Having access to digital technology does not make the mom. Having access to the words "yes" and "no" — this is the power that makes every mom the alpha human in her household.
Also, since when is it news that mothers control 85% of household spending? Even in our age of parental enlightenment, I don't see a whole lot of dads at the grocery store checkout counter or standing outside the fitting room at the Gap or killing time at the orthodontist's office while their children get rewired — all places that account for big chunks of household spending.
If the discovery that mothers are America's principal shoppers has only now created a marketing category for them, I have to wonder: Didn't any of the men who work in marketing ever notice while growing up that their moms bought everything in the house?
Someone probably paid good money for research to tell them what every woman in America could explain between trips to the megamall: Motherhood is high finance. (My husband would tell you the most expensive phrase I can utter is, "Guess how much I saved us today?" This doesn't mean I refrained from spending; it only means I shopped a sale.)
Perhaps what's new about the marketing analysis of mothers as spenders is the notion that spending is power, and therefore, alpha moms finally are being accorded their due respect.
Here's the really annoying part of the alpha mom phenomenon — her counterpart isn't beta mom — it's slacker mom.
Think about that for a minute — supposedly, if you're not running through the grocery store with a Bluetooth receiver in your ear, simultaneously buying organic snacks for your children as you schedule an appointment for your little darling with a private tennis coach, you're just not getting the job done.
I guess I'm a slacker, and that's all there is to it.
What irks me about the whole image of the alpha mom is that it has nothing to do with motherhood.
Motherhood is a powerful role; American marketers are right about that. But every mother is most powerful in moments that are completely free of charge, except for the expenditure of time, attention, insight and understanding that she brings to her unique and irreplaceable position.
American poet William Ross Wallace said it better more than 125 years ago in his classic poem:
All true trophies of the ages
Are from mother-love impearled;
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.
OK, so Wallace couldn't envision a day when mom could wind up the cradle to rock itself while she folded a load of laundry, but his poem still speaks the truth. The power of a mother's love is something Madison Avenue isn't ever going to figure out how to exploit.
It has always been a hands-free, wireless and wonderful job, and thankfully, it's still entirely doable without a BlackBerry.