Mars Needs Ozzie and Harriet!

In an interview on NPR earlier this week, Berkeley Breathed, author of the comic strip "Bloom County," talked about his new children's book, "Mars Needs Moms!" The main character of the story is a little boy named Milo who, according to Breathed, sees his mother from a very limited perspective (much as Breathed's young son sees his own mom) -- as a bossy broccoli bully. Milo does not understand why mothers are nonetheless "worshipped" all over the world.

Martians looking at our planet, however, see how "cool" moms are and kidnap Milo's mom (the premise is evidently that the inhabitants of Mars reproduce asexually and therefore have no moms). When the boy visits Mars and watches his mom's activities there (which, I gathered from the interview, includes chaperoning little martians to soccer pratice, cooking, cleaning, and tending to scrapes and cuts), he gets a "new perspective" on his mom that he lacked before and now appreciates her more.

If I didn't know better, I might have thought I was listening to an interview recorded in 1957 instead of 2007. Breathed sheepishly acknowledges the potential offense that one might take to such stereotyping of mothers by saying that he got into a little trouble over the domestic emphasis and suggesting with a giggle that he should have made the mother an IBM executive by day. The trouble with the story, as described, however, does not lie primarily in the fact that the main character's mom appears to be a full-time homemaker. Plenty of women perform (without assistance) the very sorts of selfless tasks that Milo's mom does. The problem is that Breathed seems to define motherhood by reference to these exhausting and thankless tasks. He seems to believe, moreover, that a "different" perspective -- that of the martians -- can help illuminate this praiseworthy maternal essence for Milo. Breathed uncritically accepts and celebrates mothers' consignment to domestic drudgery and asks us to teach our children simply to appreciate their sacrifice.

Perhaps Breathed could next write "Why Mars Needs Undocumented Aliens," the story of an ungrateful young aristocrat who learns to appreciate the smiling men who do back-breaking, off-the-books labor for dirt wages on his father's plantation.

What disappoints most about the idea of Breathed's story is the unfulfilled promise of such an interesting premise. An inter-planetary fantasy could have provided a wonderful opportunity to expose the limited nature of sex-role assignments, perhaps by contrasting our planet with a more enlightened one on which fathers share in the drudgery of domestic labor and women spend more of their childcare time reading to their children, bathing them, and taking them to the museum. Or maybe the story could have shown how martians, without the nagging of loving parents, grow weak and sick. With all of this possibility, however, Breathed chose instead to pay homage to mothers by suggesting that even if they were to exit our planet, they would still drive their minivans to soccer practice, as though programmed in the town of Stepford.