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Motherhood redefined "Slacker Moms" say no to overcoddling, overindulging and overscheduling their children

She says no to pricey iPods, Game Boys and $200 Juicy Couture sweatsuits.

She shakes her head -- nope, sorry -- when a child begs to sign up for one more activity: softball, dancing, hockey, drama.

She expects help with the household chores. She even lets her kid fend for himself on homework. After all, she's done hers already, right?

Meet the slacker mom.

She's the new face of motherhood -- a small but growing contingent.

That's right: At a time when many American women are fighting the losing battle for perfect motherhood -- a phenomenon captured in the controversial book "Perfect Madness" and in the character of Bree on "Desperate Housewives," among other places -- other women are purposefully turning their backs on that image.

They don't want their kids growing up coddled and chore-free.

They don't want to indulge their children with lots of material stuff.

And they definitely don't think it's their job to run around to a million activities every week, thank you very much.

"I don't think moms should spend their days shuttling their kids around from activity to activity, and losing sight of who they are themselves," said Julie Stefko, an Orchard Park nurse practitioner and mom to Miles, who's almost 2. "I try to find a nice balance between what I want to do during the day, and what suits him."

No doubt about it, slacker motherhood -- a national phenomenon -- has arrived in Western New York.

Slacker moms are women who don't overindulge and overschedule their children. They love their kids, but they don't turn them into little deities. They want help from their kids with household chores. They don't care if their children get into Ivy League colleges, as long as they learn up to their abilities. And they keep a sense of humor -- and a relaxed attitude -- about parenting.

Some women in the Buffalo area recognize themselves in the phenomenon -- not that they like the "slacker" label.

"It sounds like I sit around all day, eating bonbons and watching soaps while my son runs around in a dirty diaper," said Meg Kontrabecki Jones, 30, a Buffalo mother of a 19-month-old son, Colin, and a high school English teacher currently on leave from her job.

Still, she said, "I guess I would consider myself more of a 'slacker mom' than a 'perfect mom.'"

For the term "slacker," women across the United States can thank Salt Lake City author Muffy Mead-Ferro, who published a humorous book called "Confessions of a Slacker Mom."

In it, Mead-Ferro confessed that -- upon becoming pregnant at age 38 -- she began buying into all the hype about what baby products she should buy for her unborn infant, from stimulating classical music CDs for the in-utero child to special baby-wipe warmers.

That's when she made herself stop the madness. And that's also when she realized the truth: she was a slacker as a mom.

"It's very tongue-in-cheek," Mead-Ferro said, of the term "slacker." "I'm not a complete derelict as a mother."

Mead-Ferro said there is a serious side to the label. It's meant to make people -- especially women, but dads, too -- stop and think about the craziness and hypercompetitiveness that has infiltrated modern parenting.

"It is possible to overperform as a parent," she said. "It's possible to give your kids too much. It's possible to do too much for your kids. This is really prevalent in our society."

"Parenting has really changed in the last 10 years," she said. "It's gotten very competitive and aggressive."

>Competing in Clarence

Lori Weinstein, a Clarence mom of four, agrees.

She's seen parents get steadily more stressed and more competitive in the upscale subdivision where she lives with her husband, Peter, and kids Sara, 15, Marley, 10, Nate, 3 1/2 , and Ayden, 3 months.

Where can this competitiveness be seen?

Weinstein sees it in the way some of these parents spoil their kids with expensive clothes, computers, cell phones and electronic gadgets.

"I have friends that drop hundreds of dollars on Juicy Couture kids' clothes, which they grow out of," said Weinstein, a part-time pharmaceutical sales representative. "Part of it is social status -- the parental desire to have it recognized that their kids are at a certain social status."

Weinstein doesn't let her kids have their own cell phones or computers in their rooms, and she's said no to expensive gadgets like Game Boys -- even though some of her kids' friends have two or three.

"It's hard to hold back and say no," she said. "Kids always want what other kids have."

Weinstein sees this hypercompetitiveness, too, in the way some parents never say "no" -- especially to their kids' desires to take part in sports and activities every night of the week.

Weinstein and her husband set rules about activities: one sport for each child, plus one other activity, like acting classes. And no travel teams.

That leaves more time for family togetherness, Weinstein said.

"A good number of our friends run their kids everywhere," said Weinstein, who grew up in Eden with relatively strict parents. "Not only are they on teams, they're on travel teams. I have a hard time understanding how people find that fun or enjoyable."

Sure, her kids object sometimes to the limits placed on them. But Weinstein said that happens less than you might think.

"I say, 'You know what? I love you,' " she said. "It's all in how you explain it."

>Push for perfection

Why is the slacker mom phenomenon happening?

Part of it is backlash against the pressure on women to be perfect in their many roles.

"It's a shift in consciousness," said Lisa Earle McLeod, an Atlanta-based writer and motivational speaker whose book, "Forget Perfect," served as an early harbinger of the trend when it appeared in 2001.

"All these women are running around, trying to do all these things," said McLeod, who also writes a column that appears in The Buffalo News. "They've bought this TV version of things. But the perfect house, the perfect kid, the perfect exterior, never makes you happy."

The slacker mom phenomenon also has roots in resistance to the current generation of parents' ability and desire to give their kids all the possessions and activities they never had, observers said.

Most of these parents have good incomes and don't hesitate to spend money on their kids, said Mead-Ferro, an advertising executive who has already sold the movie rights to her book.

"That was definitely the case for me and my husband," she said. "We can afford to have too many things."

As a society, Mead-Ferro said, "We've gotten to a place where the only thing that has value for us is the thing still at the store. This is a mentality that can be instilled at a very early age."

Kontrabecki Jones, the teacher, said she is trying to raise her son to be reliant on his imagination for fun, not possessions.

"I just want him to be a kid," she said. "He will have many responsibilities foisted upon him soon enough -- but while he is so young, I think that he should be playing, using his imagination, developing his creativity, and enjoying himself."

"That's what I got to do when I was a kid," she said, "and I had a terrific childhood. I wouldn't want to take that away from him in the pursuit of 'perfection.' "

>Going overboard

In Western New York, about half of the 98,254 families in Erie and Niagara counties headed by a married couple earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per year, U.S. census data shows. Some families earn less; some more. (Perhaps not surprisingly, single-parent homes fare worse -- for example, of the 36,262 households headed by single moms in the two-county Buffalo Niagara area, most fall into the $25,000-and-under category when it comes to income, data shows.)

Among two-parent households here, though, this pattern seems to be playing out: affluence equals permissiveness and even competitiveness among parents of young children.

"It's an upper middle-class phenomenon," said Dr. Patricia B. Christian, chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice at Canisius College. "You do see people going overboard."

Ask a middle-class mom in Western New York and chances are she'll tell you she sees it happening in her own neighborhood.

"People are spending $500 to $700 on their kids' birthdays now," said Weinstein, in Clarence. "I'm not depriving (my kids), but I do want them to make choices."

In Orchard Park, Stefko said she and her husband already feel some pressure from parents in the surrounding neighborhoods, about what toys her son has and what schools and activities he'll attend. They tell her that Miles should already be on wait lists for the "right" places, she said.

"It seems to be kicked up a notch in Orchard Park," said Stefko, 30, who moved to the town a few months ago from Buffalo. "In the city, moms were more laid-back."

"But in my head," she said, "every time I have one of these conversations (with another parent), I'm thinking: Miles is only 2.' "

>Pressure cooker

In a way, observers said, the slacker mom movement -- countercultural and unquantifiable as it is in these early stages -- comes as the natural response to the push for perfection.

"Women have realized that they have put themselves last on their own priority list," said McLeod in Atlanta. "They've created this whole thing in their own minds. I think we will really get to where we have grown when we realize we don't have to throw off the shackles of anything -- true happiness was waiting for us all along."

At Canisius, Christian said the backlash against the idea of perfect motherhood can be viewed as a healthy development.

"Maybe it's a healthy sign," she said. "It's harder for moms -- there is this pressure on women to be these supermoms. That's hard to fight against."

Now, she said, "the pendulum is swinging back."

Christian admits that, if so, such a move would benefit her, as well. She's raising her kids in Kenmore, and she said that her approach is to let them run around and play outside, rather than drive them to lots of activities.

"I guess I'm a slacker mom," she joked.

-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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