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The Mother Lode of Guilt

How Betty Friedan Freed My Mother

By Megan Beyer

I learned from my own mother that guilt was the basic ingredient of motherhood. She was incredibly bright and driven and had it not been the 50s and 60s she could have done anything with her life. As it was, Suzanne wiped the noses, made the dinners, drove the carpools, and packed the lunches for six not-grateful-enough children. She was expected to set up house, raise the children and bask happily in the warm glow of domestic life. Not enjoying every June Cleaver minute of it, she felt guilt.

Answering the guilt of my mother's generation, Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique opened minds. It told women -- drop the guilt! Forget the expectations! Women deserve more -- more stimulation, more challenge, more prestige, more appreciation. And thus the women of the day were again hit hard -- the things they had perfected were deemed unworthy of even them. Many concluded it was too late for them, but for their daughters there was hope. Our mother nurtured our spirits, educated our minds and told us to go out and expect fulfillment. We would have it all!

She opened the door, we took the power trip, and then came our children. Today we mothers open the e-mail. A suggestion of a class party spreads insecurity like a computer virus. Before you know it, there are seventeen messages from seventeen mothers offering seventeen different salves for inadequacy: homemade pizza, fruit medleys, ice sculptures, goody bags, confetti, a polka band and 18 ramekins of crème brulee. Whether at our fulfilling jobs or at our granite-countered-kitchens, we feel guilty.

Check out the bus stop. Five minutes before bus wheels roll in mothers murmur like traders on the floor. Blackberry out, radar up:

 "I've got ballet at four, the tutor at six and the geography project drying in the basement -- what've you got?" 

"I've got OT at five, piano at six and we turned in the geography project yesterday."

Reports say mothers who can are fleeing their jobs to stay home with their children. But most of my friends say they were fleeing guilt. Ours was not our mothers' guilt -- wanting more than what they were told to want. Ours was the guilt of having more options and still not being satisfied. Each rung up the ladder brought you closer to the specter of being the bad mother.

But you can't go home again -- not to June Cleaver's, anyway. We were told to go out that door and be fulfilled -- not to stay home and have regrets. So we try to make going home fulfilling. We take that MBA case model approach and apply it to over-the-top class parties and value-added after-school scheduling. But being a parent is not one of those finite, zero-sum games. You can't march in and declare victory. It is a process of inches, a dance of the incremental, sort of like water torture. 

For our guilty generation -- enter Judith Warner's-Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. It tells women to drop the guilt! Forget the expectations! Let yourself be!  She chronicles today's anxious mother and the unsupportive society that does not let us lighten up and live a little. Our plight sounds no better than Suzanne's.

When my daughter Clara was little, every time we passed a certain street sign near our home she would shout excitedly, "Look MOM! Hidden Entrance!!!

And I would say -- "That's great honey, you can read."

I never knew what she meant. Recently she confessed to me she thought "Hidden Entrance" foretold of an exotic entrance we had been challenged to find. She believed it was a spot where if we looked hard enough we would discover the door through which we could enjoy mysterious magical adventure.

My children are now 13 and 10. The days of sitting on the floor with pots and pans are over. Just as it was for my mother, it is too late for me to have that in-the-moment guilt-free experience of motherhood. But I would like to save my daughters from this anxious maternity riddled with unrealized expectations, ambivalence and guilt.

The door I want to open for Clara is that hidden entrance. The one that takes you to the magical place that lets you breathe deeply enjoying the process of inches without an impending sense of hurry, inadequacy or unattained success: a motherhood that is enjoyed in context, in contentment and without regret.

mmo : march 2006

Megan Beyer is a regular panelist on the PBS political talk show, To the Contrary. Since 1984, she has worked as a reporter for various local and national television news programs. She lives in Northern Virginia.
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