I want to be a feminist mother but I am shackled by guilt, enslaved by a cultural and familial legacy of martyrdom. My culture tells me that I am not a good mother unless I unfailingly put my child’s needs before mine. My family history hints to me that my worth is measured by my suffering. As my husband says of his mother (a holocaust survivor), a martyr is a hero. Of course I want to be a hero. I strive to achieve the ideal and I feel guilty when I fail to measure up.
And yet, when guilt is my master, I cannot be a whole free woman. When guilt commands, I rush to get home by the time school is out even when my work is not done. When guilt twists its knife, I express avid interest in my daughter’s story even when my mind is on the unfinished work. When I obey the guilt, I push myself to be a better mother than I actually am.
But who is this Better Mother I try to emulate? She is my cheerful neighbor, whom I hardly know. She is the woman on the magazine cover, smiling as if to invite me into her arms. She is the mother I always wanted.
Yes, we are both victims and perpetrators of the inflation of the mommy ideal. When I set out to break free, I ran smack into my own doomed vow to surpass my mother. If I could live my ideal, I would show her and all the women around me that I am not so damaged. But I couldn’t do it. And that is what saved me.
Throughout my life, I have noticed that real change happens when I come face to face with the inevitable impossible. It was impossible for me to surpass my mother because I had become my mother. No, I didn’t look like her. I was assertive while she was apologetic and diminutive. I was flashy while she was subtle. And most important, I was super-attentive to my child while she was, I always claimed, so self-absorbed that she missed my cues, dissed my desires, and confused her needs with mine. If I could attune perfectly to my daughter, if I could adjust myself to her, if I could meet her needs, then surely I would vanquish my Bad Mother. So I did not realize at the time that I was replicating my mother’s insides.
I indulged in this intensive approach to mothering when my daughter was a baby, persisted when she was a toddler, then a preschooler. But then I hit 40, and a realization hit me. As a clinical psychologist, I was nurturing everyone around me, but something very big was missing. For one thing, a long dormant desire to perform was surfacing. I had started on the path of an actor years ago but took a turn toward a psychology career. Now I found myself in dance class again, wanting attention again. All around me, I saw women pouring themselves into their children, gathering to pick them up from school, volunteering in their children’s classes, devoting their evenings and weekends to homework and kid activities. I couldn’t keep up. And increasingly, I resented the demands of the school, the expectations of the other mothers, and the relentless interruptions by my child, who had learned, from me, to assume that any utterance mattered more than my unbroken train of thought.
While sometimes mothers around me would complain good-naturedly about this state of affairs, no one seemed to question the importance of this level of self-sacrifice. Anything less would be self-absorbed and bad for the children. Privately, gradually, I was beginning to question this idea, and I began to write about my experience and to read various perspectives on mothering. Where, previously, I sucked up Penelope Leach and Alice Miller, I now hungered for feminist literature, including Phyllis Chesler (Women’s Inhumanity to Women), Douglas & Michaels (The Mommy Myth), Anna Fels (Necessary Dreams), and Jessica Benjamin (The Bonds of Love). It became apparent to me that we were all making a fatal error. The odd thing was that, despite the clarity and consensus in the writing, it did not penetrate into my experience or the experience of the mothers around me. I cancelled my plan to write a book and sunk back into my dilemma.
And then one day…there was my daughter, dressed in a princess outfit, wielding a sword, saying, “I am King!” I picked up a camera. That scene, and how I worked with it, prompted the change that finally helped me crack the shackles of martyrdom. My daughter was beautiful and powerful, and she was sapping the life out of me. But when I picked up the camera, I picked up my power. As I filmed her and then mothers brave enough to talk about the price of sacrifice, I put myself back into the picture. I put my mother back into the picture, and with her, recovered my self.
I couldn’t become a feminist mother until I understood, from the inside, what mothering had taken from my mother. In the movie I ended up making, I say: “My mother ate me up, but she apologized for it. Chomp. Sorry. Chew. Sorry.” and so on. All my life I had been furious about the chomping. But now I understand that it was the apology that was the problem. Now I understand her hunger and how limited was her buffet. When she apologized to me, she injected the guilt that prevented me from being able to satisfy myself. To be a feminist mother, a woman needs nourishment, and not just from her children.
My mother was not able to tell me what she needed, not in words anyway. But she showed me. I saw her unhappiness in her expression, which she tried to hide but revealed in self-portraits that she drew. Through her art she taught me the truth and the value of truth. When I picked up the camera, I picked up her wisdom, and learned a way for us to be intimate at last. As she writes in her poem, Not Yet But Almost:
…the times ahead will be rough.
But I’ll wait out the loss.
I’ll wait for recovery, and rediscovery,
until we can know each other anew,
through the brush stroke, the key stroke,
the camera’s eye.
Through the pain, the laughter, the play
of the singular labor of art
we will wind our way
to the truth of the heart.
I am making my way to the truth of the heart, Mommy.
Without social action, we have no hope of expanding the buffet. But, without internal change, we will not be able to eat. To become a feminist mother, I learned to disobey the guilt. Guilt informs me that I am not enough; I need to do more, be more, before I can take what I need. I now say, it is enough to be not enough. I am flawed and I am adequate. I will eat.
A feminist mother is an UnMartyred Mom, a woman who shows her children by example that a woman can experience fulfillment, can have an excellent life. A feminist mother joins with other mothers to embrace the full splendor of our varied lives and to improve our world. Let us face ourselves, come together, and dance the mothers’ movement toward freedom.
Mmo : November 2006