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The Motherhood Problem
On “Perfect Madness” and other matters

page five

But if mothers really are the thinking, self-determined creatures that populate this different story of American motherhood, why are we so stuck? As Warner comments on reading The Feminine Mystique, “Bizarrely, it is almost impossible to read the depictions of motherhood in Friedan’s time without a shock of recognition.” I had exactly the same reaction, although I did not find it so bizarre.

In her review of Perfect Madness for Slate, Ann Hulbert, author of Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children (2003), remarks:

If there is a ‘myth’ of motherhood these days, it is that mothers’ experience has been relentlessly, and romantically, mythologized. In print, at least, the opposite is the truth. Over the course of almost half a century now, women writers have been busy crafting a withering corrective to official versions of motherhood.

The proliferation of individual voices and personal dilemmas has been warmly welcomed, both by female readers eager for vivid portraits/polemics about overstressed parents in the dual-career era and by a media ever more obsessed with motherhood issues. Yet if you believe the authors’ own accounts, the accumulation of mothers’ “brutally honest” stories has done little to erode the power of those coercive myths of perfect motherhood— much less to shake up public policy, which resolutely ignores mothers’ work. … It’s enough to make you wonder whether the maternal memoir-cum-manifesto might be complicit in the privatizing, sentimentalizing, anxiety-inducing “momism” that Warner, like many of the genre’s practitioners, aims to eradicate to make way for an ethos of more collective support for mothers.

Andi Buchanan, author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute Of It, feels Hulbert’s critique is short sighted. As she wrote in a recent entry on her Mother Shock blog:

The more we tell each other our personal experiences, the more we tell our stories, the more we realize that what we grapple with as mothers and fathers trying to balance meaningful work and our young children is not primarily our own failure to have it all and do it all. The more we talk about what we're doing, the more we realize that our problems are not as individual as we might have thought, that what we're up against is not something we can fight only by ourselves.

Has publishing “Mother Shock” made a difference in the politics of motherhood? On a large scale, the answer is obviously no. But I can tell you from the e-mails I get from readers every single day, the book has made a difference to mothers who thought they might be alone, who were sure no one was feeling what they were feeling, who assumed they were to blame for finding it difficult to adjust.

Katy Read, a freelance journalist who has written on motherhood for Salon and Working Mother, sides with Buchanan. “There aren’t as many motherhood books as reviewers are always claiming,” she says. “Yes, a search on Amazon brings up 1,000 titles, with 30 of those coming out this year, but a search under ‘baseball’ brings up almost 7,000, including 200 from 2005. Women’s lives have gone through far more dramatic changes recently than baseball has, and it would be pretty weird if people weren’t writing a lot about how it’s going.” And, she remarks, typically 90 percent of motherhood titles are of the self-help or “girlfriend’s guide” genre.

Read recalls the books that were easiest to find when she was a new mother were not all that helpful or reassuring, let alone empowering. “When my first son was born— this was just 10 years ago!— I didn’t have internet service, nor time and energy to get to the library. I grabbed what few motherhood books I could scrounge... and instantly concluded that I was a terrible, evil, irresponsible mother. Everything I got my hands on was either sappy idealized crap about how wonderful babies are, or self-help books that ordered me to do things that I found a pain in the ass. A corrective book back then might not have improved the quality of my daycare choices but it probably would have made my first five or six years of caring for my kids much less angst-ridden.”

She thinks that one thing standing in the way of moving the discussion from books into organized activism is that the topic of motherhood is still dismissed as trivial. “I’ve encountered many books editors who have been reluctant or unwilling to run reviews of serious important books about motherhood— The Mommy Myth, even Hulbert’s!— because they automatically assume they are self-help or just generally unimportant. That’s my own experience, but I think it’s symptomatic of a larger attitude that sees motherhood-related issues in general as, well, a little silly.”

Even so, Hulbert has a point. Since 1970, there’s been a steady stream of books, essays and short stories written by mothers who longed to expose the mind-numbing, soul-killing grind of caring for small children day-in and day-out, to challenge unrealistic representations of mothers and mothering in popular culture, and to undermine the oppressive institution of motherhood— or simply to leave a record of the complexity of their experience.

Many of these books had something else in common: they argued that fathers can and should be tender, caring and competent parents, and that men’s equal participation in child-rearing and housework would make motherhood less burdensome and more enjoyable for women who mother. Some authors even offered policy recommendations aimed at reducing structural barriers to integrating paid work and caregiving, including universal, affordable, high quality child care, flexible workplaces, part-time parity, changing the hours of the school day to coincide with the hours of the standard workday, generous paid leave for infant and sick child care, and specialized training and educational programs for mothers entering or re-entering the paid workforce after an extended period of unpaid caregiving.

Most of these books are now out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find.(4) Only a few early works— Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich and Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot— survive in reprint editions. But that does not entirely explain why, in the last 35 years, every new generation of mothers has felt compelled to start the motherhood conversation over from scratch.

I think this is an important question with a complicated answer— an answer that might tell us something about why mothers aren’t spontaneously banding together to better their lot. I think there’s also a simple, straightforward answer: the reason the message of The Feminine Mystique still resonates for today’s middle-class mothers is that, despite the acceleration of women’s progress in the last half-century, the underlying value system, gender norms and social conditions that disproportionately disadvantage women who mother haven’t really changed that much since Betty Friedan’s day -- or since Susan B. Anthony’s day, for that matter. Notwithstanding the nervy confidence of social commentators who've declared feminism is passé, the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice for women is still a work in progress.

But why, then, must we scramble to reinvigorate the popular discourse on motherhood as a social problem every decade or so? I don’t know for sure— it’s not a subject that’s ever been formally studied, although it really ought to be, and soon. But I’m willing to offer some theories, with the caution that they are only that, theories. Conjectures based on my own experience, and on listening to hundreds of mothers share their experiences, their grievances, and their visions for a fairer world.

From a purely feminist standpoint, one might argue that dominant groups and institutions have a stake in making sure this dialog evaporates. It would create a major headache for the powers with be if droves of American mothers suddenly realized that— at least motherhood-wise— certain things are way better in France, Denmark, Sweden, and even Canada. As Jana Malamud Smith notes in her April 2003 interview with the MMO, one of the reasons we lack a resilient common language to describe motherhood as a social problem is because it’s against the best interest of those who have a bigger piece of the pie to let these ideas flourish:

It’s important to understand that this language is missing for a politically important reason. One way to undercut the power of any group is to obscure the truth of their experience. We typically think about that as a silencing of voices. You might say it’s against the interests of the dominant culture to let groups who are marginalized or oppressed own a vibrant language to describe their reality. Instead, we construct descriptions and expectations of motherhood based on ideologies and stereotypes that preserve the status quo.

I also believe part of the need to constantly renew the investigation into the motherhood problem has to do with the very nature of becoming a mother. A woman may learn a lot about caring for babies and children in the course of her pre-maternal life, but it’s almost impossible to know what becoming a mother will actually feel like until you are one. It may hit you at some point during pregnancy, immediately after childbirth or adoption, or a few day or weeks (or months, years) after bringing your baby home. I really hate to admit this, but I was the callow sort of young woman who scowled every time a mother with an infant sat behind me on an airplane, who shot withering glances at mothers who, I assumed, would not or could not control their screaming toddlers in the supermarket check-out lane, who silently cursed mothers who blocked the bookstore aisle with their bulky strollers, who on more than one occasion thought to herself: Why the hell doesn’t someone wipe that kid’s nose? On one memorable subway ride, I listened in absolute horror as pre-teen girl berated her mortified mother over and over again: "Mom, you're NOT paying attention to my FEELINGS." What a consummate brat! I muttered to myself. What did that mother do wrong? In short, I was obnoxious.

Well, I’m a mother now. And what I know is that no experience, no classroom instruction, no book, no sisterly advice, no amount of therapy could ever have completely prepared me for what it would be like. Like birth and death, the passage into motherhood is, ultimately, something we do on our own. That does not mean, however, it needs to be lonely or unsupported. But in our culture, it usually is— which is one reason mothers feel ashamed and incompetent when their expectations of maternity turn sour. The lucky ones find a friend, or a book, or a blog that will counteract the inward spiral.

But before I became a mother, I would never have sought out literature about motherhood, although I was an avid reader. (I did read some Doris Lessing and Enormous Changes At The Last Minute and other works by Grace Paley, which supplied rich maternal images that still reverberate in my imagination.) But maybe critical writing about motherhood doesn't really make sense until we are ready to make sense of it.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the mothers I know who are inclined to view motherhood as a political matter— or who are already working for social change on behalf of mothers— went through a some kind of experience, a critical disconnect, that severed them from the puffy pink fantasy of ideal motherhood. Maybe this mother came into motherhood with a feminist awareness that provided a framework for evaluating the social context of her post-partum stress and fatigue. Maybe she suffered from post-partum depression. Maybe she gave birth to a baby with a serious health condition or disability. Maybe, after planning for a natural birth, she had a caesarean delivery. Maybe she defecated on her OB during a vaginal delivery, or could not control her bladder for months afterward. Maybe she had a miscarriage or stillbirth; maybe she had more than one. Maybe she had a baby with 24/7 colic. Maybe she was unable or did not want to breastfeed. Maybe her race or ethnicity makes her more attuned to the presence of discrimination. Maybe she struggled with infertility. Maybe she gave birth to two children with extremely different temperaments. Maybe it was living with the stigma of being an unmarried, teenage mother. Or maybe a formerly devoted husband or boyfriend refused to “show up” after his baby was born— maybe he left for good. Maybe it was being unexpectedly overwhelmed with love for her new child, or the shock of discovering the depth of her ambivalence. Maybe she’s a lesbian. Or maybe it was the trusted boss who refused to negotiate a part-time schedule, or co-workers who rolled their eyes whenever she left the office at 5:15 to avoid paying a late pick-up fee at the day care center. Maybe it was relentless pressure to perform as an always-on-call ideal worker. Maybe, once upon a time, she lived in France.

Several of these things happened to me. The point is, something— some unanticipated event or emotion or crisis or opportunity denied— seems to occur in some mothers' lives that interrupts the illusion they are in absolutle control of the outcomes of their mothering.

Since motherhood is (ostensibly) the one thing women are “made” for, these disenchanted mothers may become sensitized to their outsider status. They learn that instead of being omnipotent, they are vulnerable, needy, fallible— everything a red-blooded American should not be— and shortly thereafter, they discover that no one is actually available, or willing, to give them a hand. Something allows these mothers to see through the myth of perfect motherhood -- the “mommy mystique” -- and realize it's all a load of bullshit.

It seems possible that thousands, maybe millions, of mothers may fall into this category. I can’t verify this. But perhaps someday I’ll interview a few hundred politically conscious mothers, and write a book about how they got that way. 


mmo : march 2005


Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the MMO.

As an endnote, I thought I’d share part of my personal response to Judith Warner’s 2002 questionnaire. The final question was, “Do you think that feminism has served us well in our lives as mothers?” This is what I wrote, slightly edited for style:

Yes, because I think feminism gives us a context to question whether or not the way mothers are systematically marginalized is right and just. It gives us a model that demonstrates women can be instrumental in creating social change on their own behalf. If we did not have a sense of entitlement to equality as members of society, it would be far more difficult to frame our current discontent as a social problem rather than the result of a personal failure to conform to cultural expectations. If we did not have a model of empowerment, it would be more difficult for us to conceive of how we might work collectively to transform our culture so that it projects a more positive, realistic and expansive view of who mothers— and fathers!— are and what they do best. We might not feel such momentum to change society so that the value of the all the work mothers do— in and outside the home, paid and unpaid— is fully acknowledged and accommodated by our public policies and private practices.

Now, does that sound crazy to you?

Related articles:

Shaping the pro-mother agenda
An interview with Joanne Brundage, founder and
Executive Director of Mothers & More

Motherhood and its discontents:
Why mothers need a social movement of their own

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Morality or Equality:
Maternal thinking and the social agenda

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

If you have questions or comments about this article, please feel free to email editor@mothersmovement.org

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