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Beyond the motherhood mystique

An interview with Angela Barron McBride,
author of "The Growth and Development of Mothers" (1973)

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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In 1963, Betty Friedan portrayed American suburbia as a "comfortable concentration camp" for middle-class wives and mothers trapped in "a role that does not permit… growth." Friedan convinced a generation of women that they could only achieve mature self-actualization by abandoning their passive conformity to the "feminine mystique" and developing interests outside of child-rearing and homemaking. "Women, as well as men, can only find their identity in work that uses their full capacities. A woman cannot find her identity through others -- her husband, her children. She cannot find it in the dull routine of housework."

Friedan's critical myopia was her belief that the only work to utilize women's full capacities was the kind of work men did the public sphere. The possibility that other types of work and human interactions are instrumental to fulfillment of the authentic self -- for both men and women -- was never acknowledged in her visionary presciption for change. Next to Friedan's powerful denunciation of housewifery as a "living death for women," the proposition that the process of mothering -- when moderated by critical self-awareness -- can enhance a woman's sense of agency and self-concept sounds irrational and a little dangerous.

Yet this is precisely the possibility Angela Barron McBride -- and other feminist mother-writers of the 1970s, including Ann Roiphe, Jane Lazarre and Adrienne Rich -- put forward, and by doing so exposed one of the central tensions of late twentieth-century feminism. Noting that the women's liberation agenda required women to regard marriage and child-rearing as self-effacing and incompatible with female empowerment, these authors argued that cultural constructions of gender, marriage and motherhood -- not women's emotional attachment to men and children -- were the true source of women's oppression. McBride accused Friedan and other second wave icons of skirting the issue of motherhood:

Being a mother is time consuming, so those who are in the best position to evaluate the role often do not have the opportunity to think and write. But the [women's liberation] movement itself has a prejudice against mothers, perhaps even thinking about their quandaries. Mothers are often treated as if they have "copped out"… Mothers are assumed to think along conservative lines because they have behaved traditionally by having a child, so their specific predicaments are ignored for more obvious band wagon issues. …It is easier to dream à la Germaine Greer of a magic farmhouse in southern Italy, worked by a kind local family, where you can rest and enjoy your children every month or so, than to figure out for yourself what changes need to be made in our thinking about motherhood so that women can develop in the role of mother.

Plenty has changed since 1973, the year the New York Times selected The Growth and Development of Mothers for its "Best Books" list. (Unfortunately, McBride's book, which shares many themes with Daphne de Marneffe's Maternal Desire, is now out of print and hard to find). For example, today even stay-at-home mothers tend to avoid unnecessary housework and the majority of married mothers now work for pay. But the friction between motherhood and the full-employment feminism championed by Friedan and her peers still chafes. Like high profile reporting on the "mommy wars," the media's obsessive coverage of professional women who fall (or are pushed) off the career track when maternity enters the picture lends credence to the lingering -- and unfounded -- suspicion that mothers are destined to "cop out" of the feminist contract.

What hasn't changed very much at all is the depth of our ignorance and doubts about the potentially constructive role of motherhood and mothering in women's self-actualization. (And as in Friedan's day, building the capacity for self-actualization of mothers who are not white, married, college educated and economically secure is rarely discussed outside of the reproductive justice movement.) As de Marneffe and Janna Malamud Smith (A Potent Spell) have suggested, we've yet to invent a clear and resonant language to talk about maternal attachment that resists the pull of conventional gender ideology. McBride touches on this when she challenges us to re-examine why we wanted to have babies in the first place, and why we think motherhood is "the most important job in the world." According to McBride, the most important "job" of motherhood is cultivating greater self-awareness.

After the publication of The Growth and Development of Mothers, Mc Bride, who received a Masters Degree in psychiatric nursing from Yale University, obtained a PhD in developmental psychology and is a Distinguished Professor and Dean Emerita of the School of Nursing at Purdue University. She is also the author of Living with Contradictions: A Married Feminist (1976).

MMO interviewed McBride in December 2005.

MMO: The "motherhood mystique" you described in The Growth and Development of Mothers -- the notion that children are perfectible and mothers alone can perfect them, that child-bearing and child-rearing are a woman's ultimate fulfillment and her normal priority in life, that the sex-based division of family work is predetermined by natural selection -- has acquired a few new flourishes in the last thirty years, but is still very much alive and well. Writers such as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (The Mommy Myth) and Judith Warner (Perfect Madness) have even argued that today's model of ideal motherhood is more unrealistic and oppressive than the version which compelled Betty Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique. Do you feel we've made any progress in deflating the myth of the perfect mother in the last three decades?

Angela Barron McBride: I think that we have both made some progress and we are still affected by the "motherhood mystique." It is difficult now to remember what the state of affairs was in the beginning of the 1970s when I was writing The Growth and Development of Mothers, but it was a time when the entire focus was on what the mother should do for the sake of the child with no concern about her own development during the adult years. It was only in the 1970s that we began to consider the importance of fatherhood and began to take seriously adult development (both shifts are underappreciated consequences of the women's movement). We have made progress when we can elicit societal sympathy for the experience of motherhood from the woman's perspective, and most men, no matter what their ideological persuasion, now understand that if they're not involved with their children when they're young then their children won't care about them when they are older.

On the other hand, expectations for what the "good mother" should do remain unrealistic. My mother once said to me, "I feel sorry for you. In my day, we thought we were successful as mothers if we kept our children fed, clothed, and out of jail. Your generation also expects to promote your children's mental health." I now say to my older daughter who is a mother, "I feel sorry for you. Not only do you expect to accomplish what my mother and I did in that role (i.e., keeping children fed, clothed, out of jail, and mentally healthy), but you believe that you can shaped the plasticity of your children's brains." The point is that the knowledge explosion keeps upping expectations for what we should be able to control, when the reality is that perfection is not possible and children are shaped by so many things beyond our control. We continue to hold mythic views of motherhood because our society continues to hope that perfection is possible. In therapy, you strive to help clients appreciate that they and their mothers/fathers can be "good enough" rather than perfect. It's a lesson all of us need to learn along the way.

MMO: You wrote that coming to terms with the emotional complexity and contradictions of motherhood opens up the possibility of growth and self-actualization for mothers. Why is that true?

Angela Barron McBride: Building on what I just said, I think that "growing up" requires one to come to terms with the world's complexities and contradictions. Because becoming a mother is such a profound experience, the role regularly brings to the fore a host of emotions and unresolved ambiguities. In confronting this assortment of thoughts and feelings, one moves away from the simplicities of "they lived happily after" to the hard-won maturity of dealing with difficulties as best you can and learning to love yourself and others even when they're far from perfect.

MMO: You suggest the most important question any mother can ask is herself is why she wanted to have babies in the first place -- what raw desires, personal vanities, wishful thinking and secret hopes of repairing old wounds make us hop on the motherhood train? And yet this also seems like an extremely challenging path of introspection, since the real reasons we yearn for motherhood are not always socially acceptable or altruistic. Do you still feel confronting the question: "Why did I have this baby?" is central to the growth and development of mothers, and if so, why?

Angela Barron McBride: I don't think you can analyze your own motivation while pregnant and a brand-new mother. Usually you are clinging to your own romanticized views during this time just to get through the experience (e.g., believing "it will be different for me" even if you saw your own mother struggle in that role). Later on, however, I do think every time you over-react to something or feel disappointed can be an opportunity to explore your response, and move forward in coming to terms with what real motherhood involves (as opposed to fantasies). Such introspection isn't easy, though it is made easier when other women are willing to talk and write about their own personal journeys, but confronting one's raw desires and personal vanities does enable the person to learn to handle disappointments better, meaning you're less likely to over-react when your child is not the incarnation of perfection and your partner isn't the perfect father you wished he would be. To put it another way, you neither want others to expect you to be the perfect mother, nor do you want to fall prey to thinking the converse, "I would be the perfect mother if only I had perfect children and a perfect partner." The challenge of the adult years is achieving what Erik Erikson referred to as "ego integrity" while fully understanding how imperfect all individuals are.

MMO: In the age of "hyperparenting" the issue of parental control seems particularly relevant -- we hope not only to optimize our children's behavior and development, but their ultimate destinies, through the practice of intensive mothering. What are some of the illusions that lurk beneath this kind of do-or-die parenting, and how can it shortchange the growth and development of mothers?

Angela Barron McBride: To the extent that you as a mother think that "doing everything right" is possible and that you can shape your child's destiny, you may be unprepared for several realities:

Children from the same families (i.e., same genetic pool) can vary tremendously in temperament and behavioral predispositions, and parents vary in their ability to handle different personality types.

Children are affected by what you do, but they are also affected by many other things, e.g., lead in the environment, the behavior of a host of relatives and friends, what is on television.

The notion that early good mothering can inoculate the child to subsequent unsavory influences can actually leave you ill prepared for the challenges of parenting school-age children, because you begin to believe that the hard work of parenting is pre-kindergarten.

Too much focus on "doing right" can make you oblivious to the real task of parenting, i.e., helping your child develop resilience and weather adversity.

can mothers be liberated?

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