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Feminist Motherhood… Say What?

By Michelle Levine

Feminist. Motherhood. How's that for a mouthful? Feminist motherhood? I had no idea the two went together until I became a mother. And then it all started falling into place. The slow and painful recognition that there was no turning back, no one told you it would be this way, and no, none of it was fair.

I usually don't even know what day of the week it is, but I can remember exactly where I was six years ago when I realized I had "gender issues." That was the phrase I settled on because I certainly did not identify myself as a feminist. The word just has such a negative connotation. I'm a child of the '70s, and I remember hearing about ERA and bra burning and Gloria Steinem -- but not in a positive way. And besides, it wasn't sexy to be a feminist. The lady on the perfume commercial, she was sexy. Sure, her catchy jingle might have been an empowering little tune about doing it all, but the visuals had nothing to do with that message. As I recall, she was done up in a clingy wrap dress, wearing heels and striking seductive poses as she pouted and sang, "I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up in a pan/And never ever let you forget you're a man/'Cause I'm a woman." Brilliant, right?

And this was aimed toward … who exactly? The housewife who wanted to get a job and might entertain the notion that wearing the advertised perfume would magically bestow her with the ability to happily work outside the home all day, return home to cook a nourishing dinner for her family and spend the evening as her husband's love slave? Or was it more of a reassuring message for men? Don't worry, guys. The girls have been acting a little crazy lately, but it'll all work out. Women can earn some money outside the home and still cook for and cater to you, all while looking fabulous and smelling good.

Funny, the jingle said nothing about kids. And that's the punch line society delivers too late. You can have and do it all … just not if you want to be a mom. You've come a long way … until you have a baby. That reality was never mentioned in the "you can be anything you want to be when you grow up, honey" pep talks my generation received as little girls. Instead, we were raised with the belief that it was our birthright -- indeed, our obligation -- to pursue a career, to honor the courageous women who fought for our right to work and have choices.

So it came as a bit of a shock to find myself on maternity leave feeling like I had no choices. Where had I gone wrong? I was a good girl in high school, graduated as salutatorian, went to the Ivy League college, came to the big city to study and practice law, and even had the good fortune to meet my handsome husband along the way and be blessed with a precious son. I had crossed the finish line, hadn't I? So where were the cape and the superpowers I had been promised? Hell, where was that bottle of perfume and the frying pan?

I wasn't feeling very empowered. I was feeling tricked and misled and angry. Why had I worked my ass off to start a career that I would only have to derail once I gave birth? Because I could? Because I needed a J.D. on the wall above the changing table? And wasn't that the same J.D. my husband had, from the same school? But he earned more, and I was after all the mother, so it was time to embark on the endlessly entertaining merry-go-round of "I can't afford to stay home, so I will continue working, but childcare is so expensive that I am really just working to pay the daycare center so why am I working at all especially when I am a mother now and aren't mothers supposed to be home raising their own babies." Were these the choices I was supposed to be grateful for?

And so it was that a child was born … and right behind him, a feminist mother.

Mmo : November 2006

Michelle Levine is making it up as she goes along, another married suburban mom of two just trying to get through her day -- whichever one it is.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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