||Miércoles 19 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 162
|Why the mommy wars tear us apart
Por Gaby Wood
When Gaby Wood returned to her old school in New York City for a reunion she was struck by how vexed the issue of work and motherhood had become for her generation. No one seemed happy with the choices they had made. Forty years after the birth of feminism, the 'new moms' who believe their place is in the home have added a new twist to the gender wars.
Two years ago, I was invited to a class reunion at a school in New York City that I had left when I was 10 years old. It was a summer evening, a breeze was coming off the East River and as I stepped into the lobby of the place I had not visited in almost a quarter of a century, I felt butterflies in my stomach, a fluttering eagerness to find out what had become of all those girls I used to know.
This school has long boasted that it is a fast track to Harvard and Yale for its all-female students; its trophy alumnae include physicists, actresses, musicians and writers. Yet when I entered the old canteen, I found not our mothers' generation of trailblazers nor our grandmothers' generation of bluestockings, but a set of extremely educated women in the grip of an ambiguous, high-pitched legacy.
Those who were married had brought their husbands along; those who had children brought photographs of them - so far, so traditional. But then those who had children and jobs felt they had to apologise for their apparent careerism; those who had children and no job instantly explained their choice, unprompted. As I caught up with my peers, I was stunned by what seemed to be a shared new experience: that there can be no success without its shadow of failure, no impression of choice without an accompanying sense of sacrifice. These were women I had last seen when we had nothing but potential, yet now the air hung heavy with relinquished possibilities.
Maps of this fractured landscape are only just being traced. Four years ago, when The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays on domestic rage with titles such as 'Attila the Honey I'm Home' and 'The Myth of Co-Parenting', was published in the US, it became a surprise bestseller within weeks. Who knew that so many women were so angry? It was followed, last year, by Judith Warner's book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, which dramatised and dissected what Warner referred to as 'this mess': 'That caught-by-the-throat feeling so many mothers have today of always doing something wrong.'
The financial writer Anne Crittenden found many disciples when she argued, in the bestselling The Price of Motherhood, that rather than asking men to do more child-rearing, the status of motherhood itself should be raised. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels - two self-confessed 'mothers with an attitude problem' - fought back with The Mommy Myth: The Idealisation of Motherhood and how it has Undermined All Women. This year sees the American publication of The Mommy Wars, a collection of essays written by working and non-working mothers whom the book presents in a 'face-off'. Even Teri Hatcher, star of Desperate Housewives, has seen fit to weigh in with Burnt Toast, a memoir about real-life single motherhood (when her waters broke, the first question Hatcher asked the doctor was, 'Do I have time to blow-dry my hair?'). And finally, in has stepped Caitlin Flanagan, the thinking liberal woman's latest bete noire, with her book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife
In the past, I have tried to ignore catfights among the beneficiaries of feminism. But this can't be ignored: we seem to be living through one of the most furiously divisive periods women have faced for years. Motherhood - the complications of which were arguably less well addressed by Seventies feminists than women's rights outside the home - has become a new battleground. The authors of The Mommy Myth suggest that motherhood is the unfinished business of the women's movement. 'Why are children such a divisive force between women?' asks Susan Cheever in The Mommy Wars. 'What happened to the good old days when women used to fight with men?'
When Kate Figes was conducting research for her book Life After Birth, she was 'shocked by the level of condemnation that goes on, without any understanding or tolerance of how people can do things different ways. So the worst aspects, in motherhood,' she says, 'are the ways in which we all judge each other - hugely, and unnecessarily.' The battles between working and non-working mothers, Caitlin Flanagan writes, 'are the tensions of our times. To call them a preoccupation among the mothers I know would be to commit a grave act of understatement.'
In her recent book Maternal Desire, the psychologist Daphne de Marneffe suggests that 'mothers "solve" their ambivalence by idealising an approach: This is the way to do it; I'm better because I do it this way.' It would seem that too often, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other mothers.
That, at least, is the premise of The Mommy Wars, the editor of which, Leslie Morgan Steiner, aims for women 'to explain ourselves to one another'. Each woman in the book is envious of some aspect of her professional opposite's life, each is ambivalent about her own choice. The very idea of the book suggests a stunning lack of communication. At one point Steiner, who works for the Washington Post, writes that she wanted to find 'stay-at-home moms' to tell their stories, but had no idea how to track any down. 'How do you contact women who've never published anything?' she asks rhetorically, revealing an astounding lack of curiosity about the ways in which different women might know each other.
Equally, Judith Warner's initial pool of interviewees is a wealthy little clique in the suburbs of Washington, DC. In the opening chapter of Perfect Madness, they complain about feeling 'crazy', about unmanageable carpools and spilt Cheerios while their husbands put the children to bed after a hard day at the bank. 'We should all be so lucky,' thinks Warner after the initial round-table discussion she has staged. She overcomes this, of course (after all, her book has barely begun), but one can't help thinking that while a previous generation of feminists in many ways argued on behalf of others less fortunate, this generation of frustrated middle-class mothers thinks only of itself.
In 2004, when Caitlin Flanagan published an inflammatory piece in Atlantic Monthly about the ways in which middle-class professional women were exploiting their nannies ('How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement'), the radical journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted a public exchange of emails with her in the online magazine Slate. 'We feminists never said,' Ehrenreich wrote, 'that women comprise a single, homogenous "class", and are proud to have built up a movement of different classes and races.' What's more, she went on to explain, though feminist activism opened up professions for women, feminism was never exclusively in favour of women who worked. Flanagan need not rail against those she so dismissively describes as 'libbers', because, wrote Ehrenreich, 'feminism is not a particular lifestyle, defined by having your own job and [bank] account, for example. It is a moral stance and one that has always valued stay-at-home mothers just as much as the corporate strivers.'
Flanagan dismisses the notion of working out of financial necessity as a red herring, something which 'precludes serious discussion' of what she sees as the hard emotional truth: 'when a mother works, something is lost.' But money and class or race are, surely, crucial issues? The most compelling point in The Mommy Wars is made by Sydney Trent, the African-American deputy editor of the Washington Post magazine. Trent writes that 'my white friends agonise with me over whether their work is damaging their children. My black friends almost never do. As a working mother, I often feel judged by whites and rarely by blacks'.
Is this situation worse in America than it is in Europe? Judith Warner would say yes: she embarked on Perfect Madness because she was shocked at the state of American motherhood when she returned from years spent in France. Certainly, provisions for maternity leave and childcare, and the expectation of outlandish working hours are comparatively demonic in the United States, leading many women to give up work simply because it makes no sense. But in terms of mothers' judgment of one another - as Kate Figes found - times are bad regardless of geography.
In the midst of 'this mess', as Warner calls it, the voice to which Americans are paying most attention is the one with the most retro inclinations. Caitlin Flanagan's views - which were first publicly expressed as a series of gallingly entertaining articles for the Atlantic - include the notion that women would have a better sex life if they didn't work, the belief that mothers who work only do so to please themselves, and the apparently unshakeable conviction that children are happier when cared for by a mother who stays at home - even if that mother, like Flanagan, employs someone else to look after the children full-time while she looks on, miserably.
Responses to Flanagan's assertions can be measured on what one critic has called 'the shoot-myself-or-shoot-Flanagan meter'. In an age of unprecedented guilt among mothers, Flanagan has chosen to dance on the perimeter, like a jocular devil teasing a harassed army of Fausts.
Now a staff writer at the New Yorker, Flanagan was until a few years ago an English teacher at one of Los Angeles's smartest schools. She quit her job to write a novel, which she found she couldn't finish. When she gave birth to twins (who are now seven), she was for the first time in her life 'gripped by a sense of purpose', and she aspired to the condition of her mother, a housewife of great benevolence and calm. She began to 'pore over descriptions of ironing and kitchen routines ... the way a lonely man in a hotel room pores over Playboy'.
Unlike her mother, however, she hired a full-time nanny, a person she refers to as a 'servant'. The nanny called her 'Mrs Kate' - Flanagan would go so far as to compare herself to a slaveholder, she suggests, if only she weren't paying the servant so much. (Flanagan's outlook on other cultures might be summed up by the fact that she has for some years owned a book entitled Speedy Spanish for the Maid.) Meanwhile Flanagan, the wife of a Mattel executive who produces official Barbie movies (he took the job, she says, 'to pay for the type of motherhood I had chosen to pursue'), never left the house. She wanted her young sons to 'imbibe' as much of her presence as possible. The nanny cooked and tidied - and now, in addition, Flanagan has employed a gardener and a 'clutter warrior'. All in all, Flanagan would appear to be in an exceptionally poor position to discuss the stresses and strains of motherhood.
What's more, she's not much of an advertisement for her own beliefs. Years after her twins were born, Flanagan saw that she had been depressed for some time; by then, the condition had morphed into something mysteriously akin to Betty Friedan's famous 'problem that has no name'.
Despite the fact that as a child Flanagan thought her own mother would have been happier with a job, the title essay concerns the 'shocking' moment when her mother decided to go back to work as a nurse. Flanagan was 12; she has, it seems, never recovered - even now, her 'anxiety about being alone in a house borders on the pathological'.
Yet instead of owning up to the personal nature of her opinions and fears, she insists on prescription. In a long profile in a recent issue of American Elle, Flanagan told the journalist flat-out that she thought she should be with her children instead of interviewing her.
How did we get here? The authors of The Mommy Myth contend that the obsession they call 'the new momism' is 'a direct descendant and latest version of what Betty Friedan famously labelled the "feminine mystique" back in the Sixties. The new momism seems to be much more hip and progressive than the feminine mystique, because now, of course, mothers can and do work outside the home, have their own ambitions and money, raise kids on their own, or freely choose to stay at home with their kids rather than being forced to ... But here's where the distortion of feminism occurs. The only truly enlightened choice to make as a woman ... is to become a "mom" and to bring to child-rearing a combination of selflessness and professionalism ... Thus the new momism is deeply contradictory: it both draws from and repudiates feminism.'
Flanagan identifies 'the housewife era' as the two decades between the end of the Second World War and the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. In 1945, she points out, women who thought they might never get married and have children because all the men were at the front were only too delighted to keep house if they had the good fortune to be able to set one up. What's most striking about the chapter she has called 'Housewife Confidential' is not the ode sung to the traditional homemaker, but the ways in which certain things never change. Flanagan quotes Erma Bombeck, the original desperate housewife, who wrote a humorous syndicated column in the early Sixties called 'At Wit's End'. ('My second favourite household chore is ironing,' reads one of Bombeck's signature revelations. 'My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.')
When she went back to work, Bombeck writes, 'The guilt I felt was self-inflicted. As long as I was fussy about my kids' peanut butter, I could say yes to the commencement speech on Mother's Day. If I made a tuna noodle casserole and left a note to my daughter to slide it in a 350-degree oven and brought her a present when I came home in time for dinner, I could do the Mike Douglas show. As long as my husband smelled his bath towel and looked like he had just seen God, I felt I was allowed to pursue a career for another week.'
Though the pieces in this mental board game may require some updating, the self-inflicted guilt is eminently recognisable. Can we really say then that our current condition of anxiety and antagonism has grown from the soil of feminism, a direct result of the choices given to us? Or has it always been lurking?
Molly Jong-Fast, a contributor to The Mommy Wars and daughter of the feminist Erica Jong, reports that Jong won a Mother of the Year Award in 1984. 'But in some ways,' she adds, 'we lived in a sandcastle in the sky. During the first 11 years of my life my mother was astonishingly lonely ... Publicly, she may have been the poster child for the working single mum, but the truth was she was very conflicted about having to work. I could tell her I loved her a million times, but it would never ease that feeling she had - guilt.'
Earlier this year, when I was travelling a good deal for work, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter watched me pack and asked, 'Are you taking your 'puter?' Distractedly, I told her that yes, I was taking my computer. She thought for a second. 'I need a 'puter,' she said, 'so I can come with you.' I felt the terrible twinge, and hugged her. But she was a picture of nonchalance - in her mind, she had it all worked out: she would simply get a computer. In fact, she added as she marched out of the room, she wanted a pink one.
Every working mother has a story - perhaps dozens - like this one. Yet there is no single model for negotiating the territory; hence the preposterous degree of antagonism on the subject of motherhood. Perhaps one of the most misleading aspects of second-wave feminism - in its legacy rather than its intention - is that everyone has to be in this together. I'm all for banding together and declaring motherhood to be, as the authors of The Mommy Myth have it, 'a collective experience'. But the most gut-wrenching moments are those between you and your child: only some aspects of the personal can be political. No matter how supportive your friends may be, it's impossible to find one mother who feels the same way as you do about absolutely everything. There would be more solidarity among us if we could allow ourselves our differences.
This is what the American writer Peggy Orenstein has called 'a half-changed world': 'Old patterns and expectations have broken down, but new ideas seem fragmentary, unrealistic and often contradictory,' she writes in her book Flux. When the feminist Naomi Wolf had a child, she found herself becoming someone she objected to on principle - a person chained to the domesticity she had spent her life arguing against.
Needless to say, she was not alone: it is in this unseating of one's former identity that the vulnerability to impossible standards - and the defensiveness in relation to them - sets in. (In a telling aside, a friend of Caitlin Flanagan reported that she could never take her writing too seriously, because 'if you know her, you know how insecure she is'.) People might innocuously refer to someone being 'back to her old self', but a new mother knows that there is no 'back'. Everything is different, and must be worked out anew. Opinions can be strongly held, financial needs may become more pressing, but how you feel changes from week to week.
Of all the advice I was offered before my daughter was born, the best was this: 'there is no point in worrying about what kind of mother you'll be, because you can only be the mother of that child'. A mother is by necessity a chameleon, shifting shape to meet needs she is always trying to teach herself to identify. There is no way to wage the mother wars except to lay down all arms and say: this is how we are; this is who we are. For now.
Domestic furies: The key texts
1963 The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan
The groundbreaking book for American housewives who felt they wanted something more than their domestic world allowed. Friedan argued, among other things, that children of mothers who stayed at home tended to be dependent and bored.
1976 Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, by Adrienne Rich
'Motherhood has been penal servitude,' argued Rich in the most influential feminist book on the subject. With unprecedented honesty about her own ambivalence, Rich analysed the ways in which motherhood had become a patriarchal institution.
1991 Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi
A landmark book, which laid bare the backlash that blamed feminism for women's woes in the Eighties. Among the steps taken, Faludi argued, was a subtle propaganda campaign to redomesticate women through motherhood.
2001 Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, by Naomi Wolf
The author of The Beauty Myth turned her attention to the trials of childbirth in America, using her own experience to debunk the myths and contradictions of motherhood as she encountered them.
2002 The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer
The book that publishers are clamouring to replicate: a bestselling collection of essays on domestic issues by women raw and resentful to the core.
|| 02/07/2006. The Guardian.