A 'Mommy Wars' update: battling from the extremes

The Argument

As Mother's Day nears, it is vital to recognize that motherhood is not an art of absolutes

Books

May 02, 2004|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

Women authors writing about motherhood are like fundamentalist ministers, preaching black and white in a profoundly gray world.

They typically have a single focus. There are those who believe that every mother should stay home and raise her own children -- anything less is a renouncement of her true feminine identity and duty. Others argue that no woman can find self-fulfillment, or sufficient economic security, if she throws over paid employment to stay home and take care of the kids full time.

Sound simplistic? It is simplistic. But if these polarizing arguments don't absorb your interest, prod your passions, or stir doubts and fears, you're probably a man -- or you're too young to have a stake in the "Mommy Wars." There's been a new outbreak of hostilities this spring, and plenty of women are talking about it around the copying machine and on playground benches. Two new books, on opposite sides of the divide, of course, are fueling the renewed conflict.

For psychologist Daphne de Marneffe, author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (Little, Brown, 401 pages, $25.95), motherhood is the consummate vocation. De Marneffe, a graceful, well-meaning and obviously intelligent writer, contends that American women ignore their instinctive desire for the domestic realm. To choose to care for your own children has been stigmatized in a culture that promotes achievement and material wealth above all else, she argues. Women are now enslaved to the idea of "staying on track" and thus cut off from their longings to be transformed by motherhood.

As a working mother, I was surprised how initially compelling I found de Marneffe's arguments -- her skills as a prose stylist and the earnestness of her point of view drew me in. She weaves together psychoanalytic theory, the work of renowned feminists, and her own experiences to make a solid case for her ideas. But after a while, her tone began to feel condescending.

She writes: "As mothers we should give ourselves the room, the dignity, to discover what we think and what we want." My response: Hey, thanks a lot.

She writes: "Each of us must think through the issues for herself so that the life we live is a personal creation rather than a resigned-to reality." My response: I have yet to meet the adult woman -- or man, for that matter -- who doesn't have plenty of resigned-to reality in life.

De Marneffe's descriptions of the intimacy and connection one experiences mothering children are heartfelt, but in the end the book is more about her than anyone else. An Ivy League graduate living in a high-powered academic setting, she obviously experienced serious conflict when she decided to stay home full time after her third child was born. But she turns the conflict outward, saying that to desire motherhood today is to be branded "masochistic, desexed, infantile or fearing success."

Well, maybe in her world. She seems not to grasp that millions of women who decide to stay home have a pretty clear idea of the pleasures (and difficulties) awaiting them. They make the choice quite easily, not because they are bucking the ethos of the culture, but because it's what they want -- for themselves and for their children. (And because they have the option thanks to financial support from a husband or someone else.)

After de Marneffe's somewhat goody-goody persona, it's a relief to pick up a book by two self-described "mothers with an attitude problem." Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels have written a passionate protest against today's media landscape, The Mommy Myth: the Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (Free Press, 383 pages, $26).

Like de Marneffe, these authors have a real problem with contemporary perceptions of motherhood. But their view is exactly the opposite of hers. They argue that the media and thus public opinion try to browbeat mothers into remaining closely tethered to their kids. The authors sense deep hostility against working mothers -- in their view, choosing not to stay home is to be looked upon as "the bad mom" and "the selfish mom."

These authors cite movies, TV shows, celebrity magazine profiles and hysterical news coverage of a relatively rare phenomenon, child abduction, to make their points. They write: "We are fed up with the myth -- shamelessly hawked by the media -- that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and the most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and if you don't love each and every second of it there's something really wrong with you."

Are they a little angry? Yes. Are they tapping into something real? Definitely.

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