had a lot to be pissed off about when I was raising kids.
I was still a kid myself, trapped in a boring suburban marriage; my
first child was born with a medical condition that meant multiple
surgeries, specialists, daily vomiting; one soul-numbing hassle after
another. I was a teenage girl, and I wanted to have fun. Instead,
my life was a succession of doctor’s waiting rooms and hospital
wards, pukey baby clothes and crying marathons. The only thing worse
than the guilt brought on by spurts of murderous rage towards a helpless
infant was believing that I was the only monster to ever have such
With so much to be pissed off about, you’d think I would
have spent hours huddled around kitchen tables commiserating with
other mothers about my lot in life. Having heard about how free
and open we were back in the 60s, you might think that I ran around
telling everyone just how freaked out I was. But the few times I
tried to tell the truth— even in my women’s consciousness-raising
group— I was hit with such heavy moralistic judgment that
I soon learned to paste a bright smile on my face and speak in a
tone of false cheer.
Forty years later with the kids grown and the grandbabies in my
lap, I can’t help but notice that mothers are finally talking
to one another. Not the way we did, competing for Mother of the
Year, pretending to have everything under control, but really
talking: asking the questions, probing the issues, telling
the goddam truth already. Every time I read one of the new websites
or magazines about motherhood, I feel twinges of envy and despair,
wishing that these resources and forums had existed thirty or forty
years ago. But at the same time, I want to cheer these younger mothers
on. The things they’re saying finally validate what I felt
during my child-raising years.
I first noticed the stirrings of this sea change seven or eight
years ago when I was shopping for a baby gift for a young friend.
Browsing through the parenting section of Borders, I was stunned
to find shelves stocked with as many books on how to care for mama
as the baby. Chapter headings hinted at parental ambivalence and
the shocking change a baby brings to one’s existence. When
I gave one of these books to my friend I told her that they had
not been available when I was a new mother. Of course not, she said.
It took you guys to write them.
I loved that she credited my generation, and when I thought about
it I realized that, although we stifled ourselves, we did manage
to pave the way for an opening of the dialog. The 1970s women’s
movement was nothing if not a huge gabfest, and we had developed
new ways of looking at and talking about our lives. We first had
to wade through who-does-the-dishes and who’s-on-top-during-intercourse,
so we never got around to facing the profound and disturbing issues
regarding motherhood. Fortunately, evolution happens. The conversation
moved inexorably forward; compared to the way we did not talk thirty
years ago, the conversations heard today represent a giant leap
forward. You can hear it at Mommy and Me groups, and you can read
it in magazines like hip mama and Brain, Child.
A recent Brain, Child article poses the question, “Is
motherhood a universal bond?” The author, Jennifer Neisslein,
points out the ways in which groups of mothers differ from one another;
she notes with insight that mothers of profoundly disabled children
would prefer that mothers of normal children save the oh-the-kids-are-killing-me
schtick for someone else. Back in the day, nobody ever noticed things
like that. I remember cringing and hiding my envy whenever a mother
complained that her crawling baby was getting into everything; my
baby didn’t crawl until he was almost two.
Because of my unique experience, my perspective on and reactions
to motherhood were more extreme than those of most mothers. Anything
that sets one apart tends to bring clarity of vision, and from the
start I suspected that all mothers felt the same fear, inadequacy
and guilt as I did— only I felt it in spades. In those silent
years, though, there was no way to know for sure if this was true.
Today I could easily find out by attending a conference like Mothering
Matters, held recently in New Jersey. Its promotional ad says it’s
for those “who are engaged in advocating for or supporting
the work of mothering.” Supporting the work of mothering!
What a concept!
And now I discover a website entitled “Mothers’ Movement
Online.” Aha!— I am not making this up: there really
is a movement under way! As Meg Christian sang in 1970 about the
Women’s Movement: Hello, hooray, I’m ready!
What strikes me in the articles I read in these new venues is the
sense of personal power that contemporary mothers experience. They
have absolute faith in themselves and their ability to advocate
for their children. I’m not saying that we didn’t have
any power; it’s a cliché that we could lift a car off
our kid if we had to. But when it came to our place in society,
we were more likely to feel like victims. In a world where the pressure
to bear children was so strong and steady, and where if you got
pregnant there was little choice but to have the baby, women were
victimized by our biological capacity. Many of us felt that our
lives were thoroughly circumscribed by having kids— which
was more than just a feeling— and we resented it.
I felt victimized by the lack of real information, that I’d
been sold— and eagerly bought— a line of propaganda
about the glory of motherhood. I may have gotten pregnant by accident,
but I had always wanted babies of my own— somehow I’d
gotten the message that mothering would be fun. Nobody ever told
me it was hard work— or, as in my case, potentially painful.
Several young women who read my book, Perfectly Normal: A Mother’s
Memoir, have told me that it made them think twice about having
children. Sometimes I think this is precisely the reason mothers
don’t tell younger generations the truth— we’re
programmed to keep the species propagating.
Today, mothers are more likely to have actively chosen to bear
children— indeed, some have gone through hell and high water
to get pregnant. Blame and resentment don’t come into the
picture. Their sense of power translates into real chutzpah;
they ask, for instance, why the job of mothering is still unpaid.
(If you raised an issue like that back in the day, you were branded
a mercenary bitch.) While mothers of my generation wouldn’t
dare use the words “sex” and “mother” in
the same sentence, today’s mothers have the guts to admit
that breastfeeding might be sexually arousing and that some mothers
are phone sex workers or strippers. They’ve coined terms like marriage shock and the war on mothers and children.
They organize, march, and protest, kids in tow, against policies
like so-called welfare reform that keep mothers and children in
poverty. A few years ago a Borders employee threw a nursing mother
out of the store, and the brouhaha that resulted was heard around
This movement, then, exists on at least two fronts: in the way
we talk to one another about mothering, and in activism aimed at
making life better for mothers. As it was with feminism, we first
had to tell the truth and give support to one another before we
could go out and change the world.
And mark my words, the world will be changed. Hell, it’s
already changing: lately, people without kids are doing a lot of
grumbling about the world becoming too “child-centered,”
and you know you’re making progress when you’ve earned
a backlash. Changes can be as small as a diaper-changing table in
the men’s room, or as big as extended maternity leave (the
day that leave is paid for we shall have truly arrived).
A few years ago
I wrote an essay for hip mama called “Anonymous was
a Mother,” in which I used the phrase Attacks on mothers,
you ask? Ariel Gore, the zine’s founder and editor, deleted
the phrase, telling me, Our readers won’t ask. Even
as I chuckled, tears sprang to my eyes: I felt so completely validated,
perhaps for the first time in forty years. Even though I was born
too soon, I can still benefit from this Mothers’ Movement.
It’s never too late to tell the truth, or to be heard.
mmo : march 2005