The Mothers Movement Online

< back

Dispatches from a not-so-perfect life

MMO interviews Faulkner Fox about her new book on motherhood, feminism, and the search for the self

December 2003

When I decided to launch the Mothers Movement Online in early 2003, one of the first writers I contacted was Faulkner Fox. I’d read her essay “Get a Wife: Confessions of a Slob” in an early issue of Brain, Child magazine and I loved everything about it: it was off-beat, it was honest, it was exceptionally well written, and it was damn funny. But I also liked Faulkner’s essay because it transcended formulaic writing about the joy and pain of family life and said something vitally important about the challenges mothers face when they try to expand their lives beyond the culturally-circumscribed boundaries of motherhood.

Faulkner Fox explores this issue in greater depth in her first book, "Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life, or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child" (Harmony Books, January 2004). In the following interview, she graciously responds to my nosey questions about what it was like to write such an intimate, forthright and original account of her own experience with— and resistance to— motherhood as we live it here and now.

-- Judith Stadtman Tucker

MMO: The emotional landscape of Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life lies pretty close to the bone— not only in its representation of your disenchantment with the cultural set-up of motherhood but also in the depiction of your marriage. What sort of resources— inner or otherwise— did you need to muster to write this book, in this way?

Faulkner Fox: I had a lot of emotional support from friends, many of whom were writers. This was absolutely essential. There were definitely dark days when I thought, “What am I doing? I shouldn't say this!” All writers, especially writers of creative non-fiction, face these doubts, though. If your goal is to tell the truth as you see it— and that was unquestionably my primary goal— then you will likely upset at least a few people. Friends help you stick with it through the fear.

Also, whenever I had a really bad session of writing and felt like giving up, I’d inevitably see a mother soon after who was obviously struggling, and I’d be reminded that I had to write this book. It didn’t feel optional. Too many women struck me as isolated and full of guilt. I wanted to write something to make them feel better. I had no idea if I actually could, but the possibility that I might kept me going when I really didn’t feel like writing the book. Every day before I wrote, I started with a prayer. It went like this: “Please give me the vision to see the truth, and the courage to tell it.” It did take courage to write Dispatches. I felt I was breaking a lot of taboos.

The hardest chapter to write was definitely the one on negotiating housework and childcare with my husband. It took the longest, and I cried the most while writing it. Basically, I wanted to tell a different story. My husband and I are both feminists, and I wanted to tell the story of an equitable partnership, just like the one we’d always talked about in graduate school (before we had children). Instead, I had to write about what actually happened when our children were born. There is still a lot of sadness— and anger— there for me. My husband also feels sadness and anger.

One of the main supports I had while writing was my husband’s insistence that this was “my book.” He was angry about some of my portrayals in the book, and we had heated debates last spring when I was finishing the manuscript. Still, he accepted the fact that it was my book. He would argue with me, and when he reminded me of something important that I had forgotten or glossed, I added it in. But it was my reality that stood, that is depicted in Dispatches.

Perhaps most importantly, even when my husband didn't like what I was writing, he did a ton of childcare during the final stretch so I could actually finish. This was absolutely critical to my being able to write the book at all.

Despite all of this support, the process of writing Dispatches was stressful. I decided last May that my next book would be about insects— something no one would be likely to debate personally. But by June, I knew I would write about women again.

MMO: Part of your preparation for writing Dispatches involved interviewing other mothers, but the actual interviews seem fairly incidental to the focus of your book— for example, you don’t include any extended passages about the lives or experiences of your interview subjects. What did you hope to learn by conducting these interviews, what did you learn, and why was the interview process important to writing such a highly personal work?

Faulkner Fox: When I started writing this book in the spring of 2000, I had no idea what the tone would be like— how academic, sociological, journalistic, or personal. I had always done interviews for my other prose writing projects so I figured I’d definitely do them again this time. I also planned to read widely, as I’d always done— in this case on motherhood, feminism, and marriage.

But as the nature of what I was writing became clearer, I realized that only a very personal voice would work. One of the hardest things for me as a new mother—and one of the major themes in Dispatches—is the sense of always being judged. Pick up a baby book, a parenting magazine, a newsletter from La Leche League; talk to other mothers in the park, your own mother on the phone, an old college friend without children— and you might just feel an element of judgment in the exchange. In my case, it was both judgment toward me and judgment from me. (I actually found the judgments flowing from me— seemingly against my will— to be more painful, surprising, and petty-making.) Because feeling like I was living in a land of near constant judgment—my own and other people’s— caused me considerable grief, I really didn’t want to pass it on.

It seemed to me that there were plenty (too many?) authoritative books on motherhood, books that portrayed themselves as objective and based in solid research, but that still functioned to make women feel anxious and judged. The only way I felt I could avoid adding to this climate was to speak in an utterly personal voice. I make sharp cultural critiques in Dispatches— it’s certainly not a book that limits its scope to my individual life— but I never claim any authority higher than my own personal one. This decision meant that I couldn’t quote much from other people’s interviews or make conclusive statements like: “85% of married, middle-class American women do all the laundry.” There are some fantastic books that do precisely this (See, for example, Wifework by Susan Maushart), but these kinds of statements wouldn’t work tonally for my book. The tone I came to feel would be right for Dispatches -- an intimate, irreverent, and vulnerable one—kept me from quoting at length from interviews.

That said, I’m incredibly glad I did the interviews. For one thing, they broke my isolation with the difficult material I was dealing with. I needed to talk to other mothers as I wrote this book, and not just casually and haphazardly beside the jungle gym. I am someone who has always made sense of the world via conversation, and the writing of this book was no different from any other period in my life.

Actually, I found it harder to have frank and intense unplanned conversations about motherhood than I had ever found with other topics. If I tried to casually bring up a real and dicey motherhood issue— say, how much childcare mothers expected (or wanted) their partners to do— I felt I got a lot of evasion. It seemed like the best way to get truthful and full answers was to formalize the setting, to ask people if they were willing to participate in an actual interview. And this worked, to a large extent. The mothers I interviewed were incredibly generous with their time, and most seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. One woman even thanked me for providing “free therapy.”

What I was trying to learn in the interviews, to a certain extent, was simply how much of the sadness and anger I felt as a mother was “just me.” If it all was, then I figured I shouldn’t be writing a book. This was not a vanity production. I wanted to write a book that would speak truthfully about a wide cultural phenomenon. A book from my particular perspective, definitely, but not one that was solely about me as an individual. I felt fairly isolated in my anger at the injustices I saw around me, and I wanted to see— by checking in with others— if I was just unusually disgruntled. I found that I wasn’t. This was relieving! I wasn’t a freak, and I felt I had a legitimate book topic. I also found, through the interviews, that mothers have a hard time articulating their unhappiness. For one thing, they aren’t typically just unhappy. The women I interviewed certainly didn’t wish they weren’t mothers. They loved their children passionately. So did I.

What I was trying to tease out in the interviews was a separation, a kind of: Okay, so you love your child. But what don’t you love about motherhood, as you are living it? What I was trying to figure out was this: How much of what ails mothers is culturally-created, and how much is inherent to the role? If a child is throwing up all night, and you stay up with her, you probably feel wasted the next morning. I didn’t have any desire to critique this reality. Or any desire to change it. Children get sick, and they need care. What I wanted to isolate and identify were the facrs making contemporary American mothers unhappy and overburdened that were unnecessary, that could be changed. Say, for example, the guilt-mongering, anxiety-producing tone used in many pregnancy and parenting magazines and books. One reason the interviews were so critical was the way they helped me get at the intricacies of these separations—what is par for the course with motherhood, and what is unnecessarily damaging to women and can be changed.

MMO: When you describe your feelings about your first pregnancy, you admit your decision to become a mother was influenced, if only subconsciously, by a desire to improve the quality of your life for your own sake— that being pregnant motivated you to make some positive changes. On the other hand, you write about the selective “self-destruction” that is culturally mandated for mothers— that the type of self-sacrifice required to live up to the ideal of the “good” mother can be understood as a form of self-annihilation. Can you say more about this?

Faulkner Fox: I actually think that pregnancy— and only with a first child— is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of the mothering experience. It’s the only time when what is good for you is also unquestionably good for the soon-to-be child. It’s good for the baby if you eat well, it’s good for the baby if you take a nap. When you’re a mother, it arguably may not be— at least not in the immediate moment. Should you take a nap while your hungry child screams? Many would say that you should not. Pregnancy books all focus on resting and eating well because it’s good for the baby. If a woman learns to be good to herself while pregnant, this lesson won’t necessarily carry over. Once the child is born, she doesn’t have to be well rested. That’s the thought process, at least. A thought that can lead to a harrowing level of selflessness among mothers, in my opinion.

MMO: The narrative of Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life is almost entirely free of descriptions of the daily unpleasantries of parenting— the raging tantrums in public places, the relentless muck and mire of spilled food and body waste, the bargaining, trickery and outright bribery that goes into conforming children’s behavior to the parental agenda, the bloody sibling-on-sibling combat. The retelling of these typical slices-of-maternal-life seems to be the foundation for a particular kind of shared understanding of motherhood— one that gives mothers an opportunity to voice their discontent without forcing them to examine the way social and cultural factors constrain their personal experience of motherhood. How deliberate was your intention to frame your book in a different way?

Faulkner Fox: Completely deliberate. First of all, there are quite a few books that focus on the daily hassles of motherhood. It didn’t seem all that pressing that I write another one. And to be honest, the daily hassles are not as interesting to me as the social and cultural factors that constrain mothers. As you point out, a description of a child’s tantrum, by itself, doesn’t lead to cultural critique or social change, both of which I believe desperately need to happen on the behalf of mothers. I didn’t have any interest in writing a frenzied mama book, a book along the lines of: “oh no, the baby just pooped, the dog is barking, the phone is ringing, and here comes the plumber!”

While my example, perhaps, is an unfair caricature— there are distinctions, after all, among slice-of-maternal-life books— I do tend to find these books troublesome. First of all, they typically normalize the fact of mom in charge; she’s the one running the home ship through dicey, chaotic waters. Where the heck is dad, I always wonder when reading one of these tales, if it’s by a married mother. Am I the only one who thinks he should get home and do his share? Funny and seemingly empathetic as these books may be, they actually serve to distract the reader from looking at larger structural wrongs that make a mother’s life difficult.

In Dispatches, I use the daily hassles of motherhood as context. My take on new motherhood is basically this: It’s a time when you’re likely to be incredibly challenged, overwhelmed, and sleep-deprived. In a way, there’s no worse time to level a bunch of blame and guilt on a woman. And yet this, in my opinion, is precisely what our culture does. It kicks us when we’re down, so to speak. I simply wasn’t as interested, as a writer, in the “being down” as I was in who was doing the kicking, why they were doing it, and how to make them stop. In Dispatches, a child’s 5 a.m. wake-up is used to set the scene for the nasty comment a neighbor makes to his mother (me) later that morning. I didn’t want to dwell on the 5 a.m. rising because 1) I didn’t see how to change it; 2) many books focus only on this aspect of mothering; and 3) it doesn’t seem like something our culture is doing to women that can be changed. The focus of my book is what can—and in my opinion, should—be changed to help mothers. Not that Dispatches is a manifesto or a policy paper, in any sense of those terms. What it does instead is candidly portray contemporary motherhood from my perspective, then raise pointed questions about what this set-up does to women.

MMO: As you note, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, women were expected to form their primary identities in relation to men, and particularly one man— a husband. Forty years later, our culture generally accepts the idea that a woman, even a married one, has the capacity and right to complete her own identity, both in and outside her relationships— until she has children. In contemporary culture, the uninterrupted attachment of mothers to their children is still considered paramount to child well-being, and women who are mothers are expected to confine the need for self-expression to behaviors that don’t compromise this bond. In your mind, what is the cost— to women, men and society— of the intensifying ideology of motherhood? How do you think we can move forward from here?

Faulkner Fox: We’ve experienced a truncated revolution. As you point out, the luckiest of women now get to be ourselves as adults for possibly a decade, maybe even fifteen years. Hooray! This is better than it was in Betty Friedan’s day. But we are supposed to stop our own pursuits— except for the absolutely financially essential ones— on a dime when we have children. How is this anything other than brutal and unfair? How is it even possible? There have been forward steps because of the women’s movement, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

One of my main concerns in Dispatches is the overwhelming guilt mothers experience, and the way we feel compelled to suddenly become selfless. How could this possibly make sense? How can it be good for women, children, or society as a whole?

In your question, you don’t specifically mention the cost to children of mothers feeling compelled to be selfless, but I’d like to address that here as well. A selfless mother is an impossible— and I would argue dangerous— role for a daughter to think she has to fill herself when she grows up. For a son, a selfless mother sets him up to expect the impossible from women he will know in his future. I firmly believe that it’s bad for everyone in society if mothers feel compelled to sharply confine their need for self-expression, as you put it. I know some might agree with me on this in terms of the long run, but still think a mother should go through a period of relative selflessness when her children are very young. I don’t agree, and here’s why. Jessica Benjamin’s brilliant book, The Bonds of Love, argues that love doesn’t count, doesn’t feel real to a child, it if comes from a compromised self. In other words, love from a mother who has given her self away, doesn’t even feel like love, according to Benjamin. What does it feel like instead—a debt, possibly? A debt the child feels she has to repay by striving to live the life her mother wanted for her own self but didn’t feel she deserved? Mom wanted to be a doctor, but she gave it all up to take care of me. I guess I’ll be a doctor, even though I’m bad in science, terrified of blood, and I really want to teach high school English.

I’m exaggerating here, but I hope you can see my point. A woman’s self doesn’t just go away; I don’t believe it’s possible. If she tries to be selfless, her self will exert itself anyway, possibly in forms that are twisted and detrimental to a child. I think it’s far better for a child to see her mother being herself, doing what makes her happy as an individual, as well as being a mother.

Wow. That was a long digression. Excuse me. I think it’s vital to make arguments about why women’s selflessness isn’t good for children, though. Otherwise, we’ll have a very hard time effecting change. Women will be reluctant to do it, and society will slam us when we try.

But back to women, who are, after all, almost my entire focus in Dispatches. The cost to mothers of the intensifying ideology of motherhood, as you call it, is very, very high. And it’s impossible to meet. Moreover, it doesn’t make any sense, given what contemporary women expect themselves to do, want to do, and do do, before motherhood. If you have been incredibly ambitious throughout your twenties, working at a job you love, having lots of friends and a fulfilling romantic life (and of course, this would be the best scenario), how could you possibly be happy about dropping that on a dime when you have a baby? I have never understood this reasoning. To me, the saddest thing about “The Opt-Out Revolution” (well, there were a number of sad and infuriating aspects to that piece) was that so many young women, and extremely privileged ones at that, didn’t like their jobs more. They claimed to find it pretty easy to leave work when they had children. My immediate response was: I wish they’d had more fulfilling jobs!

Not that people might not decide to stay home with a child, and that this might not be a good choice. But I hate to think that women are making this choice because they don’t like their jobs. Because they’ve felt some sort of pressure, I suppose, to go into corporate law, for example, when that doesn’t really interest them at all. Of course most people choose work because of the money it provides. And yet these were very, very privileged and educated women. If they don’t like their jobs, if they see stay-at-home motherhood as a relief, then what about all the women who have fewer career choices?

Let me be very clear: I’m not saying that stay-at-home motherhood isn’t a good choice for some women. What I’m saying is that it makes me sad if women see motherhood as a retreat from a bad job. I’m an idealist—I want every woman and every man to have both fulfilling work and fulfilling love relationships. I know this is far from what actually exists in the world. Nevertheless, I feel it’s something we, as a society, should strive for.

How do we get there? I wish I knew. The humblest reason I didn’t write an authoritative, manifesto-type book was because I didn’t have the answers. What I felt I could do was describe candidly what I saw around me, then raise some hard and important questions. My hope, above all, was to write a book that would provoke discussion among mothers. If we can get past the shame, guilt, and woman-to-woman judgmentalism to actually talk honestly with one another about our experience of motherhood, I’m sure we’ll find a way. All revolutions (well, the peaceful ones) start with honest discussion among concerned people. The Mothers Movement Online is a perfect site for just this kind of dialogue. Thank you for being here. And thank you for asking me to participate in the conversation.

mmo : december 2003

< back

Copyright 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online. All rights reserved. Permissions: