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?
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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