I have a confession
to make: I used to read fiction. New writers, contemporary
novels, mysteries, modern classics -- I loved them all. Reading
fiction was one of my great passions. I always had a book with
me -- even at parties. I read fiction in planes, trains, cars, buses,
and on subways and ferries. I read fiction sitting, standing and
lying down. I read fiction in movie theaters, waiting for the lights
It's also true that I used to dress up in black with dark eye shadow
and red, red lipstick and hang out in seedy clubs. But that's a
story for another time.
If someone told me ten years ago that one day I would stop reading
fiction and would instead own several tall bookcases jammed with
books sporting titles like Mothers Who Kill Their Children
and The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency,
I'm sure I would have given them that look -- you know, the look
that says: "You must be out of your mind."
But here I am, in the middle of my life, living in a comfortable
home in a quaint New England town with an adorable husband and two
terrific kids, and a whole bunch of books about motherhood, feminism
and progressive politics. And I'm the founder and editor of a web
site that's all about social and economic justice for mothers and
others who do the indispensable work of care in our society. I have
a pretty good idea of how I ended up here, but when I actually stop
and think about it, it still surprises me. Because before I became
a mother, I wasn't much of an activist, or even much of a feminist.
I'm always reluctant to make sweeping generalizations about the
individual experience of motherhood, but I think it's safe to say
the process of becoming a mother can alter a woman. Some of these changes
may be superficial and temporary. Some may be welcome, others less so. Sometimes the process of becoming a mother works into
the deepest cavities of the self and fundamentally transforms a
woman's worldview. And although I still can't explain exactly how
it all happened, in my case becoming a mother sensitized me to the
asymmetrical distribution of power in our society and how harmful
it is to women and families.
I suppose there was a kind of chain reaction that took place, some
sort of alchemy between the intricacies of my personal history and
the anger and fear I felt when I found myself utterly unprepared
for the realities of new motherhood. Before I debuted in my maternal
role, I thought I could easily handle whatever challenges motherhood
brought my way. After all, I wasn't exactly a spring chicken; I
trusted my own abilities as a capable and competent adult. And of
course, I was well informed -- I'd read all the books. But I discovered
almost immediately that real life motherhood -- unlike the passive,
sterilized version found in the "What To Expect" series
and other baby bibles -- is culturally complicated and emotionally
messy. Real life motherhood was a raging torrent of conflicting
feelings and desires, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
After I recovered from the initial shock of my disillusionment,
I brushed myself off and started to look around. Was it really fair
that my husband's day-to-day life looked pretty much the same as
before, when mine looked so much different? After several years
of an ideally egalitarian and intensely intimate partnership, why
were we starting to look suspiciously like Ozzie and Harriet? Was
it really fair that I had to use up all my savings to finance
16 weeks of unpaid family leave? Was it really fair that
just when my fussy baby was beginning to develop a pleasant demeanor,
I had to leave him with a paid sitter and go back to work? Was it
really fair that even though my own options for taking
leave from work were less than perfect, there were other new mothers
who couldn't get any time off at all? And why was it that
the most talented women at the firm I worked for seemed to disappear
shortly after the birth of their first or second child? And
how was it that all the rising stars at that firm were men, and
of those who were dads, nearly all had stay-at-home wives? Why was
it so much harder for women to integrate having a good job with
having a great family life than it seemed to be for men?
I didn't know the answers then. And I didn't know I'd just discovered
my calling -- my dharma.
- 2 -
I was never especially career oriented, and in that way I was
a something of an outlier among the fashionable young people I worked
with. I came to enjoy the creative aspects of my job and fell unreflectively
into the overwork culture of the late 1980s. During my most fertile
years, the possibility that I might one day consider myself motherhood
material rarely crossed my mind. I even went through a stage --
a rather prolonged stage, actually -- when I felt babies were
repulsive and avoided the company of young children. But sure enough,
as I approached my mid-thirties I decided I wanted a baby of my
own. And after settling down with the right man (which took several
tries), my husband and I went about the business of making one with
the sort of blithe confidence that's commonly associated with an
alarming excess of naiveté.
We soon had a baby boy, a very nice one, and went home to remake
our couple into a family. I suppose the rest is history.
Actually, a few other things happened along the way that led me
to question the organization of work and the way motherhood and
fatherhood come packaged in our society. When my older son was 15
months old, we moved from Washington, DC -- where there were plenty
of good bookstores and we had excellent part-time child care --
to a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, where there were no
bookstores and good part-time child care was impossible to find.
Our family life suddenly became more defined by my husband's job
and his career ambitions, and almost entirely dependent on his paycheck.
I was less than thrilled with my new status as the "trailing"
spouse. The wives of my husband's co-workers -- who soon made up
my new social circle -- had a Stepford-esque quality I found unnerving.
And much to my dismay, it was rubbing off on me. I started baking
bread several times a week -- partly because I missed our favorite
breads from the world-class bakeries in DC, but also because I needed
the distraction. Financial pressures, my husband's frequent business
travel, the endless round of ear and upper respiratory infections
my son brought home from his day care center (and later his nine-month
campaign against toilet training), the cultural wasteland of four-lane
highways, big box stores, fast food drive-thrus and shopping malls
spreading out in a 30-mile radius around our rustic little town,
residing in an area where 70 percent of voters were registered Republicans,
and three early miscarriages in less than two years -- this was
not what I had in mind when I pictured the delights of marriage
and motherhood. This sucked.
I was miserable, but -- given that I have a tendency to over-think
everything -- I was also intellectually curious about why everything
in my life was going so badly. So much of what was affecting me,
and so much of what seemed to be affecting other mothers I knew,
seemed related to antiquated social arrangements that split paid
work and family work into separate, gendered spheres. The company
my husband worked for was pitched to us as family-friendly. But
as it turned out, the management's notion of "family-friendly"
was putting a second-hand diaper changing table in the men's restroom
and organizing charming holiday parties for the staff's children.
The chief executives were all married men with young children, and they
preferred to hire married men with young children. But they also
required fathers to travel -- to Europe and Asia, sometimes for
weeks at a stretch, and on short notice. Mothers were expected to
put on a happy face and make the best of it. Complaining -- which
I excelled at -- was frowned upon among the wives as being "unsupportive."
Not coincidentally, during the three years my husband worked for
the company, only a handful of women were ever employed there. Although
I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time, what Unbending
Gender author Joan Williams would later identify as the "ideal
worker norm" was screwing up my life.
After we moved
away from Pennsylvania, and after I gave birth to another healthy
son, I started looking for a different kind of book to read.