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Motherhood made me do it!
or, How I became an activist

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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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 to dim.

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.

viva la revolución

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