Mothers unbound

Posted: Oct 25, 2002 12:00 AM
On Oct. 29, that bastion of feminism (and for what it's worth, my alma mater), Barnard College, will host a conference on motherhood. Don't yawn. This is news. When I was a student at Barnard 20-odd years ago, the wish to become a mother was something one only whispered about. To admit such a thing openly was to mark yourself as a reactionary. The point of the women's movement, we were given to understand, was to free women from all that. Volumes of feminist literature detailed the drudgery, boredom and depression motherhood inevitably entailed. Any suggestion that we bright, ambitious Ivy-League gals might look forward to motherhood was indignantly squelched. Betty Friedan called the suburban home a "comfortable concentration camp." And feminists of various stripes argued that women needed neither men nor children for happiness, merely one another. Sisterhood was powerful. But along the way, women's essential nature kept impolitely reasserting itself. Though millions of women have happily taken advantage of the career opportunities now available to them (and, to be fair, feminists deserve some of the credit for making this possible), the newly liberated continued to make marriage and family a priority even when it meant earning the scorn of feminists and others. The feminist response to the motherhood urge has, until now, taken the form of agitating for "quality child care." In other words, they want the government to care for children so that women can be free to flex their muscles in the marketplace. But millions of women, including many who consider themselves to be essentially feminist in philosophy, cannot be reconciled to handing their kids off to others to raise. Millions have sacrificed added income and professional prestige in order to color sailboats, bake gingerbread men and rock their toddlers to sleep in the afternoons. They do this not because "quality child care" is too expensive or too difficult to find, but because they believe that the best care can come only from the child's mother who loves that baby with an irrational and fierce attachment. So it raises an eyebrow to see that Barnard College is joining with the Institute for American Values to host this conference on "maternal feminism." Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, affirms that "caring for children is vastly undervalued in U.S. society, and we need a wide range of policies that will make the choices faced by parents less onerous." Enola Aird, director of the Motherhood Project at the Institute for American Values, believes: "For too long, feminism and motherhood have been on uneasy terms. They need not be. We must broaden our understanding of feminism to more fully include the needs and concerns of mothers and children." Hoping to call a truce in the "mommy wars," Aird notes that mothers can no longer be neatly divided into two camps -- those who work and those who are stay-at-home moms. Technology has made it possible for many mothers to work part-time from home (including your humble servant). This may come as news to undergraduates. A few years ago, asked to speak to journalism students about balancing career and family, I told a room full of 21- and 22-year-olds that women who want children have to plan their careers accordingly. If you want to be a doctor, you may not be able to manage as a trauma surgeon. You might want to specialize in radiology or pathology. If you want to be a lawyer, being a partner in a big firm is not the way to go. The young women in the audience were disgusted with me. I was a "sexist" and a throwback, they were convinced. No one had ever presented the choices in that way, I suppose. But motherhood is an integral part of life for most women -- the most important (to say nothing of fulfilling) task they undertake. And the earlier they learn to integrate this reality into their planning, the better. Motherhood clearly deserves greater respect than it currently receives from the society at large. But a big obstacle to that enhanced respect has been feminism itself. This conference, and the movement it aims to start, is one to watch.