A Mother's Place Taking the Debate about Working Mothers beyond Guilt and Blame (Part 1)

03 Jan 2016 16:22

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It sometimes seems that no educated modern woman can have a baby without suffering agonies of self-doubt about the meaning of motherhood. We fret endlessly about our identities and our independence. In the past, a woman might have enjoyed motherhood or not, been good at it or not, but she did not enter into existential dialogues with herself about what it meant to be a mother.
Today we can do nothing but. Usually our angst is focused on what becomes of our careers. A modern middle-class woman will almost certainly have been raised to view herself as a working woman. It is thus a shock to be transformed from a briefcase toting employee, with large responsibilities in the business world, to a home-bound, sweatsuit-clad wretch at the mercy of a tiny, whimpering infant. Good God, she exclaims to herself, what am I doing here? And who is this, she wonders, gazing at the new baby, and when did I begin reporting to him?
Most women are able to adjust and joyfully so to their new state within a few weeks. But there are others who are more like the impulse buyers of a cute puppy in a pet-shop window: they are horrified the first time the little beast wets the carpet and complain that they did not expect owning a pet would be so demanding.
Unfortunately it is the latter group who seem most moved to write books on the dilemma of work versus motherhood. A staggering number of such books have been published in recent years, almost all of which attempt to persuade women that their desire to return to work is natural while their impulse to be a mother is not. Some of these books, to be sure, have been written by ideologues who would have us believe that this most basic of female conditions is imposed upon us by men (although I guess in a crude way it is). Others have been written by social workers and pseudo-scientists, who claim to have examined all the evidence and confidently conclude that the absolutely best thing a woman can do upon having a baby is to hand it over to someone else. There have even been authors who insist that the rush of maternal feeling, the protectiveness a woman immediately feels for her child, is nothing more than cultural conditioning that we should make every attempt to overcome (interestingly, the most prominent advocates of this view like Diane Eyer, author of Mother Infant Bonding: A Scientific Fiction tend not to be mothers themselves).


But perhaps the most fascinating of these apologetics are the memoirs and essays written by women who simply prefer going to work to being with their children. Their books may be crammed with statistics and feminist citations, but ultimately they can best be understood as extended exercises in self-justification: "I'm not a bad mother really!" Working is good for kids if it's good for Mom; there is too such a thing as quality time; children actually do better in day care; etc. A Mother's Place, by the New York Times's deputy foreign editor, Susan Chira, is the latest example of this genre.
What sets Miss Chira's book apart from others like it, however, is the author's blunt candor about her dislike of spending more than the bare minimum of time with her children. "Sacrifice," she declares, "has no place in the motherhood pantheon." This is a bold position to take, even today. There remains a lingering prejudice against mothers who deliberately put their work ahead of their infants if they don't strictly, for economic reasons, have to. Most women even those with MBAs still adjust their careers to the needs of their children, or at least talk as if they do. Even the most ardent advocates of child care hesitate to denigrate traditional motherhood. It would be nice if women could afford to spend more time with their children, they'll sigh, but they just can't, and that's why we need more government-subsidized day care. Miss Chira is bravely willing to tell the truth: Many of the women who work in these affluent times don't have to. They have simply made the calculation that tending to their children is less interesting and lucrative than their job. Why should they sacrifice their ambitions to the out-of-date "Good Mother icon," as Miss Chira calls it?…

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