Guilt on the Newsstands, Guilt on the Bookshelves

By Marjorie Ingall

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.

To say mameles get mixed messages about parenting is an understatement. Media portraits of moms are totally contradictory: Stay-at-home moms (or SAHMs, in perky parenting-message-board nomenclature) are sometimes depicted as noble and fulfilled, sometimes painted as depressed, judgmental cupcake-bakers with brains that are rotting like overripe melons. Working moms are sometimes caricatured as viper-ish executive harridans or guilt-ridden sobbing wusses, sometimes hailed as feminist heroes acting in their own economic and personal self-determination. Which is it, people? I’m on deadline.

Many of my mamele friends are freaking out about a March cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, with an inflammatory all-caps headline: “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement.”

Writer Caitlin Flanagan argues that middle-class white women with careers have sold out “poor and luckless” immigrant women by handing off the icky parts of child-rearing to them. At least I think that’s what she’s arguing. It’s hard to say for sure, because Flanagan is a snarky, witty writer who practices better sleight of hand than magician David Blaine. She says that while we kvetch that we hire nannies only because there’s no universal childcare, we privately admit that we hire nannies because day care sucks. Uh, how are those two statements mutually exclusive? Day care isn’t an option for some women because the hours are too short, and it isn’t an option for others because, well, it mostly does suck. I don’t know any working woman who doesn’t wish for national, affordable, subsidized childcare. We want what other countries have: Sweden gives new moms a year’s maternity leave at 90% pay and provides nurseries for children 18 months and older. Brazil mandates 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Ninety-five percent of French kids aged 3 to 5 are in day care or preschool. Are French women simply nobler, less exploitative and less narcissistic than American women? I doubt it. They like Jerry Lewis.

But what hit home for many of my friends is Flanagan’s argument that our most nagging fear is true: Children actually do love their nannies more than they love us. Nannies are there; working moms aren’t. I think that’s why many women have responded to this piece; our guilt is never far from the surface. Flanagan’s other big zinger is that because most nannies are paid under the table, they won’t be eligible for Social Security or Medicare, the very thing we rich girls went into the workplace specifically to get. How hypocritical we are! Is it at all relevant that my actual friends with actual nannies pay them well, pay extra for overtime, do not ask for housecleaning help (unless they pay an additional fee for this service) and pay on the books when the nanny consents to it? Can we really blame feminism for, well, capitalism? Flanagan’s portrayal of nannies as disempowered, cowed immigrants with poor English and few choices is simplistic and ultimately condescending (and it’s not as though she interviews any in her piece to ask what they want).

The Atlantic Monthly is far from alone in capitalizing on mothers’ insecurities. Elsewhere on newsstands we have People magazine showing Courteney Cox Arquette in a fetching red maternity sweater-set that presumably cost more than a week of nanny care; Us and Star offer us Sarah Jessica Parker and Catherine Zeta Jones workin’ their post-baby rock-hard abs in awards-show couture; InStyle is full of celebrity paeans to the bliss of motherhood paired with layouts of gazillion-dollar homes that purportedly contain small children but do not feature a floor strewn with spit-soaked board books and grimy bug-eyed Teletubbies. I loathe these articles, yet I scan newsstands for them like a self-tortuous envy-seeking missile.

It is to these feelings that Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels speak in their new book, “The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women” (Free Press). The media, they say, alternate between romanticizing motherhood (via stories of blissful celebrity moms who talk about motherhood being more fulfilling than celebrity) and inducing motherly paranoia (via stories of monster mothers killing their own children and cold-hearted caregivers shaking their charges like martinis). Douglas and Michaels talk about “the new momism,” which they describe as an insidious right-wing conspiracy to avoid funding the kind of childcare enjoyed by much of the rest of the civilized world, paired with “the media’s increasingly finely tuned and incessant target marketing of mothers and children, the collapse of governmental institutions — public schools, child welfare programs — that served families in the past… and mothers’ own, very real desires to do the best job possible raising their kids in a culture that praises mothers in rhetoric and reviles them in public policy.” Whew. It’s so “X-Files”! And yet, like Mulder, I believe. I only wish that Douglas and Michaels had adopted a less snotty tone. (It’s actually similar to Flanagan’s, but coming from a socially liberal, rather than conservative, perspective.) The authors would win more converts if they weren’t quite so mocking toward Republican administrations and parenting philosophies they disagree with. The result is that they’re preaching to the choir — i.e., left-leaning working women like me.

And then there’s Daphne de Marneffe’s new book, “Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life” (Little Brown & Company). It too tells us we’re oppressed, but this time we’re being oppressed by a conspiracy of silence that tells us we cannot admit to a desire to care for our own children. De Marneffe, a therapist, worried that by embracing her maternal desire to stay home with her kids, she was betraying her extensive education and her feminist ideals. Ultimately she decided that while feminism urged modern women to deny the pleasures of childcare, caring for one’s own children is a profound, fundamental desire. But hello, it isn’t mine! I would lose my mind if I didn’t get to write. (De Marneffe herself went back to work part-time when her kids got older.) And it’s revisionist history, or backlash, to say that feminism disparaged women for staying home with their kids. Feminism encouraged women to have careers, but it also encouraged respect (and even pay) for the work of women whose hidden, underappreciated labor ran households. Besides, talking about how caring for children is a fundamental female desire comes dangerously close to that old “cult of true womanhood” business: Women’s ultimate fulfillment only comes in the domestic sphere.

All these books and articles actually speak to a limited audience. Working isn’t a choice for most women in the workplace; it’s a necessity. Breast-beating about whether to work or stay home is a luxury, even though it doesn’t feel like one. Right now, 72% of mothers of children under 18 are in the U.S. labor force; most are just trying to keep their kids in shoes. I think we can all agree that it would be nice if our country worked harder to make their lives, and the lives of their children, easier.

The upshot: There’s no one solution for everyone. Some women want to work; some want to stay home; some have no choice in the matter. But one point that’s rarely raised is that the line between working and staying home is so much more porous than any of these books or articles would have us believe. According to the research firm Catalyst, 36% of American women will work part-time at some point, often because they have children. It seems that many of us are cobbling together solutions. Rather than obsessing about Mommy Wars and our own guilt, maybe we could try to learn from each other.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.



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