Feminism and motherhood continue to be the Ross and Rachel of the never-ending sitcom that is contemporary womanhood. We know they should get together, that they belong together, but its just not happening. Meanwhile, their little pas de deux is growing tiresome, and honestly we all have better things to do than wait for season who-knows-what to see how it plays out.
In a recent Modern Love column, Janet Benton wrote about how before being swept away by second-wave feminism her mother “inhabited the kitchen with care,” letting her and her siblings lick “drippy, sweet things off the mixing spoon.”
Then she got radical, ditched the kitchen for her studio where she could be found “wielding a torch of blue flame, shaping metal into sculpture. She wore a leather apron, elbow-high gloves, a polka-dot cap, a breathing mask and a plastic face visor. Her bushy red hair burst out the back of the cap, a sign of her uncontainable passion.”
Suddenly there was not only no more licking sweet things off of spoons, there wasn’t any food. Benton “went from being well fed and popular in third grade to near skeletal and often mocked in fifth.”
Fast-forward to today when Benton is conflicted about her mom’s choosing feminism over parenthood. She appreciates the lessons in self-respect and assertiveness that her mom taught her, and calls them “more nutritive than hundreds of perfectly cooked meals.” That said, she makes sure her daughters have hundreds of perfectly cooked meals — that she prepared.
For this reason, she decided to only work while her daughter is in school and makes sure her little one’s life is filled with “drippy, sweet things,” literal and otherwise, that the two of them can share together. The kitchen was once a prison for her mom; it is now a place of healing for her.
I liked this essay. Navigating personal ambition, communal ambition (feminism) and motherhood is not easy, and it is always nice to hear someone else thoughtfully explain their approach. I liked it even more that this was featured in a column dedicated to love, because too often that messy dimension is left out of conversations on being a working parent.
Still, it left me hungry (hehe) for stories that feature a vision of feminism that is not at odds with motherhood, and vice versa. No, we are not going to find that in tales of the rabid ’70s feminists when the only thing on the agenda was getting the you-know-what out of that house. But would it be so bad if in a few contemporary stories we can see those two living, finally, happily-ever-after? I guess I am just a hopeless romantic when it comes to these two.
Benton talks about the time she went to receive a feminist award on her mother’s behalf, and how one of the older women tried to defend their abandonment of domestic tasks on the grounds that it was the only way out.
“I listened. I am a feminist, too, and I know there were and are innumerable good reasons for outrage and action,” Benton writes. “Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you.”
Oh how I wish we could hear more stories without that “yet” — in which one’s struggle for self-fulfillment are not mutually exclusive from fulfilling our children’s needs. Until next season.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.