Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Masks, Chains, and Myths: Analyzing Motherhood

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The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels (Free Press, 2004. $26)
The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittenden (Owl Books NY; 2nd Rep edition 2002. $15)
The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It by Susan Maushart (Penguin Paperback, 2000. $12.95)

When I told my parents I was expecting their first grandchild, they leapt up from the table to congratulate me with a kind of unconditional affirmation one rarely receives after the spelling bee years. While I was delighted that they were happy for me, I was also a bit nonplussed; after all, getting pregnant was one of the easier things I'd done lately. I'd been married two years at the time, had finished my master's in English and was well on the way to my PhD. Surely those accomplishments had been just as important? Certainly, they were more difficult.

For years, I continued to disparage their delighted response and my own maternal accomplishment. When I finished my PhD, almost three years after my daughter's birth, I told friends that pregnancy and childbirth had been easier: after all, the process was largely out of my own control, and it was over in nine months, whereas the dissertation had taken almost three years, including several false starts, and had no definitive end point. And the drugs were definitely better for childbirth.

It took until two years after the birth of my second child before I was ready to acknowledge the significance of my accomplishments as a mother. By that time, I'd been a mother for almost ten years; I'd also both found an academic job and earned tenure in it. While I was on my first sabbatical, I finally got the chance to step briefly off my professional track and simply read what fed both mind and spirit. For much of the year, that was children's literature. I'd just started teaching in the area and had lots of gaps to fill, but it also spoke to how I was spending my days: parent-child relationships matter -- children matter -- in children's books. From the children's books, and also from a writing class I took during the same period, I came to books about motherhood. When I first started looking, there weren't many: Susan Maushart's The Mask of Motherhood was one of the first I discovered. I liked it almost immediately for its brave irreverence about maternity:

What our fellow mammals "know," we must learn. That's what having a human brain means, for heaven's sake. We do not suckle our young by instinct any more than we experience labor like the family cat. Any woman who has not given silent, unattended birth to quintuplets, or nonchalantly consumed her own afterbirth, should not expect to breastfeed instinctively. (152)

Maushart, a sociologist, reminded me in some ways of me. Both an academic and a parent, she'd found the two roles difficult to combine. The book is her effort to unite her personal and professional lives, to turn her academic intelligence on her personal experience. The Mask of Motherhood gave me the vocabulary to recognize my own achievement I knew how to talk about professional achievement, but when I mentioned to a colleague, himself a parent, that I'd found the experience of motherhood the most life-changing experience I'd had, my comment was met with a blank stare. I learned to keep quiet about it.

I found most other mothers did as well. Among the mothers I know who work outside the home, some of us will never use "child care" as a reason for missing a meeting, others will claim to be sick when it's really our children who keep us at home, and many of us have patched together a mosaic of child-care arrangements rather than ask for a more flexible schedule. Few of us, stay-at-home or employed, speak either of the deep spiritual joy of mothering, the intense anger, the anxiety, and -- perhaps especially -- the occasionally mind-numbing boredom. Quips about the "terrible twos" and cute stories about our preschoolers, with a rare unfunny joke about sleeplessness thrown in for good measure, are about all the "talk" of mothering we can do. Maushart terms the silence most of us preserve around our experiences of maternity "the mask of motherhood" -- "the semblance of serenity and control that enables women's work to pass unnoticed in the larger drama of human life. . . [that] keeps us quiet about what we know, to the point that we forget that we know anything at all . . . or anything worth the telling" (5).

When I first read Maushart, I immediately bought five more copies to distribute to women I knew. And then, fearful -- bound, still, by the mask -- I failed to give most of them away. I gave one to my sister a few years later, when she was pregnant with her son. I think I may have given another to a colleague. I thought about teaching the book. But something stopped me -- the same mask, I think, that she analyzes so presciently.

It's now 15 years and more since my parents jumped up from that kitchen table to congratulate me, and I finally think I know what they were up to. They were welcoming me into their club, the parent club. It's a club they knew without question they would join when they married; they were parents just weeks after their first anniversary. My generation, late boomers or early gen-X-ers or whatever we are, may be the first in history to have decoupled marriage and motherhood. Motherhood as a choice unrelated to romantic or economic partnership (and marriage has been both, over the years) is a revolutionary and in many ways surprising phenomenon -- and it's the reason for all three books discussed here.

Once upon a time, things were simpler. In the precapitalist west, marriage was an economic partnership in which women's and men's work overlapped, mostly taking place in the home or nearby. Children labored in the fields as soon as they were old enough to follow orders, to lift and to carry, so women's work nurturing them was recognized as productive: after all, the time spent caring for them was time spent raising the next generation of workers. Besides, raising children was part and parcel of the important work of the home, taking place alongside raising chickens and selling eggs, keeping a small kitchen garden, and the other productive labor of the family farm or small home-based business. Women had no legal rights in this precapitalist system, but few men did either -- property ownership was, after all, the basis for legal representation in most of the west until the reforms of the middle nineteenth century extended the vote to all white men.

Ann Crittenden's story, in The Price of Motherhood, begins here, and moves next into the early Republic with the development of the "true woman," a mother whose primary role was raising good citizens rather than the good workers of the generations before. While neither system was a feminist utopia, still the actual labor of motherhood was at least recognized as valuable, even if it was not officially compensated. What has happened in the last 200 years, however, is that as a cash economy has developed, labor that is not compensated with cash officially "disappears" -- it becomes invisible. Hence, the concept of the "non-working" spouse: anyone who doesn't make money, by definition, doesn't work.

Crittenden's analysis received a lot of attention when it first came out several years ago. I remember reading debates about it in the press at the time. Her conclusions -- that the unpaid labor of caring must somehow be counted and compensated -- smacked of socialism and were largely dismissed. After all, her success story was Sweden, and what red-blooded American wants to hold up Sweden as a model? Indeed, there may be problems with looking to a relatively homogenous society, in which socialism has been widely accepted for several generations, as a model for American action. But Crittenden's economic analysis remains, to my knowledge, unchallenged: the unpaid labor of domesticity is both inextricable from, and invisible to, the cash economy in which most of us participate. It has only, in fact, started to become visible in the last decade or so as the numbers of women (and we are mostly women) in the "sandwich generation," caring for both children and aging parents, has grown, and employers are beginning to recognize the costs.

Crittenden, a financial journalist who left full-time employment at the New York Times after her son was born in 1982, is less lyrical, more straightforward than Maushart. She's less personal, too, preferring anecdotes about other, especially public, women to the personal revelations and intimate interviews that permeate Maushart's work. She talks about herself in distanced terms, usually, though it's always clear that her personal experience is what brought her to this book. Their contrasting yet complementary styles also reflect their content: Crittenden is focused on the material world, Maushart on a more interior, psychological reality -- though, as both make clear, one can never really separate the two.

Maushart's analysis complements Crittenden's in many ways. While the capitalism Crittenden analyzes is largely, at least officially, gender-neutral (and thus stay-home fathers can be just as disempowered as stay-home mothers, for example), Maushart is quick to label "patriarchy" acting in the world. Her psychological analysis builds cleverly on Freudian concepts of envy and anxiety, as for example when she claims that women have been suppressed, historically, at least in part because "motherhood . . . is so intensely powerful, entailing acts of creation before which all other human endeavor withers into shadow. In the creation stakes, motherhood is the big league, and everything else -- art, science, technology -- is the farm team. Is it really any wonder that . . . at some subconscious level all men are terrified, awestruck, and deeply envious of the gender-specific miracle of creation?" (20). Maushart's lyricism is both seductive and, for me, a bit off-putting. Even as I type the words, I begin to question her: "terrified," really? I fall back into that moment of questioning my parents' joy -- what's the big deal, after all? Anyone can make a baby!

Not anyone, though, Maushart reminds us. So far, only a woman can gestate a baby and carry it to term. She needs a man at the beginning, of course -- and things will be much easier if she's got another parent to share the next 18 or so years with -- but the power of the female in procreation is indeed undeniable.

And yet, as Maushart notes, herein lies "the first of many strange paradoxes of human motherhood: that mothering is the most powerful of all biological capacities, and among the most disempowering of all social experiences" (22).

Motherhood transcends patriarchal conspiracy, of course, and even capitalism. I remember those early days of motherhood, when I couldn't even cut my own food, and how grateful I was for the attentions of my husband. When all my focus had to be on the baby, I became profoundly dependent on my husband for my own basic needs. But that's hard to admit. Maushart puts it this way: "the mask of motherhood conceals the almost unbearable tension between our power as creators and the dependencies that this power engenders -- in our children, in our men, and in ourselves" (35). If we wear a mask, then, we do it in part for self-preservation. Struck by the enormity of what we've done, and what we yet need to do, we deny and repress that knowledge simply in order to get through the day. In her analysis of our cultural experiences of pregnancy, labor and delivery, breastfeeding, and the marital renegotiations following parenthood, Maushart notes the disjunction between power and dependency that enables, indeed requires, a maternal mask.

While some of the specifics of her analysis will almost certainly annoy and alienate some readers -- she takes on Penelope Leach and La Leche League in more vitriolic terms than I find necessary, for example -- the overall argument seems to me, finally, unarguable: motherhood does indeed change everything for a woman, and in denying the changes or trying to accommodate them to a hostile environment (and both the work and home environments can at times seem hostile), we disempower ourselves and may ultimately do our children a disservice as well.

While Crittenden analyzes the relationship between capitalism and the loss of status for mothers, along with the decoupling of marriage and motherhood, Maushart captures the psychological ramifications of the same thing. Meredith Douglas and Susan Michaels, in The Mommy Myth, then turn the analytical screw even tighter, recognizing the way capitalism, having dispensed with mothers' unique productive capacities (or at least stopped recognizing them), has exploited their status as consumers, over-developing the guilt and anxiety that come with being a "non-productive" member of society. And if The Price of Motherhood is depressing and The Mask of Motherhood angry (and they are), The Mommy Myth is both funny and eye-opening. The book opens humorously, with a portrait of the American mom at the grocery store, checking out celebrity moms extolling their sexy maternity from magazine covers while "you . . . feel as sexy as Rush Limbaugh in a thong" (1). Now, there's a mental image I didn't need!

At times, the authors take cheap shots -- they particularly dislike Dr. Sears, claiming that he "insists mothers who don't lash their babies to their chests for five years or so are cold-hearted banshees" (69). Well, not quite. But I did get a laugh out of CRAP, their acronym for the fictitious "Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda," ubiquitous source of all antifeminist reporting (30). Parts of the book feel as if the authors are simply shooting fish in a barrel -- it's pretty easy to make fun of the celebrity mom profile, for example. But if they do nothing else they perform the great service of reminding us that feminism has always recognized the importance of motherhood -- they remind us, for example, that Ms. magazine published children's stories in every issue in its first several years of publication, along with articles on "kids in the office" and "a special section on mothers and daughters" (41; see also all of chapter one). Throughout, Douglas and Michaels debunk the notion that feminism is hostile to mothers and families, and they ferret out the principles, policies and practices that really are.

The book is thus eye-opening in many ways: who knew that crack babies were largely an invention of the media, for example? (see chapter five). Douglas and Michaels uncover work that refutes the initial studies about a "crack baby epidemic," but point out that the media inattention to this new counter-data makes sense, in the context of our very classist society. Depictions of these particular monstrous mothers and their damaged babies serve, they say, "as a powerful cautionary tale about the inherent fitness of poor or lower-class African American women to be mothers at all. In addition, crack babies, while dividing mothers and children up between 'us' -- decent, responsible, caring, disciplined white people -- and 'them' -- promiscuous, irresponsible, out-of-control, wanton black women -- was also a normalizing story for all mothers. It raised the question that would come to haunt the next decades. As a mother, were you being sufficiently vigilant, were you, at every turn, resisting the selfish, stupid choice in favor of the selfless, smart one?" (161). In other words, you're damned if you do (use crack), but you may even be damned if you don't. Dichotomies like this have been used to control women for generations: like the old virgin/whore split which reminds women to remain "pure" lest they be labeled impure, good-mom/bad-mom labels separate women with fear.

The chapter on child care, which reminds (or teaches) us of our own history -- affordable, good child care for working women during World War II -- has echoes of Crittenden's chapter on child care in the military: both of them demonstrate that our much-vaunted fear of government intervention into the family is, really, a hoax: government day care works, has worked, and can continue to work, for those who would otherwise not be able to perform services the government deems necessary. What if the government actually deemed raising children a national responsibility? Throughout, Michaels and Douglas raise important questions like these, focusing on the gap between our public rhetoric ("no child left behind" comes to mind) and our public policies, which under our current administration and throughout the 80s have systematically cut benefits to women and children in need.

All four of these authors are mothers, and most wrote their books while their children were still in elementary school or younger, so they speak less of parenting teens than I, the parent of a teenager, might have liked (Meredith Michaels is the exception here). But their motherhood shows in countless ways: in the anecdotes they share (I've never read another academic book in which the author discussed her cracked nipples, as Susan Maushart does), in the jokes they tell, and especially in the compassion they feel for mothers of all sorts and conditions, employed and stay-at-home, rich and poor, wed and unwed. Crittenden can make me care about the fate of the wealthy Zoe Baird, for example, as she retells the story of her failed bid to become Bill Clinton's attorney general. She analyzes the media backlash against a powerful woman who -- after several failed efforts to hire a US citizen -- had hired an illegal alien instead of foregoing her high six-figure income and staying home with her child. They note that few bothered to note that Baird had in fact attempted to normalize her employee's status -- and none, it seems, wondered why her husband wasn't staying home. Douglas and Michaels move easily from tales like Zoe Baird's to far less privileged ones, as they compellingly analyze the way "the stereotype of the lazy, irresponsible, neglectful, and promiscuous welfare mother" serves to help construct "the identity 'mom' . . . based on vehemently excluding certain types of people from that identity" (199). This is not, of course, to equate the problems of wealthy white career women with under-educated, economically disadvantaged ones. Not all women are mothers, and not all mothers have the same experiences. Yet pregnancy and childbirth are powerfully binding, especially -- as these authors note -- in a culture that continues to devalue them. While antifeminists have claimed that Zoe Baird's problems would not have been solved by subsidized childcare, as Crittenden's analysis seems to suggest, it seems clear to me from reading these three books that a social and cultural commitment to the hard work of caring could have prevented them, and many others even more dire.

Crittenden points out, though, that women were at the forefront of the attack on Zoe Baird. And while "the mommy wars" outlined in Douglas & Michaels may no longer be front-page news, it's still the case that our experiences as mothers may divide as much as unite us. Epidural or Lamaze? Breast or bottle? Day care or mom-care? Until we can recognize that all mothers work, and that raising children -- like many other chores of being human -- is difficult, rewarding, and not necessarily the right job for every woman, we will continue to be divided when we should unite. But division is easy, and safe. As The Mommy Myth indicates, pointing fingers at other mothers can make us feel better about ourselves. And in a culture that still gives mothers few things to feel good about, the myth or the mask can be self-protective for many of us.

No one of these books answers all my questions about motherhood, but together they come a long way. Still, I feel a sense of futility in writing about them, or asking others to read them: the people who most need to hear this analysis are the least likely to, as they are the ones most empowered by the current status quo. Women and men alike who benefit from the mask of motherhood are unlikely to want to tear it off. And many of us who do want to tear it off may find it difficult if not impossible. After all, it took me ten years to figure out what the big deal was, and almost another five to start writing it down. Ann Boyer recently wrote of the boom in mother-related memoir, or "momoir":

In theory, at least, there is a need for all this literary self-reflection. If we can see where we are, run for the doors with the kid in tow, maybe we can break out of this crazy place. We could look at the grand grimy maze of motherhood with curious detachment, and say to daughters and granddaughters: "That's where we have been together, little ones. I will describe this for you so you won't go in there blind." In practice, I'm not tough enough. I'm limping, hobbled, practically blind, still chained in intricate ways.

Most of us share those chains, I think. So, we throw another baby shower, pass a surreptitious copy of Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions or Helen Simpson's brilliant book of short stories, Getting a Life, to someone who looks a little depressed, and keep our knowledge of the mask quiet, for the moment. But there's still hope. Maushart claims our experiences are worthy of epic treatment, and while we may not have received that yet, there are lots more books about motherhood -- momoirs as well as meaty analytical books like these -- than when I first read Maushart several years ago. Children's literature taught me a lot, all those years ago. Mother Bear (from the Elsie Minarik Little Bear series), and E.B. White's Charlotte, and the invisible mother of Max, from Where the Wild Things Are, offer some models of mothering that I can embrace. Now, with the boom in mom-lit, I've got even more role models, more options. Can literature be the beginning of activism, the impetus for change in public policy? Perhaps, perhaps not. But certainly the more we can share these stories and others like them, the looser the chains will be.


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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