What Do Mothers Want?

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women By Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, Free Press, 383 pages, $26.00

Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life By Daphne de Marneffe, Little, Brown, 401 pages, $25.95

The natives are restless again. For the past several months there has been an extraordinary ferment in the media over the topic of motherhood. Hundreds of books, newspaper and magazine articles, talk shows, and Web sites have been buzzing with a new version of a very old question: What do women want? Updated, the question is, what do mothers want? Why are they so plagued with guilt and anxiety, so unclear about their place in the overall scheme of things? There is nothing remotely equivalent going on in forums frequented by men. Are women just more prone to self-doubt? Are they simply more open to discussing in public their private dilemmas and agonizing life choices? Or, as is all too obvious, are the options available to most women with children simply more painful than fathers' options seem to them?

In any event, to judge by the noise level, educated middle- and upper-middle-class mothers in America are increasingly dissatisfied with the hand they have been dealt. The echoes of the 1950s are unmistakable. Half a century ago, a middle-class housewife's complaints were met with the uncomprehending question: "What have you got to be unhappy about? You've got a nice house in the suburbs, a husband with a good job, two beautiful kids! If you're unhappy, it must be your fault! You must be neurotic!" Told they were "neurotic" or "crazy," discontented housewives were given prescriptions for Valium, poured stiff drinks for themselves, and took too many naps. They had a problem with no name, and thus no clear solution.

In one recent book, Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child, author Faulkner Fox asks herself the same old '50s question: "What did I have to be unhappy about?" She ticks off the familiar list of blessings: a great husband, two healthy children, a house, enough money, and -- the only modern touch -- a (part-time) job. Yet still she's angry. She's clearly got a problem with no name (although she's pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that she was her husband's peer when they met, and now she does most of the housework, spends hours alone with the children, and is a poorly paid visiting instructor while his tenure-track teaching position takes precedence).

Today's "modern" woman in this position -- and there are millions of them -- has few friends or supporters, either in the national media or in high places. She has few public voices helping her to clarify her dilemma or pointing to ways out of it. Politicians ignore her plight, and conservatives denounce her as a selfish, "privileged" whiner. The current put-down and silencer is no longer, "You're neurotic" but, "It's your choice! No one made you have those kids; now suck it up and take the consequences!"

Even ostensibly liberal publications ignore or dismiss the angst of the middle-class mother. The Atlantic Monthly recently published an article on "Nanny Wars," accusing mothers with nannies of promoting serfdom. The author, a wannabe Dr. Laura who made her reputation by relentlessly attacking feminists, is now a staff writer for The New Yorker. A New York Times Magazine piece on several female Princeton graduates in Atlanta -- hardly a typical cross section -- labeled their decision to leave their jobs "The Opt-Out Revolution." But as one lawyer and mother at home put it, "I didn't opt out; I was pushed out, shoved out, edged out because I couldn't work 60 or 80 hours a week."

No wonder, then, that mothers are struggling valiantly to find a framework or story line that coherently explains the causes of their discontent. The Mommy Myth, by university professors Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, takes a stab at it by suggesting that the old "feminine mystique" has morphed into a "new momism," a perfectionist ideal of motherhood that torments women with standards no mortal can meet. Momism doesn't demand subservience to men; it requires subservience to children. Reviewing 30 years of television and press coverage, the authors blame the media and relentless right-wing propaganda for promoting the idea that mothers have to be perpetual vigilantes, solely responsible for the well-being of their kids. This is obviously an impossible burden that leaves most mothers feeling like failures.

The book is lively and smart and irreverent. (It calls all those who have distorted what feminists have said and done the Committee for Retrograde Antifeminist Propaganda, or CRAP). It pokes fun at airbrushed profiles of celebrity moms and pokes holes in the media panics about child safety, including a fascinating demolition of the "epidemic" of crack babies, an alarmist falsehood from start to finish. One valuable chapter explains why we have never had decent child care in this country ("dumb men, stupid choices"). All in all, The Mommy Myth is a healthy indicator that feminists are sick and tired of being beaten up on and are fighting back.

And yet, the book never satisfactorily explains why so many women are vulnerable to a reactionary ideology that doesn't serve their -- or their childrens' -- best interests. Maternal Desire, written by a psychologist, sheds more light on that crucial question.

Author Daphne de Marneffe argues that the desire to nurture their offspring is a central part of many women's identity. She beautifully evokes the sensual satisfactions of the mother-infant relationship and the pleasure and fulfillment that come from nurturing a child's development. The paradox that one can find oneself while losing oneself in service to a higher goal is movingly described. This is the truth that conservatives have exploited on behalf of an oppressive agenda. A mother never can do enough for a beloved child, and that altruism makes it hard for her to resist accusations that she isn't doing enough.

De Marneffe is writing in part to convince feminists that they have nothing to be afraid of in admitting to these maternal joys. On the contrary, an honest, unsentimental exploration of maternal desire can actually enhance the feminist project by enabling us to understand the full complexity of "what women want." We can't get what we want if we deny a crucial part of ourselves, whether it is sexual desire or maternal desire. Indeed, de Marneffe argues that today, "It is almost as if women's desire for sex and their desire to mother have switched places in terms of taboo." It seems to me she overstates this analogy, but there is no doubt that becoming a mother represents a crisis in many women's lives, and that expressing the desire to care for one's children is still looked at askance in influential quarters.

The scorn for caregiving that permeates our society is exposed here as ill-informed and old-fashioned. The latest research in developmental psychology is reinforcing our understanding of the importance of shared maternal and child pleasure in healthy human development. The happiness mothers and fathers get through moments of communion with their child contributes to a richer and stronger sense of self in all participants.

These findings constitute a powerful argument for reproductive freedom. When motherhood is a self-chosen activity, it is much more likely to achieve the level of intensity and enjoyment that produces optimal human growth. We wouldn't even be having these discussions about the joy of mothering and its beneficial impact on children if childbearing were still compulsory and the only life option for women, as it was for most until recently. The enjoyment of one's children goes hand in hand with the fact that we have fewer of them, later in life, when they are deeply wanted.

Despite their differences, which are real (the authors of The Mommy Myth deplore the "intensive mothering" that de Marneffe celebrates), these two books point the way toward a reinvigoration of the women's movement. They are both saying, in so many words, that being a mother today is no fun. A vital part of human life, a potential source of strength and power, both for individuals and for the community, has been twisted into a source of pain and conflict. Douglas and Michaels count the ways the culture fills mothers with anxiety, and de Marneffe explains how women are pressured to deny their desire for lives that have room for children. I think there is truth in both books, and together they constitute a strong indictment of the economic and social arrangements that have stolen motherhood from mothers themselves.

In an unpublished essay criticizing "The Opt-Out Revolution," Karen McGuinness of Princeton University talks about the difference between exit and voice, a framework borrowed from the economist Albert Hirschmann. She proposes that the discussion of motherhood should focus less on those who have exited and more on those who raise their voices in an effort to transform ideas and institutions. Here are such voices; if you listen closely, you can hear them above the din.

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