Katie Roiphe isn’t wrong when she says feminist thought is underdeveloped when it comes to the pleasures of mothering an infant. I personally would extend this critique to the pleasures of parenting an infant, and the pleasures of parenting children at different ages, too. Of course it’s not just feminist writing that has failed to do justice to the pleasures of parenting; it’s hard to write about it from any perspective without resorting to clichés and cloying sentimentality.
But the phrases in Roiphe’s piece at Double X that have raised feminists’ hackles really do deserve a barrage of rotten tomatoes for being ahistorical. (Sadly, I’ve got too many rotten tomatoes of my own in the garden, but I throw like the stereotypical girl; no way can I lob them all the way to New York.)
Roiphe’s first problem is her subtitle – “Why won’t feminists admit the pleasure of infants?” – which I’m not sure she chose. It’s likely an editor’s headline, and so we can’t hold her fully culpable. But Roiphe herself writes:
One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment.
Katie did not say that feminists hate their babies, or that baby-less women are useless, or anything else she’s being accused of saying.
But this surely misses the point. Roiphe seems to be indulging in something less sensational but no less pernicious: willful ignorance of recent feminist history. And I really mean: willful! Roiphe is the daughter of noted second-wave feminist Anne Roiphe, who wrote her own memoir of mothering, which most certainly wallows in its irrational elements.
Maybe ignorance is the wrong term, though. While Kate Harding sees Edith Wharton as Katie Roiphe’s foil, it’s easier to imagine that Roiphe’s imaginary interlocutor is her own mother. Read throgh this lens, Katie’s piece, which beautifully captures the blurriness of early motherhood, is yet another salvo in breaking free of her famous mother’s shadow; never mind that by now, Katie is probably better-known of the two. Perhaps Katie is trying to cast her own anchor in the wild sea of contradictions her mother bequeathed her. If so, I couldn’t blame her; the waters are mighty choppy.
Here’s how Anne Roiphe describes her transmutation through motherhood in Fruitful: Living the Contradictions: A Memoir of Modern Motherhood:
When I became a mother to my first child I stopped believing in art as the only good in the world. I thoguht my baby was good. I thought my responsibility to my baby was good. In the early hours of the morning as I held the baby and watched out the window for the return of his taxi, I knew what mattered. I didn’t believe that motherhood would lead me to freedom or wisdom, but I knew that the urgency of my life was my child. This was the beginning of my feminism and I don’t care that that was an odd way to find it, a weird way to express it. ( Fruitful, 11)
Compare this to Katie’s take on the transition to early motherhood:
There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done?
But at this juncture, mother and daughter chart a different course. Here’s Anne’s take on how her self-as-mother and self-as-person hardened into matter and anti-matter, even in the midst of billowing love – oh, because of billowing love!
Ah, ah, I said when I saw the baby eighteen hours later, and those early moments as I counted the fingers and the toes, and looked at the lashes and felt the soft indentation on the scalp, touched the black wisps of hair, were my first and possibly last moments of wordless joy, of lifting up like the Eatern religions a promise of transcendence and peace. Temporarily I was blissed. So blissed I hardly noticed that I had lost my place on Juck’s raft, would soon lose my indifferent husband, my time for myself, my ambition, my freedom to go wherever the mood took me and stay as long as I liked. I was no longer the subject of my own days. Now I was the soil, damp, dank, wormy, from which someone else might grow. If I did badly I would never forgive myself. Judgment hung in the closet where the dark creatures of my childhood had once lurked. I had given up my boundary, the wall of self, and in return had received obligation and love, a love mingled with its opposite, a love that grabbed me by the throat and has still not let me go. (Fruitful, 4)
Anne published this in 1996, when Katie was all grown up and capable of grasping her own mother’s ambivalence about motherhood. (Katie surely absorbed it in her childhood, too.) By contrast, Katie the mother revels in her loss of self and the dissolution of personal boundaries. While only Katie knows her own heart, it’s hard not to think that she’s reacting against Anne’s ambivalence:
But then part of the allure of maternity leave is precisely this: You give up everything you are and care about. The books on your shelves are not your books; the clothes hanging in the closet are not your clothes. You are the vague, slow, exhausted animal nursing its young. Anything graceful, original, sharp, intelligent about you is gone. And it is that sacrifice of self, that total denial of the outside world, that uncompromising violence done to your everyday life, that is this period’s appeal. You are transported in a way you will never be transported again; this is the vacation to end all vacations.
Of course, in my drugged baby haze I do occasionally recognize that the baby will not always be six weeks old, that I will one day sleep more than two hours at a stretch. I also recognize that if you had a newborn every day of your life you would die. But for now, I feel like closing the shades and staying in the opium den. I know somewhere out there is a great world where people talk and think and write, but I am not interested in going there yet.
One serious difference? Katie has a map and a few talismans to help lead her out of her opium cave. Anne did not. Katie saw her mother reclaim a self who writes and thinks and moves through the world. Anne had no such role model:
My own mother read mystery stories, romance novels, and smoked three packs of Camels a day. She had no work in life other than the beauty parlor, the shopping lists, the decorating of the house. She played a high-stakes game of canasta, two, three afternoons a week. She blew smoke rings across the card table. She lay for hours soaking in the bathtub, a glass of scotch balanced on the rim. She had servants for the real work of the home. She cried herself to sleep most nights. She yearned and did not know what she yearned for. She wanted me to be different and the same. (Fruitful, 5)
Is it any wonder that Anne and Katie see early motherhood differently? Katie’s palette of possibilities, including that teaching job at NYU to which she can return, are the fruits of her mother’s generation. Those options are the legacy of Anne and other second-wave feminists not having set up house in the opium den, no matter how seductively it was furnished in Harvest Gold.
But these understandable generational differences still don’t excuse Katie Roiphe’s deliberate effacement of second-wave history. As Anne’s daughter, Katie surely grew up aware of Adrienne Rich. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, Rich distinguishes between the social pressures and norms that often do make motherhood oppressive, and the deep-seated, often embodied joys of mothering one’s beloved children. Just as her subtitle promises, she tries to separate the patriarchal institution of motherhood from the lived experience of mothering. While we might fault Rich for being essentialist – after all, many of those pleasures and joys are available to fathers, too, if they chase them – we can’t claim she focused merely on the ways society oppresses women through motherhood. She also celebrated the joys.
When I first started studying motherhood, the historical and theoretical literature was a lot thinner. In the past ten years, there’s been an avalanche of new books analyzing the problems with the institution of motherhood. There have also been efforts – fewer in number, but still important – to recast the lived experience of mothering in feminist terms. They range from Sara Ruddick’s work on maternal practice to Daphne de Marneffe’s Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life.
The point of criticizing the institution of motherhood wasn’t merely to help new mothers grope their way out of the opium den when they felt a need or desire for the ordinary light of day. It was to free the experience of mothering from its alienating elements. Katie Roiphe has benefited from this. So have I. That doesn’t mean lived experience has broken free of the institution, only that before we start making broad generalization about the feminists who came before us, we’d better examine the history. We’d also be wise to take stock of our own generational and familial baggage and privileges.
Oh, and the world “vacation” to describe early mothering? That works for me if you consider a visit to a Baghdad “adventure tourism.” Early mothering can be hallucinatory, all right, thanks to extreme sleep deprivation. But I, for one, like to catch up on sleep on vacation, and I’m grateful that my now school-age children kindly allow me to do it.