Taffy Brodesser-Akner asks the same question that keeps cropping up over and over: why are there mommy wars? In this particular case, she’s asking why Erica Jong couldn’t write an article critical of attachment parent ideology without creating over-the-top flamewars?
But take a closer look at the comments on Jong’s piece. They’re not just defensive; they’re personal. The arguments aren’t well reasoned overall, just huffy, and with the requisite all-caps type to show the writer means it. Jong’s responders say, “Sorry LADY but being a parent PERIOD is a LOT of work! Don’t know if you got THAT memo.” Another snarls, “What you call prison, I call FREEDOM.”
I am reminded of my time in an all-girls school, where a girl could cut another down not with something as honest as a schoolyard beating but with a narrowing of the eyes, a whisper to a friend. No matter how pro-A.P. you are, no matter how green you strive to be, I think it would be hard to read Jong’s criticism of these movements as belittling or nasty. So why are all the responses so sour-mouthed and small-hearted? Why are they so mean?
She gets close-ish to what I believe is the answer later:
Nobody cared that Britney Spears was a young mother in a terrible marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown; they only cared that she dyed her hair when she was pregnant and tried to escape photographers without strapping her baby into a car seat. But it’s worth noting who buys those supermarket tabloids. It’s mostly women — and it’s often moms.
But that’s the only time gender is mentioned. To read this article, you would think the only people in the world who are tasked with the job of raising children are female. The words “dad” or “father” never are mentioned. “Parenting” is mentioned, but it’s seen strictly as something moms do, which means it’s probably time to revert to the old-fashioned word “mothering”. If parenting is so incredibly hard and confusing—which I’ll grant that it probably is—you would think it would sure help to have other people around to help you with it! Perhaps even just to bounce ideas off. But the only other adults these moms interact with appear to be other moms. They judge, they read, they flame war, they occasionally help each other out. But it’s just them and their kids. No men whatsoever to share their worries or their workload.
I’m guessing not all of them are single moms.
But moms aren’t just filled with rage that makes them flip out defensively at even the hint of disagreement. Nor are moms just filled with control issues that make them start to reject things like modern medicine because their egos needs the stroking of feeling like they’re smarter than all those scientists and that history of disease eradication. Nor are they just so competitive about their mom-jobs that everything becomes a competition over who is the better mom, as if there’s raises or promotions you can get from winning. A lot of moms are depressed, or at least suffering from anxiety, and have to be medicated to handle their mental health problems.
I felt like my shoulders were hung up on a clothes hanger every single day from the moment I woke up until the moment my children were in bed. Once they were there, asleep or at least safe in their beds and crib, not falling down staircases or eating or stuffing Legos up their noses or pummeling each other, I slumped. Visibly, physically, emotionally slumped. I was exhausted, and I was anxious. The anxiety made me a miserable person and a miserable mother.
The medication helped me. It gave me a pause button.
Lots of whys in this piece. Lisa Belkin, in her intro, has lots of questions. The blogger she quotes at length has lots of questions:
What is going on here? Why are women and mothers so stressed out, or depressed, or anxious? Is it the nature of the job? Is it the inhumane way our country doles out puny maternity leave or nonexistent paternity leave? Is it because we feel alone? Exhausted and overwhelmed? Hormones? I realize that motherhood, that parenthood, is not easy. I am just not sure that it is supposed to be debilitating. I will honestly tell you that when I asked for the medication, and many times since, I have felt debilitated, whether by parenthood or by life’s demands or by the combination. I can also honestly tell you I do not believe I am a person inherently anxious or depressed. (I do not believe medication is common because women feel “imprisoned” by motherhood à la Erica Jong.)
It’s good that we can wave off Jong’s theories without even giving them a moment’s weight. Still, I have to admit my eyebrow shot up at the mention of maternity and paternity leave. Those things exist strictly as benefits offered to parents who are taking a short break from work but are returning. The blogger at Elmo’s Wallpaper quit her job permanently:
I am a 36-year-old, Ivy League-educated, stay-at-home mother of three young boys living in suburbia after a short career in Hollywood.
In her intro, Lisa Belkin hints at the forbidden question, before it’s quickly dismissed and moved on from:
True, it’s been more than 40 years since the Rolling Stones released “Mother’s Little Helper,” so the vein of disaffection is not new. But it seems amplified and deepened in its latest incarnation, as do so many other things nowadays.
I quarrel with the notion that it’s amplified and deepened. Strongly. In the era that the Stones were living and that right before it, motherhood and depression went together like chocolate and peanut butter. Valium, if I recall correctly, was the most prescribed drug of its era. It was a cultural joke how every housewife from here to Los Angeles was medicated to the gills to get through her day. More importantly, this sea of female sadness and squelched rage created far more than flame wars on the internet and a few heavy-on-the-questions-light-on-the-answers blog posts in the NY Times. Not only did the Stones write a song about it, it was also the instigating factor behind one of the most famous books of the 20th century, The Feminine Mystique. Which, you know, kicked off the feminist movement, which led to legalized abortion, which led to the word “choice” being bandied around, which led to a period where feminism was supposed to be all about “choices” instead of the scarier word “rights”, which means that if someone is a stay-at-home mother suffering from mental health issues, it’s impossible for her to be suffering the same maladies that inspired Friedan, because staying at home is now a “choice”.
And yet, the same maladies are being described. But we must dismiss out of hand the possibility that Erica Jong has a point. Why, I don’t know. Because Americans have a moral right to insist that we can try the same thing over and over and get different results this time. Perhaps we should invade another sovereign country, just to prove past is no predictor. This time, we’ll definitely be getting roses and kisses instead of resistance.
I imagine this post will create the same defensiveness and rage that Brodesser-Akner is describing, though perhaps no one will call me “lady”. But I promise you, I’m not here to bash mothers. Fathers, perhaps. I will happily suggest that one of the reasons women are full of aimless rage and weighed down with so much sadness is that men still shirk doing equal domestic duties, leaving women to pick up the slack, often so much so that quitting jobs and going to the not-at-all-prison-like-shut-your-mouth-environment of the home seems like the only realistic solution. You can’t take it out on the man who became a parent with you but leaves you with most of the work of “parenting”. That means fights, that means your marriage could get rocky, and that might mean you don’t have any help at all in short order. But other mothers are there, to judge and to yell at.
I promise I’m not judging housewives, or the new term for them, stay-at-home-mothers, which reflects the fact that the impetus for leaving the workforce is now motherhood, when it was often marriage in Friedan’s day. I get why it makes economic sense to leave the workforce. I get that working doesn’t actually mean your domestic burden is lighter, especially since every social study imaginable shows that women entering the workforce didn’t mean men started scrubbing toilets or changing diapers in equal measure. I get that the rationale has completely changed, in fact. It used to be that you stayed at home because of gender roles. Now it’s because everyone carefully looks over the circumstances, decides she makes less money/hates her job more, and so she stays at home. How the decision is arrived at is supposed to change everything. But I tend to be a results-oriented person. Regardless of the mental hoops jumped through to get to a spot, if you are doing the same thing at the end of the day, expect the same results.
Nor am I suggesting all stay-at-home mothers are depressed or angry, but it’s also true that not all were sad in the 50s, either. So that would be a strawman, should this be your gambit. I’m just saying that it’s strange to me that it’s culturally accepted that Betty Friedan was right in her time, but doing exactly the same thing now should produce completely different results. I guess I don’t have the answer, either, because the one that’s most likely to work and most obvious—men do their share at home so women can have lives outside of it—is the one that’s hardest to organize around. The second most obvious answer is to not have kids, but that’s also unacceptable to many women who want them. So here we are.