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Jewish World Review May 20, 2002/ 9 Sivan, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Misrepresentations of motherhood | Four of us, two grandmothers and two mothers, sat on the terrace, celebrating Mother's Day at brunch, sipping mimosas, nibbling at cold salmon and warm quiche, talking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Three little boys, aged 3, 5 and 6, were "playing cars" in the garden among pink and white tulips under a red maple, arguing over whether the toy dump truck was better than the toy pickup.

Morning glided into afternoon. All seemed right, if not in the world at least in the world around us, an interlude to romanticize memory and remind us that "family values" is really about valuing family in the most ordinary of circumstances.

The four of us had experienced feminism in different phases, coming in at different places in the debate over career vs. family. Three of us had alternated between professional life and motherhood; one of us abandoned a career as chef to become a full-time mommy. We talked of the tradeoffs we had made, the difficulties and compromises women must make when they work outside the home, inside the home, or a little (or a lot) of both. Our men had had to make tradeoffs, too, but of a different nature. Life seemed good.

Then I picked up the New York Times. There, on the front of the Styles section, in time to celebrate mothers on their day, was news of another world. Women, it turns out, are still being fed the notion that "motherhood is supposed to be this gauzy, pastel-painted, blissed out state that has no depth or complexity." Naomi Wolf, author of "Misconceptions," a book that takes what she calls "no depth motherhood" to new heights, calls this pastel bliss "the socially acceptable picture in the mass market."

Really? I've never met a mother from any generation who talks about "pastel-painted bliss." She can't be talking about the women of the mass market for the feminist books that dominate the women's studies shelves.

Another woman groans over the difficulty she has of expressing a "disgust for breast-feeding." Still another woman is in a rage for not being able to express her disdain toward mothering. "You always hear about people regretting not having children," says Michelle Goldberg, 26, but you never hear of any woman saying, 'I regret having children.'"

(Fortunately, both for her and for the children she doesn't have, there's none to regret.) She adds, helpfully, that it isn't necessary to be Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her two sons in 1994 to clear the way for a boyfriend who didn't want her two sons, to regret having children. We can thank her for that nuanced sensibility, too.)

Where does the New York Times find these women? One or two of them defend being mothers, but the emphasis is clearly on the "unfulfilling" nature of motherhood and the inability to speak out on the subject. Peggy Orenstein, who interviewed 200 mothers about "flux" in women's lives, says that mothers have to censor themselves in expressing their contempt for motherhood: "The words make us lose our powers just like Superman loses his in the fact of kryptonite." (There's always Billy Batson, the boy newscaster who becomes Captain Marvel merely by shouting "shazam!")

It's not clear where these women have been during the past three decades, but unless they're refugees from Arabia they've hardly been ordered to take the veil. No one forced them into motherhood. Feminism has pushed, and pushed hard, in the opposite direction. Opportunities for women have never been so abundant. Even Welfare mothers are finding that work can work for them, and millions have gone off Welfare for jobs to support their families.

"Although motherhood has always entailed sacrifice - of time, of the ego, of one's sex life," writes Elizabeth Hayt, "contemporary mothers are sacrificing much more: careers, salaries, status." This explains her priorities, but something else is at work here, and it's all political.

Just as Hillary Clinton needed her "vast right-wing conspiracy" to explain away the humiliation of her husband's immoral behavior, these women need an enemy to blame for their own perceived sense of inadequacy. Tucked into this dispatch from a world in the past is the cliched straw men: "The families values momentum of recent decades has swept aside most of the dialogue that is less than pro-natal."

Does this mean we're supposed to be anti-natal? Mother's Day has come and gone, but the obligations that derive from motherhood have not. You could ask almost any mom.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS