Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Absurdity of Motherhood Advice Writing

This is going to be a quicky, but I wanted to set down something I've been thinking about. No woman writer has any valid basis whatsoever for commenting on whether mothers ought to work or stay home.

One of media commentators' favorite pastimes is to report on how Shocked, Shocked they are to see well-educated women opting out of the workforce. Sundry recent writers have addressed the topic, in books from The Feminine Mistake to The Ten Year Nap. And then, of course, there are the ACK's of the world (my acronym for a certain anti-feminist public figure soo irritating and opportunistic I won't dignify her with an actual reference to her name: hint her initials form the sound Ack!) who opine not only that all women should stay home but also that all women could afford to do so if they weren't too selfish to stop buying Blahniks.

In actuality, the life of the writing woman is entirely unlike almost any other kind of working life. By definition, writing is flexible and forgiving work. You can do your thinking and mental drafting anywhere. You can stop and start your sentences at will. The act of formulating thoughts in writing gives unequaled opportunity for self-expression. So whether it's mothers who write about how women shouldn't work (duh, what do they think they're doing themselves as they write?) or mothers who write about how women should work (while basing their judgment on their own enjoyment of the most flexible and fulfilling possible working conditions) none of the mothers writing professionally on whether motherhood and work can successfully combine has even an ounce of credibility to comment on the question.

This, I think, is why I was so wholly unprepared for how transforming and transcendent I would find motherhood. I used to read the anti-feminist sell-outs, the women laughing all the way to the bank as they earn top dollar telling other women to get out of the workforce, and think: no way could they possibly have anything valid to say. I used to read the feminists who affirmed that a having a child doesn't mean losing your mind and I would bow deeply as I said "amen." But the simple truth is that having a child so expands your heart that the mind can, in fact, begin to seem less all-important than it once did.

I think that having professional skills, the security of one's own income, and adult contacts outside the home are things all women deserve. But I also think that the drive to nurture a child is so deep, so elemental, that denying its force has seriously undermined feminism. I think what most women want are the flexible meaningful kinds of work that all the authors of motherhood manifestos quietly take for granted.

Whether it's anti-feminists critiquing working mothers or feminists exhorting them, too many advice writers seem to think that mothers in the workforce will, by definition, act as men. News flash: few of us want to be men. And I think it's time to stop pretending that the male work model is the one by which mothers should succeed or fail.

What we really need to advocate for now are not so much women's rights as mothers' rights: mothers' rights to do meaningful remunerative work in limited and flexible hours; mothers' rights to retrain and reenter the workforce without stigma after years or months devoted primarily to family care. A childless (and especially a single, childless) woman is the equal of or even the better of any man anywhere. But a mother is another creature altogether and it's time to admit this fundamental fact.