October 7, 2007

Feminist at Age 46

Mary Jo 1993; Anne, 2002; Michelle, 1997

I am trying to make up for lost time in this blog by including stuff I have written a long time ago. I wrote the following for a social work professor who delighted in making sexist aspersions. This was written in 1991; my daughters were 18, 16, 13, and 9. Please excuse the academic nature of this post.

I hate generalizations about women. I was made to feel unfeminine growing up because I cared passionately about books and ideas. My mother was very much a housewife, and I vowed to be nothing like her. I identified with my mathematician father and my five younger brothers. From 13 to 26 I was sure I didn't want to be a mother; I wanted intellectual challenge and stimulation, which appeared incompatible with motherhood. Beauvoir, I spent freshman year in a women's Catholic college. If I had gone to Mars, I could not have felt more alienated or misunderstood. An enthusiastic high school debater, I was appalled to be told the college did not have a debate club because "it was against the nature of women to debate intellectually with men. Panicked, I escaped to Fordham where I was usually the only woman in my political science classes. I had a few equally intellectual women friends; we condescended to and avoided "ordinary women.

Last spring my 18 year old commented to me, "Mom, how did the idea ever get started that men are superior to women. For God's sake, where is the evidence?" At 18, I believed that men were superior to women; I loved being told: "you think like a man." Once I escaped from the Catholic ghetto, I studied feminism and gradually began to appreciate women. Living In Manhattan at the height of the early feminist movement, I found women who questioned things, read seriously, struggled against traditional roles. I was not willing to get sexually involved with my future husband until he read Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Looking back, I can laugh at my earnestness; on the other hand. I do less housework than any women I know. I remained closer to my husband, my brothers, and my male friends. I always felt I had to rein in my sarcastic, argumentative, critical Koch self with women, who did not relish heated intellectual debate as much as I did. It was more important to me that my second husband was gentle, tender, loving, understanding, forgiving.

When I had my first daughter at 28, everything changed. I remember remarking to a male friend: "It/s ironic. I never believed in maternal instincts and I am overwhelmed with them." I found pregnancy, birth. breastfeeding. and raising preschoolers more satisfying and challenging than anything I had done. I climbed down from my intellectual ivory tower and spent many years teaching childbirth education, doing breastfeeding counseling, and coordinating playgroups. I devoured books on pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and child development. On the questionnaire for my 20th high school reunion, I wrote that my ultimate ambition was to write a great book integrating feminism and motherhood. Feminism now disappointed me; abortion did not seem to be the central issue of womanhood. Restructuring society so that women could be good mothers and pursue demanding careers seemed a far more important priority. Women's equality could not rest on the belief that the sexes were essentially alike. Women had unique contributions to make outside the home.

To some extent I renounced my prior intellectual interests. I remember a moment of epiphany. I was coming back from Central Park on the bus with my sleeping two year old and my two-month-old infant. I was trying to read the current New York Review of Books and juggle my two sleepers. A young Hispanic women got on the bus similarly encumbered with two children the same ages. I thought: "Stop the intellectual pretentiousness. You have much more in common with this woman than these Upper West Side intellectuals you're still trying to become." I canceled my subscription. Perhaps I also relinquished my existential anguish and intellectual ambitions until my children were older.

Rose, 2000; Carolyn, 2004
My husband and I have tried to raise our four daughters free of the stereotypes that constricted my childhood. When the girls were young, I was more involved with them than my husband was. Our dramatically different responses to parenthood convinced me that men and women were fundamentally different. However, mothering demands far more than biological instincts. Unquestionably, breastfeeding makes it so much easier to be a responsive mother to an infant. I never resented night feedings because I Invariably was awakened by the discomfort in my full breasts before the babies started crying. But I thought deeply about what I was doing. I read widely In anthropology and I broke most of the rules of conventional American childrearing. Two of the girls were born at home; I nursed two of them 6 years and one 4 years. During infancy they slept in our bed; we both carried them in frontpacks and backpacks for over two years each.

I allowed them great freedom to experiment, explore, mess up, create, play, splash water on the floor. At one point we had a slide, climbing structure, tent, and rings from the ceiling for a swing, rings, and a trapeza. I spent a small fortune on art materials and books. I sent the two older girls to a school with no artificial grade levels, no formal grades, no homework, no standardized tests. Defying convention to this extent was a direct result of the intellectuality of my teens and twenties. I had very definite Ideas on education, and I implemented them as far as I could. How my daughters are growing up Is very gratifying. Predictably, my ideas are usually dismissed because "your children are so gifted." I have refrainted from retorting, "too bad children are the only inventions you can't patent." I don't believe I did anything more than allow their true selves to flower. None of my daughters value order or domesticity; they are all serious readers; none has any problem questioning authority; all are excellent math and science students. Two are prone to existential angst like me; two are free from it like my husband.

But they are unquestionably different from my five brothers and my husband. On the other hand, they are strikingly different from each other as well. I have often spoken with women with one boy and one girl. Many, but not all, of the differences they attribute to gender only seem to be the result of different personalities, since my daughters differ In the same ways. Still, they are not reckless or attracted to danger for danger's sake the way that my brothers were. It would not occur to them to climb out on the roof and dive into a swimming pool. After their preschool years they are rarely physically aggressive with one another. Their tongues were lethal weapons. None of them has begged for a motorcycle. Unlike my husband, they have not spent much of their time firing rockets.

I agree with you that motherhood makes women feel more weighty on this planet. I fear death less because I will be leaving behind four spectacular women; I have made a difference. The most moving ceremony I ever attended was my grandmother's funeral six years ago. She died at 86, having been widowed at 40. She left 7 children, 32 grandchildren, and 25 great grandchildren (the number is now 41). Most of them came to her funeral because she had been special to each of them. My grandmother did not view her life as meaningless. Possibly fathering is less central to a man's life. But I would like to see several generations of men actively involved in fathering young children before I make any generalizations about that.


Veronica Mitchell said...

What an interesting description of your experience. Insightful.

My husband is probably less involved with the kids than I am, but that may be largely because they are so young. But fatherhood is very central to his character. He told me a story once about sitting in an anthropology class in college, twelve years before he met me, and having the sudden epiphany, "Of course! I was meant to be a husband and father!

Mary Joan said...

Dear Veronica,

Thank you for reading my blog. I am very excited that the bloggers I most admire are reading my stuff.

Chris and I used to have long discussions before we were married about how we were going to combine work and parenthood. I was going to get my Ph.D. in political science and he was going to get his Ph.D. in astrophysics. I couldn't stand being 3000 miles away from him, and I dropped out of Stanford; his plans got sidestepped by the Vietnam War. By the time we had children he had a full-time job he loved, and I was going to do free-lance editing. I managed to do some editing until Elizabeth was born, but I desperately wanted to stay home, much to my surprise. Chris was a very involved parent particularly as they got older. He fully supported my staying at home even though things were always tight financially.