A 'Mommy Wars' update: battling from the extremes


Women authors writing about motherhood are like fundamentalist ministers, preaching black and white in a profoundly gray world.

They typically have a single focus. There are those who believe that every mother should stay home and raise her own children -- anything less is a renouncement of her true feminine identity and duty. Others argue that no woman can find self-fulfillment, or sufficient economic security, if she throws over paid employment to stay home and take care of the kids full time.

Sound simplistic? It is simplistic. But if these polarizing arguments don't absorb your interest, prod your passions, or stir doubts and fears, you're probably a man -- or you're too young to have a stake in the "Mommy Wars." There's been a new outbreak of hostilities this spring, and plenty of women are talking about it around the copying machine and on playground benches. Two new books, on opposite sides of the divide, of course, are fueling the renewed conflict.

For psychologist Daphne de Marneffe, author of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (Little, Brown, 401 pages, $25.95), motherhood is the consummate vocation. De Marneffe, a graceful, well-meaning and obviously intelligent writer, contends that American women ignore their instinctive desire for the domestic realm. To choose to care for your own children has been stigmatized in a culture that promotes achievement and material wealth above all else, she argues. Women are now enslaved to the idea of "staying on track" and thus cut off from their longings to be transformed by motherhood.

As a working mother, I was surprised how initially compelling I found de Marneffe's arguments -- her skills as a prose stylist and the earnestness of her point of view drew me in. She weaves together psychoanalytic theory, the work of renowned feminists, and her own experiences to make a solid case for her ideas. But after a while, her tone began to feel condescending.

She writes: "As mothers we should give ourselves the room, the dignity, to discover what we think and what we want." My response: Hey, thanks a lot.

She writes: "Each of us must think through the issues for herself so that the life we live is a personal creation rather than a resigned-to reality." My response: I have yet to meet the adult woman -- or man, for that matter -- who doesn't have plenty of resigned-to reality in life.

De Marneffe's descriptions of the intimacy and connection one experiences mothering children are heartfelt, but in the end the book is more about her than anyone else. An Ivy League graduate living in a high-powered academic setting, she obviously experienced serious conflict when she decided to stay home full time after her third child was born. But she turns the conflict outward, saying that to desire motherhood today is to be branded "masochistic, desexed, infantile or fearing success."

Well, maybe in her world. She seems not to grasp that millions of women who decide to stay home have a pretty clear idea of the pleasures (and difficulties) awaiting them. They make the choice quite easily, not because they are bucking the ethos of the culture, but because it's what they want -- for themselves and for their children. (And because they have the option thanks to financial support from a husband or someone else.)

After de Marneffe's somewhat goody-goody persona, it's a relief to pick up a book by two self-described "mothers with an attitude problem." Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels have written a passionate protest against today's media landscape, The Mommy Myth: the Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (Free Press, 383 pages, $26).

Like de Marneffe, these authors have a real problem with contemporary perceptions of motherhood. But their view is exactly the opposite of hers. They argue that the media and thus public opinion try to browbeat mothers into remaining closely tethered to their kids. The authors sense deep hostility against working mothers -- in their view, choosing not to stay home is to be looked upon as "the bad mom" and "the selfish mom."

These authors cite movies, TV shows, celebrity magazine profiles and hysterical news coverage of a relatively rare phenomenon, child abduction, to make their points. They write: "We are fed up with the myth -- shamelessly hawked by the media -- that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and the most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and if you don't love each and every second of it there's something really wrong with you."

Are they a little angry? Yes. Are they tapping into something real? Definitely.

The chapter "Attack of the Celebrity Moms" is alone worth the price of the book for its dead-on analysis of the way stars and the people who write about them constantly harp on the pleasures of family life. No doubt the rich and famous enjoy their children -- but with the help of a tag team of nannies, and not at the expense of going to glamorous parties, buying the bling-bling, and luxuriating in 25-room mansions.

Who, aside from Douglas and Michael, can blame them? Celebrities realize, though, that it's good for their images to appear down-to-earth by insisting that "it's all about family," and magazine buyers love the myth that the stars are just like you and me (only thinner and better-dressed).

The most valuable observation Douglas and Michael have to make is that what they call the "new momism" promotes the idea that only from their mothers can American children get the nurturing they need. Contributions from fathers are written off as just a childhood bonus. Feminism, in its best version, was about loosening gender roles for all -- and obviously plenty of dads have much to offer as hands-on parents. Failing to acknowledge that, and not to hold fathers responsible to help raise their offspring, is bad for women and children.

Yet there's a disturbing undercurrent to The Mommy Myth. Like de Marneffe, these authors appear to be looking for -- no, insisting upon -- independent validation of their feelings and their choices. But in a country where women have more options than ever before, it's a hopeless effort. No vital quorum of American women, much less a majority of cultural pooh-bahs, is suddenly going to come down on one side or another on the issue of whether women with small children should be full-time mothers or not.

That's because it's a question with no definitive answer. For those lucky enough to have a choice (millions don't), a mother's decision about how much to work outside the home is idiosyncratic. The choice reflects each individual woman's personality, ambitions, financial situation and history.

Perhaps the only misstep a new mother can make when faced with the choice is to cling fast to a mommy-only ideology like de Marneffe's or a worker-hero stance like Douglas and Michael's without thought for her own nascent feelings on the subject. Maternal instincts are personal, not political, and have served women well over the years.

The vast majority of moms scale the heights of adequacy as parents -- managing to be, in the words of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, "the good enough mother." Winnicott pointed out way back in the 1950s that mothers could make mistakes and still raise healthy children. Fifty years later, his work is still in print. It will be interesting to see if today's authors on motherhood fare so well.

Clare McHugh, founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim, is now an editor at Time Inc. She has served as editor-in-chief of New Woman and executive editor of Marie Claire. She is the mother of Charlie Lasswell and Jemma Lasswell, ages 9 and 3.

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