Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Anxiety and Motherhood....

From Slate's Double X: a piece by Katie Roiphe that praises the joys of being a mother of a newborn and, along the way, attacking feminists' hostility to the pleasure of infants.

It is an interesting piece as our household transitions from one parent working to both parents working. While we both share childcare duties, Megs has been the one to stay home full-time even while writing a dissertation. Next week, she will step in the classroom for the first time and feels similarly to Roiphe about separation.

Roiphe's piece has been criticized for the following paragraph:
One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a "vocation." The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.
First, though I am not to knowledgeable on the literature of which she speaks, I find it a bit dubious when writing about a group of individuals and stating that all individuals have one view. It is especially dubious when failing to cite one of those writers and perpetuating the fiction that one writer stands for all of the writers. Maybe those that criticized Roiphe (follow the link), feel guilt for going back to work and valuing work over family. I don't know. But I do know that the controversial paragraph is not very controversial.

In defense of the post, Hanna Rosen writes that this is a "very neglected subject in both literature and philosophy and yes, also feminist writing," especially compared to erotic love. But does this establish a prima facie case that feminists are dishonest about the connection between a mother and her infant? If anything, it is a call that research needs to be done (ahem, Megs....) but this claim establishes nothing else.

But this leads to another problem: if you are not speaking out against something than you are complicit in your silence. This means that Roiphe and Rosen may speak out on this issue but are complicit on all of the issues on which they do not speak. I am sure the list is endless.

Then there is the notion of choice: Roiphe criticizes feminists for not allowing people to choose what they want to do or be, i.e. choosing motherhood over work. But this is an endless game. Roiphe is now condemning people for condemning a choice. This could go on endlessly if we choose.

It seems as if the controversy seems a bit manufactured. If you follow the link on the criticisms of this post you will find that some of the attacks on Roiphe's piece are quite misdirected and unsubstantial. There are better critiques of Roiphe's article. Nonetheless, as we in this household transition, I thought this piece may interest the readers and writers here even if this is a good piece of writing gone wrong.

5 comments:

M said...

Solon, you've pinpointed the precise thing I dislike about Katie Roiphe and her writing: she rarely cites the sources she is supposedly relying on. I can't speak for any other mothers--be they feminist mothers or not--but I do find infanthood to be difficult. Or I did as a first-time mom. Wild Man was a colicky infant who didn't sleep through the night until he was well over a year old. Couple that with PW's father's death, his job search, and his dissertation revision and defense and add to that my own attempts to do research and write, and it was a hard year. I would definitely call motherhood a vocation--it is, quite frankly, a job, and a damn hard one at that. Calling it a vocation, however, doesn't mean that I don't love my children or that I don't love being a mother. Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't being a member of the clergy considered a vocation--aren't priests, nuns, and ministers "called" to their vocations? Not to wax sentimental, but I do feel called to motherhood.

Roiphe assumes that because some women define mothering an infant as work that those same women dislike being a mother, which is a false assumption. Being a mother is the hardest thing I've ever done (and I daresay that PW would say that being a father is the hardest thing I've done), but that doesn't mean I don't love every moment of it--or at least most of them.

I would also say this is a neglected area b/c it is such a loaded one. Women can speak openly about their feelings regarding sex and marriage, but we're judged harshly for speaking about our feelings regarding motherhood, especially if those feelings are negative.

solon said...

Megs and I discussed a similar point this evening: motherhood is such a personal and subjective experience that develops in specific situations (such as the one you discuss with Wild Man), that it is impossible to create the generalizations about it.

Megs knows how she feels. The writer knows and expresses how she feels. However, she "others" the feminists who do not share her view.

Maybe she interviewed each and every one (or at least conducted exit polls). Who knows. But at the most controversial part of the story she is not convincing.

Of course this should not matter because she article should not discuss what all feminists think. She cannot make that point. The editor should have killed the paragraph though I imagine the editor liked it because it added some extra spice and controversy to the piece.

megsg-h said...

M, you and I often have divergent theories and experiences of motherhood--which is a thing that I love about our friendship--but I'm so in line with your reading of "vocation." Love it! It's the best metaphor I've EVER considered in terms of the work and the calling. I love your reappropriation of the argument to link both arguments.

Frankly, I found every contributor to this story-slash-conversation at least minimally suspect. I totally related to Roiphe's personal experience, but found her generalizations inane. But the individual commentors were just as biased in discounting her personal experience, particularly those who underscored its "hormonal" causation. (Look, I know there are lots of hormones doing lots of things at that stage, but those same commentors wouldn't like to be accused of being "on the rag," would they?)

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