When a friend first alerted me to this article in the Wall Street Journal as possible material for this column, I rejected the idea. It was just Erica Jong, I thought, doing what she usually does — couching interesting ideas in attention-getting hyperbole. So what?
Obviously, I’m not as savvy as Taffy Brodesser-Akner or Amanda Marcotte, both of whom tracked the numerous furious comments to the article (and whose posts, in turn, generated their share of angry and even vicious responses).
Brodesser-Akner asks why women have to be so mean to each other, and speculates that it’s because we’re all frightened — parenting is difficult and scary, and very high-stakes, and so we become defensive about our choices.
Marcotte theorizes that many mothers are depressed. Motherhood can be (in addition to all of the wonderful benefits we repeatedly describe here) isolating, exhausting, and dispiriting, entailing seemingly endless drudgery, of which mothers still perform a disproportionate share even when they work full-time outside the home. Depression, like fear, can express itself as anger.
Allowing for the fact that we don’t actually know who most of these posters are — the fact that someone claims in an online forum to be a stay-at-home mother of six doesn’t mean that s/he isn’t actually a celibate monk or a serial rapist — and also for the tiredness of the “girls are just meaner than boys” trope (We’re not. We’re really not. It’s just that when men flame each other they’re expressing themselves strongly, but when women get riled up about something we’re catfighting), I have to say I think both writers have a point.
Motherhood is scary, especially for those of us who didn’t have the best possible models for good parenting. (And I’m guessing that’s probably at least three-quarters of the population. We’re all human.) Most of us didn’t grow up, as some of our ancestors did, in large, extended families, in close-knit villages and communities where there were numerous helping hands and diverse examples of good parenting. And we don’t live in such communities now. Most of us can’t afford baby nurses or nannies. (Or maybe we are baby nurses or nannies, struggling to raise our own children while catering to someone else’s.) We’re on our own, or at least we feel that way, with a Greek chorus ready to point a finger at any shortcoming.
And, judging from my clients, friends and correspondents, lots of mothers are depressed. We do the lion’s share of the work, for very little credit and most of the blame when things go wrong. We’re made to feel guilty for not attending every school juice party and band performance that takes place during school hours, which happen to be our work hours — and when we do make the effort to attend, we’re often taken less seriously at work than colleagues without children, or those who have wives who assume most of the responsibility of childrearing.
When Ben was about six months old, I was called into an emergency meeting at the clinic where I worked. It was my day off. There was no coverage for him. It was sleeting. I had to go or risk losing my job, which we couldn’t afford. I had already let go of my full-time position because of babysitting issues; I couldn’t risk this part-time job as well.
Ben was one of those babies who refuses to use the stroller; if he wasn’t being held he would scream until his face turned purple. So I bundled him into his snowsuit, which he hated, slapped a hat on his head, which he also hated, and strapped him into the Snugli and took off for the meeting.
It was a long, contentious meeting, and although I had brought a number of toys, and several of my co-workers were kind enough to hold and distract him (and distract themselves from the acrimony of the meeting), he became bored and agitated by the second hour. The clinic director started giving me “Can’t you control your child?” looks. I couldn’t concentrate on what was being said. Finally, I said, “I have to leave.” I zipped him back into the hated snowsuit and hat, and this time he protested loudly. I felt I could hear sighs of relief as we left, and felt like both an inadequate employee and a horrible mother.
As we left the building and I made my way to the subway, Ben screaming by now and kicking against my chest, an older woman came up to me and said, “How could you bring a little baby out on a day like this?”
I responded, “Oh, shut up!” and stalked to the train, now truly horrified at myself. Not only was I a terrible employee and mother, I was a person who yelled at kindly old ladies. What had I turned into?
What I had turned into was the personification of fear and depression expressed as anger.
I’m not endorsing the hateful comments on the blogs — but I do think it’s important to recognize where they might come from. If we lived in a culture that was more supportive of mothers — at work, at home, and in the community — we might all be able to relax and have a group hug. As things are now, probably not.
I work now in a clinic in which we see serious child abuse. We also see the mothers of those children, most of whom are not evil or hateful. They’re isolated, overwhelmed, stressed out and scared, themselves the products of inadequate or abusive parenting. When they are given support and education instead of punishment and contempt, many are able to turn themselves and their families around.
It has to start somewhere.