A Mother’s Place: Choosing Work and Family without Guilt or Blame. . – Book reviews: myths of a golden age: motherhood in the 1950s

A Mother’s Place: Choosing Work and Family without Guilt or Blame. . – Book reviews: myths of a golden age: motherhood in the 1950s – book review

Elizabeth Bernstein

Review of Susan Chira A Mother’s Place: Choosing Work and Family without Guilt or Blame, & Danielle Crittenden What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman.

When I became a mother fourteen years ago, I found that I could no longer count on creature comforts–like sleep–that I had previously taken for granted. But beyond that, a political comfort zone I had inhabited since college also slipped away. By the time my first child was a year old, I was re-reading The Feminine Mystique in dismay. It seemed to me that feminism had underestimated nearly everything about parenthood, from the intensity of the child’s needs to that extra push towards obsession that biology had given to the female of the species.

Since that time, my belief in the benefits of full-time mothering has continued unabated and my political loyalties have remained shaky. It hasn’t been a question of switching from one party, one nationally recognized ideology, to another. It’s more a matter of feeling like a political orphan. Reading two recent books on opposite sides of the working mother debate reminds me of why I’m still here, in limbo.

In What Our Mother Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, Danielle Crittenden argues that when women insist too strongly on autonomy, when they run too scared from sacrifice and interdependence, they are more likely to undermine their prospects for long-term contentment than to assure it. The desire to become wives and mothers, the guilt we women feel when we spend long hours away from our children, are not aspects of our nature we should wish away: “Their cry should be more compelling than the call from the office?

Susan Chira believes that for a fair number of women, staying home with their children is akin to “drowning.” In A Mother’s Place: Choosing Work and Family Without Guilt or Blame, Chira argues that the children of such mothers are indeed better off if their mothers go to the office than if they remain at home, resentful and depressed.

But while the broad sweep of Crittenden’s and Chira’s arguments carry them off in very different directions, there are hints of surprising places in which their views on the nitty-gritty of childcare intersect. One of Crittenden’s arguments is that women would do well to consider marrying earlier than they do now, and some of her supporting reasons have to do with the older mothers she meets at the park. These women, she feels, take the whole business of motherhood too seriously. They cling and don’t give their children enough breathing space. She exclaims over the facts that in fifteen months, one mother hasn’t left her child with a baby-sitter to go out for the evening, and that another has a nine-month-old who still wakes several times a night because the mother won’t leave her to cry herself back to sleep.

Some of Chira’s observations on the ideologies she sees being foisted onto mothers are remarkably similar. All around her she sees parents whose fascination with their babies “borders on the obsessive.” She is especially critical of child-care advisers like Penelope Leach, who put too much weight on theories of mother-child attachment and provide lists of edifying activities like “putting marbles in used detergent bottles”: It’s all too “purposeful,” too “intense,” and deprives the baby of the opportunity to experience anything without the mother’s interference. She identifies Mothering magazine as having a more palatable philosophy, one which is favorable to the idea of “benign neglect’–but she also takes exception to “its attack on experts who tell mothers to let their babies cry it out at night.”

Well, I don’t know how much it has to do with age–I was only four years older than Crittenden when I had my first child–but anyone who wanted to take my measure on such scales as “intensity” and “attachment to child” and “inability to let baby cry” would be able to classify me without hesitation. I am that mother who seems to make both Chira and Crittenden uneasy. With my younger child now eleven, these issues don’t arouse in me quite the same degree of defensiveness that they once did. But I still consider them important for this reason: there is an inextricable link between the child-care philosophies we subscribe to as a nation and our attitudes towards full-time motherhood.

There is a tendency in our national discussions of motherhood, Chira’s and Crittenden’s included, to let the post-war era serve as a sort of touchstone. A half-century may have passed, but the fifties remain the decade to reckon with, the decade that we either run away from or pause to reconsider. Even in treatments like Chira’s, which do consider earlier history, there remains the underlying sense that if you want to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of female domesticity, you need scarcely look further–the fifties represented the ultimate test.

But this national nearsightedness confuses us not only as to what our options are today, but as to the essential lessons of our history as well. There is a popular assumption that American children of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enjoyed far less affectionate attention from their parents than was common during the twentieth. Many are convinced that early American child-rearing practices were distinguished chiefly by their severity–a belief arousing nostalgia in the more authoritarian among us. What’s more, Chira and other feminists tell us, mothers were once far too busy to give their children the kind of attention expected of latter-day housewives.

In fact, the child born into eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America was far more likely than the twentieth-century American baby to be indulged in that intense infantile desire to be held and rocked and carried, to be always within the sight and sound and smell of us. There were of course exceptions, but the grim truth is that many of the exceptions died. Those who survived in the era before formula and breast-pumps and sterilizers and antibiotics did so because they spent much of their early life at mother’s breast. (Chira mentions wet-nursing, but this practice also carried a significantly higher risk of infant mortality and was never as popular in the American colonies as it was in Europe.) “Demand” feeding, which included nursing the child through the night in the mother’s bed, was standard operating procedure–because anything less would have put mother’s milk supply, and her baby’s life, at risk.

Late in the nineteenth century, and early in the twentieth, as the country’s character changed from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial, a nearly forgotten revolution occurred in child-rearing practices. Chira gives the ascendancy of the `scientific experts’ a brief mention: “In the 1920s, John B. Watson insisted that babies would thrive only on rigid schedules; his was a view of a baby fit for the assembly-line age.” Watson was in fact a man who championed greater sexual freedom–which is to say, women’s increased availability to men while displaying a horror of mother-child attachment, particularly as manifested in any sort of physical intimacy with the child. In his best-selling child-care manual he advised parents that a periscope would enable them to check on the lone child in the backyard without the risk of rendering him “over-conditioned in love,” and that parental hand-shakes should be substituted for kisses. Beyond that he wished that he could rotate mothers between houses to minimize any given woman’s influence on the psyche of any given child. Chira’s suggestion that mothers weren’t really so bad off when they “had only to frog-march their children through Watson’s schedules” doesn’t begin to do justice to the man’s misogyny or the damage he did to women and children both.

After John Watson, practically anything that Dr. Spock could have written in the forties and fifties was likely to look sane and “permissive”–and welcomely so. But far from leading the country (as conservatives would still have it) in the direction of a new, unprecedented, indulgence of the child, on critical issues Spock continued to hold the line against any return to the more profound indulgence of previous centuries. True, Spock smiled on manifestations of the childish desire for autonomy–what to eat, how much to sleep, when to toilet-train. But he was far less tolerant of the child’s complementary desires to be held close. When post-war babies objected to a life spent largely in cribs and playpens–a life for which evolution had left them woefully unprepared–it was widely understood that their howls marked their mothers as guilty of spoiling. The way to unspoil them, Spock advised, was for mother to make a schedule requiring her “to be busy with housework or anything else for most of the time the baby is awake.”

This is the aspect of post-war motherhood that we tend to forget–the unhappy juxtaposition of long hours at home with the constant warnings against “smother-love” and “over-protection.” If mothers were frustrated–which they undoubtedly were–it is past time to consider whether that frustration derived from the mere fact of being at home, or from following an extremely flawed blueprint for childcare. A mother who lives in a culture with unrealistic expectations about the needs of the child finds herself in a no-win situation: she must choose between responding to her child and facing the condemnation of others, or following the conventional wisdom and wondering why her child is disconsolate. As Susan Chira herself evidences, the problem dogs American mothers to this day: part of what burdened her in her months at home with her first baby was the feeling that she was “the only mother whose baby did not lie, cooing gently, on her lambskin rug,” and the facts that the baby wouldn’t sleep long hours alone, nor be put down without crying. Yet that “colicky” crying which Chira had to endure (as I did, as millions of other American parents do), which can so diminish the mother’s satisfaction with infant care, is now understood by anthropologists like Meredith Small at Cornell to represent “the negative side of the separation trade-off”–something that appears in Western babies “because the accepted and culturally composed caretaking style is often at odds with infant biology.”

Feminists are right about one thing–the philosophy urged on mothers during the “feminine mystique” era was one that ultimately served men. It was a time when middle-class men came very close to having it all: wives who stayed home all day (except to shop) but who let the baby cry while they got house and supper ready for their husbands. Particularly taboo was any degree of mother-child attachment which got in the way of marital togetherness once Daddy had come home; hence the emphasis on the need to be able to leave the child to go out at night and the willingness to go to extremes (Spock suggested Wing a net over the top of the crib) to get the child to shut up and stay away from the parental bed at night. With remarkable regularity, women who couldn’t bear to listen to their children’s cries any longer were advised to turn to solutions which increased their sexual attractiveness or availability–go to the beauty parlor, buy a new dress, take two weeks in Florida with your husband.

Chira’s book, like a number of other feminist works, does acknowledge some of the factors which worked against mother-child intimacy during the post-war era. She cites a typical 1946 warning about the damage done to children by “self-sacrificing” moms. She notes that the fifties idea of domesticity was “staying home to be a helpmeet for your husband or devoting yourself to making your floors spic and span”; that by comparison today’s experts urge parents to be “far more conscious of children’s feelings than were many parents a generation ago.” And she reminds us as well that as “popular Freudianism reached a cultural apogee during the 1950s” (in fact Spock considered disseminating Freud’s message one of his greatest accomplishments), it became even more impossible for mothers to find that vanishing position where they would not be condemned as either suffocating or neglectful: “A mother could do no right.”

Popular Freudianism also meant this: the desires of young children for closeness to their mothers were now seen as carrying sexual overtones which made it even more unthinkable that they should be satisfied. The fact that access to mother’s bed and mother’s breasts had for millenia been the birthright of the child was virtually forgotten, replaced by the conviction that children had to be kept from taking from what so obviously belonged to Father. Not only was there no acknowledgment that infants had thereby suffered a loss, but the covering story about “Oedipus” featured baby boys as the ones who harbored jealous desires to have their mothers to themselves and would be willing to harm their fathers to that end.

But despite its occasional brushes with the reality of mother-child distance during the post-war era, the women’s movement as a whole always seems to end up in a place which assumes quite the opposite–that men pushed women into such a thorough trial of mother-child togetherness during the fifties, and that the result was so dismal (the prospect of going back, Crittenden observes, could “induce shudders” in those born long after), that the only possible solution is to stay out of the house.

As for conservatives, those who would like to see the fifties return have their own stake in portraying the post-war era as the time when children’s needs were well met at home, when the task of motherhood was regarded, as Crittenden would have it, as “strong, noble and vital.” There even continue to be child-care advisers on the right who encourage mothers to follow rigid schedules and to leave the children to fend for themselves as much as possible. But I would warn those who would like to see more mothers at home today that they are unlikely to get there by sending a new round of mixed messages–by telling mothers to stay home, but stay distant, or by suggesting that there is something wrong if a mother finds her child’s cry not only more compelling than the call from the office, but likewise more compelling than the need to go out at night.

Both the right and the left are going to have to come to understand that women can stay home with their children without going back to the fifties–that being a full-time mother in no way implies willingness to accept all the rules that were part of the bargain a half-century ago. (And if they could get that far, maybe both sides could also get behind one of Chira’s suggestions: tax relief targeted at parents who need help either to afford the option of staying home or to purchase daycare.) In the meantime, I am convinced that there are big changes going on under the ideological radar. For one thing, the generation born to post-war mothers–the kids who were so willing to believe during the adolescent rebellion of the sixties and seventies that they were suffering from too much mothering–seem to have reached a different consensus in the shrink’s office and in their struggles to heal the “inner child.” For another thing, many of today’s parents–not only the “older parents” that the baby-boomers have become, but younger parents as well–have discarded the post-war taboos about such things as prolonged breastfeeding and permitting their children into their beds.

The mothers who take these more open-ended approaches to nurturance are usually very clear that by keeping their children close they are not acceding to the counsel of men, but bucking it. They may know enough about other cultures to understand, despite what Chira and other feminists suggest, that the lesson from other times and other places is not really that the mid-twentieth-century American approach to childcare was outlandishly excessive or that staying at home with one’s children is somehow a less “natural” approach than working. Most importantly, as compared with the housewives of post-war suburbia, these new mothers may suffer a little bit less at their inability to show off cheerfully unattached offspring to the world, benefit a little bit more from long, peaceful moments when the touch of their children goes all through them. And that may be enough to tip the balance.

Having left a career in law for thirteen years of full-time motherhood, Elizabeth Bernstein has recently returned to employment in a high school computer lab.

COPYRIGHT 2000 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group