Giving Birth and Birthing off our backs

Giving Birth and Birthing off our backs

Webb, Marilyn

one of the founding mothers of oob talks about motherhood then and now

Five or six of us were sitting around my blue-painted-used-furniture dining room table when off our backs was born. I was the one who was seven months pregnant, the one who’d already gained 40 pounds and whose chair was pushed furthest back from the table.

The first issue of oob appeared when I was nine months pregnant and still expanding. By issue number two, I’d given birth-three weeks late-but not before I’d already gone to the oob office after my water broke. I had no idea what water breaking meant. Luckily, we had a collective.

I thought labor pains were supposed to come before water and I felt nothing. I was sitting in the office telling this to oob member Marlene Wicks, who was a nurse, who told me to get to the hospital immediately. I would end up needing a c-section, but before that, there I sat-still with nothing going on-editing stories in my hospital gown for oob’s second issue.

This wasn’t a time when the culture of childbearing was touted. They were the counter-culture days, the days when motherhood wasn’t the “profession” it now is, when any complaining was minimized, compared with the alleged “Vietnamese women who dropped their babies in rice fields.” Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the line of business it is now, the one where prospective parents research and plan, as if for a major business meeting. These were the days way before Maclaren and Bugaboo strollers were chic.

All I had was a Snuggly…and dreams of some ephemeral revolution. I also had a used bassinet, which I put in the oob office when I finally went back to work ten days later. Instead of reading about food allergies or sleep problems, we read about Cuban and Viet Cong feminists. And about the first wave of feminists before us, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. But now, as those babies of ours have since become grown feminists themselves, some have critical words to say about the way in which they were raised.

I admit it. Mine was the generation that knew nothing about children. The only baby I’d ever been around was one I accidentally dropped on its head the one time I’d babysat. I gave birth in an ideologically anti-child climate, when good feminists didn’t have children, and if they did, it was even considered politically incorrect to raise a boy child, (Remember: these were the days before amnio and sonograms.)

We were an intense bunch. When my new baby turned out to be a girl, I had visions of female warriorship for her future. Gratefully, however, no one ever asked me to explain what that was. Just after she was born, we hung the original poster that flanked the first issue of oob over her tiny plastic crib in my hospital maternity room: A black woman and a white woman, with a feminist fist symbol at their heads and their mouths opened wide in rage, defiance, power, or all three. I tried channeling visions to her of becoming the Amazon I thought I never could be. And now, it’s been 35 years.

When my daughter was born, Coletta Reid, another oob member, adopted a daughter. Both these arrivals duly were noted in oob issue number two, along with a note explaining why that issue was late.

“Both Marilyn and Coletta are mainstays of this publication,” part of the birth announcement read. “Due to their absence, this issue and the one that follows will each be a week behind schedule. Unlike most male-dominated enterprises, we are happy and willing to meet the human needs of our staff.”

And so, Coletta and I both became new mothers and oob founding mothers at the same time. But now that the paper and our daughters have both reached 35, the anniversary has elicited thoughts of just how deeply motherhood has changed. In fact, opposing styles of mothering may even define these two very different generations of feminists, both of them styles that women have ricocheted between since even before that first feminist revolution.

Outraged voices and raised fists may have been necessary in my time. But largely because of our political efforts, the world is far more open to women today. And yet, in balancing the age-old pull between children and work, I’m not sure this mom-focused generation is any more successful than we were. Sometimes, I even fear for them more.

I’ve lost touch with Coletta, but my daughter now believes I chose work and politics in my attentions over children, and she aggressively isn’t about to do the same. These days she is a mother herself, with two, about to be three, superb little boys. She had a career as a successful book editor but now-on paper-she co-owns a profitable company with her husband. Really, she is a full-time, stay-at home mom. And proud of it. She knows most women have to work, and considers herself both feminist, and incredibly lucky, not to.

Just before her second son was bom, I went with her to her just-starting, second-child, “Mommy and Me” class, where I’m sure I totally embarrassed her. I didn’t mean to, of course, but I found myself outspokenly aghast as these women went around the room introducing themselves. They all said the same thing. They all had had high-powered careers-there were MBAs, banking executives, TV producers, on-air anchors, lawyers and more, in the room-and each of them had abandoned their jobs for the happiness they now felt as stay-at-home moms. I should have shut up but I couldn’t.

These were the kinds of jobs my generation worked hard for them to gain entry to. They were among the privileged. Our vanguard. And yet, here they were, each rejoicing in being financially able to care full time for their babies. How come, I wondered (way too loudly). Why has this generation-even with new wave husbands who cook and do diapers-turned their backs on what my generation once thought was a feminist dream?

When my daughter was born, her generation was socialized as we never were. They were supposed to be tiny feminist soldiers in training, raised on Free to Be You and Me and expected to move right through that glass ceiling. All the while, they were also supposed to understand the treachery of American arrogance and global capitalism.

But today we have George W. Bush, not socialism, Condoleeza Rice, and repeated attacks against legalized abortion, national health and childcare, and the planned destruction of Medicare, whose benefits are proportionally greater for older women since we live longer than men. Yes, we opened female doors: to Little League, to medical and law offices, and to the U.S. Senate. But most American women still have to work-as I did, by the way-and still not for equal pay. And all but the rich still also have only shaky options for childcare.

As a 60-something feminist, I’m confused how this myth of “lucky motherhood” started and, even more, why these highly educated women consider it feminist. This was how things were when I first rebelled, when Betty Friedan first wrote The Feminine Mystique. These were the Edith Bunker and Lucy Ricardo images we tried to run from, the mothers we knew who had no power or money of their own.

And yet, my daughter-and many others like her-says that if we all really meant that we were battling for “choice,” we succeeded. Their choice is to stay home, so respect it. While we thought we were setting examples of mommies who also did things in the world, they claim we were wrong in not embracing our maternal/female power, that we emulated male values instead. They may be right, but I must ask: Haven’t we really just come full circle?

This same conflict was the very core of disagreements between first-wave feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a mother of eight (and after whom, by the way, my daughter was named) and her never-married comrade, Susan B. Anthony, who was likely a lesbian. Anthony felt Stanton was wasting her brilliance caring for children while Stanton felt Anthony didn’t understand the maternal pull. Then as now, very likely, both of them were right.

And yet, in this third wave of feminism, these conflicts are still unresolved, just as they were in my days of constant juggling. I am reminded, though, of one clue. The most striking memory I have of being a mother is of playing Barbie and Ken with my daughter when she was five. (No, I would not buy them for her; she cajoled my cousin into giving her one of her old sets. And now, I ungratefully consented to play.)

She told me I was supposed to be Ken and she was Barbie. We sat on her bedroom floor, moving our dolls around.

“Oh, Barbie,” I said, being Ken, “you’ve had such a hard day at work. Why don’t you rest and read the paper while I’ll cook you dinner?” My Ken led Barbie to the living room to sit down in a make-believe couch.

“Barbie wouldn’t do that,” my daughter snarled.

Well she could, I told her. “And after we eat,” my Ken went on, “you rest and I’ll do the dishes.”

Fury took over her. She grabbed Ken from my hands and threw him viciously onto the floor. “Ken would never say that,” she screamed, livid. Then she scooped up her Ken and Barbie stuff and stormed by herself to another part of the room.

“You just don’t know how to play,” she yelled behind her. “I’m never going to play Ken and Barbie with you again.” And she never did.

The sad truth is, she may have been right. Maybe I didn’t know how to play, at least not in the context of these new mother lionesses. In retrospect, I think she really is a more focused mom than I was, loving without pushing ideology down their throats. But then, maybe the world has changed enough so that she doesn’t have to.

Just the same, in this country, despite “family values,” we still don’t value child-raising enough to give stay-at-home moms a guaranteed income for their work. It’s just the wealthy who can partake in this new motherhood dream. We still don’t have quality day-care for the majority of American women, who work not just because they want to but because they need to. Nor do we laud maternal-style worth as greatly as male-style achievements, much as we read about joyful celebrity new moms.

In 35 years, feminists have come a long way. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, best known for her leadership in the struggle for women’s suffrage, was also a full-time mother and a crusader for property rights for married women, for equal guardianship of children, for eased divorce laws (so that women could leave abusive marriages), and for the financial health of the family-except for the latter, things we now take for granted.

Today we have options and choices we never had before, but in clarity about motherhood, perhaps we still have a long way to go. What will these new feminists do as women in those years after they finish with childrearing? How will they get back into the workforce or find satisfying life work? Where will their money and power lie? And what happens should they get divorced?

I am asking these questions of my own very strong, independent daughter, someone I love tremendously and am enormously proud of having grown into the woman she is. But these are the very same questions I asked myself-and my own mother-35 years ago.

My daughter says not to worry. She’s taken care of it all. And I well suspect that she has. But I am also suspect of this new “professionalization” of motherhood. I may be an old fashioned feminist, but to me, it sounds like more of the same old thing.

Marilyn Salzman Webb was a founding collective member of off our backs in 1970. She was also a co-organizer and founder of the first women’s Consciousness Raising (CR) group in Chicago (1966) and co-organized the first women’s CR group in Washington, D.C., in 1967.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. May/Jun 2005

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