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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Fruitful January 9, 2006

Posted by Amy in Uncategorized.
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Anne Roiphe’s Fruitful: Living the Contradictions: A Memoir of Modern Motherhood

I’ve had this book for nearly ten years. What led me to buy it in the Capitola Book Cafe in my early twenties, on vacation with my parents and siblings? I was years away from meeting my husband, as well as from becoming a mother and stepmother. That purchase proves something I’m always conscious of–that having children was something I always thought about, worried over, was scared I’d miss despite how difficult I knew its real joys could be.

Roiphe gives me a clearer picture of the world my own mother grew up in, with its strict differences between what was expected of little girls and little boys. I see my mother–and myself– in this: “Most mothers have an additional mission, one that is barely conscious but is very important to us. We want to undo the melancholy of our own childhood in the childhoods we are creating. We can’t.” Of course, today I’d say more fathers also want that.

Roiphe feels left behind by second-wave feminism, despite identifying as a feminist and being more politically involved than most people. Her motherhood is what sets her apart, and the book expresses her discomfort with the black and white, all or nothing choices that era seemed to push. Her embarrassment about being a “breeder” in a time when that was seen as almost a betrayal of feminist values reminds me of so much my mother has said about her own early experiences as a mother. “We thought of motherhood as a thing one did on the side, a kind of private hobby, like playing the flute. We each made our own arrangements and struggled with the consequences….We suffered our maternal guilt house by house, woman by woman, the old-fashioned way.” Seems like we’re still fighting that battle to reduce isolation and build community, as mamazine and Mother Talk and other sites try to do.

Roiphe’s acknowledgement of how “we could have raised and could still raise the issue of men–men at home, men with their children, men as nurturers, men as fathers–and say what we believe, what we expect, demand more…” is another idea which seems to be getting more press these days, if only on mamazine and other publications. We stopped halfway, she says. The revolution isn’t over until men and women have the freedom to choose more balanced lives, ones in which family and work can coexist for mothers and fathers.

In a paragraph that predates Peggy Orenstein’s observations about how “mother managers” push other caregivers out of the picture, Roiphe writes, “It is hard for women to give up the special privilege of being mothers. The sanctity of motherhood, the respect it appears to get in our culture, the secret delicious pleasure of the thing is most important to us. If we share with men our momminess, we feel we might be exchanging what little turf we have in return for a handful of nothing. Makes sense.”

And later: “Men carry lots of heavy things. Let them take half our load of guilt in return for half the tender feelings we receive on a good day.” Many of the fathers I know are trying to do that. The struggle comes when jobs, health insurance, breastfeeding, unavailable/inadequate/unaffordable daycare, and other issues interfere with the dream of fifty/fifty parenting. Paid parental leaves for men and women, better daycare options, more flexible work schedules, and health care for all would go a long way toward making that possible.

“If I were to tell the story of my life it wouldn’t be about the conflict between being a mother and a feminist but about being a feminist mother and a mother feminist. It seems that the clash between feminism and motherhood is an artificial one….But it would be nice if the world outside her house gave a little bit of a damn about what went on inside.”

Roiphe also wonders if delaying childbirth is the answer to all our problems, suggesting that giving birth in our early twenties might be a better option physically for many, if societal support for families made that choice feasible. This is something I’ve often wondered, since having a baby younger was something now think wouldn’t have been the disaster I was sure it would be at the time. In some ways, waiting to bear children has made my experiences as a mother more fraught; I waited until I was “ready,” only to find that ready doesn’t mean perfect.

Roiphe gives such clear, brutal account of her own mistakes and experiences as a mother throughout the book. This is one I’ll be mulling over for months to come.

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