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Monday, November 08, 2010

Modern Motherhood: A Prison?

Erica Jong of "Fear of Flying" fame has written an article at the WSJ claiming, in part, that modern motherhood is a "prison" for women.

Before addressing this article I think its best to first discuss the antithesis of modern motherhood, i.e., what was there before there was "modern motherhood".  I don't know what this might be called, perhaps anthropological motherhood; it probably doesn't matter.  For our purposes here let's define "modern motherhood" to have started around 1960 and represent the modern feminist ideal.  We'll define anthropological motherhood as everything that came before.

Anthropological motherhood (AM) has been the common practice within humanity for all of its existence, which is at least 190,000 years according to this.  I take this to mean conceiving, bearing, and rearing children, maintaining the home, preparing the food, gathering, growing, making clothes and shelter, and handling the social family elements.

During this time virtually every element of our modern world from agriculture, to fire, to war, to electricity, to writing, to books and printing, animal husbandry, and on and on was created, perfected and practiced - clearly by both men and women.  Humanity also suffered as well as prospered during this time - with wars, slavery, plagues and famine. Women and men both suffered the agony of loss and joy of success.

Life expectancy was very short for most of these millenia, it was often brutal as well, and between 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born died before adulthood.

In the last several thousand or so years there have been may great wars and conquerors documented: Alexander the Great, Rome, Napolean, WW I and II.  There have been also great uprisings such as the French Revolution and great invasions such as the hordes that destroyed Rome.

Yet concept that women are suffering and repressed in or because of their AM role in society is historically very new, especially, I think, when compared to their function and contributions in society.

The hand that rocks the cradle.

Yet as far as I know the "uprising of women" to protest their role in all this during during these last millenia has been virtually non-existent.

I recall the 1960's with its Feminine Mystique and the "burn your bra" movement.  Women were told that their lives were nothing but repression and slavery to men, to housework, and to children.  Their very being as well sexuality were repressed by these needless obligations.  They were told they must move forward and away from this past into a new modern age where women and men would and could be equal.

At the time this made it sound to me like the "prison of motherhood" was the past: anthropological motherhood, the "old way" of doing things.  Mother at home tending the fire, skinning the goat, feeding the children, cowering in the corner, while the brutish husband beat her and the children, demeaned her sexually, and repressed her very existence.

Yet if you think about the progress of society from stone age to 1960 you realize that it would not be possible for man (literally) alone to achieve or to achieve against or without the cooperation of women.  Every step of the way a woman was required to do what the man could not: bear and raise the children, convert raw materials into food, shelder and clothes, and so on.

This progress of society clearly benefited both sexes as well though in different ways.  The cruel and difficult reality of childbirth and infant mortality, the production of food, of clothing, of shelter, all have improved or been taken on by others steadily over the millenia.

Yet the break in the 1960's seems to offer women no credit for this prior hand in the creation of modern society - that their role and sacrifice has been only at the alter their traditional, repressed role in life.

After the 1960's tremendous progress with feminism and equality has been made with regard to escaping this supposed past prison.

So what's this WSJ article about then?

Why does Erica Jong suggest that this modern motherhood model is now itself a prison?

Perhaps women never really "escaped" the first prison?

Or did modern motherhood somehow create a new type of prison?

The answer to these questions is what I hope to address next.

So let's now look at modern motherhood: work, support, raise the family, cook, transport, negotiate, attend, educate.  Certainly all the anthropological motherhood elements as well as working and supporting the family - mostly in partnership with a spouse and often as not, alone.  And, in the case discussed in the article, not just cooking, but making baby food; not just raising the children, but literally carrying the infant everywhere.  The MM mom must rely on herself to support this lifestyle.

How is this different the modern mom different from the anthropological mom?  Well, for one thing, it would appear to be a lot more work and to take a lot more time each day to accomplish.  Of course there are modern appliances to wash clothes and dishes, but those appliances cost money to own and operate.  Children no longer stay at home, they must be transported to daycare or school - requiring a care and the attendant costs.  Mom must go to work - typically leaving the children with others - to pay for the cost of this supposed freedom.

If the children become ill, mom must make arrangements for their care away from daycare, must take much of the responsibility to manage the logistics of support.

While anthropological mom also worked, whether sewing, pulling sinew in her teeth, or milking the cow, she did her work at home with her children (perhaps alone, or with her own mother).  Most of the work was manual and done without machines (running water only being part of her life in the last century or two).  Mom supervised every detail of what her children did, ate, wore, said and learned.  The man or husband was required to support the anthropological mom and her lifestyle - either by hunting, fishing, cutting wood, or, in the last several centuries, having a "job".

I was born in a rural area during the later period of AM so I saw it and lived in it first hand.  My great grandmother, who was in her eighties when I was born lived in the real anthropological motherhood role - without running water, without machines, without phones or electricity - doing the hard manual work women had done for millenia in rural Europe.

I also saw the rise and development of modern motherhood over the last several decades - it began in my childhood and reached its zenith at the end of the last century.

Today I see still see both types of motherhood side by side in my own home.  My spouse lives the traditional anthropological role and has for 35 years.  My children to a degree live in both worlds - some more modern than others.  In fact, my spouse prefers this role - but that's another story.

So what about the the Erica Jong prison?

From my experience its simply the fact that modern mom must do all the work traditionally done by a both a man and a woman in the anthropological realm.

The freedom of modern motherhood leaves the responsibility of support squarely on the shoulders of the modern mom (modern dad being an antique accessory that's no longer required).

Erica Jong merely points out that this added responsibility of support is significant additional work for the woman - above and beyond the difficult and complex role of bearing and raising a child - work that women in society have taken away from men in their quest for equality.  (Her own role in the creation of this new modern way yet another separate topic.)

She further points out that, due to a variety of emotional and guilt issues associated with the past rearing of children during the development of modern motherhood in society there is a backlash against the freedom modern motherhood represents.  (A backlash in the sense that "my mom" went off to fulfill herself during "my childhood" so I will hover over my child so that my child does not feel like I did as a child - plug your own emotional context in here.)  Hence, to really be a modern mom you must take on making baby food, making clothes, carrying the infant on your body everywhere, sleeping with the baby, even taking on debt - right along with everything else.

So yes, this does sound like a prison.  A self made and perhaps inescapable one at that.

The next question is why?

(Continued with Anthprological Mom.)


emily pelton said...

Nice critique of the article. Thanks for posting!

Cat said...

Yes, you are correct that the problem is that women today are given the responsibilities that were historically those of both parents. The solution, however, is not to take away the economic support role of the woman, but to make men just as responsible for the unpaid labour of childrearing and homemaking as women are. Namely, to ensure that men have exactly the same responsibilities as the modern woman. Then they can truly be a team and neither of them can be viewed as useless! (and if something terrible were to happen to either of them, the other would already know how to keep their children fed AND cared for.)

Why not simply return to former roles? Because, and this is the point second wave feminism was making, one of those roles comes with economic independence and social power, and the other doesn't (please stop that hand-that-rocks-the-cradle b.s., women have historically had far less legal and social power, let alone the ability to leave an abusive partner and survive economically).

Todd R. Kueny, Sr. said...

I don't think anyone believes that women should be abused. As for less "social power" I guess only history will tell.

I agree that deadbeat men should gone after - but modern feminism made being a deadbeat fun and easy.

Women and men should have equal social "power" - but neither should they have to give up being different. That was the mistake of feminism - making women into men.