Who You Callin’ Mother


Everybody’s an expert on what kind of mother you should be. A new book breaks open the debate by asking, what kind of mother do you want to be?

I’m marooned in my bed with my very sick baby girl, not yet three month old Tess. Her big sister and father are downstairs, or upstairs—somewhere in this large house, I don’t know. I catch snatches of their conversation as they run from floor to floor; they sound exuberant out there, pink-cheeked and so very far away. The ocean roars in my ears, the electronic surf pounding on sand that’s supposed to comfort babies by mimicking the rush of the womb. Because Tess is barely eating and could become dehydrated, I’ve been told to breast-feed her every hour, which I do day and night, my eyes peeled to the red-numbered clock above the TV. Right after she eats, or tries to, I lay her on the pillows beside me—she barely stirs, swaddled tightly like a mummy—and hook myself up to the breast pump. I have to pump to keep to keep my milk up, Tess is taking so little. Clasping the contraption’s plastic cups to my breasts, I watched the liquid shoot out in delicate filaments, like tiny star bursts, and listen to the rhythmic swish, swish of the machine. As I repeat this process again and again, I feel less anxious and more purposeful, increasingly focused. I’m saving my milk, saving my girl. I pick her up again and, leaning back against the headboard, cradle her against my chest. That’s the only way she’ll sleep, the doctor told me, on my body.

Has a book ever taken you on a wild ride, the author burrowing inside your head, shading seemingly every interaction you have, leaving you babbling to friends that they’ve just got to read this, upending what you thought you knew about yourself, who you thought you were, and what you thought you wanted? One of the first books to spin me around was The Second Sex, which I devoured in the gray sheets of the bed I shared with my boyfriend just out of college, thrilling at Simone de Beauvoir’s determination to dedicate herself to her work and live outside the bounds of marriage and family. Not entirely coincidentally, then, the book ruining me now is called Maternal Desire (Little, Brown), by psychologist and mother of three Daphne de Marneffe.

Maternal Desire. For most of my nearly 40 years on this earth, if you’d asked whether I have, or ever had, any desire to care for children, I would’ve said, “No, not really.” If you’d asked whether I have, or ever had, any desire to be a mother, the answer would’ve been only slightly more enthusiastic, something like, “Yeah, I guess.” On the other hand, if you’d asked if I had any desire to work, the answer would’ve been, “Yes, yes, yes!”.

The best explanation for my children’s existence that I’ve been able to offer, to myself or anybody else, is to invoke the words of feminist academic and mother of two Elaine Showalter, who, when I mentioned to her in my early thirties that I wasn’t sure I’d have kids, spiritedly admonished: “Why not do everything you can in life!” It was with that noncommittal commitment to motherhood that I went off the Pill seven months into my marriage: I’m 35, if I don’t have a baby now, I may never be able to; if I wasn’t going to have children, why did I marry such a fatherly type, a man who’s an excellent provider and adores kids; my mom sure is happy she has my sister and me; and so on.

I got pregnant the first time my husband and I tried and felt vaguely disgusted at the perverse cosmic order of things—isn’t it just typical that someone who’s so ambivalent about motherhood gets to be so fertile? I had no morning sickness and gained relatively little weight (I wasn’t dieting, it’s dumb genetic luck) and was almost adamant about not letting my “compromised” state interfere with my life. A few weeks before my due date, I ran to the theater, literally sprinted, in high-heel black boots, and thought, Ha! I bet most women can’t do this.

So then I had this baby, this tiny girl Edie, who squalled and squalled and who was as sensitive as one of those ferns that fold in on themselves at the slightest touch. Sounds—the coffee grinder, chairs scarping on floors, the smallest squeak or ping—petrified her, as did new people; she suffered from so-called “stranger anxiety” at the preternaturally young age of four months. I felt angry and inadequate because I couldn’t figure out how to console her, and my husband threw himself into fathering with abandon (though he, too, struggled to calm her, but valiantly so, I thought), and I kept remembering a conversation I’d had with another famous feminist, Susan Brownmiller, who, while gossiping about a woman whom she considered a cold mother, commented. “Some women just shouldn’t have children—I wish they could admit it to themselves.”

That was four years ago. I fell in love with Edie and became truly devoted to her—a main reason I got pregnant again was so Edie wouldn’t be suffocated in the hothouse environment of two intense parents doting upon one defenseless child—but maternal desire, what was Daphne de Mameffe talking about? I was just a mother, and my hope was to be a kind and decent one.

De Mameffe’s book, which interweaves feminist history, psychoanalytic theory, subtle analyses of the abortion and day care debates, and rich vignettes from her own mothering life, isn’t so much about the desire to have children as the desire to spend time caring for them once they’re yours. (She captures the difference between the two in a chapter on fertility: “Subtly and inadvertently, the amazing, tantalizing advances in fertility medicine absorb our attention in the importance of having our own, and deflect it from our confused ambivalence about how the practice of caring fits into parenthood.”) And her radical move is to urge women to think hard about what they themselves want or need from mothering, not just what their children want or need, and not what women’s rights activists or psychological experts or right-wing politicians demand that they want or need (though there are no bogeymen for de Marneffe; what she helps the reader grasp is how the ideological can imperceptibly become personal—help I definitely needed).

The book wouldn’t be so refreshing had the national discussion of motherhood not become so sterile, a tiresome debate between those who cast it as eternal female duty and those who trivialize or demean it. For a current example of the tendency to reflexively view child rearing as grunt work, as stifling to women’s autonomy, check out The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (Free Press), by communications professor Susan J. Douglas and philosopher Meredith W. Michaels. This is the kind of book that I’d normally find sympathetic to my plight but would also somehow leave me feeling queasy. (The new “problem with no name”?!?) Douglas and Michaels argue that “ridiculous, honey-hued ideals of perfect motherhood” generated by the media corrode our sense of self-worth, which seems fair enough. But what didn’t sit well, I realized only after reading de Marneffe, is that the two authors completely miss the other half of the picture: how awesome and gripping being someone’s mother is. As de Marneffe observes in an interview from her Bay Area home, “Sentimental images of devoted motherhood reflect a core aspiration of most people, which is to be the best parents they can be.”

That said, de Marneffe says that paeans to the joys of motherhood often ring false, reflecting the unacknowledged ambivalence of the stay-at-home mother (and the way that’s exploited by conservative thinkers who tell women they must put mothering above all else). “People `solve’ their ambivalence,” de Marneffe says, “by idealizing a choice, or an approach to being a mother, and it becomes this rigidified,'” “This is the way to do it: I’m better because I do it this way.'”

Still, one of her primary goals in writing her book is to elaborate on the joys of motherhood, the authentic ones, which are rooted in the day-to-day process of building relationships—and the meaning that adds to a life. What she’s trying to get at, as grand as it sounds, is how being with our children allows us to “integrate different levels of human capacity—the physical, intellectual, intuitive, emotional”—which is one of the most profound experiences available to us.

De Marneffe herself basically quit her therapy practice for five years to raise her children, now, 11, 8, and 5. “I was writing out of my own psychology,” she says. “We’re all insecure about something, and my insecurity was, What’s wrong with me that I’m so attracted to dropping everything and being with my kids?”

De Marneffe’s psychology is that of the ambitious woman (she’s a Harvard-and Berkely-educated PhD) who quits work to stay home with her children, and it’s a tribute to her curiosity and nonpolemical bent of mind that she still has so much to say to an ambitious woman who doesn’t quit working, like me. Because perhaps no two groups of women have been so polarized, in the press, in popular imagination, and sometimes, in reality. One professional colleague told de Marneffe that “every time she sees a new book about mothers, she feels mingled dread and hope as a question instantly pops into her mind: is it for me or against me?” What mother doesn’t know what she is talking about?

Sometime during my older daughter’s first year, I started keeping a mental list of “bad” mothers. Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example. In a delicious breach of celebrity-mom etiquette, she unapologetically told an interviewer that she nursed her second child for less than a month: “I wanted to go out for dinner without my husband having to look at the clock and saying, “My wife has to go to the bathroom to pump”…Babies are ours for borrowed time..soon enough, it’ll be, `Thanks for everything. See you.’ I don’t want to look at my husband then and say, `Hey, remember me? How I breast-fed for a year and a half?”‘

Other “bad” mothers include a friend who left her two-month-old son with his father and went for a week’s beach vacation with a girlfriend, relishing every minute of it, and another who was happily back at her desk when her daughter was barely a month old.

The reason I collected my mothers was that they were expressing the real me, the woman I’d be if I weren’t so trapped by the conventions of motherhood. (To be clear, I don’t think any of these women are actually bad mothers, this is my envious projection.) The real me wanted to be free from children, or at least psychologically free. That was the me I carried around and felt gleeful about and guilty about and sure about.

I also encourage my new-mother friends to call when they were at their worst, when they were depressed or angry, when they felt like shooting themselves…or someone else. I’d been taken aback and ashamed by how full of rage and hate I’d been at times with my first baby, and I sincerely wanted to help my friends.

The real me, then, was genuinely shocked when two different female friends remarked offhand, “You’re such a passionate mother.”

“I am?” I asked. “What makes you say that?” I felt delighted but bewildered, like I wanted to quiz them for the evidence of my maternal ardor.

I’ve several times in wonderment told my therapist how besotted my daughter seems to be with me, how she says, unbidden, that she prefers my company to all others, how she’s gazed at me and murmured, “Mommy, I can’t take my eyes off of you—you’re so beautiful.”

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“You wouldn’t believe how much Edie loves me,” I told him once.

“Yes, I would,” he replied evenly, meeting my eyes. “You’re her mother.”

“But still…”

“You’re her mother,” he repeated.

What de Marneffe did for me, then, is prod me to mine my own desire to be with my daughters. I worry and worry about the compromises I’ve had to make in my beloved work (I’m not being sarcastic); I’m acutely tuned in to my thoughts of wanting to escape (God, I can’t act out another scene from Sleeping Beauty); but somehow I never envisioned the potential costs to me of reducing the time I spent with my children. Because thought I still consider myself a “working mother,” I did start to work less once I had Edie. In the story I tell myself about myself, I cut back on work for the girls’ sake, so they won’t grow up doubting themselves, doubting their mother’s love. But how much do I want of my girls, need of them? How much mothering makes me happy? I never thought to ask.

Because the amount of hands-on mothering women want to do is inextricably intertwined with what their children need to thrive, the first question usually is, How much separation is “damaging” to my kids? In a careful analysis of the massive day care literature, which de Marneffe notes we read like “modern-day tea leaves, providing inconclusive information that we over interpret in our anxious need to know something,” she zeroes in on maternal-child attachment. The data suggests that “time spent apart from parents does not in itself appear to affect the security or insecurity of the mother-infant bond.” What does make a difference is a mother’s sensitivity to her child. For all those working mothers like me breathing a huge sigh of relief—Hey, I’m sensitive to my kid—it’s not that simple; the good studies also say that mothers whose infants spend more than 30 hours per week in child care tend to be less attuned to their children than those who work less.

Yet de Marneffe doesn’t want the reader to make too much of this. She wants each of us “to treat intimate knowledge of ourselves and our children as a reliable basis for action.” “We all know mothers who work a lot and are connected to their kids,” she writes. “And we know mothers who are around their children a lot and not attuned to what their children need.”

In her heart, de Marneffe does believe that the more time mothers spend with their small children, the better for those children, but she’s sufficiently in awe of the mysteries of each human being that she wouldn’t presume to say how many hours anyone should or shouldn’t work. “I mean, I look at my best friend, who has three kids and lives in New York and has this incredibly intense job,” de Marneffe tells me, “and I think she’s a great mother. She has a certain empathy and a comfort in herself that’s really what I’m trying to describe, an awareness of what people need from each other and a capacity to give that.” She also has enough money to hire and retain an excellent babysitter. In an obvious example of someone who should not cut back on work (perhaps too obvious to be useful for those yearning for the answer), she cites the “mother who truly feels she is sacrificing herself if she stays at home.” This woman “may end up adopting a depressed self-abnegation or hyper-controlling demeanor with her children.”

So, gals, what do you desire?

“If you knew working 10 hours a day was totally fine for your children,” de Marneffe asks me, “you’d be happy doing that? And the only things keeping you from it are: (a) it’s not fine for them, and (b) what’s wrong with you that you don’t want to be with your children more?”

Long pause. I’m thinking, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…But do I know? “No,” I venture. “No, I don’t think I’d really be happy.” But there’s resignation in my voice, the resignation of self-knowledge? Of disappointment in myself that I can’t be…tougher? Later, it dawns on me that my bad mothers are not who I really am; they’re who I’m really not. They congregate in my mind, long cigarette holders in one hand, martini glasses in the other, as avatars of the ability to keep children from transforming one’s interior life.

It seems I’m more like de Marneffe than I imagined. To mother the way she wants to mother, she tells me, ” I need a certain amount of time with my children, a level of not being stressed out, to feel good. If I’d been put together differently, it might be different.”

That’s one way to read the regret I felt when Tess got better—that I need time, wide-open expanses in my mind, space not squeezed by deadlines or work, to not feel agitated, preoccupied, resentful with my children. When Tess was sick, all we had was time. In less extraordinary circumstances, I strictly delineate the hours I spend caring for my kids and strive to keep work from bleeding through. Paradoxically, my maternal desire would diminish if I spent less time with my daughters because our togetherness would be less satisfying. In some sense, I “make” my maternal desire. This isn’t to say I spend gobs of time feeling blissed out when I’m with my kids, far from it, but to truly know theses girls—and that is my desire, to know deeply the two new people in my life—I need some damned time. “The hard truth is,” de Marneffe writes, “that our ability to appreciate something is affected by the time we devote to it.”

Does it matter why I worked less after my kids were born? I did, and that decision has been a boon to me as well as them (or so I hope). Well, it does matter, because more work always beckons, and it’s harder to protect, or cherish, something you can’t even say you have. “Part of the hell [of motherhood] is not being able to hang on to the joy and the insight about joy that [it] occasionally refreshes and then slips through the fingers like water,” de Marneffe writes.

There is also relief in recognizing that the trade-offs go both ways, in not siding so strongly with one part of your psyche over the other. “Are you happy to be back?” the publisher of ELLE asked me not long ago. I now work two days in the office (and write the other days, with breaks to spend time with my kids), but I’d taken some time off after Tess’s birth. Ordinarily I would’ve said, “God, yes,” because the office is so calm and manageable, ahhhh….(Though, as de Marneffe writes, for many women “there is something intrinsically meaningful about managing and overcoming [anger, fatigue, and boredom] in the process of caring for one’s children.”) I felt less brassy, more true, less like a big head threatening to topple off a little body when I responded, “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out being back. I like being at work, but I’m not sure how much time I need to feel good as a mother.”

So I was wistful at Tess’s recovery because when she was ill, I was blessedly free of ambivalence. Now, here it is again. I’m in my home-office writing about maternal desire, and I’m realizing that it must be after 5 p.m., but I’m trying not to look at the clock on my computer…isn’t it fast, anyway? I should be going upstairs to see if Edie’s up from a nap. But I don’t want to. In fact, I’m trying to type quietly, if such a thing is possible, because Tess is in the adjoining room sleeping, next to the ocean. They’re down at the same time!

Finally, I tiptoe away from my desk to check on Tess, and she appears to be in no danger of awakening, like she might be out for another half hour. She’s reaching up with her arm, her tiny fingers slightly splayed, like a citizen of Pompeii trapped for eternity when the lava came. Weird. Weirdly beautiful. I return stealthily to my computer. Give me 10 more minutes, just 10 minutes more.

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