SPECIAL: Feminists Rediscover Motherhood
©Catholic Online 2004
A Timeless Role Gains New Advocates
LONDON, SEPT. 19, 2004 (Zenit) - Once considered by feminists as a second-best option, motherhood is gradually gaining favor. In the 1960s and '70s women were urged to cast off the shackles of a homebound drudgery and to seek fulfillment in the workplace. But as increasing numbers of career-minded women delayed or forwent having children, many found that success in the workplace provided only short-term satisfaction.
British author James Tooley, in his 2002 book "The Miseducation of Women," describes how a number of first-generation feminists changed their opinion about motherhood in later years. Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle in England, quotes from Betty Friedan, who already in a 1982 book was admitting that there is a "profound human impulse to have children."
Tooley also notes that leading feminist writer Germaine Greer, who in her 1971 book "The Female Eunuch" despised child-bearing and motherhood, later admitted that she "mourns for her unborn babies," and laments not having had children.
And Tooley quotes from Danielle Crittenden's 1999 book "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: How Happiness Eludes the Modern Women." Crittenden, after the experience of being a mother, wrote of "the single, most profound, life-changing decision" that comes when women decide to have a child.
A more recent look at motherhood comes in a book published earlier this year, "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life." Written by Daphne De Marneffe, a clinical psychologist and mother of three, the book looks at the issue of motherhood above all from the psychological perspective.
In spite of her defense of abortion-as-a-mother's-choice, De Marneffe nevertheless seeks to elevate the concept of motherhood. Too often, today's world devalues women who opt for motherhood with "an intransigent insistence that something is lacking in women who spend their time mothering," the preface notes.
Looking after children, De Marneffe admits, involves self-sacrifice. This can be a tricky point for women to negotiate, she explains. Yet, while women make economic sacrifices when they have children, they also experience emotional rewards from nurturing little ones.
De Marneffe calls upon women not to focus narrowly on the moments of sacrifice, which that can involve deferring personal plans or losing control over one's time. Rather, she encourages women to see motherhood within the "deeper goals" involved in parenting. "This process can be one of extraordinary pleasure," De Marneffe explains. Spending most waking, and some sleeping, hours with children and dedicating oneself to making children happy leads to "enormous gratifications."
Moreover, motherhood is not just about pleasure and feeling good, she continues. "It is also grounded in a sense of meaning, morality, even aesthetics." A life dedicated to raising children not only expresses a mother's ideals and ethical goals, but also, in spite of the daily fatigues, says "something intrinsically meaningful" about overcoming these problems in the process of caring for children.
Feminism and motherhood
Feelings run high on how to reconcile the value of motherhood with feminism, De Marneffe observes. Many feminists have concentrated on seeking to free women from the household in order to integrate them fully in the world of business and politics. Too often, she observes, these efforts have "oversimplified women's desire to mother and assigned it to a generally backward-looking, sentimental view of women's place."
This tendency has contributed to a "general social devaluation of caregiving, a devaluation with economic and psychological effects." De Marneffe contends that feminist books too often consider the desire to care for children "as something of a detail or correctable condition." A mother's desire to care for children, and the promotion of political means to facilitate this, "should also be on the feminist agenda," she argues.
While criticizing this aspect of feminism, De Marneffe also dissociates herself from what she terms "traditionalist ideology." She seeks, rather, a midpoint between those who deny a mother's need to care for children and those who would exclude women from any interests outside their children.
De Marneffe is realistic when it comes to motherhood. The joys aroused by children can easily evaporate in the face of everyday problems. Moreover, coercion, poverty and emotional problems can also lead to serious problems for mothers. As well, mothers can often be torn by competing desires, and adapting work goals and career choices to having children is not easy.
Part of De Marneffe's book looks ...
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