The intensity of motherhood surprises contemporary women. Some of us struggle through it privately. Others write shocked confessionals in blogs and open letters that go viral. This recent entry in the genre from Time is typical, complete with the call for help:
It’s time to recognize that by refusing to give parents — and especially women — some basic support to meet their competing obligations, we have created an impossible situation for them, one that has the makings of a serious public-health crisis.
Who is the “we” that created this impossible situation for mothers? How did it become the norm? Few ask the questions. Most accept that the impossible state is just how it is if women are in the work force and unless fathers contribute more. Fathers, however, already take on levels and types of household duties that would stun our grandfathers, yet women find the work and life balance harder than ever to achieve. Many call, as this Time piece did, for government action of some sort.
What ever happened to the village?
Often in these discussions, someone will make a wistful comment about a village. “It takes a village to raise a child” is the (purportedly African) proverb Hillary Clinton made famous. In her book by that title, she meant the village as a proxy for state intervention in childrearing. As often happens when the left refers to a traditional phenomenon, they appropriate the label for its archetypal value and discard the substance, which is invariably (and inconveniently) conservative. But archetypes trump vocabulary. The “village” got absorbed in the popular consciousness becoming a proxy for the voluntary associations of those with shared bonds of family and community who all pitch in to help with childrearing. It’s now the socially acceptable terminology for the old Burkean notion of “little platoons.” Of course, Burke had a more eloquent understanding of all this than Hillary Clinton’s mushy-headed ghostwriters could ever dream of — “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.”
But beyond the wistful longings, many liberals now dismiss the village out of hand, as if it is an unobtainable fantasy rooted in a vision of 1950s America that never really existed. This dismissal smacks of guilt. We don’t want to look too closely at what happened to the literal and metaphorical conception of the villages our grandparents tell us about, because we don’t want to confront how we were complicit in their demise, or what it would require to bring them back.
We razed our villages
The first thing that went wrong was that we started deserting our villages. Back in the early ’60s when the feminist Second Wave was new, leading feminists defamed domesticity in an effort to jolt women out of homes. They assumed that the post-war technology advances that had made housework a less time-consuming job wouldn’t prove motivating enough. Women would be too complacent about professional life unless they equated the job of a housewife with something horrible, like slavery. (This would be not the last time feminists demeaned real suffering by equating the plight of educated white women to atrocities, nor the last time they took such a condescending view of their own.)
Professionally, the defamation gambit worked. Inspired and energized, women surged back to school and took to professional life with vigor.
Of course, these original Second Wave feminists could use their mothers, aunts, older children, and older housewives not caught up in the movement as their village to care for their young children. The problem didn’t present until that village passed on.
When that happened, women of the ’80s tried to be the do-it-all Enjoli power woman. Enjoli was a perfume with a catchy and cheesy commercial, in which a woman changed from business suit to apron to sexy nightgown while crooning, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re a man.” The actress in the commercial looked well rested. The actual women who attempted this stunt at home were not.
By the ’90s, new advice greeted the college-bound women of Generation X. We could still have it all, just not all at once. But our mothers still worried about women’s professional resolve in the face of motherhood. As a result, the new advice replaced the Feminine Mystique, the old assumption that a woman must fulfill wife and mother duties before all else, with the Career Mystique, the new assumption that we must establish our careers first.
Dutiful and optimistic daughters, we embarked on fabulous careers, which were plentiful and well paid in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
And that’s when we razed the village.
It was a slow burn. Over the next 20 years, the “career first” advice brought fewer children to become older siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles—essential members of the childcare village of old. Our career pursuits often led us far from family, anyway. The career building single doesn’t need a village. We didn’t need it, and didn’t miss it until we started a family.
But it was gone. And it wasn’t just the lack of extended family. We had waited later to have children, and many of our parents simply grew too old to keep up with our toddlers. That old domestic drudgery libel came back to haunt us too. Among the available villagers, some refused to participate in childcare. Grandparents told us they had done their time. Neighborhood teenagers had resumes to build for those careers they would need to establish before marriage and family. Babysitting wasn’t, and still isn’t, accepted entrepreneurial activity. (Although, in urban areas babysitting is very lucrative. So few teens babysit that the willing and experienced can command a high price.)
The village still exists in rarefied places. Expats form villages. They are very hip but hard to join. Churches form villages. They are easy to join but fundamentally un-hip. Moving home is an option, but also un-hip.
The end result is that most parents are on their own. Other mothers are too occupied with their own specific life-balancing problems. Fathers might do more than their grandfathers, but it isn’t nearly enough to replace everyone else. Out of options and frustrated, mothers often hold them in contempt for their failure to achieve precise domestic parity. We exile this final member of the village by micromanagement, mistakingly assuming it is easier to do it all ourselves.
The Motherhood Mystique
With this newest assumption, that we must do it all ourselves, we salted the earth. The village isn’t returning, because we won’t participate in it. We can’t participate in it.
We spent our early adulthood dedicated to our professional life. We were told that it was the measure of our worth. It was our identity. From Betty Friedan’s movement-launching The Feminine Mystique:
But even if a woman does not have to work to eat, she can find identity only in work that is of real value to society—work for which, usually, our society pays.
Freidan was writing as a woman who already gone through early motherhood, someone who was looking for identity in addition to the mother identity she had already established. Her history tempered that “only”. Indeed, our society is paying a price for that work women were supposed to seek outside of the home, though it is hardly the fulfilling and beneficial financial remuneration Friedan hoped it would be.
For the mothers who came after, however, we established our identity as the Second Wavers counseled, only though paid employment. We entered into motherhood completely unprepared for its emotional force. That motherhood commands any portion of our identity stuns us. Mid-career and postpartum, we start questioning all our assumptions and the career plans we built upon them. Now, if we decide to give up work or, in the current idiom, “lean back” from our careers — we must not only justify “wasting” our education and losing a paycheck, but also forge a new identity.
Motherhood has to be worthy of these sacrifices. It must be hard, complicated, consuming, and essential. We must do it all ourselves or hire a nanny that we can control or fire.
We made it so.
Just like having only a hammer makes every problem look like a nail, trained as professionals, we turned motherhood into a proper job to be done by us or a credentialed nanny under our direction. We created diet plans, lesson schedules. We did baby sign language and Baby Einstein. Housewives, perpetually feeling inadequate thanks to the original libel, responded to the notion that motherhood is just like any other corporate gig with a Martha Stewart offensive of militant domesticity, out-crafting and out-cooking the accountants and nannies. We made sure to place special emphasis on things only an actual mother can do, such as breastfeeding.
The all-consuming Attachment, Tiger and Helicopter styles of parenting became dominant parenting styles. In this “Don’t cry, that’s dehydrating” crucible, we complain about husbands not doing anything right, a state of affairs we might have avoided if we actually let them help. We might beg grandparents to babysit, but then saddle them with so many rules Hollywood made a star power comedy about the habit.
Then we have the structural difficulties. Delaying motherhood limited our fertility window, which led us to the practice of “baby bunching”, having babies fewer than two years apart. It is undoubtedly more work intensive in the early years. Fertility treatments—often we delay motherhood for too long—have brought a rise in the incidence of multiples, also more work intensive. (I had four children in five years, including a set of twins. I have first hand knowledge of which I write.)
Working moms exist in a state of guilt for whatever it is they aren’t doing at any given moment. Stay at home moms pour themselves into their children to justify the worldly accolades they gave up. Mothers are isolated and spent, children are over-managed and smothered. And fathers are an afterthought. They aren’t typically mentioned outside of demands for more domestic help.
Back to Where We Started
And so we have come full circle, right back to insisting that motherhood be the primary definer of women. Last week, Camille Paglia participated in a debate at American University and opened with a speech about sticky gender norms. She offered some of her rogue common sense that so infuriates the feminist intelligentsia:
I consider it completely irresponsible that public schools offer sex education but no systematic guidance to adolescent girls, who should be thinking about how they want to structure their future lives: do they want children, and if so, when that should be scheduled, with the advantages and disadvantages of each option laid out. Because of the stubborn biologic burden of pregnancy and childbirth, these are issues that will always affect women more profoundly than men. Starting a family early has its price for an ambitious young woman, a career hiatus that may be difficult to overcome. On the other hand, the reward of being with one’s children in their formative years, instead of farming out that fleeting and irreplaceable experience to daycare centers or nannies, has an inherent emotional and perhaps spiritual value that has been lamentably ignored by second-wave feminism.
We need to see motherhood as the valid choice it is, not a burden to be managed. We need new advice, a new plan.
It turns out that Friedan offered a decent overview 50 years ago. She trashed domesticity in the body of The Feminine Mystique, but the Epilogue, A New Life Plan for Women, is more sober. She warned against “one thing at a time compromises” that were not compatible with women’s lives. She advised education first and early long-range planning. But who really read The Feminine Mystique? Feminists ousted Friedan from the head of NOW, ignored her caution not to ape the paths of men, and confidently swapped motherhood first for career first. After a few decades of following this edict, we have leveled the one organic institution that could sustain the professional success we have achieved to this point.
There are two additional insults to injury of note. First, the women hampered most by the loss of the village are the women without law degrees or a shot at the corner office, the ones who find it most difficult to help themselves. The elite woman’s strategy of hiring a village or quitting work is not available to her administrative assistant or housekeeper, who can neither keep pace with the motherhood rat race nor rely upon the nannies or stay at home moms whose time is consumed with the rat race.
Second, the advice that razed the village was originally doled out by women who already had families and lived in the village, then by women who had plentiful careers and could pay to replace the village. Millennial women will have no such advantages.
My peers, the women of Gen X, have the most to answer for. At least when our mothers first gave us the Career Mystique advice around 1990, it was untested. But now we have more than 20 years of data and anecdotes. We have learned much, or at least should have. Yet we continue to peddle the old advice and tell young women not to worry about relationships at all but to engage in what by most accounts is bad sex so as to not get tied down while establishing careers that no longer exist. (Warning: vulgarity in last link.)
This absurd advice betrays a lack of courage. In one of the many and varied twists of feminism, the women of Gen X, the most independent and privileged generation of women in history, are oddly susceptible to mother guilt. They made our career success possible, and if we subvert that success to anything else, then they think we have thanklessly tossed away hard won freedoms they gave to us. As they see it, we owe them. And the payment they seek is that we never question the Career Mystique.
I am not a feminist, not as the label is commonly understood anyway. My mother isn’t either. Despite the many sacrifices she made for me, she has a very different approach to intergenerational debt. I once asked if I could pay her for babysitting. She said no. She told me that I would pay her back when I freely babysat my own grandchildren.
That is the essence of the village. If we want it back, we need to find it wherever it still lives, be it in large families, expat communities, or in churches. We need to find it and use it. And we need to rebuild villages where the old ones once stood.