Saturday, September 02, 2006

Motherhood: Still the Game of Self-Sacrifice

My book group is reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, to see, as my friend Renee put it, if anything has changed. It's better than I thought it would be. I'll be interested in how she uses the word "choice" as she goes along. My own problem with the word "choice" as the concept moves into abortion politics is the way in which this idea still reduces female parenthood to a zero sum game: we're still in the position of 'choosing' our female identity versus 'choosing' motherhood. Or we're led to believe that we can 'choose' parenthood when we're 'ready'. The implication is still that motherhood involves at least temporarily a denial of self. Fathers/men aren't led to believe that parenthood is a 'choice' that involves subjugating the self.

In 1963, Friedan wrote the following about the 'feminine mystique' versus the development of self represented by the 'career woman':

"In an earlier time, the image of woman was also split in two--the good, pure woman on the pedestal, and the whore of the desires of the flesh. The split in the new image opens a different fissure--the feminine woman, whose goodness includes the desires of the flesh, and the career woman, whose evil includes every desire of the separate self. The new feminine morality story is the exorcising of the forbidden career dream, the heroine's victory over Mephistopheles: the devil, first in the form of the career woman, who threatens to take away the heroine's husband or child, and finally, the devil inside the heroine herself, the dream of independence, the discontent of spirit, and even the feeling of a separate identity that must be exorcised to win or keep the love of husband and child."

Women no longer face the stark choice between any career and motherhood. But having 'chosen' motherhood, there's still plenty of pressure to suppress a separate identity in order to properly serve the child. Just read Judith Warner's column/blog in the NY Times--what drives the mommy panic and the ultra competitiveness of the new motherhood is a race to subjugate the self to the child, to prove that you're the one who's the most self-sacrificing. Motherhood is still a 'choice' that precludes or partially excludes other choices. Which is why so many women talk about not wanting to have children until they're ready--what they mean is, wait until their careers are in such a place that it is possible to subjugate the self and deny identity in the service of another. That our concept of motherhood still includes this idea of self-subjugation, self-annhilation is really disturbing.

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