In graduate school, my class read excerpts from A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk,** and Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions, both of which have a rather grim view of birth and motherhood. Reading Wolf’s descriptions of an “aching, constant feeling of loss” and her “sense of acute social demotion” made my hands shake. Cusk's eloquent account of feeling “bludgeoned by tragedy” upon bringing her infant home from the hospital only increased my panic. I believed every word of what I was reading; it seemed too horrible and frightening not to be true.
When my classmates and I told our professor that we were traumatized, she (a mother and a controversial polemicist) was stunned that we hadn’t read these writers more critically. It was embarrassing but true. We, who generally took nothing at face value, had let Naomi Wolf convince us that there was an epidemic of post-partum depression and a conspiracy to keep it quiet. This despite my clear memories of an absolutely scathing 2001 review of Misconeptions in The Nation, one so merciless it stopped me from reading the book when it was first published. "No gestation has been more fraught with meaning, so filled with unexpected and profound discoveries, so laden with policy implications, so deserving of a second-by-second account, as that of Naomi Wolf," Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (themselves authors of The Mommy Myth) had sneered. "Seldom do accounts of pregnancy and childbirth in the American medical system actually make you feel sorry for the doctors and nurses who had to attend to the mother. Until now."
I mention this because for a lot of twenty-something women, motherhood is the exception to all of our rules. As something that may or may not be in our future, it’s both completely abstract and entirely real, which makes it hard to think or read about objectively. Especially for those of us who are deeply ambivalent about the idea of having kids in the first place, the darker side of things seems to make a lot of sense. Late in her new book, Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, Amy Richards (coauthor, with Jennifer Baumgardner of Manifesta and its sequel Grassroots) confesses to an experience similar to mine, one that is an unfortunate if logical byproduct of trying to take other women’s experiences seriously. For Richards, a mother of two, childbirth and the early days of motherhood were nothing like what she’d prepared herself for: they were, in her case, easier than she’d let herself believe. She chalks this up to having “over-identified” with the stories other women (including Wolf) had shared with her: “I assumed that one woman’s experience was every woman’s experience.”
This is a gently radical observation. Among other things, feminism is premised on the idea that there’s power in listening to other women’s experiences, in drawing connections between them and turning that into some sort of action. As Richards painstakingly recounts the history of feminist thinking about parenting (from Free to Be…You and Me to Sylvia Ann Hewlett), she observes that change is better created through our own individual examples than via some kind of mass movement. Individual examples, though, cannot be taken for universal truths. Opting In is premised on an entirely obvious and yet little-realized idea, one that is perhaps too reasonable to be a contender in the never-ending mommy wars. Rather than being distracted by all the noisy opinions swirling around them, Richards counsels, mothers should figure out what works for themselves.
It’s depressing that this point needs to be made at all. Richards’s ideas are hardly new, but they’re still refreshing, even if her formal style seems to distance her from the highly personal things she’s writing about. When it comes to things like the biological clock and the work/family juggling act, Richards concludes that women should stop being distracted by media hype and pay attention to facts: as much as it may suck, conceiving really does get more difficult as you get older, and in most cases working isn’t really a choice. She reveals the challenges she’s faced raising her kids, and outlines the workings of her domestic arrangements, including estimations of the relative percentages she and her boyfriend each do the laundry and the dishes, change diapers, and go grocery shopping. Though she doesn’t shy away from the reality that men, well-intentioned as they may be, rarely share equally in parenting and household responsibilities, she also owns up to her own culpabilities.
Richards’s descriptions of what it means to be a feminist parent are disarmingly basic. "Owning our choices, which each of us has selected from a full range of options, is exactly what distinguishes a pregnancy and birth as being feminist," she writes. Feminist child rearing is “an accumulation of personal choices rather than a set of specific roles to be adhered to.” It’s hard to envision how this kind of common sense can compete with the sexy anxiety (and designer diaper bags) that seem to have hijacked the conversation. But it’s nice to imagine that it might.** Rachel Cusk had a great essay in the Guardian not long ago about the early reception of A Life’s Work; a new edition of the book was recently published in the UK.