I’m jealous of my brothers’ wives. One just recently gave birth to her first child, and the other is due with her first baby in August. I’m not jealous because I want to be pregnant or have another baby. In fact, I’m more than happy with my family of four the way it is. I’m jealous of my brothers’ wives because these two educated, intelligent, and successful women have the luck of becoming moms in what I consider to be a breakthrough year for motherhood. From television to magazines, books to blogs, motherhood is finally getting some hard-earned attention and respect.
I’ve been following motherhood in theory and reality since I became a mother myself back in 1996. Hard to believe it was only seven years ago, because it sometimes seems like the Dark Ages. For me, motherhood was an absolute shock to my system and identity. Overnight I morphed from a person with a career, education, opinion, into the blank slate identity of MOM. It was difficult to deal with the public’s perception of motherhood — primarily because I, as a mother, was no longer viewed as an interesting individual or contributing member of society. But that was only half of my own difficulties. I was also devastated by a lack of maternal preparation and I was sabotaged by my own naive and idealized vision of motherhood.
How could I be so clueless about motherhood? Why wasn’t I better prepared, educated, or informed about what motherhood truly entailed? I partially blame myself for ignoring the entire institution of motherhood completely, until I decided to take the maternal plunge. Before I became a mother, I easily bought into the myth that motherhood was natural and easy, and I figured that the transition, once I was ready, would be rather simple. And as for the negative stereotypes of moms as mindless, bored, frustrated, angry housewives? I believed that as an ambitious career gal, I’d avoid that trap completely. In the fantasy version of my life, I had it all — career, husband, babies. It’s not that I was in complete denial about the complexity of it all. Motherhood was simply a mystery until I became a mother myself.
Part of the problem is that most of us learn about motherhood from our own mothers. Since moms somehow absorb all the blame in the universe, it becomes easy for us to see our own mothers as flawed examples of motherhood. We probably don’t want to see the truth, which is that our moms aren’t perfect because NOBODY is perfect. Like most self-assured, cocky, and childless women, I decided early on that if I simply did the opposite of everything my mom did, and avoided all of her mistakes, that would make me the perfect mom. Of course, two weeks after giving birth to my own daughter, I suddenly saw my mother in a new light. I said to her, with newfound respect, “How the heck did you do this eight times?”
Early on, I felt transformed and empowered by motherhood. This maternal glow made me cry during baby shampoo commercials and identify with every woman who had ever birthed a baby. This glow also kept me blissfully ignorant; allowing me to ignore the rather simplistic and patronizing media portrayals of mothers as either divine, selfless madonnas or shopaholic clean-freaks. I devoured the parenting magazines with their touchy-feely odes to good mothering and their vigilant warnings against bad mothering. Motherhood, as far as I could tell from magazines, movies, and baby books was clearly black-and-white, good against evil, the right way vs. the wrong way. But as the glow of new motherhood dimmed, and clouds of depression rose along my horizon, I began my struggle to understand motherhood, myself, and myself as a mother.
Back in the Dark Ages before the New Millennium, there simply was not an adequate amount of good reference or resource material on mothering to choose from. In 1996, every pregnant woman I knew read the same two books: What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Beyond Jennifer and Jason. That’s right, our only two guides on this epic journey were a manual that gave us a month-by-month breakdown of our pregnancy while also demanding strict, almost monk-like, dietary restrictions that were thoroughly unattainable and designed to spark feelings of inadequacy; and a baby-naming book. Apparently, as long as we provided the ultimate nourishment of our fetuses and chose the appropriate name, we would be prepared for motherhood.
Once the baby was born, most of us also received a copy of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which was somewhat more enlightened and less restrictive than the What to Expect series. Dr. Spock was and is revered as a parenting expert because, unlike other experts, he didn’t tell parents what was right or wrong. In fact, he once said, “Parenting is about choices and deciding what’s best for your child.” But I fear that Dr. Spock was over-stating an over-simplification of parenting, too. Because a choice like “deciding what’s best for our children” cannot be made in a vacuum and without concern for what is good for ourselves. Unless, of course, we buy into the myth that mothers are selfless, sacrificing martyrs, thereby stripping away our individual needs and choices completely.
No, things are much more complicated and messy than earlier pregnancy and parenting books, written by experts and researchers, would lead us to believe. And it wasn’t until mothers started writing about their personal experiences that this became more apparent. Vicky Iovine was my own personal savior, being one of the first real-life moms to talk openly, honestly, and with humor about pregnancy, birth, and beyond in her best-selling Girlfriends Guide series. Looking back now, her books seem quaint and well, obvious. But before she can be dismissed, one must remember that her pregnancy guide was published in 1995, years before hipper mamas came along such as Ariel Gore, Ayun Halliday, Andrea Buchanan, Lisa Belkin, Bee Lavender, or Faulkner Fox. And she was the only alternative to the torturously judgmental What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
My jealousy of my sister-in-laws stems from the fact that I had my last baby in 1999, and the real explosion in mama-centric memoir, literature, journals, blogs, and alternative zines really didn’t kick in until the year 2000. Dozens of motherhood books now line my shelves, and there are so many more that I intend to read, as soon as I find the time. I’m jealous because I didn’t have access to this richness of these maternal materials when I was struggling with new motherhood. I’m jealous because in the 1990’s I couldn’t find books like The Mommy Myth, Mothering Without a Map, or The Bitch in the House. I’m jealous that in the wake of The Feminine Mystique, feminists have been afraid to even discuss motherhood, leaving a generation of feminist mothers feeling alienated and confused. I’m jealous that new feminist mothers get to become mothers knowing that other feminist moms, like Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden are already paving the way for a deeper discussion and social change. I’m jealous because today’s new mothers get to a have a voice and a presence in the universe that didn’t exist less than a decade ago.
But I’m also very proud of myself and the other mothers who took the plunge into unknown waters. Without a map for motherhood, all of us moms who struggled during the Dark Ages stood our ground and demanded our voices. With a “do-it-yourself” attitude we launched websites, chatrooms, zines, and blogs, and we began sharing our stories even when we were told, rather repetitively, that they weren’t significant or that there wasn’t an audience for them. We hungered for knowledge, insight, and inspiration and we devoured it as soon as we found it. We defied the stereotypes and we’ve held onto ourselves against the pressure to disappear behind motherhood.
And still we demand more — more books, more magazines, more websites, and maybe someday (dare we dream) even more of an accurate presence and portrayal of motherhood in movies and television. Things are still evolving and we still have a long way to go. But as I surf the net and browse at Barnes & Noble, I am at least encouraged by the presence of maternal materials where once there were none. And while I remain somewhat jealous of my sisters-in-law, I am also incredibly happy for them and hopeful that they, and all of our daughters, will come into motherhood with a better sense of themselves. In terms of information and knowledge, they are at least light years ahead of me, giving birth in a more enlightened time, and in a New Millennium.
For more books about motherhood, see our LiteraryMama resources page/bibliography.