I’ve wept at Dr. Christiane Northrup public television specials. I’ve dreamed of marching on Washington with my little girl. So the second my tummy popped last winter, all my friends greeted me with a hug. “Going for a daughter,” they’d wink — I already have two sons — and I’d crack a joke about finally getting to gorge on miniature tutus and matching hair accessories. Then the sonogram flashed me another full frontal boy, and I started to cry. But not because I had to kiss those tutu dreams so long, that I’d have to stomach another bris, or even that nature had just issued a de facto death warrant for my mitochondrial DNA. I cried because I was profoundly relieved: I wouldn’t have to bring a girl into this man’s world.
I know, I know, it’s not a man’s world anymore. Except that it is. Why else would I feel the nagging urge to hang my diplomas with the linens in the laundry room? Sure, on the better days, they’d serve as a reminder — to me and my kids — that I once excelled at something besides slinging waterproof sheets in my extended stay-at-home gig.
Then again, they might also bring to mind my former students’ reaction to Judy Syfer’s 70s essay “I Want a Wife”: outrage and ridicule. “She should keep her place,” a steamed female reader said. “Sexism’s a thing of the past,” a male student added, and the whole class, save a young woman from the Bronx, nodded in assent. This was the same group that proclaimed, much as Norman Mailer once asserted, that one can identify a woman’s writing by its inferior, emotional tone–plenty to turn me emotional. Where, and from whom, had they learned this? It was the new millennium, and still the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, for goodness’ sake, but Mother Earth remained unfit for any daughter of mine. Granted, at the next class meeting I did distribute a stack of blind reads to illustrate that one cannot determine a writer’s gender (or anything else) by “sniffing,” in Mailer’s tradition, his or her ink–an exercise that devolved into an enlightening, if discouraging, class debate about women’s work (“not so bad”), the ERA (“quaint”), and Britney Spears (“liberated”).
A more effective lesson may or may not have been a stroll through the university’s writing department, headed by men and staffed with a fleet of part-time female instructors effectively derailed from the tenure track (and health insurance) because they wished to cobble together a schedule that allowed them to breastfeed and earn, or maybe (as was my case BC: before children) to work as a freelance writer and earn a regular paycheck, even if it was a pittance, even if it included grading papers at home among other “hidden” work (not, come to think of it, so unlike housework)–a desire the school exploited simply because it could. The dean wants a wife, too, I almost told my students–multiple wives, and consoled myself: at least the restrooms in our country’s higher institutions of learning didn’t read “women” and “professors” anymore.
The world of book publishing, where I had also been employed BC, was no different: Men occupied the hot-shot positions while a gaggle of women, jacked on caffeine, toiled after hours like Santa’s elves on the nether floors, a custom that made me long to stage a “Free To Be You and Me” revival–and made shudder for the girl I might someday bear. Fresh out of grad school, I’d managed to fast talk HR into bumping my starting pay from twenty two to twenty four thousand a year, because of my advanced degree, a feat I considered no small coup until I discovered that a male colleague in an adjacent cube leapt from the low forties to three figures in a matter of months. That, plus the fact that many publishing houses were pushing novels whose male authors regularly scored higher advances than female writers (because, as Mailer might have argued, their prose had “balls,”), chagrined me as writer. It also compounded my recent shock, as mother and woman, at a full-time mom who was recently quoted in the New York Times as deliberately declining to purchase books about the female experience because it “protected” her sanity. So much for pumping up those advances. I couldn’t help but remember the physician husband in the 1800s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” issuing his struggling, postpartum wife a companion prescription: No writing, it will only upset you.
Thankfully, no women I know have taken such an outmoded cure, and a host of recent articles has stirred up serious food for twenty-first century thought. Such as how the majority of today’s parents, while they assure their girls they can grow up to inhabit any role they aspire to, rarely mention in detail the unique choices they as women might have to face. Choices that, the way our country’s work culture is structured, have yet to affect men in the same, often detrimental manner. Take for example, statistics underscoring the innumerable perks (promotions, raises) corporate men are afforded for having families, while women are penalized, or at best, marginalized, for the same. “Hey, Baby Girl! Bet you can’t wait to be pushed out of the office–for pushing out a baby! And should you stay, you just might earn unequal pay!”
Or zero pay. For the past six years I myself have so-called “opted out” of the (paid) work force–by opting in to the domestic sphere to raise my children, a sphere to which I have yet to acclimate without assistance from a patchwork of sitters and various SSRIs that soften the edges around incessant wipe and diapering, spit-up scrubbing, and, in a Friedan-esque nod, peanut butter sandwich scarfing. My earning power having all but flagged, or even reversed course, I am rendered economically dependent for the first time in my adult life, while my husband amasses ever more raises and desirable titles and actually gets to do things like commute–thirty minutes of silence, not once but twice a day–and travel to such places as Parisian boutique hotels, sojourns that hare kare me with envy. Oh, to be served a meal, even airline grub; to recline, unmolested, in a coma-like state anyplace apart from the aforementioned laundry room! Eerie to consider my mom and her peers regarded their husbands’ travel in much the same way thirty-five years ago.
Eerier still is the bizarre refrain I often employ to justify my having relinquished, if however temporarily, my previous professional pursuits: Good thing I was never driven to be a CEO. If I had been, I’d undoubtedly experience authentic ambivalence and about my current title as homemaker, as if my vocation as teacher and writer, becoming the very “anything” my parents always assured me I could be, clearly doesn’t count because of–like mommyhood–its unremarkable pay. As I did when my students protested Syfer’s essay, I have to ask: Where, and from whom, did I learn this? Certainly not my parents or husband or peers, all of whom concur: Mothering is a respectable job. A good job. The most important job in the world (along with fathering, of course). It’s just not always that fulfilling.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. And I do manage to eke out writing time between slicing bananas and reading Curious George; enough, anyway, to cover our annual diaper bill. And yes, my husband and I religiously refer his salary as “ours.” We even regularly dare to break those precious email chains referring to a mommy’s paycheck as “sunshine, smiles, and hugs.” Yet something on the home front still rings disingenuous whenever I remind my kids (and anyone who hopes to eat in my kitchen) that “mommy” is synonymous with “privilege” and “super important job.” If this were true, wouldn’t the hospital have sequestered me in the lush maternity ward for a civilized fortnight, rather than turning me out while I was still waddling and beholden to the Bermuda Triangle of pain (mammaries, loins) after a pitiful two days? No man on the planet, in such condition, would allow himself to be discharged from round-the-clock coddling, especially not to weeks of unpaid leave. And by the way, if mothering really were the most important occupation in society’s eyes, wouldn’t the government be paying moms for vacation time, providing us with our own health insurance, 401Ks, Social Security–anything for our daily grind, which entails raising future laborers, stay-at-home or no, who will someday fuel the economic pool?
An economic pool, by the way, ensconced in a democracy that elects a disproportionate number of men into office, then slaps their mugs on all of our currency, relegating Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony to rare stamp-machine peep shows at the local P.O. I was shocked, at age six, when my own mom picked up a bookshelf globe and pointed to various locales she claimed not only revered women but actually featured female figures and forms not just on money but in public places and all significant art. Not so enlightened a land in which government stiffs long to drape Justice’s breasts in the name of decency, or where priggish administrators suspend girls for using the word “vagina” in suburban high schools (where, for the record, a walloping double standard persists to this day, as my sweet sixteen sitter can attest). Note to self: Determine just how to explain to a child–girl or boy–that while our country champions family values, it can’t muster the guts to meaningfully support the notion, or by extension, truly value children. Truth is, if my husband were to expire tomorrow, there’s no way that this government, which scarcely supports its war veterans and their families, would truly assist me and my kids, the very kids our leaders claim we should be making number one.
And let’s not forget another, equally daughter-dampening helping of cultural schizophrenia, or what I like to call the Victoria’s Secretization of America: the sexed up status quo encompassing everything from thong bikini underwear for elementary school aged girls to pee-wee princess manicures to the grocery-store checkout rags touting women whittled to pre-pubescent frames. Women waxed bald from the neck down and adorned with exaggerated, otherworldly, yet somehow virginal, breasts, a.k.a., giant pacifiers for even balder men: mothering, sunk to its creepiest form, while real-mom images languish in back-water Web sites and indie photo shoots. Bad enough I recently had to try to explain to my four-year-old just why it is that he sees our town’s coiffed and Botoxed female population swill mondo black coffees rather than eat, while the daddies huff doughnut holes; I can hardly imagine trying to convince a daughter–straight-faced, as I have my sons–that I and the spandex mamas hamstering on the treadmills in the gym adjacent to the town preschool do so solely to stay “healthy.” And earlier this year, when a relative competed in the Miss USA pageant (is it possible this prime-time, soft-porn parade actually still exists?), I was eternally grateful that I had no daughter to contemplate our beauty queen’s post-loss comment: “No cocktails! I want pancakes–I haven’t eaten for a year.”
Eating disorders, of course, while perpetuated by society, are also genetically to blame, and my genes are packing a hearty helping of anorexia, which gathered me to its bony bosom at the age of twelve, courted me through college, and has yet to entirely loosen its grip. How could I, even after years of recovery, ever presume to teach a daughter that it’s far from normal to converse with a carrot–or to shed so much poundage you’re virtually erasing yourself, becoming invisible, the very antithesis of feminism? One could, of course, mount an argument against procreation by conjuring any number of genetic ailments–addiction, mental illness, both of which, like eating diseases, run in my husband’s and my families, and both of which could be passed along to either a boy or girl. At this rate, why reproduce at all?
To raise more feminists, of course. And as a feminist–and mother, woman, human being–I do mourn the might-have-beens a daughter may have brought. Like simply nurturing a girl. Or marching on the capitol for women’s lives, as my own mom and I did. Or throwing an all-night fest when she gets her first period, dishing about the first stack of texts she buys at college, helping her navigate her own set of choices someday–choices that, for better or worse, won’t be so different from mine–and even observing her interacting with and learning from my husband, who considers mothering a hardcore feminist pursuit. Which, in the end, reminds me that even with three boys, we’ll have our work cut out for us. That now, more than ever, it falls to us to teach them: It’s only through their participation that this man’s world will ever change, enough to deserve its daughters. And, for that matter, its sons.