In Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Warner traces the evolution of the idea of the perfect mother all the way to the dead end we have reached today: the image of a perfectly selfless creature, who sacrifices her own wants and needs for those of her children. Warner describes devotees of this new Motherhood Religion living their lives in a "totalizing, ultra-child-centered way": chairing every school committee; making organic, hypoallergenic soccer team snacks from scratch; staying up into the wee hours finishing their kids' homework; preparing all of their own baby food at home rather than buying commercial brands.
We all know these women. Sometimes we are these women.
In a recent post on her blog at the Times, Warner revisited the Motherhood Religion. Placing issues of motherhood in the larger context of our cultural attitudes toward women and the choices available to them, she suggested that
some of the more insidious elements of the long-brewing antifeminist backlash have become an accepted part of our cultural landscape. We’ve seen this for years in the way we talk about motherhood: celebrating selflessness, demanding an almost inhuman degree of child-centeredness, positioning the interests of mothers in opposition to those of their children, as our political and personal debates so often do.And once again Judith got me thinking: if your time becomes consumed by your kids and their activities, the business and stuff of them, where do they end and you begin? How selfless can you be before you start to lose your Self?
Lately I have started to take steps to distance myself (and, I suppose, my Self) from the Motherhood Religion. I've started to let Big Boy play on his own more often, maybe watch a little more TV. Tiny Baby spends more time on my lap while I check e-mail and Google Reader and more time on his activity mat while I read. I've traded in the dogma of nightly home-cooked meals for a new adherence to that modern-day prophet, Trader Joe. I've secured the services of a loving and lovely childcare professional to watch the boys while Husband and I go out to eat now and then. And I have enjoyed just about every moment I've spent following these new commandments.
But, like the zealots they are, disciples of the Motherhood Religion (both real ones and the ones in my head) have tried to reel me back in, with their comments about what they do and subtle criticisms about what I could do too, if only I gave in and believed a little bit more. (Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; I have gone to the movies after my children have gone to bed.)
Once again, Saint Judith comes to my rescue, offering, in Perfect Madness, some salve to help assuage my guilt:
Studies have never shown that total immersion in motherhood makes mothers happy or does their children any good. On the contrary, studies have shown that mothers who are able to make a life for themselves tend to be happy and to make their children happy. The self-fulfillment they get from a well-rounded life actually makes them more emotionally available for their children - in part because they're less needy.So mothers (fathers, too), keep right on loving your children. But find ways to love yourself too. Eat. Drink. Read. Write. Be Merry. Put the Self back into yourself. Your happiness - and that of your family - depends on it.
When it comes to the Motherhood Religion, are you a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic? Do you think our society needs more separation of church and state where the Motherhood Religion is concerned?
(Can you tell that I was digging the religion metaphors while working on this post? Just another benefit of nine years of Catholic school.)