HAVING A CHILD WITHOUT LOSING YOURSELF
By Amy Richards
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15, 316 pages
REVIEWED BY CHERYL MILLER
Welcome to the Land of the Park Slope Stroller Mom, where every compliment is a veiled insult, and every choice no matter how mundane or personal - home birth vs. hospital, disposable vs. cloth diapers - is taken as a declaration of your progressive bona fides (or lack thereof). If you’re not run down by a passing Bugaboo stroller, you’ll likely soon be by the nonstop passive-aggressive sniping of the other mothers. “You let Baby Bjorn have non-organic carrot sticks? What kind of monster are you?”
With each day that passes comes yet another report from the front of the”Mommy Wars,” a civil war so intractable that only the United Nations - or at the very least, Oprah - can put an end to it. Our latest correspondent is Amy Richards, a long-time feminist activist and, as a 30-something mother of two, a battle-hardened veteran. Ms. Richards was moved to join the fight by a now infamous New York Times article about Ivy League-educated women “opting out” of the workplace to stay at home with the kids. What, she wondered, about all the women today who had “opted in” for both motherhood and work? Where is their story?
The result is her new book, “Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself,” an attempt to bridge the divide between stay-at-home and working mothers. Most women, Ms. Richards writes, do not fit easily into one category, but find themselves somewhere in the middle - maybe working part-time or taking a break from work until the kids are older.
The Mommy Wars, she argues, do not reflect their experience, and serve only to distract from the real progress feminism has made. Just glancing at the headlines, “it’s easy to forget that in this generation it’s possible for women to have their babies and then their careers.” The stories of these women are meant as “a living rebuttal” to the media hype.
Thus, Ms. Richards sets out to prove that a “feminist mom” is not an oxymoron in terms. It helps that as a staunch “choice feminist,” she defines the “feminist” part rather loosely. Ms. Richards has no patience for the more feminist-than-thou types like Linda Hirshman who recently declared that housewives are “leading lesser lives.”
To Ms. Richards, there are no “wrong or right answers” when it comes to feminism’s relationship to motherhood, nor are certain choices “more feminist than others.” What’s most important, she declares, is that a woman’s choice works for her: “Each woman wants different things; thus the feminist goal should be figuring out what you want.”
It’s a refreshing message, especially when so many feminists seem to regard young housewives as “self-indulgent nitwits,” who have either been duped by the patriarchy into returning home or who are ungrateful for the sacrifices previous generations of women have made for them. Ms. Richards rightly sees these women’s decisions less as a sign of “backlash,” than as a sign of progress. “Asking for women to have a seat in the boardroom,” she writes, “doesn’t mean that all women have to take that route.”
In another departure from feminist orthodoxy, she even rehabilitates poor Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who was vilified by feminists for reminding women that the biological clock is very real. Ms. Richards calmly refutes accusations that such information only makes women feel guilty or puts pressure on them to leave the work force.
“It’s neither pro-child nor pro-woman to assume that women can postpone parenthood indefinitely,” she argues. She does not deny that some women might put their career on the backburner in order to have children, but she insists that’s their decision to make. What’s really antifeminist is withholding information from women on the grounds that they will then make the wrong choice.
Why can’t we trust women to make choices? Ms. Richards asks. Naturally, she puts the blame on a “pervasive sexism,” which supposedly makes women afraid to trust their own instincts. Sexism may play a part, but the more likely culprit is other women. Curiously, in “Opting In,” you never hear a man suggest a woman should stay home or work, let alone criticize her for letting the kids watch the Wiggles.
But the women are only too happy to pass judgment on each other’s parenting style or choices; as Ms. Richards laments, women seem to “feel a need to diminish one another.” Perhaps, there’s a reason it’s the “Mommy Wars” and not the “Parent Wars” or the “Daddy Wars.”
“Opting In” might be read more profitably as an account of the rise of the “sanctimommy,” as the Internet has dubbed these infuriatingly holier-than-thou types. One woman brags of having the perfect “feminist pregnancy” in a birthing pool - and under a full moon, no less. She pulled the baby out herself while her husband caught the whole thing on tape.
Another insists that any woman who chooses to give birth in a hospital has been “brainwashed.” Even the mostly nonjudgmental Ms. Richards opines that any woman who can’t appreciate the anodyne 1970s hit “Free to Be”You and Me” must have been “sheltered” and is “more potentially conventional in your thinking.”
But even sanctimommies have their moments of self-doubt. For all her celebration of sisterhood - “Today women actually like other women,” Ms. Richards declares - she and the other women in the book seem constantly fearful of stepping on each other’s toes. The level of neuroticism these women evince about the smallest things is amazing.
Ms. Richards agonizes over the politically correct way to greet the news of a friend’s pregnancy; if she simply congratulates her - as most people would do - she fears suggesting that her friend’s pregnancy is the “primary source of [her] value.” Later, she worries that a friend complimenting her on being a “laid-back parent” secretly means the friend really thinks she’s negligent or lazy.
“Opting In” mostly makes sisterhood - and feminism - feel like a drag. Women might be free to choose to stay home or work, but it seems they’ll never be free of the scrutiny of other women. It’s no wonder that so many younger women are rejecting the label “feminist;” not caring what other people think might just be the real liberation.
Cheryl Miller is a 2007 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow and editor of Doublethink.