Sunday, April 29, 2012

Interests and Talents That Do Not Involve You

I was surprised to see this blog mentioned favorably in a recent post on motherhood by Dartmouth undergraduate Clare Coffey in the "On the Square"  section of First Things. Coffey, who discloses in the second paragraph that she has no personal or quantifiable experience in her subject, nonetheless attempts in the piece to unpack certain cultural constructs of what we might call "the new motherhood," and to offer her ideas for remaking it along more humane lines. In case the reader should question her credentials, however, she lightly suggests that "if anything I say seems presumptuous, unrealistic, or stupid," the reader should "just chuckle."

It appears that more readers scratched their heads than chuckled, wondering why First Things would publish such a facile sort of piece that gets so much wrong by an admitted non-expert. Sally Thomas addressed these concerns in detail at Castle in the Sea, focusing in particular on Coffey's assertion to the actual mothers out there that "[it] is perfectly acceptable to say 'No, you’re not doing trombone camp this year, because I have interests and talents that do not involve you, and spending my life in the car prevents me from pursuing them.'” "Only a sociopathic narcissist," Sally counters,

would declare aloud, to her child's face, that he isn't going to get to do something because frankly she has better things to do with her life than drive him around. I don't think there's anything remotely, let alone perfectly, acceptable about saying that sort of thing to a child, who in any case is naturally going to think, "Who said we were talking about you? The subject of this conversation is me and trombone camp."

I have to conclude that the reason Coffey recommended my blog along with the excellent blogs of some of my esteemed friends is that this one (which does NOT, by implication, extend to theirs) has historically been heavy on the "interests and talents that do not involve you." The idea that this blog might be paradigmatic of some sort of platonic ideal of rightly-engaged motherhood has led me to consider, with some chagrin, the course of my own attempts to maintain my activities as a scholar and performing artist while trying to be a good-enough mother.

There was a time a few years ago when this blog had some very active detractors who, in the interest, I think, of correcting me on my evidently bad course, left hurtful and even vicious messages in the comboxes (must I mention that these trolls generally self-identified as orthodox Catholics?). One, after I had written something in a comment about one's art, if one is a mother, being able to flourish more readily when one has cash in hand for child care, helpfully sought to remind me that the arts were for "people with TALENT," which is to say not for poor schlubs like me, international performing credits, scholarly publications, and at-that-time A.B.D. in music notwithstanding. Another real-life former friend, a self-styled apologist with a strong internet presence, incensed by something I had written here on a different topic, similarly blasted me for my "unsuccess" at everything I'd endeavored, from music to marriage to motherhood (this same erstwhile friend, before he started hating me quite so much, had asked me to sing at his father's wake and funeral, which I did, taking a cab from the Bronx twice to another far-off outer borough of the City of New York, vomiting from morning sickness much of the way), and, further, suggested that I wickedly blamed this unsuccess on my children, both living and dead. You have a happy life too, buddy!

But there is enough fodder for a mommy war waged by me against myself right here in the present. I was asked recently to translate some academic-musicological essays from the Italian for a prestigious forthcoming publication from a major publisher. I felt I couldn't say no to a well-paid gig of this nature, which could potentially generate similar money-earning opportunities, and was being overseen by a scholar I respect. As it turns out, though, I've already had to renegotiate the deadline, because I'm fairly fried from my current nighttime parenting duties, and I'm recalling a woman I used to know who also did freelance translating but concluded, after the birth of her second child, that she just couldn't do it anymore.

Then there's The Magic Flute.  While it's an opera I've never done, the only roles for my voice type are ensemble roles, so it seemed like a low risk to agree to cover those two roles (Second and Third Lady), especially when the chance that I would go onstage in one of them was miniscule and the conductor welcomed my children at rehearsal. But as it happened, I took him at his word. I brought my children to rehearsal.  While the conductor continued to be supportive, saying it was "a delight" to see them there (the fact is that, out of the entire cast and production staff, he was the only other parent; such is opera), the stage director and his staff begged to differ. It seems that Maestro had asked the stage director not to curse in front of the wee ones, and the stage director made it clear that that was "how he worked," and that children were not an appropriate ancillary to his method (in all honesty, Maestro needn't have been sensitive on my behalf; I curse like a truck-driver, though I try to remove myself to another room when I feel like I have to, or else do so in Italian, though I know neither of those tactics are exactly praiseworthy). This has meant that, because of the sudden and unexpected need for child care, I've been to attend only a few rehearsals, and that, as a result, I wouldn't be able to execute the staging in any kind of admirable fashion if I happened to get a last-minute call that one of the mainstage singers was sick. I've done covers before, but this is the first time in my life that I haven't been prepared for the eventuality of going onstage, and it's a very uncomfortable feeling, not just because of that eventuality, but also because it's in violation of my own strict work ethic. I am grateful to the conductor for making accommodations on my behalf, but the truth is that few other people would have done so.

When my older son was an infant, I was asked to chair a panel at an international conference on British music being held that summer in Vermont. I explained that I would need to bring him along, as he would be seven months old and couldn't be away from me. The conference organizers -- all men, fathers and grandfathers -- were happy to oblige, and so were most of my male colleagues. But I was not prepared for the reaction of the other women at the conference, who looked at me and my baby, whom I wore in a wrap, as if we were the shit on their shoes.  I asked a colleague if it would be all right if I brought my son to his panel, and I sat on the floor in the back of the room with him to minimize any disruption he might cause, and to have easy access to the exit. Luckily my baby was fine, only making a few baby sounds here and there, and no one seemed to mind. The keynote address was scheduled for later that day, and I was eager to hear it, as it was given by a scholar whose work interested me keenly. When I entered the hall, however, with my son in his wrap, another scholar, an up-and-coming young Englishwoman, fairly snarled, "If you're sitting there, I'm moving. I heard your baby in that panel discussion," and she swept up her things and flounced to another seat far from us. I got up and left the hall with my son and burst into tears, and ended up spending the keynote sitting under a tree with him and crying. Ironically, one of the conference organizers, a gay man who had recently adopted an infant with his partner, brought his own baby in on the last day, and father and son were swarmed and cooed over by the same women who had shunned me. My contribution to this love-fest was to give the dad a copy of Mothering that I had brought with me and finished. I won't take the time now to unpack this whole experience. but any conclusions you might draw are probably fairly accurate. Just trust me when I say that the world of academia is no more child-friendly -- if you're a mother, that is -- than the world of opera.

I was also a little embarrassed recently when I had to contact an editor who's involved in my own book project about a deadline missed because of my new son's baptism. If I were a man, this would never need have been mentioned.

Although I have no evidence, I'm fairly certain that the long-ago combox troll who reminded me that the arts are for people with TALENT was neither a mother nor an artist, and I would pretty much bet my life that she wasn't both those things at the same time. And while his scathing email ended my friendship with the "friend" who had suddenly become a self-appointed music critic and, though unmarried and childless himself, a marriage-and-parenting authority (this friend also helpfully brought up the "unspeakable crime" I'd committed against my unborn child years before he knew me, and years after being absolved), and while I no longer follow him nor his fairly prolific work for various online outlets, I would be willing to bet that he has remained unmarried and childless, because, seriously, with a personality like that what are the chances?

But I digress. My point, I suppose, is that, pace Clare Coffey (and thanks for the shout-out, Clare; it's a nice difference from the haters of yore), I'm hardly a paragon of, well, anything. But nonetheless (and this is probably what riled up said haters), I firmly believe that if you give up your whole prior life when you have children -- if, that is, your whole prior life contained anything that you found beautiful, nurturing, or salutary for your soul -- it's going to come back and bite you in the ass. I don't believe in what you might call "professional" motherhood, unless that's a life you've been trained for and have always wanted, which is undoubtedly the case for many mothers. And on a related note, I'm convinced, whatever lurking trolls and former friends might think, that the only way to maintain some sort of culturally-defined "success" -- the flip side, that is, of my troll-former-friend's concept of "unsuccess," the kind of "success" that the other arts-critic commenter seems to have imagined is the natural outcome of being a talented person in the arts -- is to have access to some kind of reliable child care, in which someone other than you, the artist-mother, cares for your children for certain periods of time during which you practice your art. And the cultural imagination notwithstanding (I have it from someone who knows that Angelina Jolie has six nannies, one for each child!), not a lot of artist-mothers have this access, so a lot of artist-mothers stop practicing their art. If you, dear reader, have any thoughts that suggest otherwise -- and generally the thoughts I give credence to are those that can be backed up, if not by quantifiable evidence, then by anecdotal experience; they are generally not, that is to say, wild guesses about what motherhood must be like, made by non-mothers -- then kindly let me know, in an un-troll-like fashion if you can manage it.


Kimberlie said...

I never had an art or any real career (though I did work) before motherhood, but it was work that I found rewarding and it was fulfilling in that it touched upon some interests I had. I also have done some freelance/editing work since becoming a mother, though not since before I brought my third child home. I have to say though, I am not one of those mothers who really enjoys being with my children 24/7. While I would never tell my kids that I am not going to let them do something because it messes with pursuing my own interests, I do make decisions about what we are going to do based upon how it's ultimately going to affect me and our family life. Like you, I have sacrificed dreams in my adult life because for right now, the demands of motherhood are greater and more urgent. But I am not a slave to my childrens' lives and I am more than just a mother. In fact, I think (though can't quote) that the previous pope and our current pope would beg to differ with those "orthodox" Catholics who think that the only way to holy motherhood is to be tired to hearth and home. It's a matter of whether we think our children a burden or inconvenience in pursuing our interests, or whether we pursue our interests because it shows our children that mothers can have talents and interests beyond the home, and that in turn makes us better mothers.

I know it can be hurtful to have haters leave you messages, but truly I think a lot of scorn is born out of jealousy. Seriously. You have something that deep down they desire but maybe can't even admit to whether it be your artistry or your motherhood.


ElizabethK said...

I could say so much about this, if it weren't the end of the term and my head was not in such a bad place from the ongoing attempt to be a good-enough mother and a good-enough English professor.

I do have to say, though, that you're so completely right about academia and motherhood. What I've found is that one child is cool, but I have three-or, as a colleague put it just the other day, the "equivalent of 5,000 kids." The men have always been so profoundly supportive (well, except for one young professor whom I recently horrified by saying I would have even more than three children) the women--meh.

I lay all of this, personally, at the feet of Virginia Woolf. A Room of One's Own is a huge problem that just goes on an on--not because of what she got right, which is so much, but because she took the emerging dichotomy between artist and mother and made a great big trench between them. Budding feminists read that damn essay, mix it in with Betty Friedan, and then take out all their insecurities on exhausted, dedicated mother-scholars who are just trying to listen to the keynote speaker. They bug me.

And then, yeah, the gay couple with the baby everyone loves. In fact, that entire story was like a modern day parable of academia.

Pentimento said...

Elizabeth, I'm nodding my head vigorously . . .

Pentimento said...

I also think that academic women who have chosen to delay or forego children get pissed off at you when you a) have not and b) are attempting to do things that they have come to believe you shouldn't or couldn't do unless you've made the same choice.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes to all this (and thanks for the shout-out).

One of my nearest and dearest graduate-school poetry mentors dropped me very baldly -- just quit answering my emails -- when my fourth child was born. Years later (in fact, last summer) she contacted me out of the blue, mostly to day, "OMG, are you Catholic????" (just when she'd thought I couldn't possibly get any weirder or less serious as a human being), but in the course of that email, she mentioned that she'd just stopped being in touch because she couldn't relate to me any more: "religion, having so many kids . . . " And she said this as if it were a perfectly rational explanation -- *of course* I'd understand that. (and I did, and I understood it when she cut me off, but not in exactly the same way she did, obviously).

Having gotten that out of my system, I do have more to say -- when don't I ever have more to say? -- but we have to do school now. Which is how it goes in this life. But later I'll have time, which is also how it goes.

BettyDuffy said...

I see what Clare is saying. And I see what Sally is saying.

Still, "Sociopathic narcissist" feels a little bit strong to me--if only because I say something like the trombone camp statement, in my actions at least, almost every day. It comes out like: "move on, I've got to finish this up," or "I'll be back in a couple hours, and no, you may not come."

Maybe it just means that I am a sociopathic narcissist. I know sometimes I hurt my kids' feelings with things I say, whether it concerns my interests and talents, or I'm just annoyed with them. Stewardship of my words feels like part of an ongoing battle in which I try to purify self-interest from whatever I do that doesn't directly involve the kids, and the ways in which I communicate to them that every individual, including their mother, has a personal life. In any case, my husband doesn't usually have to clarify for anyone that he's got to do stuff that doesn't involve the kids--and I'll withhold judgement on that fact for the moment, because I don't believe he should have to. Nor should I. It seems obvious.

We put our family first in the basic orientation of our lives, but there is a lot of room for variation in the ways in which each day plays out. And truly, my husband has been a very good complement to the pursuit of "interests that do not involve you"--as far as filling in when I'm doing something else. And I omitted the word "talents" on purpose, because I don't think that talent is a prerequisite for a mother's pursuit of a personal interest.

I recognize, though, that a career in voice, demands more of one's time than a hobby or a work-out routine, and it seems the only thing that might enable a mother of small kids to pursue it, is, as you say, full-time childcare, or a husband who sees your rehearsal time and gigs as a job he must accommodate somehow. I don't really need a room of my own to write, and I can do it while I'm waiting in the car for trombone camp to end. You really do need a room of your own--or at least, uninterrupted rehearsal time with your company--in order to have a career in opera. Only you and your husband can determine if the potential benefits outweigh the sacrifices necessary to make it work. Your thus far career suggests that in spite of the old stodgy friend, you have the requisite talent.

Sally Thomas said...

Yeah, maybe "sociopathic narcissist" is a little strong. And it's not like I don't say things like, "Not now," or, "I'm working, so we'll do what you want later," or whatever. (I just now said to a child reading over my shoulder, "This is none of your business.")

And a lot would depend on what "trombone camp" meant to a particular child. I was willing to drive an hour round-trip for my oldest daughter's weekly violin lessons (until she could finally drive herself), because that was the closest violin teacher we could find, and violin was the one real soul-sustaining thing she did at the time. I'm not willing to do that for every passing whim my children have, or to spend my whole life in the car so that every child can pursue every conceivable interest -- or to think that my kids' schedules have to be packed to the gills, in order for them to have a "fulfilling" childhood.

There's actually a convenient intersection here, between what's good for me and what I honestly think is better for them, ie not to lead hyper-scheduled lives, but to have lots of free time in which I'm only tangentially involved. This is the great blessing of older kids (my baby is 8), which when I had tinies seemed like a kind of unimaginable valhalla. But it seems to have gotten here overnight. Also what I didn't consider before: often enough, trombone camp and its equivalents are the mother's friend. They're the felicitous bigger-kid version of child care, in which the child's needs, talents and interests get served, while Mom gets some free time. Ideally trombone camp would last long enough for the free time to be worth the drive. Of course, I'm generally in the position of practically begging kids to go to camp when all they want to do is stay home with meeeeeeee . . . until they move a thousand miles away, and then I'm biting my tongue so as not to say things like, "But don't you WANT to be home all day all summer long? With meeeeeee?"

Possibly Clare Coffey didn't mean that you'd speak that "interests and talents" line verbatim, though that's the line she does suggest . . . I think my own strong response might stem from my feeling that in this imagined conversation, the mother presents herself as essentially another, and larger, child, engaged in one of those eternal "he got a long turn doing X, and now I should get twice as long a turn because his turn was too long and that's unfair" conversations. Only someone who's still essentially a child would imagine the conversation taking place in that way.

That doesn't mean it doesn't take place -- just not, with that kind of explicitness, between mother and child. More likely (in my experience) it takes place between the mother and herself, so that whatever trickles down to the kids is mediated . . . ideally . . . in such a way that they're not made to feel like the opposition, or the Reason Why Mom Feels Unfulfilled. And most of the time, the issue when children's activities come up, is not that all that driving is bad for me, personally, but that living that way is not good for us as a family. So the mom's-interests-vs.-child's interests opposition seems like kind of a straw man to me.

Oh, well, I need to go back and rethink my own rhetoric. Do I really mean that? I'm not sure. Would I indict myself in those words? Absolutely.

(more . . . )

Sally Thomas said...

And I was thinking the same thing, with regard to the specific *kind* of art or work in question. On a relative scale, being a writer is gravy, because it is possible to write almost anywhere. (and hey, technically I'm writing RIGHT NOW!) You don't need other people or a dedicated space (though that would be nice), and you don't have to conform to anything like a rehearsal schedule. Someone whose art involves performing faces obstacles which someone who works essentially for herself, on her own time, does not. This would also be true for someone who's trained for any field involving commitments outside the home: it would be just as hard, I would think, to be an investment analyst or a corporate lawyer in the comfort of your own living room. Unless you're truly satisfied with being an investment analyst in your mind and soul - "Investment analyst isn't what I DO, it's what I AM." That kind of thing. It's hard to convince yourself that you're still a singer if you're not actually singing where people can hear you.

Really, to me, the crux of that original essay isn't so much the question of work, though she sets out in that direction, as of personhood and dignity, which I think are easy to lose sight of especially when you're the mother of young and needy children and do have to set a lot aside in order to meet those needs. You might not be able to set paid work aside completely, but you're almost certainly sacrificing other essential things, like sleep, for a season. It's easy to start feeling . . . well, like Bilbo when he's been wearing the Ring and describes himself as feeling stretched thin. We can have the same invisibility syndrome going on in our motherhood, and it's something to guard against. At least, I know that I'm very prone to acedia, and that its symptoms look like those mothers on the playground. In some ways work is tied to all of this, but the question seems bigger than that to me. It's more a problem of maintaining, in charity, a clear point at which our children are themselves, and we are ourselves.

And yes, I think it's good for children to see their mothers engaged in their own pursuits. I want my daughters to have the idea that being a mother doesn't mean you stop being a whole person. The kids cheer me on, which means the world to me. On the other hand, there's the chaos that happens in my household when I'm working on a larger prose project . . . but I think that bothers me more than it does anyone else. I don't know about anyone else, but the real difficulty in my life is not my demanding children, or my oppressive husband, or my restrictive lifestyle choices, but me, myself. Always.

Charming Disarray said...

I'm unclear on why an unmarried Catholic woman in college deserves to be ridiculed for her views on motherhood. Does she belong to a category of people who aren't even allowed to think about such an important topic until they're actually mothers? Isn't that a bit late to start thinking about it? Certainly a woman contemplating how she might spend her future has just as much authority to offer a view on some of the problems that face traditional women in modern society; probably more than a man would. But nobody ever complains when men write on this topic, nor do they call their writing facile or hint that they have no idea what they're talking about since they haven't experienced it.

Pentimento said...

I hope my post did not come across as ridiculing Clare Coffey. That was not something I would ever want to do. On the other hand, if you read the piece, you'll note that she writes prescriptively, which I think is the wrong position for someone of her current state in life.

Lydia Cubbedge said...

I read the piece, and Sally's rebuttal, and uttered a hearty "thank you" at my laptop. I don't think it's an insult to criticize someone's writing as facile. Ms. Coffey's work was clearly well-intentioned, but probably born a little bit out of the fear undergrad girls have of "what might happen." I agree that writing prescriptively about something practical about which one knows nothing beyond theory is, well, facile.

Regarding artist mothers. I have one. She's an actress. She left a potentially fabulous career when she had me. She raised four kids, homeschooled us once I got to highschool and did the usual mom things. That being said, she never chucked her art. She didn't get paid for it, but found outlets (some of them desperately depressing for an artist of her caliber)and insisted on creating as much as she could in her life as a mother. It probably helped that my dad is also an artist, and all the kids inherited the gene or whatever it is, too. She was told repeatedly by various "devout Christians" that acting was the Devil's business, that it sinful, all the usual claptrap. On the professional side she had to deal with undisguised anti-Christian nonsense. Fortunately, she plowed on through and emerged, still acting in fits and starts, directing, and writing plays.

I had essentially no career when I got married and had a baby, but my goal of novel writing is still in front of me. It's been postponed a little, and I have to be more creative in organizing my time. I believe that mothers whatever their art form, are only really able to be the best mothers they can be if their interests are still pursued in proportion to their real life situation. We can't have it all all at the same time, but we don't have to lose the good stuff that makes us unique.

Pentimento said...

Oh, I agree, Lydia. And I'm inspired by the story of your wonderful mother.

Sally Thomas said...

Charming Disarray,

I don't read either this piece or my own, which Pentimento excerpts here, as ridicule. Certainly that wasn't my intent, either. The writer herself invites people to laugh at her inexperience; I think it's far more respectful, and less condescending, to engage with what she's written.

For my own part, I think she identifies something important, though (as I wrote on my own blog) I think the issue is less a sort of oppressed-worker thing than a tendency to conflate sacrifice with self-annihilation. It's useful to be reminded that this is the face which we as mothers perhaps too often present to young women contemplating motherhood -- it's not very helpful if we who embrace this vocation posit our children as the enemies of our own flourishing, since that's the message of much of the rest of the culture, too. I have a daughter in the same age bracket as Clare Coffey, so how young women look at motherhood isn't an abstraction to me, but an issue directly concerning my own child and her (possibly) very near future.

Anyway, engaging with rather than dismissing a piece of writing on the grounds of the writer's own admission of her inexperience does mean that a) she's being taken seriously as a writer, and b) therefore her argument merits a certain amount of critical pressure. She gets some things right, but some things, notably the prescriptive moments which Pentimento points out, not quite right. Here's where I for one think that the worker paradigm fails, because families don't operate like that. Motherhood isn't a matter of *kapital*. Generally speaking, husbands and children are not oppressors, and some of the conversations she imagines are circumvented by the more graceful realities of family life. I don't think that these realities are necessarily beyond the ken of a young, unmarried person. This writer might have perceived them from observing her own family -- but that doesn't make it into this essay. That's not so much a failure of youth and inexperience as a failure of perception -- or evidence that everything you might have to say on a given subject doesn't make the 1,600-word cut.

I for one would not have written about this essay if I hadn't thought that it, and the ensuing combox conversation, were interesting. And as I said in my own combox, a (male) acquaintance on an email loop I belong to had been really scathing about it -- mostly on the supposition that she was asserting that sacrifice is a bad thing -- and I wanted both to defend her on that charge, or at least give her the benefit of the doubt, while unpacking parts of the essay with which I had an argument (see "critical pressure," above).

Oh, well, I've flooded this combox enough today! Others may take the floor . . .

Sally Thomas said...

OK, one last word from me. Lydia, that's beautiful, and thank you.

Clare said...

Hi Pentimento,
My qualifications, such as they are, have been caring for seven younger siblings as well as other women's other children in order to help out my family financially. I know nothing about motherhood as an interior experience or state of life, (nor did I claim to) but I do know quite a lot about childcare--and the whole point of my article was differentiating between the two. I stand by my observations and my claim that the way motherhood is perceived and defined, especially in conservative culture, is damaging to all kinds of mothers making all kinds of choices.

I don't think that husband and childrens are the oppressers--the oppression here stems from the conflation of "good" or "real" or "full-time" motherhood with a very specific model (IE stay at home, full-time childcare) and the idea that a mother exists solely for her children and their needs, and should also be solely defined by them.

One thing I should have made more clear, was that the hypothetical conversations I quoted were meant to be a bit hyperbolic and interior--of course no one would or should be that blunt to their child.

Finally, I did write prescriptively. Notice, however, that my presciptions were for society in general--for people who (many of them at least) are not mothers to change how they think about, speak about, and construct motherhood as a social phenomenon--especially in conservative, bourgeoisie, and secular circles. I probably should have made more clear that I was not directing my critiques at mothers as much as a cultural discourse on motherhood, and I thank you for that critique.

Clare said...

I think something else that may have gotten lost was that of course mothers make sacrifices for their children, perfectly legitimate ones, and of course you can't have it all, and of course motherhood and its demands are different for each person. Those those are not things that could be addressed in a short essay.

But to even have honest conversations about these things, I really do believe that the ideal of stay-at-home motherhood as something written into a woman's soul(breadwinning for a man's) needs to go. It's certainly the best choice for some, perhaps most, families. It was for mine. But paying for full-time childcare is the best for some women and some families. Shared breadwinning/childcare is the best for others. Maybe to you this is so obvious to you that it doesn't need to be said--you've already made your choices, your family, and have them to focus on. But please believe me, a 20 year old woman who moves in conservative circles still hears the message all the time that stay-at-home motherhood/full-time childcare is the default, the natural, the best, the only--and not only that, but something so automatically fulfilling that it doesn't count as real work in the way that a man's does. I hear these messages all the time. And they damage not only how I see motherhood, but also how I see myself and other women.

Aside from your very valid critiques, I seem to have offended you with my "facile," "wild" guesses about what motherhood must be like." If the association pains you, I can ask FT to remove the link. Sorry, that might sound passive-agressive, but it really is an honest offer made in goodwill.

Pentimento said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Clare, and please know that all the previous commenters take your work quite seriously, as do I. I also want to add that I admire your writing style.

And please know you did not offend me, and that your mention of my blog did not pain me. I was really just surprised that anyone who writes for First Things would know about my blog at all or take an interest in it, and since, like most mothers, I'm racked with guilt about my daily choices, the mention provoked me to question those choices, and stirred up associations and feelings about criticism I've received from people on both the left and the right for my attempts to be a mother who works in the arts. My blog post was meant to be far more a criticism of my own efforts than of your ideas.

Like Sally, I also think that you're on to something. I look forward to her response. And in the meantime, as I said, thanks for the shout-out. I'm happy that you like my blog.

Anne-Marie said...

The semester I taught university full-time with four young children was the worst semester of my life. I didn't experience the gender divide that you report, Pentimento--but my female colleagues were also mothers, one a mother of five, so I wasn't doing something they had foregone. Rather, what made the semester so difficult was that teaching, like singing, requires large chunks of time that can't be scheduled around the children. And that requires cast-iron-reliable childcare.

Sally Thomas said...

Okay, not shutting up yet!

Clare, I too thank you for your thoughtful response. I suspect my college-age daughter would really like you, and would also enjoy talking to you about these kinds of concerns. They certainly mirror many of her own. As a bright girl from a fairly conservative homeschooling family, who is invested in higher education and the idea of graduate work (she just broke up with her first serious boyfriend at least partly over the fact that her pursuing further education wasn't really on his road map for the future), she often feels caught in exactly the dilemma you describe: on the one hand, the larger culture, which tells her that motherhood is what you do if you just really can't do anything else, you poor thing; and on the other, the culture of conservative Catholic homeschooling, which tells her she ought to leave home only for the altar or the convent. It's tough. And among my local homeschooling-mother peers, much as I love and respect them, I often feel like a libbed-out weirdo for underwriting my daughter's desire for a full and happy and soul-nourishing life which includes intellectual interests, even as former friends and colleagues have written me off for this abrupt and dramatic right-turn (I guess; I'm not actually that political) in my life. It's not like I'd do anything differently either way, but sometimes you just wish things would be . . . easy and obvious and not-conflicted for once, you know? At least for my children, if not for me.

As a mother watching her young-adult daughter's life unfold, I can totally appreciate all this -- though, it occurs to me, I have about as much authority to write about that experience as you have to write about motherhood. Which is to say, both of us do our best to imagine ourselves into other phases of life and to have something useful to say about them -- which is only natural, and a writer's business. And you *have* to do that, not only because of being a writer, but because you *have* to seek some vision beyond these limited, and limiting, cultural models. Although I've been critical of portions of your essay (with the caveat that I do understand how limiting that "On-the-Square" venue is), nevertheless I applaud you for that, because it bespeaks your seriousness about things which really matter, and your willingness to go out on a limb about them. And we do need more young women who can think publicly about those things, and assert that they do matter.

Anyway, again, thank you. I think that overall, this has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a useful, enriching, and important conversation, and you've gotten the ball rolling, which is something to be happy about. In this loose online community of mothers who struggle daily to balance our various vocations and gifts, I hope you'll see allies and supporters, women who will cheer you on both in your intellectual accomplishments and when your first child is born, and who will understand when you don't think it's all wonderfulwonderfulwonderful -- any part of it -- every single day, even though on the stage of eternity, it really is wonderful (in the way that God Himself is wonderful, which is to say, frequently terrifying).

I am really, truly shutting up now, because I told my older son I would do the dinner dishes for him, and because my daughter might call back from school with questions about her poetry paper. As I'm sure your own mother would say, all the hard work with little kids is *so* totally worth having these tall people for friends and companions. What goes around does come around.

With all best wishes and prayers for you as your school year winds down . . .

MrsDarwin said...

Late to the blog party, as usual...

My neighbor down the street is in academia and has twin daughters a bit younger than my oldest girls. She has mentioned the scorn she feels emanating from her colleagues when her children are mentioned -- as if she's making excuses, she says. This is complicated, too, because one of her daughters is special-needs and can't just be dropped off or left with any old sitter at a moment's notice. Sometimes I have felt myself prepared to be defensive about my stay-at-home mothering in the face of her successful and interesting career, but find instead that it is she who is envying me for my life choices.

Like Betty, I often find myself putting my children off because I'm using the time they're requesting for myself, only the activities I'm engaging in are usually not interesting ones that enrich me as a person. Instead I brush them off as I update Facebook again, which is far less edifying. As my children grow older and more observant, I start to see myself through their eyes and realize how many defects I have and how ineffectual have been my ongoing low-level struggles with my petty sins, and how much I need to rely on God's grace to do anything, much less mother these children in the way they deserve.

I, like Clare, am the oldest of a large family, and did a great deal of child care before I was married. As a result, the child care side of motherhood actually came fairly easily to me. It's like babysitting, only you can nurse the baby and get it to sleep! The difficulty I had, and still have (and my husband with me, as he's also the oldest) is in differentiating the child care from the mothering. My previous baby experience means that I've always been a very relaxed mother, in contrast to the anxious advice-driven methods of some of my peers, but it also has meant that I have been lax about the example I set. That's coming back to bite me as my children get older and I need to be modeling disciplined and virtuous behavior for my almost-young adults.

BettyDuffy said...

Clare, I'm glad you joined in.

You wrote above:

"But please believe me, a 20 year old woman who moves in conservative circles still hears the message all the time that stay-at-home motherhood/full-time childcare is the default, the natural, the best, the only--and not only that, but something so automatically fulfilling that it doesn't count as real work in the way that a man's does. I hear these messages all the time. And they damage not only how I see motherhood, but also how I see myself and other women."

I'm wondering if you can elaborate a little on the damaging effects of this worldview. Not to challenge you--I'm truly curious.

I'll just add, that I more often hear stay-at-home motherhood posited as the pathway to salvation, which thereby negates the challenges of it as being part of the process of a mother's sanctification. There's truth in that too, in as far as any vocation is part of one's pathway to holiness--but then, I can also see how being an artist, suffering for art is a pathway to holiness. Suffering comes one way or another in any case.

Maybe you all have read of Geoff Dyer's assertion that most people become parents as a kind of self-thwarting of their own creative urges. It's easier to become a mother (in a biological sense) than to become a novelist and then you have an excuse to never have performed the labor of writing. I don't buy it entirely, but there's some truth in it. I'll latch onto any scapegoat I can when confronted with my vices--whether it's sloth--like Sally mentioned, or fear of my own inadequacies. Being busy with children gives me an all-time, convenient 'out' of things I don't necessarily want to do.

Then again, there really are tangible rewards to parenting that make the sacrifices worth it--not least of which is participating in the creative act of rearing and forming another human being. Philosophically speaking, novel writing sort of pales in comparison.

ElizabethK said...

Clare, I really liked your original article, and your responses here, too. And you reminded me of something--that the "it's best to stay at home crowd" can be just as prescriptive as the "you must always work" crowd, and how hard it is to bounce between them as a young woman. Maybe this will be helpful, maybe not: as a woman who pursued my degree and my career, and then had kids in the midst of it all, I know that there's no one right way to do. The thing that's sometimes so awful is that it's hard to put on the brakes once you've constructed life in a certain way. Sometimes women like me encourage women like you to consider staying at home as an option because, frankly, the alternative can be so freaking exhausting. The family's fine, but the woman is all that you describe in your article, and more. But I forget that can happen with other choices too. Maybe there are just stages of motherhood where you dress bad and sound like a loon--I don't know. My favorite book about all of the is Danielle Crittenden's Amanda Bright @ Home--it's not Austen, but it cuts to the heart of it all in a very finny way.

ElizabethK said...

@Pentimento: Oh yes, I do get that all the time. I have the women who feel sorry for me because of a lack of a fabulous writing career, and decide to take me under their wings, which is nice, but a bit stifling. Actually I hate it. And then there are those who explain to me that they chose to forego children so they could pursue their careers, because children would feel neglected by an academic mom. I haven't the foggiest idea what to respond to that.

And of course, I'm being a little bit awful too--most of my colleagues are perfectly nice. But there is an issue here around motherhood, and it isn't going away.

ex-new yorker said...

The Ninja turtle rice krispie treat thing did make me think of a devout Catholic online friend who is a mother of three (born relatively late in her life) -- and works full time for an advertising agency -- and posts on Facebook the most delicious looking homemade baked goods fashioned to her children's request. Not Ninja turtles, though... mostly cute animals of the kind found in nature. I think back when I had one infant/toddler I may have attempted to subtly persuade her against her thought that homeschooling was not for her (since I pretty much figured homeschooling was for everyone!) and hoped she'd also see the error of her ways about supposedly "needing" to work. I still have a few mild, general opinions about these kinds of things but spend a lot less time thinking (and talking) about how they might apply to real, specific individuals living their own lives, except for me, of course. And I also don't think women who have no interest in the educational and employment opportunities I have explored for myself even since having my fourth child are missing out or depriving themselves. It's all about prudential judgment belonging to the people who have the information and responsibility to make the decisions.

Pentimento said...

Interestingly, Clare, it wasn't clear to me that you were referring to unrealistic cultural trends among conservatives. Maybe I should have inferred it from the context, since First Things has a self-selecting audience. But the same kind of stay-at-home-motherhood-is-salvific ethos exists among progressive types too, which is where I first absorbed it as a young-ish mother in New York City. It's considered ideal among grad-school-educated progressive crunchy mothers to forego everything else and stay home, and there are certain prescriptive behaviors that are meant to accompany this retreat, including ecological breastfeeding (i.e. on demand and up until whatever age the child chooses to wean), co-sleeping, and baby-wearing (a good friend of mine was shunned by another mother in our NYC attachment-parenting group when the latter ran into the former pushing her baby in a stroller). There is a similar attitude of disapproval towards highly-educated mothers who work when they "could" stay home, or who formula-feed, or who sleep-train, or what have you, a sort of not-our-class-dear attitude.

Pentimento said...

Just an aside: the most extreme of the prescribed behaviors was EC, i.e. elimination communication, whereby a child is never in diapers, but is allowed to go bare-assed through the world with Baby Legs (i.e. baby legwarmers) on, and the mother brings a bowl for pee and poo everywhere, or lets the child pee in the sink wherever she happens to be. I tried to get an attachment mom to explain to me once how this conflated with attachment parenting, but I didn't get a convincing answer.

ex-new yorker said...

Re elimination communication and its connection to AP: maybe it's the "communication." I.e., if the parent and child have the superior bond AP is supposed to produce, then the child will ... somehow... be able to communicate the need to pee and poop to a parent who can understand it. And/or the parent will be able to communicate to and be understood by the child that it would be ideal (in the child's own interest, not necessarily because of the parent's selfish laziness or squeamishness about diaper changing) to pee or poop in the designated receptacle.

There are quite a few people who believe that some sort of communication between mother and baby influences how the physical process of childbirth unfolds, so this seems a plausible explanation of the connection. With some people it's probably just about not being mainstream, though.

(And if elimination communication actually worked better than diapers for any specific family, great! There is nothing wrong with that just because it's *not* the mainstream practice.)

Pentimento said...

I think this veers slightly unrealistically far into essentialism. . .

eaucoin said...

It's pretty easy to criticize mothers since their job is daunting, important and undervalued. I once described parenting to someone as being like finding yourself stuck alone in an elevator with a swiss army knife and someone who needs an emergency appendectomy: even if you are brave and amazingly skillful and manage to save their life, they're going to have one hell of a scar! The problem with everybody knowing other people's sins is that the devil will use the information to distract one from more important information, one's own deadly errors. I think it was St. Anthony who said we should refrain from examining other people's conscience. Also, St. Paul said that God stores His treasure (faith) in cracked clay vessels (cracked pots), which I guess is God's way of telling us we should have mercy on all the crackpots who bother us.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for that, Eaucoin, and it's nice to see you here.

JMB said...


This is so off topic but your description of AP/La Leche League mothers reminded me of one meeting that I attended before I gave birth to my oldest child. I sat in gap jawed amazement listening to the leader describe how she gave birth at home to her third child and the next day took her family to the beach for the day. The bar was set so high for me, its no wonder I failed miserably at AP/LLL.

Pentimento said...

Well, my LLL leader in Bronx/Riverdale breastfed her two adopted children . . . top that! ; )

MrsDarwin said...

In regards to extreme mothering and other issues, when the far left and the far right circle around and meet each other, the results are never pretty.

Sally Thomas said...

Actually, what Pentimento said about understanding precisely which cultural trends, in what demographic, were being critiqued in Clare's article. On an initial read, I confess I came away feeling very much like the Sheila whose comment is the most recent one I've read at the FT site. I think her response is a very good one (as is that of Satchiko, who's LDS and always has thoughtful things to say, and MelanieB).

Pentimento said...

Well, Sheila's comment sort of made my hair stand on end. Thanks for pointing it out.

Sally Thomas said...

Jane Smith's, earlier up the thread, is very good as well, particularly as she points out that:

1. many jobs are actually often boring and exhausting


2. for a Catholic, "sacrifice" shouldn't be a bad word.

That part did surprise me in the essay: that "sacrifice" was invoked in the old pagan sense ("human sacrifice," which God never demands), without the necessary redemptive theological frame, which is totally game-changing. There is a difference between human sacrifice and martyrdom: the human sacrifice is an object offered to a god out of someone else's sense of devotion; the martyr offers himself for love of God. While I'm not sure the words "martyr" and "mother" can very safely appear in the same sentence, the latter is what ought to apply to us in whatever we do, however many different things we do.

I'm hardly a chirpy "redemption in the washing machine" kind of person -- and it occurs to me belatedly that that kind of Catholic mother culture, which I think we've all seen, is maybe what's being argued with, though as it's not specifically and clearly called out in the essay, it's hard to tell. Anyway, maybe it's a function of my own kind of contemplative bent that I enjoy being in the quiet of my own house a lot, and that when I remember, I love the fact that I can make my laundry-doing *do* something larger in the world.

Maybe it's because I'm still a new-ish-enough Catholic to think that this is beyond cool. Maybe it's because I see the power and serenity of the monks and nuns I know, which makes me bristle when people in my decidedly non-Catholic family denigrate monks and nuns (oh, are there any any more?) for wasting their lives, when they could be doing something actually useful to other people. A lot of things get written off as useless, or as do-nothing occupations, in our larger culture, and among those things are both motherhood and prayer.

That ought to tell us something.

ex-new yorker said...

I especially liked this from Sheila's comment: "I feel that kind of comment (about us moms and our frumpy clothes) comes from a place of privilege, like the comment I keep hearing that 'it doesn't matter what a liberal arts education costs or whether it will ever pay, it's worth it for its own sake.' Things can be of value for their own sake, but if they won't pay for themselves, people like me who aren't rich may not be able to afford them."

ex-new yorker said...

Not sure anyone will see this (except Pentimento who'd have to approve it), but I found my way to Clare's own blog through a comment on another blog, and this comment by Melissa D. on her post about the First Things article really resonated: "As a Christian I see those verses in Genesis about women 'being saved through childbearing' not as some commandment to bear many children to increase suffering or as a stairway to heaven, but rather as one of the biggest shocks out of myself possible. I never realized just how self-devoted I was until someone came along who needed me completely, at every inconvenient time and for every reason under the sun. I don’t think I belong to any cult of motherhood, but the exposure of self and sin when I see my voice and expressions mirrored right back at me drive me to repentance pretty quickly! I think this deep cut to our ingrained selfishness may only be found in serious sacrifice of some kind. Or maybe that’s just how deep mine is, and how ingrained." --

I'm still selfish, believe me, and I'm really spoiled by my husband's assistance with the "women's work" around here. Trust me, this isn't coming from unhealthy guilt about a simple fair division of labor that moderns imagine husbands of the 1950s wouldn't have stood for.

But major money problems, concern about how we avoid foreclosure (or bankruptcy), serious health issues... they ALL now come down to concern about the effects on our children. Even not having the time to do all the things I "want" -- those are things for my children. Nothing else really registers at all. I feel like everything else is still at the "flesh is weak" level, and my spirit is at least now finally willing to see my life as meant for the service of others, even if I still selfishly grumble through much of it.

I will have to remember to check out Melissa D.'s link from that comment to her own website.

ex-new yorker said...

On the other hand, I just found my way to one of Sally's old posts which had this also highly relatable (spell check rejects that "word," btw) passage: "So I went to Confession on Saturday, and among many other things, I said, 'You know, I don't really love anybody but myself.'

My confessor, being a good confessor, did not say, 'Oh, now . . . ,' or talk to me about self-esteem. He said, 'Uh huh.' Because he knows: not that he necessarily thought, Finally she gets around to saying what we've all been thinking for months, but he knows human nature, and he knows, as indeed any clear-sighted person should know, that this is a default mode. Too much of what we do is animated wholly, if virtually involuntarily, by the desire to nurture, and protect, and glorify the self. At least, I'm that way, as I was finally getting around to saying out loud."

I'm not sure that recognizing myself in this, including what my confessor very well may have had to think about me finally acknowledging the obvious (briefly before I start making excuses again), actually fully contradicts what I just said about starting to only care about what happens to me because of what it means for my children... unless it's particularly annoying or uncomfortable in the moment. (Also noted is that being deeply concerned with how what affects me affects my husband isn't mentioned, just my children... that's not just something I forgot. It probably says a lot about my remaining, easier to ignore selfishness.)

Anonymous said...

I think that one of the most unacknowledged and unrecognized forms of selfishness in our culture is the belief in being able to have it all. My husband and I are a childless couple and it’s been taken for granted throughout our working lives that, because we had no children and therefore presumably had no need for time together, we would take up the slack for people who’d had children and now couldn’t figure out how to handle work at the same time. We try not to be selfish or churlish, and yet we have the belief that our need for time is as real and as valid as that of the people who have successfully managed to steal so much of ours. The assumption that no one will have a problem with children in the workplace or that we will not (and should not) mind working until 7 p.m. every day so that co-workers with children can pick them up every day at 3:30 (and never return to work) is not justified. And yet, we find it a common belief that we’ll willingly sacrifice any home life we might hope to have so that other people can tuck their children into some as yet unoccupied corner of their lives – people who have a fixed belief that they can have it all (albeit at others’ expense), while my husband and I have accepted that life has limitations and that we can’t do everything we would like to, if for no other reason than the limited number of hours in a day. We’ve sacrificed some of our talents, some of our wishes, some of our hopes, rather than childishly demanding that we must live out every fantasy we had in grade school. Many people, on the other hand, have never examined their belief that they should have everything they want because, well . . . they want it. I have little respect for parents who acquire children and then pay other women to be their mothers. Children don’t want quality time, they want to be raised by their parents (not by a nanny or by a television set) and that requires quantity time. Why do so many people, especially people who hold strong religious beliefs, feel they should not have to sacrifice any of their potential? We live in a culture where people are encouraged to get stuck in an adolescent egocentricity that refuses to let go of anything. The result is a level of half-assedness in all we do that’s hardly to be believed. It’s not for me to tell anyone what to keep and what to let go of, merely to say that part of growing up is knowing that we must give up some things that we really want in favor of other things of GREATER value.

Anonymous said...

St. Gianna Beretta Molla practiced her vocation of medicine while she reared her three children and until she died of complications from the birth of her fourth child. Is your art part of your vocation from God? St. Gianna's art of medicine was. As Jesus said, "Follow me." TQ