Why Does the Motherhood Debate Turn Into a Caricature-Building Exercise?

Speaking as one who usually tries to stay out of these things, it is with extreme caution that I even dip my toe into the roiling waters of the current debate, if that is what it can be called, over motherhood, children and work. For years now I’ve ignored this national conversation, sitting out the agonizing over “why we are all overscheduled,” ignoring the various books and polls purporting to show that housewives are happier, or that children in day care are more aggressive, or that children emerge better educated from preschool.

What finally draws me into the argument is not the substance, which never changes, but the equally difficult question of why the subject engenders so much public passion. After all, anyone who lives a real life in the real world knows that most women make choices about working and not working on a non-ideological basis. Many with children work because they have to — but some stay home because they have to. Many work and wish they didn’t — but some don’t work and wish they did. A lot juggle, or work part time, or do one thing and then another. In my experience, rarely do any of these decisions have much to do with politics. I know Republican women who work, Democrats who don’t and vice versa. Most such choices are determined by more mundane factors, such as money.

But that’s private life, in the real world. In public life — in books, in magazines, on television, online — it seems no one can talk about any of this stuff without turning it into fodder for the great war between the blue states and the red states. Judith Warner, the author of a book on “why we are all overscheduled,” couldn’t resist turning her portrait of real-life women wringing their hands over Mackenzie’s class party and Joey’s soccer team into a plea for “progressive tax policies that would transfer our nation’s wealth back to the middle class.” The writer Caitlin Flanagan, once better known as the author of funny essays on weddings and sexless marriages, couldn’t resist using her 15 minutes in the national spotlight last week to write an essay in Time magazine accusing the Democratic Party of abandoning “traditional” housewives such as herself (“I have made a lifestyle choice that they can’t stand, and I’m not cowering in the closet because of it.”).

Never mind that Flanagan, a professional writer with (by her own admission) multiple household staffers, isn’t a traditional housewife: In this debate, the temptation to make oneself fit into a caricature and make one’s “critics” fit into a caricature must be overwhelming, since those who enter it almost always do. In one corner, the “feminists,” with their hatred of men and their baby-free careers; in the other, the “traditional wives” with their ironing boards and their Sunday meatloaf. But do such women exist, except in television commercials for detergent or on the pages of Ms. magazine?

Feminism can be blamed in one sense for this cartoonish conversation: In recent years “the personal is political,” a phrase whose origins are lost deep in the history of the women’s movement, has among other things come to mean that just about anyone is allowed to transform her personal experience into a political program. Writing about oneself has a long history: The memoir, the autobiography, the roman ‡ clef, the essay that draws on personal experience to make witty social observations — all are legitimate literary forms. But writing about oneself and then turning these observations about one’s narrow social circle into a party platform or a tax policy — that is a more modern invention, and one of more questionable legitimacy and usefulness.

The truth is that there is no real way to measure the “value” of working against the “value” of staying home. What are we talking about, after all? Monetary value? Emotional value? Social value? And doesn’t the calculus, whatever it is, differ according to the ages of the children, the personalities of the parents, the wealth of the family? Given that an infant is not a teenager, that the options of a poor single mother differ from those of a wealthy married mother, that the healthy have different choices from the sick — and so on and on and on — I don’t see how any one person’s experience, however well described, can ever be a valid guide for 100 million American women.

But perhaps it is precisely because these things cannot be measured that they engender so much passion, and that people care so much about what Caitlin or Judy or Naomi has to say. Figuring it all out for yourself is difficult. Nobody knows whether her or his own choices are “right.” Everybody wants a solution, a right answer to favor and a wrong answer to oppose — even if it’s a caricature.

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