By Samantha Wilde
In celebration of my fourth pregnancy (!), a little, fierce, no-holding-back piece I've been working on about mothers, fiction and life....
|As my daughter writes, "the famole."|
Our age may read like a time of crumbling walls of prejudice, women emerging from the rubble of all the political—and conceptual—wars of the past century to dust off their hands, wipe the soot off their faces and claim their share of freedom (or Facebook), but one bias sticks to us like jam left on a toddler’s face: we don’t like our stay-at-home mothers, in fiction or life. Quick, name one esteemed novel about a satisfied stay-at-home mother. Can’t do it? How about giving me the title of one acclaimed book about motherhood that isn’t also about (choose at least one): depression, suicide, kidnapping, mental illness, abduction or drugs? No, take your time. I can wait.
The articles, arguments, books, conversations, and consensus of the past decade seem to conclude that the much over-wrought issue of working versus staying-at-home motherhood has already enjoyed its five minutes in the sunlight of public awareness. That might be true if the country’s literature didn’t fall heavily on the side of the liberated working mother with an intellectual elitism that continues to diminish the contributions of at-home mothers, the vitality of the role and the absolute possibility that feminism and at-home mothering can peacefully, productively coexist.
I have written two novels about motherhood and my second one, I’ll Take What She Has, made some people angry. Of course any person writing about staying-at-home in fiction must endure the disregard of the greater literary community. Nothing could be more boring or less legitimate as a topic—unless the mother kills herself. Scandalously, I wrote a novel about an ambivalent stay-at-home mother who decides to keep staying home and believes she has made the better choice. Also, she lives.
The progressive, working mothers—feminists, liberals, reinventing modern motherhood with their incredibly hard labor—stand fervently in literature against the folly (ailment?) of a mother's own full-time care of her children. As Judith Newman wrote in her New York Times review of Anne Enright’s memoir about motherhood, Making Babies: “To be fair, writing well about children is tough. You know why? They’re not that interesting. What is interesting is that despite the mind-numbing boredom that constitutes 95 percent of child rearing, we continue to have them.”
It seems that all people of any importance can agree on this matter. Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Ten Year Nap, received immense critical attention and it did nothing so strongly as point out that only one world matters, only one world exists: the world of business, commerce, economy, government. The world of a mother and child is a dream-state, a state of sleep and unconsciousness. It has no consequence, no redemptive value, no worth. That means the five million at-home mothers in this country are sleep-walking. (And is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who launching her working-mommy manifesto Lean In not so long ago, the one to save them from this condition?)
I have angered a few people for asserting, in a comic novel, that an intelligent woman would recommit to staying with her children—and that for some of us this is the best choice. If, in her misery, I had led her to the kitchen stove to turn on the gas, I would have a bestseller on my hands. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening springs to mind (it should, I wrote my English honors thesis on it), but yes, of course, let’s think of Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar and her protagonist whose road to healing from mental illness begins with a prescription for a diaphragm.
The prevailing assumption that the tedium of childcare drives us insane only stands to reason if we lie to ourselves and say no other profession regularly assaults us with boredom. Then what of filing? Committee meetings? Government paper work?! Is it impossible that an intelligent person could enjoy spending time with children, could find it interesting, creative, rich? Unfortunately, women do write books about the compelling work of mothering, but you have to cross a political divide to get there. The literature coming out of the Right, from conservative, religious women, encompasses a few of these ideas. But no one is paying attention to that stuff. The important novels, past and present, literary and commercial, love to kill (or at least torture) the mother. The happy at-home mother is a source of disparagement and embarrassment—she has wasted her good education on a long, useless and dreary nap.
I’ve been wasting my Smith and Yale education for years on my children, not to mention the waste of writing comedies about motherhood (during nap times, no less). The only people who agree with my personal (I-don’t-care-what-anyone-else-does) stance on motherhood, cancel out my vote on every important political issue. This pro-choice, wildly liberal, feminist enjoyed Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s In Praise of Stay-At-Home Moms, and I’m the only one I know who read it.
Here’s what I think true intelligence delivers: the ability to hold together seemingly oppositional elements and see how brilliantly they can co-exist. Black and white is for the dogs. There isn’t only one world that matters. Happiness in at-homeness is not a form of stupidity (and that still doesn’t mean everyone needs to do it). Good books can have living mothers. Good books can even have joyful mothers. In literature and in life, you don’t need to kill the mother just because she’s the one folding laundry and changing diapers and singing lullabies. Make her happy. Let her live. I dare you.
Samantha Wilde is the at-home mother of three children, the author of This Little Mommy Stayed Home and I'll Take What She Has, an ordained minister and the author of Strange Gifts,a book about love and faith, a Kripalu yoga teacher, creator of the You Are Loved online radio show, the daughter of bestselling novelist Nancy Thayer, and clearly, quite often, a very tired (but happy) person. She loves to be liked on Facebook.