-by Susan Wise Bauer
I Don't Talk About My Children at Work and I don't talk about my work at church.
Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World
By Anne Roiphe
260 pp, $22.95
When I was pregnant with my third son, I took a semester off from my teaching job at a small Southern university. Actually, I ran off campus and hid. I neglected the Women's Studies Brown Bag lunches. I sneaked into my office on weekends to collect my mail, hiding my bulging stomach from my colleagues.
Now that I'm back at school, my stomach safely flattened, I don't discuss my children with my university colleagues. I talk overdue articles and disputed readings. And when I'm with my community of faith, I don't speak of my work. It makes the other mothers shift uncomfortably. I can see it in their eyes: My three children bind me to be a keeper-at-home.
So I seized on Anne Roiphe's Fruitful, hoping to find another woman who held together a shared passion for work and for children. Roiphe--writer, feminist, mother of three and stepmother of two--does what few writers in either the feminist or evangelical community have done: She admits that women need to work, and that babies need their mothers, not well-paid stand-ins. Working, Roiphe concludes, is "good for a woman's self-esteem, good for her pocketbook, good for her marriage and its myriad balancing acts." Yet she sets this self-evident statement in the story of her own five children in the moving, infuriating, rewarding, draining, all-consuming context of motherhood.
I finished Fruitful convinced again that children are essential; that children are not enough. One day, talking with my father, I was predicting disaster for a professional venture, with my six-month-old in my arms. My father tried to comfort me. "Ben will still love you," he said. He was right. Ben's love was all-important, but at the moment there was something else at stake.
I'm relieved to find out that I'm not alone, but I feel sorry for all those women who share my predicament. We steal time from the children to work; we can't give up our work without denying who we are; and the diapers and deadlines get all tangled up in a big knotty mess.
Roiphe's book scolds modern feminism for refusing to address this tension. Feminists, she claims, have spent all their time pushing for equal acceptance in work, while ignoring women's desire for children. Feminism has too often relegated motherhood to the status of patriarchal slavery. This may be good politics, but it isn't reality. Roiphe writes,
This desire of women for children is not just some social construct, not some male misogynist plot, not some patriarchal desire to control the inheritance of the next generation. . . . [Women] continued to have children not because a conspiracy of male patriarchal forces was pulling the wool over their eyes, but because they wanted to.
She's right. Those of us in the real world want babies because having children is an awesome, transcendent undertaking that makes our knees go weak with love and longing. When Adrienne Rich tells us that motherhood is a patriarchal plot to make us powerless, we snort in disgust and go off to the store for more Pampers.
Not that feminists have completely ignored the tension between work and children. There have been squeaks, among all the shrill yells about date rape and glass ceilings, about the government's responsibility to provide affordable daycare. But daycare, as Roiphe elegantly demonstrates, is a lousy option for any working mother. We can't believe that anyone can care for our children with the intense love we give them. We want our children to be parented, not kept, during their waking hours.
Roiphe deftly highlights this desire, telling the story of a woman lawyer, invited to speak to an exclusive all-girls private school: The lawyer spoke to the girls about her work, her training, and her interest in First Amendment issues. When she finished, the first question from the audience had nothing to do with constitutional interpretation.
No, the questioner wanted to know what time the lawyer got home from work. The second question was who took care of her children during the day. The third question was what happened if one of her children was sick. The students, most of them daughters of professional women, knew firsthand what it was like to be raised by nannies and au pairs. They did not take kindly to this lawyer and her accomplishments. They hissed her answers to those questions.
Roiphe skewers the feminist community for ignoring this dilemma. The baby, Roiphe says, "needs more than physical care, its tiny soul is resting in your small decisions in your mother style, in your care. . . . [It's] enough to make a feminist squirm."
This may sound like a quote from Mary Pride, but Roiphe is unlikely to become popular with any segment of the Christian community. Fruitful is wise, moving--and deeply flawed. Roiphe holds doggedly to the feminist shibboleths--abortion, the right of lesbian and homosexual couples to conceive and adopt--even when they force her to contradict her own convincing positions. Her essential Darwinism leads her to ascribe the maternal urge to a messy mix of Freudian compensation and the desire to see one's DNA survive.
Toward the end of her book, Roiphe launches into a bitter, irrelevant, and badly reasoned attack on what she labels "the religious right." Christians, she says, decree that families must be ruled by authoritative men with big sticks. Christians "want their Total Women at home, bearing children and washing things. That's what the Bible tells them to do."
Well, not exactly. It's true that evangelicals by and large have not been big on daycare. But (I hope) most Christian men don't want their Total Women stirring the soup in flip-flops. Christians have simply recognized that children will inevitably be trained by the people who care for them, hour by hour, and have asserted that this is the God-ordained responsibility of parents and no one else. For this reason, the evangelical community has answered the daycare dilemma with a resounding: Mothers, stay home!
Roiphe doesn't like this answer; I'm not particularly happy with it either. It seems less grounded in good theology than in cultural norms. Why are women the only parents asked to make this hard choice? Why must we choose between mothering and daycare, between our work and our babies? Why isn't anyone telling fathers to sacrifice too?
Which--nasty ad hominem attacks on Christians aside--is exactly the question Roiphe sets out to answer. The most valuable section of her book points out that anti-male rhetoric has alienated the only segment of society that can ease the wrenching tensions of motherhood: Men.
As I write this, my husband sits at the kitchen table with our boys, aged five and three. The baby is napping. They are drawing. I walk through for a bowl of cereal and hear him say, "No, Ben, hold your crayon this way." The three-year-old is learning to write. The five-year-old is telling his father a long story about an egg-stealing dinosaur. Peter has a stack of work waiting for him; phone calls to make, a sermon to write, counseling appointments, a youth retreat to plan. There is a trace of impatience in his shoulders. But he sits and draws violet lines. At two, after I've worked my seven hours, we'll swap shifts. He'll work his seven hours, and I'll tackle the needs of the three sons under six.
This is how our family works, and it happens to match Roiphe's ideal solution: Fathers must come back home, and be willing to share in the joys and sacrifices of the nursery. "Men carry lots of heavy things," she writes. "Let them take half our load of guilt in return for half the tender feelings we receive on a good day."
This solution has been endangered by the feminist browbeating of men as big, violent, testosterone-drenched, war-starting, woman-thrashing Neanderthals. Feminist theorist Sara Ruddick snipes that fathers are actually "dangerous to mothers and children." Mary Daly says that men are attracted "to all that is dead, dying, and purely mechanical" and refuses to take questions from men when she lectures at Harvard. This, Roiphe says, is no way to get fathers to pitch in. She warns,
The feminist movement has been so busy blaming, chastising, attacking men that it has barely had a moment to catch its breath, change its signals, and call to men to come into the home and stay awhile. . . . We can't complain endlessly about their brutish nature, their incestuous sins, their predatory powers and at the same time encourage them to make nice to our babies. The women's movement has tilted now toward the complaint side, toward the blame side of the argument. We're shooting ourselves in the collective foot.
She's quite right. Feminism has spent decades moaning about the awfulness of diapers and Dr. Seuss, and holding up the virtues of the corporate boardroom as though it were the Garden of Eden. This is not a great way to encourage men to leave the office and come read Green Eggs and Ham.
The evangelical community is just as guilty, though. We've been told that mothers should choose to be at home. You've heard the arguments: That second salary isn't all it's cracked up to be. By the time you pay for gas, clothes, and lunches out, it's practically gone. Women shouldn't put career advancement ahead of producing godly children. Neither, I hazard, should fathers. But Christians continue to measure the success of a man by his job title.
In most conservative circles, it's still unthinkable that fathers should choose the daddy track. My husband is one of only two seminary grads I know who was willing to turn his back on career advancement and the 70-hour week to make an equal division of child care with a working wife.
If having a baby were thought of as a true partnership, a thing that is done by two parents, a responsibility held by two people, then the self-sacrificing involved would be halved for each and the child would be doubly strengthened. . . . If the men would take a full share of the responsibility for child care, child raising, why then women would be freed from the onerous tasks, the necessity of staying home, and could fulfill a destiny in the world. They would contribute to the economic well-being of the family while being a woman in the world, not merely a mother.
The feminist community needs to hear these words. The evangelical community ought not to cover its ears.
Roiphe admits that it won't be easy to convince fathers of their need to put their careers in second place while their children are small. Yet she insists that the children raised by two equally involved parents would be different, lacking in the early rage against mother that produces misogyny. I'm not convinced that misogyny can be blamed on a mother-dominated childhood, but certainly Christians ought to seize on a solution that brings fathers more before their children's eyes. After all, we have a God who chose to reveal himself as male. The father is the first God-figure a child ever sees, and his presence (or absence) is likely to color the adult's perception of God--a God of love or wrath, a God of forgiveness or condemnation, a God who is ever-present or simply not there.
As Roiphe points out, spending time with children does not advance careers. The daddy track is not culturally acceptable for many, many men. Christians, who have before them the example of the ultimate Father's sacrifice for his children, ought to be more open to it than they are. At the end of her book, Roiphe calls for government-funded daycare, in a defeated admission that most men will not come home, and that mothers will continue to struggle with the tension between meaningful work and fruitful childbearing. Fruitful is being marketed as a woman's book (it has a naked baby on the cover, which limits the chances that any man will be seen dead with it in a bookstore). It's too bad. This is one book about motherhood that every father ought to read.
Susan Wise Bauer writes for Charles Colson's radio commentary, BreakPoint, and teaches literature at the College of William and Mary. Her first novel, The Revolt, was published last season by Word.
Copyright(c) 1997 by Christianity Today, Inc/Books and Culture Magazine. May/June, Vol. 3, No. 3, Page 8