What's The Deal With Feminists And Babies?

Lots of people are piping up to defend Katie Roiphe's claim that feminism has ignored a mother's love for her child. Her piece isn't some antifeminist screed — but it's a pretty good example of why we have "mommy wars."

For those who haven't yet read it, Roiphe's piece, subtitled, "Why won't feminists admit the pleasure of infants?" is basically about the "narcotic" effect of new motherhood on Roiphe's brain. It's mostly a highly personal account of her desire to be with her baby at all times — except for this paragraph:

One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a "vocation." The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

Double X editor Hanna Rosin, who edited Roiphe's piece, claims not to know what all the fuss is about. She says, "I am baffled by the enraged responses from otherwise very intelligent feminists," and that Roiphe's language in the above paragraph is "a fairly mild and gentle way to make what is an obvious and undeniable point." It is pretty mild, on the face of it — although the phrase "one of the minor dishonesties" hints not only at more minor dishonesties but possibly some major dishonesties as well. But is Roiphe's point — that feminists have painted motherhood as both drudgery and "a job like any other" — actually "obvious and undeniable?"

In a guest post on the site, writer Amy Bloom responds,

What baffles me is her claim that somehow feminists have failed to acknowledge, in writing, that many lucky mothers love their babies. (We do understand that that is a gift, right? That many mothers find themselves unable to experience that lovely, dopey, mind-altering attachment?) Really? No word on this from Grace Paley,Tillie Olson, Adrienne Rich, Ursula LeGuin, Bronwen Wallace?

I'd add Sharon Olds, whose poetry about her children often details exactly the kind of narcotic feeling Roiphe describes. And Jayne Anne Phillips, who says her research for the novel Motherkind consisted of "laundry, cooking, nursing, mothering, grocery shopping, driving, driving, driving, reading, listening, talking, birthdays and all holidays." These women may not be who Roiphe thinks of when she thinks "feminist," but they reveal that motherhood has frequently served as literary inspiration.

Rosin's surprise is a little disingenuous — Double X chose the subhead "Why won't feminists admit the pleasure of infants," so they must've known they were stirring the pot. In fact, the feminism-motherhood-drudgery paragraph they clearly chose to foreground with this subhead isn't even the one that bothered childless, feminist me. That would be this one:

I remember visiting one of my closest friends on her maternity leave last summer. We sat on a wooden bench in her garden and drank iced coffees, and gazed at her second baby. She is a writer, and we talked about how the women writers we most admired had no children, or have had one child, at the absolute most, but never two. (Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen had no children; Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm all had one.) My friend looked down at her newborn and her tiny eyelashes. She could entertain this conversation in an academic way, but as she adjusted the baby's hat I could see how far removed it was from anything that mattered to her. Here, sitting in the garden, looking at the eyelashes, would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing The House of Mirth? You would not.

I'm sure this is merely a rhetorical use of the second person here, and elsewhere Roiphe's essay is personal and non-prescriptive. But what bugged me about Roiphe's assertion that "you" would choose a baby over The House of Mirth is its combination of exceptionalism and universalism. It implies both that motherhood is totally unique — no intellectual endeavor can compare to it — and yet somehow the same for everyone. Roiphe's not the only writer to take this tack — Caitlin Flanagan makes a similar point when she says you're "just guessing about love" until you've had a kid. And these kinds of blanket assertions about motherhood may be why we keep getting into "mommy wars" (having said this twice now, I'm going to try never to say it again) in the first place.

As Bloom points out, it's "a gift" to feel an all-encompassing, addictive love for your baby — not every mother feels it. And unlike Roiphe, a lot of women aren't privileged enough to have the time or economic resources to indulge it — plenty have to leave their babies to go to work. Some choose to even if they don't have to — and still love their children. Some want to do nothing but admire the new life they've created. Others are inspired to — yes — write about that life. But when they write, they don't speak for everyone.

Part of my problem with Roiphe's piece was that it scared me. It described a kind of surrender of the self and the intellect that I found terrifying, even though Roiphe described it as transcendent. If I ever have a child, will I have to surrender like that? Maybe. And maybe I'd like it. But I'm willing to bet that motherhood, like personhood, takes many different forms — and that if everyone acknowledged this, we'd fight about it a lot less.

Katie Roiphe: My Newborn Is Like a Narcotic [Double X]
Feminists Do Write About Newborn Addiction [Double X]
What Did Katie Roiphe Say That's So Offensive? [Daily Dish]
This Round To Katie Roiphe [Daily Dish]
Straw Feminist Weekly: The Baby-Hater [Shapely Prose]
In Defense Of Katie Roiphe [Double X]