The Cult of Perfect Motherhood

A woman on a livejournal community this morning posted that she’s stressed out because her husband wants a baby and she wants a baby too, BUT she also wants to finish her PhD, to teach, to write, to publish (presumably to get tenure). I responded that it’s not an impossible situation if her husband is willing to be at least a 50-50 caregiver if not a primary caregiver. I firmly believe that academic women should be able to have families. I also recognize reality and realize that if you want to get tenure at a top tier school babies are a risky business. This is a very personal issue for me. And while right now I don’t particularly want children, I still find the bind that academic women (and high achieving women in general) find themselves in very stressful and depressing.

One woman (I’m guessing from the username that she’s a woman, but hard to say for sure) responded to my comment noting that it’s very hard for a father to be a primary caregiver in the first year if you’re breastfeeding and “If you medically can breastfeed and don’t intend to do it, then you should assess whether you really want to have a child at all.” Urgh. Excuse me for a moment while I gurgle in frustration.

Basically what it comes down to is that professional women are essentially damned if we do and damned if we don’t, no matter where we turn. Lots of people seem to share this notion that if you can’t be the perfect mother you shouldn’t be a mother at all. And somehow perfect motherhood seems to involve letting motherhood subsume all other identities. Don’t get me wrong. I am pro-breastfeeding. In fact I’m very pro-breastfeeding. But I’m also pro women having lives that are not entirely determined by motherhood. And somehow that aspect seems to get lost in a lot of the dialog. It becomes this situation where anything that does not put the immediate well-being of your child front and center is “selfish” no matter what it does to your own well-being immediate or long-term.

Forgive me if I think happy mothers are better mothers. And to me being a happy mother means making your own choices and not being thrown piles of guilt and shame. Do you want to take three months leave and breastfeed and be there every time your new baby gurgles. Fine. Oh wait. How many women actually have the privilege of doing that? Not that many. And even those who do face the very real possibility of negative consequences for their career. Does wanting motherhood to have as small an impact on your career as possible make you selfish? Well, you know it might. However, I’m a big proponent of being selfish once in awhile and watching out for your own well-being.

I’m just frustrated because women find themselves in this situation where they are made to feel guilty no matter what they do. No matter how good a mother you are, you’re never good enough. Someone will always have some reason you should have done things differently. And ultimately what it comes down to is choosing between motherhood and career. And yes men have to make this choice as well, but they aren’t punished for it the way women are. Men are allowed to say “yes I want children, but it’s not practical for me to be the primary caregiver because it will hurt my career.” And yes the situation hurts men. Yes, the situation is unfair for men. Yes, men who choose fatherhood are punished in their careers. But it’s not quite the same catch 22, and there isn’t the same cult of perfect fatherhood. A father who chooses to put his career at the forefront might get a snort of disgust for his 1950s behavior, but I’ve not seen fathers choices attacked in quite the same ways I’ve seen mothers choices attacked.

So I’ll tell you what. I’m not going to tell you how to raise your kids (short of the obvious things like make sure they’re fed and clothed and don’t beat them) and I’ll trust that when the time comes you won’t tell me how to raise mine. AND you won’t treat me like I’m a selfish bitch who can only think about herself if I decide that maybe I don’t want any kids at all.

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