A few months ago fellow Mother-with-Brain Julia and I were sitting with our little ones (then 18 months and 9 months, respectively) in a hotel room in a small Austrian village. While the babies slept the two of us tried, quietly, to devour as many pages as possible of our books before the call of mommy-hood was again upon us. I was reading a collection of travel essays by Welsh writer Jan Morris, and Julia was reading a biography of Susan Sontag written by a man she'd gone to university with (Julia, not Susan Sontag). As it was in German, and I only have conversational German, I couldn't read it over her shoulder, so Julia related some tidbits to me.
We spoke in whispers, trying not to wake the two little people, treasuring, as mothers do, a few minutes of adult conversation. We talked about Susan Sontag, and our envy and awe at the people she'd been surrounded by during the early period of her intellectual development. And I think we were both somewhat saddened by the lack of such stimulation in our own lives. "Where," asked Julia, "is the new thought going on now?"
In other words--I thought--where are all the thinkers right now? The philosophers? The post-post-modernists? Where are the intellectuals? Just sitting it out in universities? Who knew? We didn't.
For all the attractions universities hold for those of intellectual bent, I'm not entirely sure that their campuses are generating new thought. I have seen few new ideas come out of the academe, as much as I revere it and often long to be back. They generate great amounts of energy, yes, and enthusiasm, and a whole lot of people hoping to graduate into good careers. New ideas is even less true of think tanks, which seem to exist purely to perpetuate their own unyielding axioms: capitalism is good, capitalism is evil, socialism never works. Whatever.
When I got back to the States, Julia and I exchanged emails--in between taking care of sick children and managing households and visiting friends and dealing with the singular fact of life for the modern mother: it is at all times both extremely chaotic and on the verge of being unbearably dull.
We returned to lives surrounded on one side by other mothers who care little for new thought, or philosophy, or anything beyond diapers, and on the other side by people who grow glazed expressions every time our children's teething troubles are mentioned. It was great, we told each other, to spend a few short days with a person who could move smoothly from intellectual conversation to the trials of shifting a baby onto solid foods and sleeping through the night. It was a rare thing.
It was a rare thing. And why should it be? Why is it that, once a woman has a baby she is expected to either a) give up not only her career but all interesting outlets for her mind (except whatever time she can steal back to read) because clearly people who spend their days wiping spit-up don't have any interest in thinking, or b) spend six weeks to six months awash in the glow of motherhood, followed by dumping the baby in day care so she can go back to subsuming her maternal instincts for the nine-to-five grind of an office workday (often in the case in America, since we have no support system for working parents)?
Mothers are not expected to be intellectual. Wise, yes, in the cheesy Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul style that people can smile over in bed and ignore completely in the day-to-day workings of the world. But intellectual, no. Not a stay-at-home, full-time mother.
Nor are they expected to be philosophical. Or Zen masters.
And yet, it is my daily daydream, my fantasy, to be allowed months on end shut up in book-lined rooms, divining the nature of humanity; or to sit quietly for hours or days at a time on mountaintops, alone, divining the nature of the universe. Sure, I'd love to do that. Historically women were excluded from these pursuits. Why? Because--and I ask anyone to refute me--secretly men knew that they could only achieve great heights of spiritual or intellectual achievement if someone else was dealing with feeding a family, washing dishes, worrying about the health of babies, nurturing wounded feelings, cleaning floors ... in other words, women were busy making life happen so that men could go off doing both useful and useless things, like achieving Nirvana or starting wars.
But I'll tell you what. You can go live in a Buddhist monastery for a year and think you've found enlightenment. You can study philosophy or mathematics for a decade and think you've discovered answers. But spend one day with a colicky baby and all your wisdom will shoot right out the window. Because if you can't maintain an inner peace, or pull on sociological studies to give you strength and humor, while a baby is screaming for no reason at all and a toddler has just smeared poop on the bathtub and your partner is annoyed because dinner is cold and everyone is coming down with the flu, then you don't get it.
The new thought is going to come from mothers. Not only do they truly run the world (but never have the time to acknowledge it), but there is no wisdom greater than theirs, there is no group more equipped to understand the great philosophies and the great thoughts of the past, and to know what will work for the future.
The new philosophy will involve all aspects of life, from the dirty diaper to the book-lined study. Because it will be defined by mothers. With brains.