Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Letter to a New Mother: Welcome to a Life of Guilt

A friend of mine is expecting a baby very soon, and in writing a letter addressing some of her anxieties about the adventure ahead, I found this treatise on guilt spilling out. Inappropriate for her, right now, but a little discussion of the guilt felt by Mothers with Brains is sadly needed. Because no one speaks of it, we feel guilty even for our guilt.

Dear Mother,

Welcome to the most fulfilling and challenging job on the planet. You will have moments of tremendous joy, of insights and awakenings, and a gentle shaking out of the bag that used to contain what you thought of as 'priorities.' You will feel weariness and pleasure, frustration and ecstasy.

You will also, from now on, feel guilty every day for the rest of your life.

If you choose, as I did, to stay home with your child, you will feel guilty for not earning money. You will feel guilty for spending money. When your money-earning partner sighs in worry over stresses at work or the economy, or asks ever-so-lightly about what the $70 at the grocery store went to, and if there's any way to shave down the household budget, you will be flooded with defensive responses, any of which will lead to an argument that -- underslept and over-stretched and unsupported by society as you are -- neither of you needs.

The defensiveness will come from your knowledge that, although you spend a grueling 16 or so hours a day giving the best of yourself to your child and your home (not to mention the frequent night interruptions), and you are certain in your soul that this job you've chosen is the most important on the planet, you do not in fact earn a cent for it, neither in real income nor in a retirement plan.

In a simpler world, or a mythical past, this 'woman's work,' the nurturing that is so crucial to a child's survival and the harmony of a household and the fabric of a community, may not have been paid for, but its value was nevertheless acknowledged in some way. Unfortunately, no matter how much someone appreciates your cooking or your plentiful and nutritious breast milk, it doesn't mean much if you never actually get to choose, or reject, the job of caregiver and homemaker.

The feminist revolution gave us that false choice. I call it false because it, also, is no longer a true choice. The acceptance of women into the workaday world created, suddenly, an economy in which, for most families, both parents must work simply to get by. This condition is now an accepted fact of modern American life, the conundrum of middle class existence -- working full-time to pay for quality child care.

But the choice is false for more philosophical reasons than basic modern economics. Most of us women, we modern mothers, want both. We want fulfillment intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically. We have ambition. We want to be presidents and enterpreneurs and artists. And we want, also, to be the mothers our children need us to be: we want the early attachment, the nurturing and the thrill of watching our own small person grow and learn and discover.

If you are at home with your child, you will feel guilty for putting nothing in the family coffers, and you will feel guilty for the boredom that creeps over you after stacking blocks for half an hour or reading the same book repeatedly.

But if you go back to work, no matter how much you love your job, you will feel guilty for failing your child. For a newborn, the attachment created in the first six months provides a sense of self and security the child can never recreate. You will feel guilty for not being there.

You will feel torn apart when you have to leave your sick baby, or when separation anxiety kicks in and every drop-off at the day care is a re-enactment of being tragically parted for life. You will feel resentful that the work day, and success in your career, is constructed in such a way that it makes fulfillment as a mother nearly impossible. You will feel cheated by the empty phrase "work-life balance."

There is no out for a new mother, no matter what you choose. You will feel guilty when showering while your baby is crying. You will feel guilty for not singing to and rocking your baby all night long when you desperately need sleep. And if, for the tiniest of seconds, for the most momentary moment, if you look at your colicky newborn, who's been crying for two hours straight, with weary loathing, you will feel like the most evil and ungrateful individual on the planet. And you will know you can never mention this to anyone, because society will judge you as harshly and as blindly as you judge yourself. No matter how loving you are throughout the day, no matter how giving and how full of enjoyment with every interaction, that one moment will feel like poison.

This is when you will realize that the guilt must go.

Our society does not give Mothers with Brains choices. I was once at a corporate gathering of women who had come in hundreds to hear Naomi Wolf (author of The Beauty Myth) speak. She was enthusiastic and eloquent about her new project of empowering women in the corporate world and leadership roles.

At question time, one woman stood up to ask, "How do you balance your work and your life," a question always at the forefront of every hardworking mother's mind.

Wolf shook her head. She was sorry to say, she informed us, that in the current economic and corporate structure of America, "there is no such thing as work-life balance. My answer is that I work for myself. It's the only way you can really do it."

We can only overcome the guilt by looking at the struggles of our lives upside-down. We are brought up to expect certain things from adult life. Certain success, a certain style of work. For women to ever be truly, completely fulfilled, those expectations have to be flipped on their head.

In the first place, the job of motherhood needs less sappy recognition than in the style of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and a whole lot more economic backing. As long as motherhood and homemaking is completely unpaid in a world that values everything only in money, then in the workplace women will always be held back. Why? Because at the back of every corporate monkey in charge will be the thought -- perhaps suppressed and unconscious but still there -- that "she could always just stay home and raise babies."

Whatever the misogyny and prejudice of that thought, the real crime is in the word "just," which makes my job, and perhaps yours, into nothing more than a frivolous hobby.

Second, I'm afraid we have to turn out backs on the entire structure of our workday and economy. Its current collapse has shown that unbridled greed and growth simply do nothing for people, individuals, societies, the world at large. But more than that, it is hard-edged. It is built around hours and minutes and dollars and cents, none of which, in fact, have anything to do with the stuff of life: food, love, rivalry, joy, ambition, community, breath, family, and a search for meaning.

The system pushes Mothers with Brains into a frenzy of overachievement first by undervaluing our work, which actually keeps the planet alive, and second by overvaluing work that pretends to keep the planet alive, but which in fact kills it physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Work-life balance will only happen from the ground up, when we investigate what's under our various guilts and question our and others' values.

It won't make you feel less guilty for turning off the baby monitor so you can shower in peace, or for wanting to run away and crawl under a rock when you're suffering crushing sleep deprivation. But it might mean we have more time to talk about those issues, and others that truly matter to us. To bring them out in the light rather than condemning ourselves for every choice, however unavoidable, and every failing, however illusory.