whb: life and motherhood
January 28, 2004 05:08 PM

Alison, who will be a mom soon, is asking what motherhood means in the context of one's life. Her question and associated commentary

What are the expectations of a mother? What version is correct - is life beginning or is individuality ending? As a feminist, what do you feel should be the role of the mother in society - wearer of more than one hat, or mother first, person second?

Can you be anything first and a person second? I don't know.

Even a woman who assumes her life should be all about sacrifice after having a kid is still showing the influence of her own personality in making those sacrifices. It's an approach. It's like the Julia Stiles [who is now a Total Evil Twerp in my book after declaring that the movie wasn't "feminazi or anything" on The Daily Show] character from "Mona Lisa Smile"; one can choose to define oneself by any role, but there is still an essence of self in that role.

The role of a mother, as the role of a father, should be to choose to parent as best s/he sees fit. Some mothers will choose to be home with their kids, others will define themselves primarily as workers. If you see family and the next generation as The Purpose of your life, then your perspective on what else you're willing to change and/or drop is a lot different than someone like me - I think children might be something else I could invest in.

A (male) friend of mine sees family as his ultimate purpose. Work, everything else, will in his mind ultimately be all about being the best parent and provider he can be. I think he would be very much of the "life begins after childbirth" mind, despite not having kids and being in his early thirties (therefore presumably having lived quite a bit before his life begins). I should ask him these questions. I wonder how much he believes his other roles will be changed by parenting, and if he wonders whether to stay home or not.

I would guess not. And I think he should. The role of both parents (assuming there are two and not one or three or twelve) should be to assess what aspects of their pre-child lives they'll change to accomodate a child. If a woman's whole career is on the table, a man's should be, too.

But that's not the way The How Things Are works. We do think, as a culture, that a mother will be more bonded with, more supportive of, more contributing to a child than a father will be. Generally speaking. There are some exceptions to this culture, notably the differences between whitepeople and blackpeople parenting expectations - Lenee treats this better that I think I could, so you should read her stuff - but those exceptions still come down to mom and momfigures playing more of a role than dads.

That bothers me, because it seems to lead to things like women changing their whole lives around a new baby, while men don't change so much. What's worse, hetero couples often see their whole relationship changing to revolve around offspring - no doubt partly because of increased responsibility, but also because they think they've now grown out of themness and into familyness.

I don't believe people need to change their lives as much as they think they do to accomodate children. There are advantages to integrating a kid into your life as much as you can, but I think many parents, particularly SAHMs (some - not all of them!), make the mistake of integrating their lives into the kid instead of the other way around. Maybe part of that is the result of a general dissatisfaction or purposelessness around life or career, so a baby, being so compelling, becomes this thing you wrap your life around.

Living your life plus kid instead of life around kid isn't selfish (which is the common criticism of career moms) - actually, it seems like it's better for the kid to have a parent with a purpose and life outside the kid. That is, more or less, the way my parents dealt with me. I remember my mom taking me to her flexible job and to school, and my dad studying with me (they both did college stuff after they had me, as they're very young) and recognizing that as a cool aspect of this outside grownup world. I mean, think about it: what are your best memories of your family from childhood? I'd bet many of them involve your parents' grownup lives touching you in some way.

The benefits of raising a child in a way that allows him or her to be part of your adult life (be that a life at home or away from it), as far as I know personally and have read, are that you end up with a more independent kid who will eventually be a better grownup. So, ultimately, the "selfish" thing is also the most giving to a child.

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