Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Faux Feminism

In the Huffington Post's recent article Friendly Fire, Glennon Melton attempts to open and then forever close the Pandora's box of working motherhood versus stay-at-home motherhood. Melton is upset with "ladies" who "insist on making everything worse by kicking each other's asses." From what I can tell, this kicking of each other's asses means any voicing of one's opinion on the subject, although the only example she gives is a radio debate she once heard, described as "vicious" and full of "sucker punches." The extreme nature of her sole example leaves readers without any clear sense of who Melton's "angry, debating ladies" really are. Does she mean anyone who holds an opinion? Voices her opinion? Sticks up for her opinion? Tries to force her opinion? As the article unfolds, the answer is quite troubling. Melton only acknowledges two types of women: those who are bullies and those who are perpetually insecure about their choices.

Melton was once a working mother and now stays home with her children. She narrates for us the endless voices of her own gory guilt, bemoaning "the internal and eternal debate moms endure all day, every day." She offers no background about her choices or lack thereof. The journey she describes is flat and hopeless, the epitome of the grass always being greener. She learns nothing, enjoys nothing, and recounts only stress that itself comes from a fear of negatively affecting others even as she clearly works hard to care for them. "I understand the act of kicking one's own ass," she says. "I do it all the time." This, she seems to believe, is the essence of motherhood. It is inescapable.

The article becomes especially strange, though, when she scolds both sides of the debate herself, without any irony and in terms that are simultaneously fluffy and offensive. She addresses both camps with the opening line: "Are you nuts?" Without working mothers, she demands, "who would show my daughters that some women actually change out of yoga pants"? And without stay-at-home mothers, who would "wait with [my son] in the parking lot when I forget to pick him up? Who would watch my daughter while the baby gets her shots? Who would knock on my door and tell me that my keys are still in the front door, the doors to my van are open, and my purse is in the driveway?" If these are what Melton sees as the most notable results of different childcare decisions, it is no wonder she so dramatically misses the mark on so many other points.

The wishy-washy moral of Friendly Fire is: Be nice to each other so that our daughters learn to be nice to each other. Does she really think that's the answer? Moreover, does she really think that's the problem? At best, it masks the symptoms of a very real deficiency. When humans feel threatened and insecure, we tend to lash out. We tear down others in a wrongheaded attempt to make ourselves feel better. Melton's insistence that we act nicely and accept feeling bad as our natural maternal reality doesn't strike me as possible much less inspiring, healthy, or good for our daughters.

It's time we find the courage to examine our complicated feelings about the realities of motherhood so that we can move forward. Mine is a generation of women raised with the notion that we could seamlessly start families and maintain careers if that's what we wanted. Most of us are realizing that we can't have it all as advertised. Putting infants into daycare so we can return to work feels wrenching even for those of us who are eager to get back to our professional lives. Quitting jobs and putting careers in peril to care for our babies a little longer feels professionally irresponsible even for those of us who, given the choice, would never do otherwise. All our decisions feel like losses because we weren't prepared to have to sacrifice anything.

But Melton stops here. It all feels bad, she says, so let's at least stop being mean to each other. Indeed, weaving false and divisive narratives to cope with our pain is counterproductive, but so is clinging to a self-flagellating narrative such as hers. Let's place our emotions where they belong. It sucks that the perfect balance of career and motherhood doesn't exist as blissfully as promised, but guilt and a false sense of failure won't get us anywhere. Let's make our lives, enjoy them, and prepare our daughters to love themselves through their own difficult decisions.

I'm sure Glennon Melton strikes a major chord with many mothers when she proclaims that "instead of tearing each other up, we could each admit that we're a bit torn up about our choices, or lack thereof." I agree, but not without advocating for the next step. Of course I miss going to work. Of course you miss your kid when you're at work. We can and should talk about these things but not as if they define our motherhood. If one of us needs to make a change, let's provide support towards that end. If we are living our best under the circumstances, let's celebrate.

Melton says many good, if not profound, things. She's right that our daughters learn much from us about what it means to be a woman. She says of her own daughter:
I'd like her to learn that a woman's value is determined less by her career choices and more by how she treats other women, in particular, women who are different than she is. I'd like her to learn that her strength is defined by her honesty and her ability to exist in grey areas without succumbing to masking her insecurities with generalizations or accusations. And I'd like her to learn that the only way to be both graceful and powerful is to dance among the endless definitions of the word woman... and to refuse to organize women into categories, to view ideas in black and white, or to choose sides and come out swinging. 
When I left the workplace to stay home with my new daughter, I went through a difficult transition that lasted longer than it should have due to the insecurities and generalizations to which Melton refers. But I've since met a handful of women who speak with automatic candor about being a mother and they have been a cure for me. They say things like, "I'd rather work three ten-hour shifts in a row than stay home with my 2-year-old full time," or, "I'm living my dream of being a stay-at-home mother," or, "I work more than I want to right now, but my son is loving daycare," without a trace of self-deprecation. So yes, let's stop tearing each other up, but let's do something even more revolutionary and stop tearing ourselves up. Being a healthy role model for our children has nothing to do with whether or not we work when they are young. My daughter will grow up seeing me make my own decisions, ones that are good for me and my family. This is the best way to teach her to live, I believe. I don't want her to hear women debating an important issue and say, "Why don't they just be nice to each other?" I don't want her to think that no matter what decision she makes, it is necessarily lacking. I want her to know that there will always be judgements and that they don't matter in the end. I want her to live in a world where women are honest about what they want, brave enough to strive for it, and proud of however close they come.


  1. I hope many get to read this, Lauren.

  2. I think that the ¨Just be nice to each other¨ thread is also born in the sexist roles of who should educate and what educating ¨as a mom¨ means: outward formalities, and gesticulated ¨getting-along¨. Much of it missing the point, and remaining inside the sexist box. Thanks for this nice piece dear. Laura