Tracing Anne Roiphe’s career often feels like following somebody through a revolving door: the requirements of keeping the pace can be trying. Roiphe, the author of feminist classic “Up The Sandbox” and mother of Katie, is best known for the latter feat. Katie Roiphe wrote a somewhat inchoate and wildly controversial New York Times article (which grew into a book) on women’s roles and the campus date rape debate. Lately, in her column in The New York Observer, Mother Anne has emerged as a social critic whose diverse passions can make her seem like a true eccentric.
Whatever direction you approach Roiphe from, she’s definitely a free-thinking welter of contradictions, a never-say-die feminist who’s absolutely nuts about children. This book, her eleventh, is about what happens when her two causes mix. Drawing from personal experience, academic writing and a feminist canon that spans much of this century, “Fruitful” describes how the women’s movement continues to sell mothers out. “We’re shooting ourselves in the collective foot,” she writes, and even radical readers will be forced, at times, to agree.
Roiphe rounds up some of the headiest precepts of women’s lib and holds them up to her struggle to do right by her own impossible kids. It’s great being freed from the picture-perfect domestic roles of the ’50s, she argues, but women headed down the wrong road soon after that. Now we realize that refusing to accept the pleasures of mothering may be one of the great sins of our time. It is a self-denial that sometimes adds up to spiritual suicide. Children suffered. So did men.
Roiphe’s unconventional ideas about how to redress society’s wrongs can be off-putting. Furthermore, she chains clauses together like someone muttering to herself. But from this account, her childraising trials — particularly at the hands of her chaos-causing, lie-telling, intravenous drug-sampling eldest daughter — could push anyone over the edge. How could someone burdened by Roiphe’s expansive conscience and ballooning guilt be so consistently crazy for yet another baby? The plaintive gasps of her heart seem unbidden, until we learn that the difficult daughter has HIV. This mother’s still not right all the time, but she wins over her witnesses.
Oscar Wilde wrote: “Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” As good a mother as Roiphe has tried to be, her daughters may never forgive her. But, God help me, I do.