Two months before her first child was born, Jane Smiley was suddenly struck by the seeming contradiction of teaching a course on Kafka and being pregnant. First, she wondered, would the baby somehow be marred for life by its in utero exposure to literature's master of gloom? Second, would she be forced to repudiate great novels with grim parent-child relationships such as "Native Son" or "To the Lighthouse" for family romps like "Please Don't Eat the Daisies"? But in giving birth to a child, Smiley found that she also gave birth to her subject, the interplay of love and power that was the seed of her novel "A Thousand Acres." "Far from depriving me of thought, motherhood gave me new and startling things to think about and the motivation to do the hard work of thinking," she wrote in her essay "Can Mothers Think?"
A look at the current media, however, would convince you that, like Pooh Bear, mothers are creatures of very little brains. The general press continues to separate child-rearing issues from Real News, treating the raising of the next generation primarily as a lifestyle issue. This reached new depths last month with People magazine's ground-breaking report that Hollywood has discovered mothers can be sexy -- that is, if they can manage to look like they never gave birth. Focusing on motherhood as a weight-loss issue, the article pointed out that for the new sex-symbol moms, "One of the true challenges of motherhood is the race back to prepregnancy shape." No time bind here -- with the help of at least one full-time nanny and a personal trainer, these women manage to fit the "role" of mothers into their "helter skelter lives," neatly proving once and for all that mothers can have it all. (So what's your problem?)
Almost as bad are some of the magazines and Web sites for parents. Big cultural issues, on those rare occasions when they are tackled, are fed to readers like strained peaches on a baby spoon. (Consider the article on racism that began, "Imagine for a moment that you live in a land where a number of the citizens have purple hair.") More often, the reassuring tones of these publications barely mask an oddly desperate mission to wrestle child rearing into chirpy 12-step guides and 10-best lists, as if the complex range of dramas and emotions that really define motherhood were a wound best not probed too deeply. In the grand tradition of motherly self-sacrifice, Mom herself is allotted a tiny corner in these publications, where she is invited to indulge her free minutes in -- what else? -- tummy-flattening exercises.
Mothers Who Think offers a place for mothers to exercise their brains. We believe with Smiley that if mothers' experiences are not widely expressed in our written culture, the culture at large suffers. During the last two decades, a number of women novelists have begun developing a maternal vision in literature, but Mothers Who Think will be the first Web site to explore the subject in its full gritty reality. It will also consider how motherhood reshapes our lives as women, challenging our sense of ourselves and our relationships with the world at large.
Mothers Who Think will look at the high and low aspects of mothering. Motherhood is the most essential relationship to the continuity of life, and the wiping of snotty noses. It possesses the tenderness of a Mary Cassatt painting one minute, the surreality of a Diane Arbus photo the next. Some mothers abandon their children, others cripple them by holding them too close; nearly all mothers discover an unnerving helplessness in the face of the passions that motherhood arouses. This department won't provide a soft-focus celebration of motherhood but an exploration of it in all its dimensions. Through diverse perspectives, provocative interviews, online discussions of hot-button issues, select fiction and intensely personal stories, we will look at the myths and realities, serious and silly sides, thankless and supremely satisfying aspects of being a mother.
"I spend so much time at home with the kids that I really wasn't sure I was capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation with anyone over 5," said a ditsy movie mom played by Ellen Burstyn some years ago, describing her trepidation at being seated next to her husband's boss at a dinner party. "It was going really well until I discovered that all the time we had been talking, I had been cutting up his meat for him." Blurred boundaries characterize the lives of mothers. Forced underground for hours at a time, our intellectual life sprouts where and when it can, like fennel in sidewalk cracks. Sandboxes, zoo excursions and sidewalk stoops are the kind of places where mothers really talk about the world and our place in it. And in these unlikely settings, we have developed our own style of conversation, learning to string a few sentences over hours or even pick up a conversation days later.
The Mothers Who Think section of Table Talk provides the thrill of adult conversation any time, any place. (Imagine not having to miss a lively dinner party conversation to put the kids to bed!) We hope it will become a global mothers group, where we can talk across the gulf of national, racial and cultural differences about our shared and vastly different experiences of raising children in a complex and troubled world.
Women's needs and interests do not end with motherhood, so neither does the scope of this department. Our articles and conversations will encompass issues that continue to consume us as women even as whole chunks of our life are vacuumed up in being parents. This department is meant to be manageably small, however. We aren't inspired to provide endless recipes and resource lists that will end up making us all feel inadequate. Instead, every weekday we'll bring you what we feel is worth taking time for -- from insights into the most pressing news stories to help finding the cushiest pair of slippers. (Cookie recipes that substitute unsweetened applesauce for sugar will not be tolerated.)
One final word: Why mothers and not fathers or parents who think? Let's be honest -- the experience of motherhood still differs fundamentally from that of fatherhood. Though this department is dedicated to giving mothers a room of their own for intelligent discussion, we believe that many of the topics covered will be of universal interest, and we hope that fathers as well as mothers, nonparents as well as parents will lend their voices and vital insights to the mix. In the end, no one raises a child alone. Everyone who cares about children and the future is welcome to participate.