Balancing act

How much time should you spend with your kids? The author of a provocative new book, "Maternal Desire," argues that motherhood is an essential part of female identity.

Published March 22, 2004 9:04PM (EST)

Midway through "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life," psychologist Daphne de Marneffe's provocative but thoughtful new book about motherhood as a cornerstone of female identity, she mentions that a friend told her that "every time she sees a new book about mothers, she feels mingled dread and hope as a question instantly pops into her mind: Is it for me or against me?"

De Marneffe's book is singular in that it isn't polarizing. While she took about five years off from her therapy practice to raise her three children, and a chunk of her book is devoted to discussing the authentic, oft-ignored pleasures of primary caretaking, she doesn't order her working-mother readers to go home and enjoy it, like she did. Rather, in a discussion that is part sophisticated self-help and part scholarly analysis of our culture's attitudes toward mothers, de Marneffe urges each woman to think hard about how much time she wants to spend caring for her children vs. working, about whether she's struck anything close to the right balance in her life.

De Marneffe is well aware that women are constantly told how they should or shouldn't feel about mothering, how they should or shouldn't do it -- and that we tend to imbibe these dictums and imperceptibly make them our own, whether or not they truly reflect our values or circumstances. To help us clear some brain space, she dissects everything from what the research shows about the impact of day care on maternal-child attachment (negligible) to how feminism and psychoanalysis have tended to write off child rearing as regressive, monotonous, and crushing to women's autonomy.

But de Marneffe is no Dr. Laura: She doesn't rant about this state of affairs as much as sympathetically critique how feminists, in their understandable effort to open up roles for women other than mothers, struggle to account for a maternal desire that might spring from within rather than imposed by the, uh, patriarchy.

De Marneffe's ideal reader has a job that is rewarding enough for her to seriously ponder how to divide her time between child rearing and pursuing her profession. In other words, she's privileged enough to have a real choice to make -- unlike those women who, as de Marneffe pointed out, quoting "The Price of Motherhood," the recent, acclaimed book by economics journalist Ann Crittenden, "calculate, quite correctly, that as long as there is one breadwinner in their family, their presence at home can create more value, and be more satisfying, than much of the [under]paid work they could find."

De Marneffe recently spoke to Salon from her San Francisco Bay Area home about other differences -- and commonalities -- in women's experiences of mothering.

Why did you write this book?

I say at the beginning of the feminism chapter that every woman's feminism is a love letter to her mother, and in a way this book is mine. I don't think my mother felt fully satisfied with her work life, but being a mother was something she really enjoyed. I want women to feel that [being with their children] is an important part of themselves. They shouldn't feel badly that they want to take time off from other things to do it.

Do you really believe a lot of women feel bad about the desire to devote themselves to mothering? I felt bad because I didn't want to do that.

I was writing very much out of my own particular psychology. For me, [being a mother] was consuming in a way that made it very hard to imagine having a consuming work life at the same time. So I was coming at it from the question of, Can I feel OK about staying home?

There's so much talk about the wonders of motherhood -- but you don't take the gushing at face value, do you?

There is always ambivalence, whether you choose to stay at home with your children full time or work full time or somewhere in between. People "solve" their ambivalence by idealizing a choice, or an approach to being a mother, and it becomes this rigidified, This is the way to do it; I'm better because I do it this way. I wanted to step back and critique the tendency toward polarization, with people shoring up their self-esteem by identifying with their mothering choices. The truth is, you've never made the perfect choice; there are always trade-offs.

That said, you don't view sentimentality about motherhood as some nefarious right-wing plot to keep women in their places.

I think it needs to be explained why these idealizations hold power for people. I don't subscribe to a model where cultural images can straightforwardly impose ideas on us. It's incredibly important to many people to feel like they're good parents, to raise their children well, so all these sentimental images are like dreams, paths for visualizing, Oh, that's the way to do it.

And you think there's a lot of stuff out there about how unrewarding motherhood is that's gone unchallenged.

Freedom and self-determination have been more closely allied with the idea that you might choose not to be a mother. I wanted to open up the idea that women do this out of desire. They don't only do it because they're biologically equipped to do it, or society has insisted that they do it, or that they've lacked birth control for most of human history. There's something that's self-fulfilling, that's wanted.

I buy that, but you also say maternal desire has replaced sexual desire as the new taboo for women. I still think it's taboo for women to desire sex, to really want it.

Well, it's kind of a flashy way of saying whatever women are desiring is suspect. The things that are most basic to being a woman -- the desire to have sex, the desire to have a child -- we often feel apologetic about. It used to be there was something wrong with being sexual, now it's being maternal.

I do know what you mean -- while I was reading your book, a friend who just got married told me that she wanted to start trying to get pregnant because she's 35 and worries about waiting much longer. But she doesn't know how to broach the subject with her husband because, as she put it, the "biological clock is such a weak card to play." She felt embarrassed somehow about being a woman who wants a baby and whose fertility won't last forever.

That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

You believe that the average woman wants to spend more time with her kids than the average man, right?

Yes, but with qualifications. One conflict I hear about a lot is that there's a couple who agree in principle that they should share child care. But his view is, Let's just get more child care, and her view is, I want us to do more of it. It puts her in this impossible bind because it matters to her more than it matters to him that they take care of the kids, so she ends up having to do it, whereas if she had her druthers, they'd share it more. One of my more utopian suggestions for social change is that women should not treat the meaningfulness of caring for children as something they need to minimize but to amplify, to get men to see how cool it is. [Laughs] Make it sexy, and maybe men will gradually become socialized to seeing [child care] as part of their identity -- which they do already compared to even 20 years ago. Of course, practically, because of the way work is, it's still incredibly difficult for two people to both be half-time parents and half-time workers.

I found the chapter about the pleasures of motherhood the slipperiest in the book. I get how motherhood can give you moments of utter joy, but what you're proposing seemed grander than that?

What I'm trying to get at on the theoretical level is how caring for children allows us to integrate different levels of human capacity -- physical, intellectual, intuitive, emotional -- in a way that's deeply satisfying. And these moments of connectedness, pleasure deserve our attention from a psychological, scientific and even spiritual vantage point, though with the necessary caveats: People differ hugely in tastes and proclivities, in how much pleasure they genuinely derive from interaction with children, and so on.

On the personal level, sometimes our anxiety leads us to trivialize or cloud the pleasures we do get from mothering, because -- to give two possibilities among millions -- we have a "punishment fantasy" that something will go wrong if we relax and enjoy it, or because we believe that giving ourselves over to the enjoyment will make us less serious people. I'm urging women to notice in themselves the feelings of pleasure and the impediments to pleasure -- to not fall unthinkingly into feeling put upon by caring for children on the one hand, or devaluing the satisfactions to be had, on the other.

Sometimes I feel guilty because some of my favorite times with my eldest daughter are when I'm doing some kind of housework and just listening to her play with her father. I keep thinking, Why don't I wish I were the one playing and he was doing the cleanup?

There's this persecuting approach that if you're not engaged with your children one-on-one, it's not good enough. You don't have to feel guilty that you want to read while you're with your kids, for example. I feel lucky that I don't feel guilty. My attitude is, Hey, they're lucky I'm around.

Read with your kids? That's one thing in your book that blew me away. You talk about how you were reading "The Leopard" while nursing your newborn with the other two kids playing at your feet. That would never happen in my house.

A friend told me that there are two things about my book that are going to piss people off. One is that my husband seems so helpful. A lot of people will think, Yeah, right, if I had a husband like that it wouldn't seem so hard either. The other one is that my kids are easy. I have kids who, at least as babies, were very calm. They could sit and do blocks with me around, and that obviously made [child care] much more pleasurable for me than for people whose kids are climbing the counters.

But when I hear you say that, I think, well, the reason your kids were calm is because of the high quality of attention you gave them, how much you were around.

No, that's not right. One of my good friends mothers a lot like I do, but her kids are much harder. A lot of how children are is temperament, a built-in thing.

Listening to myself, it's sort of an example of how you say anxiety about our mothering gets in the way of our pleasure. Instead of enjoying when I'm around my daughter, I'm worrying that I'm not right on top of her, that I'm not enjoying her the "right" way.

For a while I felt a bit guilty dragging my kids around on errands, until I remembered I spent most of my childhood that way and kind of enjoyed it ... The dilemma of should I play with them or do the dishes is probably more intense for mothers who work outside of the home most of the day. They feel that the time with their children should be more child-focused because there's less of it. Some of my friends who work full-time definitely play with their children more than I do, and I think that has a lot to do with spending the day apart and feeling their children -- and they themselves -- hunger for it.

There seems to be tension in your book between arguing, on the one hand, that the more time mothers spend with their small children, the better for the kids, and on the other, saying in the day-care chapter that the research has found that time isn't the key to your children's thriving as much as how sensitive you are to their needs.

There is a tension, but basically, I think time and sensitivity are important. One of the studies I cite that looks at maternal-child attachment suggests that sensitivity can counteract some of the effects of time apart.

Yeah, but it also goes the other way: You include data that shows more time with their children makes mothers more sensitive to them, allows them to read their children better?

I believe that's true, but I still think that people can overcome some of the effects of time apart if they are sensitive and responsive. I mean, I look at one of my best friends who has three kids and lives in New York and has this incredibly intense job, and I just think she's a great mother. She has a certain empathy and comfort in herself, a certain kind of awareness of what people need from each other, and a capacity to give that. And that counts for a huge amount. Child-care research has the great advantage of helping us draw back and look more dispassionately at personal, emotionally charged issues. But ultimately, few of us are going to feel comfortable basing our decisions on the latest results, because they're often contradictory and never final.

You don't want to prescribe to people how much they should or shouldn't work, do you?

It's just so complicated and variable. First of all, there are many women who truly don't have a choice in the matter, and it's a source of pain to them and their children that they have as little time together as they do. But the fact that they have so little time is not a straightforward recipe for unhappiness or family dysfunction. As I try to suggest in my day-care chapter, children pick up on their parents' intentions toward them, and children have great radar for love and devotion. It bugs me so much that it's always about quantifiable outward behavior -- are you a working mom, are you a stay-at-home mom? -- at the expense of the whole question of sensitivity. But at the same time, we have to be willing to admit when we feel out of touch with our children. And if we have any choice in the matter, we need to really think through the decisions and trade-offs we're making, and make sure they're decisions we believe in.

By Laurie Abraham

Laurie Abraham is an editor at large at Elle and a freelance writer.

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