Friends and mothers

Frustration from a childless woman about the world of mommyhood.

Published December 12, 2006 8:15PM (EST)

OK, gird yourselves, this one is going to be intense. A bunch of Broadsheet readers let us know that the San Francisco Chronicle this weekend ran an open letter from a childless woman to her mom friends in which she vents about the connections she feels she has lost with them. And it's a doozey.

Elisa Gonzalez Clark, who signed her letter-piece "your friend once," begins by describing a friend with whom she used to "jump into the mosh pit" and who once "would gyrate until 3 a.m. and then make out with bad boys on the sides of cars in the gritty twilight" but who now shows her a freezer full of stockpiled breast milk and coos over pink baby clothes.

Now, Gonzalez Clark writes, she speaks to her mom friends only a few times a year, and "most of those conversations seem to be consumed with [her] new baby, [or] some function of toilet training."

In fact, she claims, "it seems as if every girl I knew in my 20s now talks constantly about trying to get pregnant, being pregnant or motherhood. And worse, [they] seem to think I'm immature because I don't." The letter goes on ... and on, detailing the way that babies can warp girlfriend-ships, boring childless friends, making them feel unworthy or weird for not having kids or not wanting them. This is certainly a feeling that many childless women can relate to.

The most poignant point Gonzalez Clark makes, to my mind, is about her impulse to cry when her friend tells her that she is going to go through with an unplanned pregnancy because, without kids, she "didn't feel complete as a woman." "You were always complete to me," writes Gonzalez Clark. "You were always so confident, smart, bright and such a great friend."

But then she goes off the rails a bit, continuing, "But that seems gone now, and in your place is this strange Stepford creature who tells me she's happier as a mother than she's ever been. Maybe if you say it enough, it becomes true ... I know you're not that happy."

Whoa. Them's fightin' words. And I've gotta say, I don't know the particulars of Gonzalez Clark's friendships, but her claims here seem more than a little unfair. She says she wants to shake these women, who used to flirt with Johnny Depp and "make insightful comments on world affairs, the arts and relationships." Now, she complains, their houses smell like dirty diapers and they never go anywhere without a screaming baby.

OK. I completely agree with what I think might be Gonzalez Clark's larger ideas about how the fetishization of motherhood -- the idea that women only reach their highest potential as mothers, that they are incomplete as women or humans without children, and that once they have them their lives must revolve around only them -- is dangerous and regressive and worth bitching mightily about. The country does seem dangerously ensnarled in a backlash cult of mommy madness that values the lives of children over the lives of mothers, and has unnecessarily professionalized the job of child-rearing to the point where women must sacrifice everything else in their world in order to do it right.

But I'm not sure that that's actually Gonzalez Clark's central issue. What she seems furious over is the fact that her friends' lives are now occupied by pursuits she doesn't share a passion for. But altered priorities do not always signal emotional betrayal or a lost sense of self; they often simply accompany the process of growing up. They don't always have to do with becoming a parent -- they come with career investment, economic change, romantic relationships, aging bodies. But obviously, a lot of people have kids. And birthing and raising babies require attention and a change in your responsibilities.

Sure, that can be a real pain in the ass, and a downer for those around you who can see you for a drink or a nice meal or a concert more rarely. But a lot of what she describes -- the breast milk and the pregnancy concerns -- are obsessions that take over in the early years of parenthood, when things are new and fascinating and terrifying, but fade as kids get more self-sufficient and parents grow more comfortable in their roles.

In the meantime, who cares if their houses smell like diapers? Other nonparents may have houses that smell like dogs or cats or cigarettes or pot or scented candles, none of which are fantastic. And the mechanics of caring for babies aren't always scintillating, but in moderation, discussion of them can certainly be as diverting as Gonzalez Clark's dream of sitting down to lunch to once again relive "the time that transsexual hooker helped us escape those slimy A&R guys on Santa Monica and Vine." I mean, I bet that story's been told more than once, you know?

It seems as sad to attach so much meaning to the glories of our youth as it is to lose oneself in the rearing of one's offspring.

Taken as a whole, this piece is a startling reminder of the level of rage that so many of us -- men and women, but mostly women -- attach to every issue surrounding motherhood. Motherhood has become so charged, thanks in large part to regressive forces that would have us think of it, as Gonzalez Clark rightly complains, as the be-all and end-all identity for American women. In this case, mommies may be taking the heat for the author's grief over friendships that have gradually grown distant for other reasons.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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