The opium (and lion's) den of motherhood

Katie Roiphe's provocative new essay on having a baby: Eloquent paean or feminist backlash? We discuss

Published August 27, 2009 9:01PM (EDT)

Katie Roiphe is controversial. She's been controversial ever since she made a name for herself in 1993 with "The Morning After," a critique of anti-date-rape feminism. So, it came as no surprise that her latest essay in Double X, "My Newborn Is Like a Narcotic," about the first six weeks with her second child, rubbed some people the wrong way -- so much so, in fact, that the editors felt it necessary to publish a defense of the essay.

The piece begins with a moving description of the "opium-den quality of early motherhood" so eloquent as to practically induce spontaneous lactation. But the piece is, after all, subtitled, "Why Won't Feminists Admit the Pleasure of Infants?" And on page 2, Roiphe gets a bit more incendiary:

One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a "vocation." The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

Roiphe writes of the all-consuming love that threatens "everything you are and care about" -- which, in Roiphe's case, seems to be her writing career. Suddenly, she doesn't want to go back to work; being with her newborn feels far more important and rewarding. "Taking care of the baby -- physical, draining, exhilarating -- is more like farming: following the rhythms of the earth, getting up at dawn, watching the corn flush in the sunrise. It is not at all like writing." Here was that familiar work-life dilemma put in terms that reflected what even I, a childless 20-something, felt churning at the core of my being.

I asked my fellow Broadsheeters if they had any thoughts on the piece, and did they ever. To some, it's feminist backlash ("The piece had the ring of self-congratulation, if not prescription"); to some it's eloquent paean ("Why must a female writer toil under a raincloud of worry about all the other women she might offend?"); still others fell somewhere in between those extremes. Without further ado, I bring you what is undoubtedly the longest round table in this blog's history. --Tracy Clark-Flory

Mary Elizabeth Williams: Having experienced life with a newborn, twice, I'm really torn about Roiphe's piece. On the one hand, I remember, in a profound and physical way, those love-drunk early weeks with a baby. I too felt like I was "missing a limb" when I wasn't holding my daughters; I found myself bouncing and rocking even when they weren't in my arms.

But it wasn't all magical and swoony and romantic. I also remember crying in exhaustion in the shower, my heart sinking when I'd put a sleeping baby down in the crib and she'd promptly start wailing. I remember the first time I went out for a half hour by myself. It was an icy January day, and I felt like skipping around the block in grateful, liberated joy.

A writer friend is now late in her first pregnancy, and she's being deluged with advice from well-meaning friends who tell her that once she has that baby, she's not going to want to tear herself away and go back to work. Maybe she won't. But maybe she will. And when Roiphe says, "Would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing 'The House of Mirth'? You would not," I think well, no, I wouldn't either. But I wonder if Edith Wharton would have traded writing "The House of Mirth" for a baby. And Elizabeth Gaskell had six children and managed to be one of the greatest English-language novelists -- male or female. The fulfillment of motherhood and the high of creativity are different, but who says they have to be mutually exclusive?

Judy Berman: Katie Roiphe was a professor of mine in grad school. I've always enjoyed her writing, and this piece resonated with me, too. As someone who has never been terribly excited about the prospect of having kids, the essay, in all its lush, sensory detail, made me understand something about motherhood that I had never quite grasped before.

I agree with Alison Gopnik, who wonders at readers who responded by accusing Katie of dictating what motherhood should be and, by implication, invalidating the experiences of other new moms. Nothing in the article makes me think she's interested in telling us how to be parents. This essay is about a particular aspect of motherhood -- one that I've read nearly nothing about, amid the sheaves of blogs recounting the daily drudgeries of parenting. Like the love poems Gopnik cites, Katie's essay narrows its focus to make way for a pure rendering of something very specific. Does she ever get sick of changing diapers? Does she ever just wish her baby would give her a few goddamn uninterrupted hours of sleep? I'm sure she does. But that's not what this piece is about.

At the same time, Katie's use of feminism as a straw man did get to me. The idea that feminism is out to cheapen or undermine motherhood is nothing more than a tired right-wing talking point that should have died in the '70s.

Amy Benfer: Yes, of course I recognized the sensual, dopey haze of the weeks immediately after a baby's birth, and Roiphe is absolutely right that it feels akin to being in some sort of narcotic "opium-den" stupor. You are essentially in a narcotic stupor, having been flooded with hormones, leaking milk and having just delivered a tiny human who a brief moment ago felt like an actual part of your own body. Of course ordinary life -- whether your ordinary life is writing novels or makin' kahpies -- feels trivial next to the miracle of birth. It is. A baby's birth will stay with one as a transcendent, life-changing moment. Most fathers feel this, too.

But here's the thing: She's talking about the first six weeks. Even those who are as love-drunk as Roiphe -- and I imagine most parents are -- will tell you this window is incredibly brief. Mistaking the first weeks of a baby's life for the lifelong state of motherhood is about as sensible as believing a marriage is always going to look like the first heady days of courtship. Roiphe and her friend can sit in the garden reflecting on how they prefer looking at their child's eyelashes to writing "House of Mirth" all they like, but the fact is, in less than a year, the kid is probably going to be tearing around the garden and your most pressing problem may be preventing them from eating bugs and possibly poisonous leaves.

What is dishonest about this essay is the absurd idea that most women -- feminists, of course! -- don't feel the same opium-den love for their infants or if they do, they don't write about it. If anything, mother love has been the dominant theme of women's writing for the past decade, and we can go right on back through each decade to the beginning of writing to look for examples. (I just finished reviewing Marilyn French's last novel, which ends with the feminist heroine crazy in love with a new infant and seeking marriage and another child.)

And there is another kind of dishonesty going on: Notice how Roiphe's baby lust wasn't enough for her to actually cancel her reading with Gay Talese; she just got a little impatient on the escalator. And no matter what she says about how "writing a few paragraphs about this problem seems out of reach," she seems to have somehow overcome that impossibility long enough to give us a two-page essay about how she'd really rather be holding her baby than writing. Why? Because her first impulse, when encountering an overwhelming burst of love, was to write about it. What is the trick that makes these women simultaneously able to profess their disinterest in their careers in essays that serve to build their careers? Do they dictate their essays to assistants, while cooing to their babes in their arms?

So in short, the baby will grow up. Within six months the relationship Roiphe has with this child will be entirely different. She will not love him any less, but he may have foods he dislikes, funny haircuts she doesn't approve of and utterly mysterious interests that make no sense to her. He will have the same questions as all noninfant humans: How do I choose something I'm good at? How do I find work I love? How do I recover from mistakes? In that, he will, as all of us do, have need of an adult parent who has made those same choices. There is no conflict here: While her son will probably appreciate that when he was 6 weeks old, his mother spent days enraptured with his eyelashes in the garden, as an adult, he might very well appreciate being the son of a woman who wrote the modern equivalent of "The House of Mirth." Or even a few tomes of feminist scholarship.

Rebecca Traister: I am a longtime Roiphe crank. Though I admire her as a stylist and as a teacher (many of my colleagues at Salon have been her students and have offered up uniform raves), her first book, "The Morning After," enraged me when I was a college student, and her journalism has continued to get under my skin, something I wrote about when I profiled her two years ago, and something which she might justifiably cite as a measure of her success as a provocateur.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, I was no fan of this piece. I found it another smooth submission to the cult of perfect motherhood in which we have been awash for some years. It's true, as Gopnik and Judy note, that Roiphe did not use the word "should" about her vision of what early motherhood feels like for her. But given that her topic is new parenthood, an area about which women (and men) feel immense insecurity and which is a well-known arena of personal one-upsmanship, the piece had the ring of self-congratulation, if not prescription.

What of the mothers who don't feel an instant bond with their babies or who find their infants boring and nursing them taxing and demoralizing, those who can't wait to get back to work, let alone those who experience full-blown postpartum depression? "Wait, that lady cried after leaving her baby alone for three hours? I would give anything to get out into the adult world for the first time in five weeks and attend a book signing that was an affirmation of my professional achievement. I must be a heartless feminist hussy!"

It is backlash strawwoman crap that feminists are to blame for sucking the joy and love out of motherhood. This purported maternal frigidity is just another chapter in Roiphe's ongoing imagined narrative in which the feminists from whom she distinguishes herself are man-hating and sex-averse. Roiphe's own mother, the well-known second-wave feminist author Anne Roiphe (who, not incidentally, raised three children and two stepchildren), wrote a book in 1996 about how there's not a contradiction between feminism and motherhood.

Look, I hope that one day I will have a baby with whom I fall instantly and chemically in love, and I believe that Roiphe is having that experience and I'm happy for her. But I don't think that an essay like this is adding a new dimension to a conversation that has been celebrating motherhood for some time. I don't need to hear any more women tell me about how much I will love my future infant or how motherhood will change me or how it will be the best best best thing I ever did in my life. If I understand the politics of mommy-blogging correctly, I believe that that's the message from which writers who have had less idealized experiences (like Dooce, or Ayelet Waldman) have been trying to free themselves. That's not to say that their work is any finer, their experiences any more universal, than Roiphe's -- just that I don't see Roiphe's contribution as ground-breaking, but rather as a reinforcement of entrenched ideas about reproduction as the peak female experience.

Which brings me to the ludicrous "would you rather have a baby or write 'The House of Mirth'" set-up. To which I say: Come the fuck on. Putting aside the fact that most of us would give our eyeteeth to write a book as good as Wharton's, and that the question of why we don't is about talent and drive as much as about gestational frequency, the fact is that we are not living at the turn of the 20th century; we are living at the turn of the 21st. And those feminists Roiphe so reviles? They swept through some 40 years ago (armed with their penis shears and humor vacuums) to make sure that women -- well, some women, including those like Roiphe (and me) who work in privileged climes and circumstances -- don't have to make the same prohibitive choices that those who came before us did.

Some mothers, even new mothers, who protest loudly about having no head for work, for having eyes only for their infants, somehow manage to protest it in widely disseminated, conversation-provoking essays that prompt approximately a billion words of response. I congratulate Roiphe. Just a few weeks into the life of her youngest child, and she's back on the professional horse, doing what she does best.

Kate Harding: Perhaps if I'd been raised by a feminist among her urban, liberal, highly educated friends -- which I should note describes not only Roiphe's childhood but the life I expect any future child of mine will have -- I'd see feminists as a hugely influential group, in the way we all see our parents as larger than life. But I wasn't. I was raised in the suburbs by a woman who got married straight out of college in 1958 (and the fact that she got a B.A. at all was considered a bit of an indulgence), had her first baby at 23, her last (me) at 38, and enjoyed a grand total of seven years with no kids in the house before she died at 64. A woman who put her English degree and writing talent to use composing occasional newsletters for real estate agents and dentists once I was old enough to shift for myself, because in her social circle, mothers didn't work outside the home unless they'd had the bad luck to marry men who couldn't support them -- and no one, especially a mom, was ambitious enough to believe that "normal" people could become journalists or authors. The women I grew up around were smart, funny, gutsy, and creative -- and every last one of them spent decades of her adult life kissing boo-boos, attending dance recitals, and singing "The Wheels on the Bus" ad nauseam, to the exclusion of any other vocation.

Meanwhile, they scoffed at the second-wave feminists working to expand their options, because to confess that you weren't perfectly fulfilled by marriage and motherhood was to out yourself as a selfish monster. Even if you felt it, you certainly didn't say it. You lit another cigarette, poured another cocktail, took another Valium, told the kids to go play outside until dinner time, but you sure didn't admit you longed for anything else. The kids never heard a word about your dissatisfaction -- they only felt it. And then maybe read about it when they grew up to take the women's studies courses that didn't exist when you were young.

Which is not to say that the self-medicating generation of mommies didn't adore their kids, mind you. When my sister had her first child and was in that baby-drunk phase (she once ended a phone call with, "Gotta go -- I just found a freckle on his back I haven't memorized yet"), she called my mom and said, "OK wait ... is this how you felt about us?" Mom laughed and said of course it was, and my sister said that changed her entire understanding of her childhood. I haven't had that experience myself (and may never), but I have no doubt that my mom loved us all more than life, possibly more than I can yet conceive of loving anyone. I also have no doubt that if someone had told her writing "The House of Mirth" was a real option, she'd have traded in at least one or two of us, maybe all four. And my only regret in that case would be not existing to cheer her on.

Maybe if I'd been raised by Anne Roiphe, I'd find hopeless devotion to one's children and an attendant lack of ambition novel enough to be interesting. I might even think hey, more people ought to hear about how great this baby shit is! But I've been hearing that all my life -- not only from people who, like my sister, like Roiphe, are utterly (even sort of adorably) enchanted with their newborns, but from women who simply didn't dare admit that they might have wanted something more. I've heard it from women who were grinning and women who were clenching their teeth, and I think both deserve to be heard.

So I find it sort of hilarious -- and more than a little infuriating -- that one generation later, after about five minutes of women writing "bad mommy" books and blogs, the Katie Roiphes and Caitlin Flanagans of the world act as though our feminist overladies have convinced the majority of the population that children aren't worth any thinking woman's time. Most women still have babies eventually, and most of them probably go just as gaga over their newborns as Roiphe did. But now, as a society, we've just barely begun making room for grown women to have other interests, to admit that motherhood might not be perfectly fulfilling for everyone, to openly discuss things like postpartum depression and garden-variety parental ennui. And I suspect there are still a lot more women struggling with feelings of selfishness and frustration than missing out on the joys of a newborn's eyelashes. When I hear people saying that feminism has ruined X, Y, or Z, I always want to know what planet they're living on, because I'd probably like to move to a place where feminists have that much power.

Amanda Fortini: This is where feminism has brought us? Watching the ongoing tempest over Katie Roiphe's most recent essay, in which she writes, with her usual elegance and flair, about the self-obliterating ecstasy she feels for her newborn baby, this thought has begun to gnaw at me. What interests me is not the idea that feminists have or have not admitted the pleasures of infants, or that they have reduced an experience of near-religious dimensions to "work." Arguments can, and have, been made for both sides. What interests me is the troubling fact that whenever a woman writes about her experience -- whether it's an experience of work or sex or food or motherhood, anything a woman might see or feel or think or do -- it must be viewed through the lens of feminism. Roiphe's respondents, and I include myself in this coterie, are not the only guilty parties. Roiphe herself can't write about the joys of new motherhood without reference to female writers who have come before her. It's not her fault. Without some nod to the history of feminism, she would seem unaware of the arguments; she would be viewed as a naïf, as an insufficiently ironic personality or intellect. There can be no sentiment without irony, no phenomenology without ideology. Without feminism, there can be no female experience.

But what about the primacy of experience over ideas? Why can't Roiphe (who, full disclosure, I have met socially) or any other female writer simply write a paean to motherhood? Why does all human experience on the female side of life have to be hung upon a superstructure of ideas, rather than the ideas arising, perhaps organically and implicitly, from the rendering of experience itself? Here's a revolutionary idea: Maybe a literary or artistic depiction of some aspect of life doesn't have to be politicized; maybe it can be just what it is, a meditation on a moment of being. "In the conversational style of the day," Leonard Michaels once wrote about the early '60s, "everything was always about something; or, to put it differently, everything was always really about something other than what it seemed to be about … The plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and the songs of Dylan were all equally about something … Nothing was fully resident in itself. Nothing was plain." Motherhood cannot be resident in itself. It has to live in the Eastern Bloc apartment complex of feminism. (And yes, I consider myself a feminist.) Think of the dreary implications for women writers and artists -- for exactly the sort of creative work feminism would seem to hope to promote.

Along the same drab lines, why must a female writer toil under a raincloud of worry about all the other women she might offend? Nothing about Roiphe's essay feels hectoring or prescriptive. Nowhere does she say all women should share her transcendence; she merely states that "one of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time." So every woman doesn't feel Roiphe's passion. So what? Every woman doesn't fall in love, either. To argue that she should not express feelings of deep satisfaction with her baby because some women suffer from postpartum depression, or can't wait for a few hours of escape, is the equivalent of arguing, as Alison Gopnik writes, that no one should write a great sexual love poem because there are people who find sex kind of icky, or that writers should avoid expressing the joys of life when there are millions out there melancholy and propped up on antidepressants. To take the analogy further, it's like saying a beautiful woman should play down her beauty, or a smart woman her smarts, because all women are not so good-looking or intelligent. We know this game. Think about it: If female writers become embarrassed to take delight or pleasure or pride -- or fill in the blank with the positive emotions of your choice -- in experiences that other women can't or don't enjoy because they will be excoriated for having done so, then there is something deeply wrong with the subculture of feminism. Should we all wear an existential hijab so that we appear to be uniformly the same? And do male writers, when they sit down to write, worry about the other men whose feelings they might hurt with their essays? Of course they don't. Male writers are not so corseted.

Men, to put it simply, are not made to be emblematic of all male experience. They are not made to represent the entirety of their gender. They write about their experience, and it is theirs alone. It's true that once upon a time, when fewer women writers had a public forum for their sentiments, we might have had to worry that the views of one women would be received -- by both men and women alike -- as expressing the view of all. It's also true that the cult of sentimental motherhood has often been oppressive, and that it may have been necessary for feminists of the past to de-emphasize its gratifications for progress of a different sort. But it seems limiting and very dispiriting to say, We put that one away; let's keep it there. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as Pete Townsend once sang. Who's the oppressor now?

By Salon Staff

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