August 1976–Feminism and Motherhood

Reading my 1970’s journals is both fascinating and disquieting. Do I still know this woman? Would I make friends with her? Would I read her blog? My present husband admits he would have been terrified to talk to her. Part of my confusion is rooted in the times I grew up, in the 1950s and early 1960s, long before feminism. If my oldest daughter Anne had 5 brothers, she wouldn’t have received such contradictory messages on achievement and motherhood. All my siblings believe I deserved my struggles with Anne, since I gave my mom such a hard time:) I vividly remember my brother Andrew saying to me right after Anne was born: “Good, you have a daughter to fight with. That must make you very happy.”

8/31/76 Since I started journaling, I had many insights into my difficulty in choosing a career. It’s intimately bound up with my family, being the only girl with 5 younger bothers. The roots go back a generation; my mother had 5 younger brothers plus a sister she never had very much to do with. In the jargon of early feminism, we were both “male-identified.” As a girl, I was very close to my 5 young uncles.

My mom was a tender, attentive mother who adored little children and managed them beautifully. How could I have not wanted to be like her–beautiful, vivacious, outgoing, loving, warm, playful. But I was nothing like her; I was shy, quiet, introverted, likely to be ignored in a crowded classroom. I always preferred reading to socializing. I always struggled with my belief that my mom wanted a daughter who was more like her rather than like my quiet, introverted, mathematician dad. I enjoyed babysitting; I never regretted being the oldest in a large family. As a child and early adolescent, I adored babies. My uncle had twins when I was 12. I often visited and helped them out, and tormented by mom by hoping that her sixth child would be twins. I frequently took care of my younger brothers when they were babies and toddlers.

Everything changed when I started high school and started to get attention for being smart. Early in high school I rejected my mother’s world and chose my father’s world. But even when my father agreed with me intellectually, he never supported me in my arguments with my mother; instead he blamed me for getting her upset. After my first daughter Anne was born, my dad told me he preferred wise women to intellectual ones. So I rejected my mother’s world, yet I was close to my mother and dependent upon her. No wonder we were constantly fighting. What did my mother symbolize to me? Mindless maternity. A good mind going down the drain with the millions of dishes washed, the millions of diapers rinsed.

I perceived her as a good mother of young children, if not of troubled adolescents because she accepted things, did not probe, question, challenge the way things were. She found it easier to put others before self because she did not have a highly developed sense of self. I on the other hand was selfish and immature, putting my own intellectual development above all else. I clearly saw a dichotomy–wife and mother versus intellectual. No woman I had ever personally encountered had combined both. In fact, the nuns were the only career women I knew. All my aunts, mothers of my friends, the neighbors were housewives. I was in the process of rejecting Catholicism, so I never got close to any nun for her to serve as a role model. I began to suspect I never would get married, that the only way to attract a man was to play dumb, something I would never consider. I wasn’t really rejecting motherhood; I never thought much about it. But when my first boyfriend wanted to tease me, all he had to say was that I was like my mother. I couldn’t imagine anything more insulting.

I always sought out situations where I could be the only woman in a group of men. I didn’t want to seduce them; I wanted to excel them. I made the mistake of going to a Catholic women’s college my freshman year, Nazareth College of Rochester, because they offered the most scholarship money. Almost immediately I wanted to transfer. I told my parents I wanted to switch my major from English to Political Science, and Nazareth had no such department. I was only interested in college debate after the assistant dean explained that Nazareth had no debate club because “there’s something in the nature of a woman that makes it objectionable for her to compete so openly with men.” At Fordham I was usually the only girl in my political science classes. At Stanford, there was only one other woman among the first year grad students. I was positively crushed when I realized how many women there were at Columbia Law School.

It wasn’t enough for me to think like a man; I had to think better than a man. I only made friends with women who had also rejected the conventions of femininity.

Everyone in the family perceived my dad as smarter than my mom, even her. She would always send us to him for the hard math and science homework. We were amazed when she returned to college and got all A’s. And the mother who graduated form college in 1967 and grad school in 1968 and taught high school history was a different mother than the one I knew growing up. Looking back, I see my mother’s ambivalence. My evident influence over her, that fact that she went to college when her youngest entered school, how hard she worked as a student and a teacher, her still emerging feminism all suggest she might have been giving me contradictory messages. Unquestionably, she identified with my opportunity to go away to college, my getting a NYC apartment, my opportunity to get a PhD all expenses paid–such chances were unheard of among her friends when she was my age. When I told her I was dropping out of Stanford and marrying John, she attempted to dissuade me. She never attempted to convince me to have a baby before I was ready to have one. Her reluctance to pressure me seemed to indicate that she would have done the same thing if circumstances were different. I was destined to go beyond her wildest dreams, and she would be very happy for me. Throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, the “masculine” intellectual, achieving, ambitious, competitive side of my personalty was nourished and encouraged by everybody.

So many of my school and career problems are unquestionably related to my constant striving to be a man, to deny my womanhood. That’s why I am only discovering child development as a possible career. Any career involving children was feminine and therefore unworthy of my superior intellect. It was against all my principles and preconceptions to feel overwhelmingly maternal toward Anne. I thought the maternal instinct was a myth and suddenly I was wallowing in it. I suddenly understood had my mother could have decided to have six children. I still cannot understand how I suppressed the woman who can’t pass a baby stroller without smiling and flirting with the baby, whose favorite section in bookstores if child care and children’s books, whose favorite stores sell infant and toddler clothes. When all that arose to me, what had been thoroughly buried for at least 15 years, no wonder so much else came to the surface with it. I often wondered if I had had to have a postpartum episode to become a different creature, a mother.

During that first year after Anne’s birth, I had to learn that I needed people, not just brilliant intellectuals, ordinary people to talk to, to get ideas from. I needed to relinquish my faith in the overriding importance of rationality and learn to trust my emotions. I could learn from almost every mother I met; I could get support from most mothers I met if I could learn how to ask for it.

However, I should have reread this journal before deciding to become a public librarian and a social worker. Having four daughters has not removed the influence of my five brothers and my five young uncles. I still don’t do very well in women-dominated professions. I have always been more comfortable with male psychiatrists, both as a patient and as a therapist. I still love competing with and debating with men. As a social worker, I worked best with clients who were schizophrenics with serious drug problems and often prison records. I suspect I would have done well as a prison social worker. Late at night, I am comfortable in a subway car that is all men. It is still easier to approach a group of men than to approach a group of women. All my life I have struggled with the fear that women won’t like me if they really know me. I’ve never learned tact. Men are easy; they enjoy bright, argumentative women who smile, call them sweetie (because I am not good with names), genuinely admire their ties, shirts, long hair, earrings, or beards, and obviously enjoy them.

About maryjograves

Children are my passion. I have 4 daughters, 5 grandkids under 5 with another on the way, 5 younger brothers, 11 nieces and nephews, 8 great nieces and nephews. I advocate a revolution for a child friendly US. I have been an editor, public librarian, social worker, and internet educator. Tweet @RedstockingGran @ChildrensWings
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5 Responses to August 1976–Feminism and Motherhood

  1. cerebralmum says:

    It's funny, it almost seems as though that could have been written today. I think those old conflicts are still around and women are still struggling to navigate them.And I relate so much to preferring the company of men. I don't know about "learning from every mother I meet", though. I have to be honest and say they bore me to tears.

  2. The old conflicts are certainly still around. There seems less possibility of fathers' sharing in child care more equally. People have to work far longer hours to support a family. Taking time off from work to care for your children seems to have more serious career consequences. Grandparents are either older or still working full-time.Remember I was very new to motherhood when I wrote that and recovering from my family's extreme intellectual arrogance. I was struggling to learn humility. I was lucky in my early mothering; I met enough women who didn't bore me to tears.

  3. Emily says:

    Wow. It is fantastic to find you here. I'll be back.

  4. deb says:

    I think most men are easier to get along with, as a woman. My mother stayed at home with her kids, not because she wanted to but because my father wouldn't let her work. He controlled her life. She cared for children all her life, all of her children and then most of her grandchildren. I know she loves kids. As for me, I never thought I had to choose one or the other, career or motherhood. I just assumed I would do both. I was born at a different time though.

  5. Cynthia says:

    I grew up with a confused, depressed, controlling Mom and a workaholic dad. My Dad has suddenly begun to communicate at age 80. It's amazing. We talk weekly on the phone whereas up until five years ago we probably talked five or so times, tops. I told him about Gene Cohen's book "The Mature Brain" because I think he will relate to the stages that Cohen talks about in the later years… such a hopeful book. When I did my inner child work (very much the vogue when I was a social worker) I was told that my Dad was my early nurturer, and, by gum, that's the truth. I see a whole line of nurturing men in my family of origin, and I am very grateful for that. I also believe I chose my husband because of those similarities to my Dad, and thus, our sons are very nurturing and gentle/kind men. I'm not so blind, though, to recognize that perhaps they are anomalies. I did work in the field of woman abuse for over 20 years and the stories and experiences I had there were really a sharp contrast to my own experiences with men.~Cynthia

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