Back in college, I used to have a t-shirt that said something like, “Because women’s work is never done, and when it is it’s underpaid, and because we’re either prudes or sluts, either smothering mothers or neglectful parents, either passive or nags… and because a man can walk on the moon but we still can’t get an adequate safe contraceptive or decent affordable childcare… for all these reasons & more, I am a feminist.” I once wore that t-shirt to a block party in my hometown, and several quiet suburban moms surprised me by asking where they could get this t-shirt, too.
Now I often teach my students about the virgin/whore dichotomy. My students all recognize the idea that high school girls are placed in one of two categories, neither of them good. I tell my students that one of the lessons of feminism is that, whenever you get only two choices, it’s wisest to try to find a third way. Sometimes I even ask my students questions with only two binary answers, waiting for the clever ones to remember to look for a third way out of the dichotomy. I thought I knew this myself.
But now that I’m a mother, I am re-learning these binaries. I find myself fearing that I either hold Sophie too often or not enough. I either pamper her or neglect her. Moms are always extremist, it seems, and always at fault. I can’t think of any pop-culture models of a basic human mother. There are a few superhuman angelic moms & there are many demonized moms, but just a regular flawed person doesn’t seem to be modeled for us anywhere.
Example: on Sunday I was holding Sophie in my arms in a restaurant. She had been restless in her highchair, so we took her out, letting her look around. But I allowed myself to get distracted by taking a bite of toast, and Sophie took that opportunity to dive out of my arms. She hit the floor head-first. It seemed to go in slow-motion. I think I grabbed her feet soon enough to at least slow her fall. And I know I feel incredibly guilty. I could see this as giving my child independence, letting her explore her world, even learn to deal with little bruises — but I don’t see it that way. I just see it as my fault. I actually had to leave the restaurant after that, because I imagined the other people there were giving me nasty looks.
Another example: on Saturday, Sophie got sick. She was inconsolable in the middle of the night. All our normal soothing-back-to-sleep tricks just seemed to escalate her crying. Nursing her, walking her, rocking her, wearing her in the sling, singing our lullabies: nothing worked, even after we gave her baby tylenol for her pain. So then, at 2am, after two hours of futilely trying to soothe her to sleep, I gave up. I turned on a dim light and let Sophie take toys out of her toybox. I could hear, in my head, the voice-over narration of Supernanny (from that tv show), shocked: “They let her play with toys in the middle of the night! They have entirely lost control!” Really, Supernanny is usually one of my heroes. But in the middle of the night, I just imagined her insulting me. Everyone I have told this story to hurries to reassure me that I did a wise thing, that after 2 hours you can’t keep fighting a child who won’t sleep. I let Sophie play for 45 minutes, then I slowly turned on her lullaby music (Priscilla Herdman is my true hero; she doesn’t switch sides on me like Supernanny) and turned off the lights and gently eased Sophie to sleep. I think I did the best possible thing. It’s the guilt that surprised me.
A few months ago, I was at the playground, pushing Sophie in the swing & talking to her, like I usually do, narrating whatever comes into my head. Cheerfully, I said to her, “Oh, look at that, the sun is in your eyes. I’m a horrible mother.” The other moms at the playground burst out laughing. “Get used to it,” one said. “That’s a thought I have many times a day.”
It’s a thought that I should be feminist enough to analyze away — but I’m not there yet.