Not Becoming My Mother

Am I imagining it, or does Ruth Reichl?s mother resemble Betty Friedan? In the photograph on the cover of this slender, touching portrait, Miriam Reichl appears to have the same heavy-lidded eyes and prominent nose as the feminist icon. But the comparison may have occurred to me because Miriam’s disappointing life evokes Friedan?s landmark work, The Feminine Mystique: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night,” wrote Friedan, ?she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — Is this all?? Reichl’s book — which grew out of an arresting award-acceptance speech in which she credited her mother as ?a great example of everything I didn?t want to be? — attempts to trace how far Miriam’s life really reflected Friedan’s portrait. She employs a treasure trove of letters and musings that Miriam had scribbled on scrap paper throughout her life and preserved in a box. Much of what her daughter found was surely painful to read: Miriam’s ambitions to be a doctor were thwarted by controlling parents, who were obsessed with marrying off the daughter they thought of as “homely.” The lessons Reichl draws from her mother?s misery — among them that a worklife is “the key to happiness” — cut right to the heart of the thorny conflicts that have vexed modern feminism. More and more educated mothers defend their decision to stay home, while working-class women have long had no choice but to occupy jobs that could hardly be called “the key to happiness.” But this short, powerful book offers an up-close look at an experience common to many women of Miriam’s generation, and it is as brave for Reichl to get to know this new mother as it is heartbreaking that she didn?t do so until years after her death.