The Mask Revealed
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Oh Mother, was it tender to tell me nothing of what was to come and what it meant: about marriage, motherhood, death? Tender not to whisper to me even once about resistance or escape, about honor and freedom?
All masks are props for pretending. They can be tragic or comic, serenely composed or agape with horror. Yet every mask, regardless of the content of its expression, projects uniformity, predictability, stasis. Which is why, of all the many kinds of masks in the world, there is no mask of ambivalence or of metamorphosis. Masks portray emotion inert and unmixed in a trade off of range for impact.
At the same timeand for the very same reasonswe need our masks. Or at least we need some of them, some of the time. For all human beings, but perhaps especially so for those inhabiting complex urban environments, social masks are an indispensable accessory in our emotional wardrobe. Indeed, a person incapable of masking her "true" feelings is often (and quite rightly) regarded as immature, sick, or both. To a very considerable degree, what we call self-control depends on our ability to "mask," to deny and repress what we experience, to misrepresent it, even to ourselves.
Although he is deeply misunderstood on this point, it was Freud who pointed out the multiple dividends such repression can pay. Our facility with masks, he argued, hasmade possible the very infrastructure of our collective lives, which he called "civilization." It is difficult to dispute the point. The capacity for emotional make-believe, for pretense, for the construction of situationally appropriate masks, is perhaps our most enduring evolutionary advantage. It is also our greatest curse. The critical distance, it seems to me, lies between self-control and self-delusion.
The mask of motherhood refers to a repertoire of socially constructed representations that have crossed that line. What I am calling the mask of motherhood is in fact an assemblage of frontsmostly brave, serene, and all-knowingthat we use to disguise the chaos and complexity of our lived experience. Like all social masks, the mask of motherhood is an invaluable means for organizing and domesticating the more rapacious aspects of the realities we confront. Yet the personal and political price we pay for this control has far exceeded the value of its social dividends.
The mask of motherhood is what keeps women silent about what they feel and suspicious of what they know. It divides mother from daughter, sister from sister, friend from friend. It creates an abrupt and tragic chasm between adults who have children and adults who don't. It distorts the distance between childhood and adulthood, cutting ever deeper gaps between the generations. It pits male parents against female, amplifying the disjuncture between the verbs "to mother" and "to father." Above all, the mask of motherhood, by minimizing the enormity of women's work in the world, nourishes and sustains the profound ignorance that confuses humanity with mankind.
We see the mask of motherhood in
* the values of a culture that glorifies the ideal of motherhood but takes for granted the work of motherhood, and ignores the experience of motherhood
* media images of Supermom, complete with briefcase, "serious" hair, and a pair of designer-clad preschoolers scampering happily to help with the dishes
* the secret worry of the new mother that "I just wasn't cut out for this"and the gnawing fear that it shows
* books that describe labor contractions as "forceful urges"
* the apologetic tones of the embarrassed mother who murmurs over the screams of her toddler's tantrum, "She's not normally like this ..."
* breast-feeding propaganda that portrays bottle feeding as a form of child abuse
* women's magazines that promise "Great Sex after Baby!"
* child-care manuals that imply that "easy" babies are made, not born, and that an infant's digestive tract is somehow linked by fiber-optic cable to its mother's state of mind
* the grim one-upmanship of play-group moms comparing relative rates of vegetable consumption and verbal development
* the tolerance of women for the selective deafness of fathers at 3:00 A.M., especially in the belief that "a man needs his sleep" so he can "go to work in the morning"
* debates about child care that pass judgment on "what's best for the child" as if a child's needs were separable from those of its mother, father, and siblings
* the smugness of the mother at-home who looks with disdain on her sisters in the workforce
* the smugness of the mother in the workforce who looks with disdain on her sisters at-home.
I was recently asked to speak to a group of undergraduate sociology students about my research into the meaning of contemporary motherhood. I started by dividing the group into two teams: parents and non-parents. I asked them to sit on opposite sides of the lecture hall, leaving a gap of empty seats in the middle. "Do you believe there is a 'great divide' separating parents from non-parents in our society?" I asked. "That people who have children are fundamentally different from people who don't have children?"
I asked the non-parents to comment first. "Of course not," explained one young woman. "Having a child doesn't change who you are as a person." Her fellow teammates nodded in agreement, despite the stifled groans and giggles from the other side of the room. I called for a vote and found the vast majority of non-parents rejected the notion of a great divide.
I addressed the same question to the parent group. Or I should say, I tried to. Before the words were out of my mouth, people were fairly shouting their responses: "Absolutely!" "You better believe it!" "YES!" Most of the people on this team happened to be women, and they proved by far the most vocal contingent. "Let me tell you something," one fortyish woman began, "Not only is there a great divide between those who have kids and those who don't, but there's a conspiracy about keeping the whole thing a secret." Another added, "Yeah, and by the time you figure it out, it's too late!" With this, the parenting team exploded in laughter.
The non-parents were slightly nonplussed. And who could blame them? What the parent group had to say sounded positively sinister, yet there they were, cackling away gleefully and starting to trade wisecracks. Within a few more moments, they were beginning to sound like a group of old army buddies reminiscing about life in the trenches. I didn't even bother taking a vote. The consensus was clear, and it was total.
To me, this scene was forceful illustration of two truths about contemporary parenting. The first is that yes, Virginia, there does seem to be a great divide between parents and nonparents in our society: becoming a parent does change you in significant and irreversible ways into a different person. And the second is that admitting as much publicly means breaking one of our society's most enduring taboos. To tell the truth (or some of the truths) about motherhood to non-mothers, we seem to feel, would be a bit like debunking Santa Claus on the front page of the New York Times. There's no disputing the facts, but you'd have to be a pretty bad sport to go around advertising them, wouldn't you? What's more, the odds are good that the naive audience for whom such revelations would be "news" might never believe them anyway.
For the uninitiated, the realities of parenthood and especially motherhood are kept carefully shrouded in silence, disinformation, and outright lies. The conspiracy of silence is real, and it's documentable. That much is clear. What is much less clear is what purpose the conspiracy serves, and Why the vast majority of women participate in it.
What I am calling the mask of motherhood is the outward and visible sign of this silent conspiracythe public face of motherhood that conceals from the world and from ourselves the momentousness of our common undertaking. The mask of motherhood is what mutes our rage into murmurs and softens our sorrow into resignation. The mask of motherhood is the semblance of serenity and control that enables women's work to pass unnoticed in the larger drama of human life. Above all, the mask keeps us quiet about what we know, to the point that we forget that we know anything at all ... or anything worth the telling.
At the same time, the mask of motherhood is a useful coping mechanism. Yet the dangerand it is one to which women are particularly proneis that the make-believe can become so convincing that we fool even ourselves. When the coping mechanism becomes a way of life, we divest ourselves of authenticity and integrity. We diminish our knowledge, our power, our spirit as women. Ultimately, we no longer make a lifewe fake a life.
Psychologist Harriet Goldhor Lerner believes that "pretending is so closely associated with femininity that it is, quite simply, what the culture teaches women to do." Yet women themselves are clearly co-conspirators in perpetuating the grand illusions of femininity, and the mask of motherhood is no exception. The mask is a disguise of our own choosing, a form of personal armor that, as Lerner points out, ensures the viability of the self as well as our relationships. Pretending, in other words, is a form of self-protection. From this point of view, the mask of motherhood is like a camouflage, rendering our experience safely indistinguishable in a hostile environment. As Lerner writes, "Pretending reflects deep prohibitions, real and imagined, against a more direct and forthright assertion of self."
For the present generation of women, the mask of motherhood is among the most deeply repressed and destructive of all female deceptions. Today, women confess guiltilyor gleefullyto faking orgasms. Yet how many of us will admit, or are even aware, that we are faking motherhood? As Lerner points out, when we fake orgasm, we deceive another. But when we fake motherhood, we betray our deepest selves.
The mask of motherhood not only mutes our voices. It also muffles our ears. Journalist Nina Barrett relates the experience of a young mother whose marriage is coming adrift in the wild wake of early parenthood. "In some of the mother's groups I've joined, I've brought this up in a roundabout sort of way," she confesses. "But people don't seem to want to talk about it. I've heard other women make references to similar problems. It seems like they're almost bursting to talk about it, but they're embarrassed. Like it's somehow their fault. Or maybe they shouldn't be feeling these things ..."
The mask of motherhood keeps women from speaking clearly what they know, and from hearing truths too threatening to face. That for every woman who "blooms" in pregnancy there's another who develops root rot. That childbirthhowever transcendent or relevatory it may or may not bestill hurts like hell. That the persistent cry of a newborn can make your husband's snoring sound like a sonata. That your child's physical demands will diminish at only a fraction of the rate at which her emotional ones will multiply and intensify. That getting the knack of combining motherhood with career is like getting the knack of brain surgery: nice work if you can get it, but 99.99 percent of us never will. That having a "joint project" called a baby drives most couples farther apart, reducing intimacy as it reinforces gender-role stereotypes.
It's not as if we enjoy the dishonesty. It's more that we seem to need it. It is scary enough to face the fact that you yourself are faking it. But the possibility that everyone else may be faking it too is downright terrifying.
The gap between image and reality, between what we show and what we feel, has resulted in a peculiar cultural schizophrenia about motherhood. Canadian sociologist Amy Rossiter argues that our public discourse on the subject of motherhood tells us simultaneously "everything" and "nothing" that we need to know. On the one hand, today's mothers are virtually flooded with "information." On subjects ranging from pregnancy and childbirth to toilet training and preparation for preschoolin virtually every mass medium from books, magazines, and pamphlets to hotlines, videos and web siteswe have an unprecedented number of facts at our fingertips. Yet getting a grip on them seems to get harder and harder. It was Cervantes who remarked that "facts are the enemy of truth." For all the information we have amassed on "how to do it," we remain more clueless and insecure about what we are doing and why we are doing it than perhaps any previous generation.
Anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger has pointed out that the media bombard mothers with advice on health care, self-care, and the maintenance of relationships: how to look good, feel good, and be assertive; how to "keep the romance in her relationship with her man, cook gourmet food and produce candlelit dinners, and at the same time be a perfect mother." Women's magazines, child-care manuals, and parenting classes dispense "tips" on every aspect of mothering from toilet training to postnatal depression. "But the image of motherhood that is presented is a false one," Kitzinger concludes. "A woman who catches sight of herself in the mirror"as it were, unmasked"sees a very different picture. And the message is clear: she is a failure."
Quite simply, what we see of motherhood is not what we get. As a result, the conviction that we are not measuring up becomes almost inevitable. Women's magazines, with their relentless emphasis on "personal development," "success," and "achievement," depict a version of motherhood as glossy as any pin-upand about as representative.
A generation ago, Betty Friedan described what happened when one such magazine invited readers to respond to the topic "Why Young Mothers at Home Feel Trapped." When the editors had finished digging their way out from under the twenty thousand responses, they wondered if they might have touched a nerve. Twenty-five years later, there is a new generation of young mothers, and many of them are not "at home" at all, at least not exclusively. Yet for many women the perception of entrapment remains, along with the sense that life is somehow living them instead of vice versa. The fit between our images of motherhood and the realities we confront is more uncomfortable than ever.
Basically, we have swapped our old set of stereotypes for a new and improved set. In traversing the distance between June Cleaver and Murphy Brown, we've come a long way, baby, without making any appreciable progress at all. Today's media no longer glorify the housewife. Instead, the spotlight has shifted to the celebrity Supermom, She-who-has-it-all. The headlines tell us "Celebrities' Lives Change Completely After They Give Birth." Kathleen Turner volunteers for library duty at her child's school. Meg Ryan takes her kids along on shoots. Julie Walters's newly delivered daughter smelled so "divine" that she "wanted to lick her all over." With such tales of metamorphosis to sustain us, it's no wonder we're starving to death. Such images are the maternal equivalents of Playboy bunnies, nicely proportioned lives with soft curves in all the right places. Trouble is, they bear about as much relation to reality as a backlit, airbrushed cleavage does to a set of lactating glands with cracked nipples.
Meanwhile, as Susan Sarandon breast-feeds her daughter during an important interview, researchers in the United Kingdom are working on a slightly different angle. They find that fully half of all mothers with kids under five years old experience symptoms of intense emotional distress on a regular or continual basis; that women are five times more likely to be diagnosed as mentally ill in the year after their first child's birth than at any other time in their lives. As one mom who has never starred in anything told researcher and parenthood educator Margaret Gibson, "Every mother does not cope. It is a myth that she does. It is a big lie. Not every mother copes, but few are brave enough to admit it."
Research suggests that in our society motherhood can be and often is dangerous to our mental health. If fully half the population of young mothers is having trouble "coping," but almost no one will say so publicly, whose lie is it anyway?
"The most common question I am asked by women with young children is, 'why didn't someone tell me that it was going to be like this?'" writes the editor of one recent study of contemporary mothering. In another study, new mothers were asked "Is looking after the baby anything like you thought it would be?" Only 9 percent said "yes." One among the remaining 91 percent commented, "It's really like living in a different world." Amy Rossiter, who conducted an intensive study into the transition to motherhood, found the major categories to emerge from her interview data were "Shock," "Being unprepared," "Panic," "Anxiety," "Not knowing," and "Feeling out of control."
Yet we are unprepared for mothering in less obvious ways too. It's not just that we don't anticipate the horrors and the hard work. Perhaps more than anything, we fail to anticipate the depth and breadth of the mothering experience, its sheer transformative power in a woman's life. In her classic reflection on the myths and meanings of motherhood, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich evokes this sense of the emotional complexity and richness of new motherhood that no one mentions:
That calm, sure, unambivalent woman who moved through the pages of the manuals I read seemed as unlike me as an astronaut.
No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one's own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other. Child-care specialist Penelope Leach writes, "Bringing up children is probably the most difficult life task people undertake, yet society offers less preparation for it than for any other ... Who would embark on breeding horses or rearing dogs in such ignorance?"
While reading this research, I found myself thinking back to a conversation I'd had with my older sister some thirteen years ago. It was a few weeks after the birth of her first child. In hindsight I realize that Gregory was a classic "high needs" baby: irritable, alert, and colicky. At the time I was aware only that he was cute and cried a lot. I could see that Karen was spending what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time in her darkened bedroom. She was trying to concentrate on breast feeding, she explained. (What was there to concentrate on, I wondered? Could putting a nipple into a little mouth really take so much time and thought?)
I recalled asking later, in a playful sort of way, "Well, tell me about motherhood. What's it really like, anyway?" I was taken aback by the intensity of her response. She looked away from the baby (and that in itself was a rare occurrence), and stared straight into my eyes. "I'm going to tell you this now, and I want you to remember it," she began. "Everyone lies. Do you hear me? Everyone lies about what it's like to have a baby. Don't listen to them. Just watch me, and remember."
I had no idea what a gift she was giving me. I was in graduate school then, just embarking on a career. I didn't even have a boyfriend, let alone an agenda for family planning. But because she was my big sister, I took it on trust. I did watch her closely in those years. In fact, I had very little choice. Because, after Gregory's birth, I found it almost impossible to have a conversation with her. Her body was there, of course, but her mind? Her attention? Her ability to focus? to empathize? to get "outside herself"? These seemed to have vanished. And with each of two succeeding children things only got worse.
"Maybe she should go back to work," I used to think. "Her mind has gone completely to dust." I was aware that she was intensely (and, to my mind, ridiculously) focused on her children. But it was only after my own mind had gone to dust, several years later, that I was able to fathom why and to give some structure to those observations she had forced on me during her years of exile in Motherland.
"Hang in there," she says to me nownow that I am the one juggling three small children and the vestiges of my former self. "The end is almost in sight. And by the time you get there, you'll wonder how on earth you ever coped at all. Instead of berating yourself for the times you've snapped, you'll stand in awe that whole days went by when you didn't snap. And by the time that happens, none of it will really matter any more." Other women who have traveled even further down the road of parenthood assure me (somewhat sadly) that "It all goes so fast. And before you know it, they're gone." Just when you've finally figured out what you're doing, in other words, it's all over.
The thought of each of us laboriously reinventing the wheel of motherhood is disturbing enough. But the prospect of having nowhere to travel with it is even worse. Feminist critic Phyllis Chesler believes that in our society "pregnancy and childbirth are savage tests of your ability to survive the wilderness alone. And to keep quiet about what you've seen. Whether you're accepted back depends on your ability to learn without any confirmation that you've undergone a rite of passage ... You must keep quiet and pretend to return to life as usual."
In her book Motherself, Kathryn Rabuzzi describes motherhood as a "heroic quest" for women, a journey into selfhood and ultimate meaning that cries out to be chronicled, celebrated, and, above all, shared. She writes, "If a society existed in which the way of the mother were the norm, tales of mothers would predominate the way tales of heroes do in cultures throughout the world." Yet the way of the mother is the norm, and that's the infuriating part. This heroic journey, this steepest of learning curves, this drama of birth and rebirthwhatever fine metaphors we choose to dress it up in, the processes entailed in mothering children lie at the very core of what it is to be human. The fact that it needs saying at all is quite remarkable. And enormously revealing. Like a superior athlete or (to use a more appropriate metaphor) a gifted actor, we make it all look so easy. So that instead of being seen as something we do, the work of mothering is something we are: the dancer become the dance. Yet with every pirouette we execute, we feel heavier, clumsier, more contorted. The effort it takes to appear effortless is enormous.
The urgent task of reconciling the realities of motherhood with the ideals of feminism attracted little enthusiasm among the movement's "first wave" thinkers, possibly because most were still too close to the mask to see it. One who wasn't was the young Shulamith Firestone, whose radical manifesto The Dialectic of Sex advocated the complete abolition of motherhood in social terms and, ultimately (for Firestone had high hopes for cloning technology), in the biological sense. It was a particularly bad case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Understandably, few were willing to go quite this far. At the same time, Firestone grasped a nettle that few others could even discern through the thicket: that the issues surrounding the "unequal distribution" of responsibilities for reproduction and care of the young lie at the center of human sexual politics, that without redressing this particular imbalance in the division of human labor, feminism could provide only stopgap solutionswhich is precisely what it has done.
Until very, very recently, this fatal flaw in the feminist vision remained successfully concealedor perhaps "masked" is a better wordin our public discourse. Increasingly, thanks to the work of contemporary researchers such as Arlie Hochschild (The Second Shift, The Time Bind), Sharon Hays (The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood), Martha Fineman (The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and other Twentieth Century Tragedies), Maureen Freely (What About Us? The Mothers Feminism Forgot) and others, our mothering consciousness is rising almost as fast as our expectations. Almost, but not quite.
It remains extraordinary to me that so many of us continue to experience motherhood as so much more, yet so much less, than we were led to expect. During the last trimester of my first pregnancy, I found myself staring in wonderment at total strangers. At crowds passing in the street. "All of these people were born!" I marveled, as if I had never before quite grasped the facts of life. "All of these people had mothers!" I would repeat it to myself slowly and with deliberation, as if translating from code.
For reasons that should be obvious, it was not an epiphany I chose to broadcast. I could picture myself trying to convey my "insight": "Listen everybody! You all were carried in a woman's body! A woman gave birth to each and every one of you! Isn't that incredible?!" It was a revelation that was self-evident to the point of utter banality. At the same time, I was dimly aware then (and am acutely aware now) that the implications of these basic biological facts are profoundly, unutterably significant.
So why are they so fiendishly difficult to discern? How can a woman with a working brain advance to the third decade of her life before the thought occurs to her? When I first began to think seriously and in depth about the implications of motherhood as a central human concern rather than as a peripheral life option, the silences became quite deafening. I began to be aware not so much of barking up the wrong tree but of barking up a tree that the other dogs kept insisting was a broomstick.
As author Sarah Dowse has suggested, the task of unmasking motherhood requires nothing less than a "new imaginationa knitting together of body and mind." She confesses, "When I was younger I imagined that childbirth was incidental, almost irrelevant to the achievements of the intellect, to industry, commerce, or politics." Now a grandmother, Dowse insists that mothering, as the ultimate act of human achievement, needs to be seen as the foreground for such endeavors: "a central, revelatory event."
Other recent writers on the subject of motherhood agree. Yet the suspicion remains that the "new imagination" that dares to move motherhood from the periphery to the center may be sheer self-indulgencea form of gender parochialism or a peculiarly feminine hubris. The temptation of self-censorship remains almost irresistible. Debra Adelaide has observed how often the urge to speak publicly about motherhood ("the most compelling experience of one's life") is suppressed. "The messages one receives say: Don't write about this. It's self-indulgent. Boring. Of limited interest"even to mothers themselves. I know exactly what Adelaide means. One prospective publisher of this book, herself a mother, claimed to be personally interested in the topic but had severe doubts about whether anyone else would. "Mothers want to read about their babies, not themselves," she explained apologetically.
This sense that a discussion of motherhood is either immodest or somehow peripheral and irrelevant reflects the feelings of deep unworthiness that women ascribe to their work, a belief that what we do or fail to do doesn't really matter that much anyway. "My mother nearly died during each of her pregnancies," writes author Fiona Place. "But this, like so many details, I only found out by accident. I was dumbfounded. 'Why haven't you told me?' I asked her. 'I never considered it that important,' she replied."
Women's experiences as mothers, writes Sarah Dowse, "continue to be locked out of history." At one level, it is easy to see why. So few ever remark on the centrality of motherhood to the project of being human, because they simply cannot "see" it. It is a precondition of human existence, like air, water, food. For all human beings, motherhood begins as the invisible environment in which we grow and, to greater or lesser degrees, develop. "We don't know who discovered water," the critic Marshall McLuhan used to say, "but it wasn't a fish." It is no wonder we have not yet fully "discovered" motherhood. More than any other field of human endeavor, motherhood is the water in which all of us swim.
Yet this truth is not the whole truth. If it were, the notion of a "conspiracy of silence" would be easy to discount. Fish do not, after all, conspire to keep themselves in ignorance. But human beings do so conspireboth male human beings and female human beings, though for quite different reasons. Let's examine some of these reasons.
One of my favorite nuggets of wisdom is scrawled in a dank, dark subterranean passageway in the bowels of New York's prestigious Union Theological Seminary. It reads, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." And so, too, using precisely the same logic, would childbirth and the rearing of children. One hugely important reason that scholarship, philosophy, and virtually every other form of public discourse have been so astonishingly silent on the subject of motherhood is simply that men do not experience it. And what we call public discourse is a forum for what men know.