Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood
by Naomi Wolf
Doubleday, 326 pp., $24.95
NOW THAT A REAL WAR has been engaged and an ideological truce declared on the home front, it is generally agreed that our criticism should be reserved for certain groups only--particularly those that advocate violence, promulgate stereotypes, and espouse hatred. This makes it an especially opportune time to check in on contemporary feminism, where a parable of sorts can be found in the twists and turns taken lately by one of its more popular practitioners.
Six years ago, Naomi Wolf--author of such works of "Third Wave" feminism as "The Beauty Myth," "Promiscuities," and, now, "Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood"--momentarily rocked the sisterhood with an essay in the New Republic provocatively entitled "Our Bodies, Our Souls: Re-Thinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric." A collection of propositions guaranteed to outrage orthodox believers in "choice," the essay proved an instant media hit. Pro-choice feminists, Wolf declared, had "relinquished the moral frame around the issue of abortion." They had "dehumanized" the contents of a pregnant woman's womb and failed to acknowledge that "the death of a fetus is a real death."
These and other apparent concessions to the pro-life movement, issuing as they did from one of the premiere exponents of neo-orthodox feminism, naturally raised eyebrows. In retrospect, however, what made Wolf's New Republic performance worth remembering was not its heresies, but rather, what she concluded--or more accurately, failed to conclude--from them. For far from finding that abortion must, after all, be profoundly wrong, Wolf simply asserted that, despite it all, "abortion should be legal"; that, as she put the point brutally at the close of her essay, "sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die."
Wolf's position, stripped of its pro-life rhetorical concessions, amounted to the claim that the fetus is human and that it is still okay to kill it; or more exactly, that one may kill a fetus if and only if its humanity is first recognized. Such a ritualized view of fetal destruction--in which killing is unobjectionable, even routine, so long as it is accompanied by the right words and sentiments--was peculiar even by the battle-hardened standards of feminist rhetoric about abortion. One might almost call it an intuitive Nietzscheanism, if such were not unfair to Nietzsche.
WHAT MADE IT EVEN MORE PECULIAR was that Wolf (not unlike Gloria Steinem of the generation before) has long projected one of the more appealing personas of her crowd. Wolf's book-jacket photos, for example, make her look pretty and warm. She is neither humorless like the Robespierrean Susan Faludi nor ferocious like Catherine MacKinnon. Moreover, having married and given birth to two children, Wolf is not representative of what might be called the monastic wing of feminism; her writing on men and children is shaped by the fact that she actually knows some. And while her books, as Christina Hoff Sommers and other critics have demonstrated, fall somewhat short of scholarship, they do have an earnestness--indeed, a girlish enthusiasm--that distinguishes them from the dour Leninism in which so many of her contemporaries wallow. In short, if current feminism can be said to have a human face, Naomi Wolf is it--which is exactly why her latest book, "Misconceptions," carries a weight that other feminist treatments of pregnancy and motherhood do not.
IN KEEPING WITH THE MYTH-BUSTING RHETORIC of her previous efforts, Wolf intends "Misconceptions" to be an exploration of "the hidden truths behind giving birth in America today"--truths about how motherhood is "undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women's expense." As in Wolf's own "The Beauty Myth" or Faludi's "Backlash," the intended formula here is clear: to listen to "the full spectrum of stories that women confess to one another, including stories that they intuit they must not speak out loud in our culture," in the hopes of exposing the dark "truths" about pregnancy and birth in America.
Primary among those "stories," as it happens, is Wolf's own. From the opening of chapter one where she finds herself praying (at a chic wedding in Italy) that she is not, in fact, pregnant, to the closing "Mother's Manifesto" calling for flex time, on-site day care, expanded playground babysitting, and just about anything else that makes it easier to separate mothers from their children (i.e., "better, happier parenting"), this book documents the author's profound ambivalence about her own experience of pregnancy and childbirth. What lies between the covers is a wide-ranging monologue of complaint about almost every aspect of pregnancy and birth, including pregnancy handbooks, weight gain, cesarean sections, episiotomies, cold hands, 1980s medical-office architecture, maternity clothes, suburbia, childbirth classes, hospital decorating schemes, obstetrical checkups, fetal monitors, anesthesia, diaper bags, park benches, and much more.
Wolf's unhappiness over what motherhood required is real enough. Other women, for example, suffer morning sickness; Wolf was "sick daily until my child was delivered," at times "throwing up five times in seven hours." Other women find that pregnancy makes them more sensitive and emotional; Wolf gets "cursed with what felt like a sixth sense to detect death and decay." Other women dread their confinement on the delivery table; only Wolf looks back at herself "strapped down as if on a crucifix." Likewise, life with baby quite naturally makes many women feel tied down; but who else would write, "I feared I would be chained forever to our bilious couch, sucked on all day by a hungry newborn, like Prometheus chained to a rock"?
And, perhaps inevitably, where other women get what used to be called the "baby blues" (the days immediately following birth when profound hormonal changes, combined with fatigue, leave many women low in spirits), Wolf's post-partum turns out to be only the beginning of a prolonged tumble into an abyss, a depression that--despite her "crazy love" for her baby--"did not lift," she reports, "until six months later."
It is this part of the book, when the pain and uncertainty of childbirth itself are over and a healthy child has been delivered to the author's arms, that catapults "Misconceptions" from ordinary Boomer ingratitude into territory thickly pathological. For despite her extraordinary advantages--a healthy baby, a hardworking husband, a big suburban house, the money to afford help, a rewarding career she can continue at least part-time--Wolf simply cannot rally to maternal happiness. The house is "cavernous"; the help, morally problematic. The playground is uncomfortable, the driving onerous, and her career, to her evident shock, is on the back burner while her husband's is not. Moreover, while she does love the baby--and Wolf's prose on this subject certainly rings true, albeit constantly qualified by complaint--even weeks after childbirth she "still had a hard time thinking of her by name" because "of my emerging depression and because of my trauma-slowed sense of understanding her fully as a child."
THIS CATASTROPHIC EXPERIENCE of motherhood, Wolf further reports, is widely shared among her contemporaries--or it would be, if only "the taboo against voicing our fears and bowdlerizing our experiences can be broken." "I wish someone had told me how unbelievably bloody and violent [birth] would be." "I wish someone could have let me know I would lose my self in the process of becoming a mother--and that I would need to mourn that self." "I feel that there is this intruder in the house who is never going to go away," one of the author's friends tells her. Like her, "many women I talked to" also appear to have had traumatic deliveries (or what Wolf calls "ordinary bad births"). Most experience "a sense of acute social demotion that came with motherhood"; even worse, "all around me, no matter how much the couple adored the baby and one another, the marriages were in upheaval." At one point, Wolf produces a long list of negative feelings ("I feel so ugly," "I feel so nervous," "I feel like a failure," "I cry all the time," "I feel so ashamed," etc.), informing us that "most of these feelings were shared to some extent, at some time, by me, and by most of the new moms I knew."
Exactly how awful are the experiences of these women? One "walks the street wondering what's the easiest way to kill myself." Another is in therapy. Most profess sexual unhappiness, and several continue to look awful even months and months after their babies are born. Motherhood has pushed them to the brink, perhaps beyond. "There were times she had to walk right away from her shrieking Daisy, go into her bedroom, close the door, and pray, just to keep from harming herself or her daughter," Wolf reports of one.
CONSIDERED AS POLEMICAL ARGUMENT, "Misconceptions" is a contradictory mess. Wolf complains, for example, about how excruciating childbirth is, and she also complains about the very drugs and procedures that--miraculously and for the first time in human history--ameliorate that agony. She reports in bitter detail about her cesarean birth at the hands of a state-of-the-art medical team, only to inform cheerily in a postscript that her second birth, at the hands of politically correct midwives, turned out to be a cesarean, too. She excoriates "society" for not doing enough to support new mothers, exactly as if the feminist ideology she cherishes had not been the chief instrument of the demotion of motherhood these last several decades. She writes contemptuously of the new fathers who hustle off to work right away and leave women to do the childcare; but one can only imagine how withering her prose would have been if the men of her acquaintance had not decided that providing for their new families was a full-time job.
And, of course, as in her New Republic essay six years ago, Wolf mires herself once again in a monumental contradiction over abortion. On the one hand, she is avowedly "a pro-choice woman." On the other hand, her "attitudes about abortion were shifting like magma under the ocean floor, caused by upheavals too deep to see."
As before, however, those "upheavals" make no dent in Wolf's own advocacy. In a particular burst of Nietzschean enthusiasm, she even dragoons her own fetus into serving the pro-abortion cause, reporting, "I cherished that nose and those hands [in her unborn child's sonogram picture]. But I felt: I am not fooled. And I could swear that, when it had looked at me, it had conveyed this directly to me: Yes, I will be a human baby eventually, small, helpless, new, and wholly lovable. But not yet."
IT IS TEMPTING, of course, to dismiss Naomi Wolf's "Misconceptions" as just one more example of Boomer solipsism run amok, as the book's reviewers have tended to do. Thus Publishers Weekly went out of its way to slam the book as a "weirdly out-of-touch bid for personal attention," while the Washington Post found it "self-indulgent" and "self-aggrandizing." Even the New York Times, though generally kind, called Wolf a "maddening writer" who "betrays the reader's sympathy." Underlying at least some of this criticism is a sense that Wolf has failed feminism by putting herself, rather than her ideology, at center stage--that, as the Post put it, "by writing poorly, arguing worse, she lets down her side."
IN FACT, HOWEVER, THESE CRITICISMS are unfair to Wolf, who has delivered with "Misconceptions" something deep and authentic about her time and place. This is actually how she and other feminists think; it is the way her friends and acquaintances talk. Contrary to what its detractors say, this book is more than a memoir; it is also, and despite the episodic appeal of Wolf's earnestness, the latest entry in a genre of feminist works explicitly and self-consciously ambivalent about birth and children and mothering.
The cold eye that "Misconceptions" casts over motherhood has a pedigree. In her new memoir, "An Old Wife's Tale," Midge Decter mentions in passing "the horrible things said about the very young by the likes of such feminist heroines as Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer--not to mention the mother of them all, Simone de Beauvoir." Anyone who has survived an encounter with "women's studies" will know just what Decter means about the grudge such writers bear against offspring. As the dissident Elizabeth Fox-Genovese observed in "Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life," what Betty Friedan famously called the "problem without a name" does indeed have a name: children.
WOLF ALSO ECHOES UNWITTINGLY another extraordinary and insufficiently remarked-upon trend in contemporary feminist writing: the flirtation with what might be called the "root causes" of child abuse. Some years ago, writing in the now-defunct magazine Contentions, Neal Kozodoy zeroed in on one early example of this genre, a 1988 New York Times piece called "'Good' Mothers Feel Dark Urges." In it, a corporate lawyer and mother pondered how "every week now we hear of another young mother assaulting or even murdering her infant," and pronounced that those women and she were "sisters under the skin." For "a woman who puts her two-month-old son 'under the water until he stopped crying' is not a different species of animal than I," the mother-lawyer opined.
Bizarre though it seemed at the time, this small declaration of moral equivalence proved only the beginning. In the years since, woman-friendly rationalizations of child abuse and murder have become a common part of the media cycle that follows instances of abandonment or infanticide. Just a few years ago, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker even lent scientific patina to such efforts in the New York Times Sunday magazine, observing of several such high-profile cases that "to a biologist, birth is as arbitrary a milestone as any other." "Several moral philosophers," he went on, "have concluded that neonates [i.e., babies] are not persons, and thus neonaticide [i.e., baby killing] should not be classified as murder."
As Michael Kelly put it in a vehement critical response, "The article by Steven Pinker in the Times magazine did not go quite so far as to openly recommend the murder of infants, and printing the article did not constitute the Times's endorsement of the idea. But close enough, close enough." Following the dots that connect abortion to infanticide, Kelly also acknowledged: "Of all the arguments advanced against the legalization of abortion, the one that always struck me as the most questionable is the most consequential: that the widespread acceptance of abortion would lead to a profound moral shift in our culture, a great devaluing of human life." He had been skeptical of this particular slippery slope, Kelly emphasized. But "this time, it seems, the pessimists were right."
Who could possibly refute it? Just last summer, in another free fall down the slippery slope that also attracted public outcry (most sharply from John Podhoretz in the New York Post), celebrity feminist Anna Quindlen offered up these stunning reflections on the case of Andrea Yates, the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub:
"Every mother I've asked about the Yates case has the same reaction. She's appalled; she's aghast. And then she gets this look. And the look says that at some forbidden level she understands. The look says that there are two very different kinds of horror here. There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of seven."
Nor was Quindlen the only feminist to seize on the Yates case as an opportunity to declare solidarity with child murderesses. The Houston branch of NOW actually started a "support group" for Yates's defense ("one of our feminist beliefs is to be there for other women," explained the chapter president). Patricia Ireland simultaneously ventured that the Yates murders were the outcome of American patriarchy, where "women are imprisoned at home with their children." Even more audaciously, in Salon, Susan Kushner Resnick--a former writer of the "Hers" column in the New York Times magazine and author of a book about her own post-partum depression--declared sympathy for Yates on the grounds that she, too, had entertained taboo thoughts about her own infant son. ("The baby was the size of a chicken," she explained. "What if I put him in the oven?")
IN SUCH CALLOUSNESS, as in much else, it was the gore-transfixed Simone de Beauvoir who first set the tone, both conceptually (she believed that the act of killing through abortion admitted women to full humanity) and aesthetically, in the contemptuous terms ("that thing in the womb," "that thing being fed with her blood") with which she reconfigured the world for many women. Who could fail to hear echoes of de Beauvoir, for example, in Molly Yard, who declared of China's policy of compulsory abortion, "I consider the Chinese government's policy among the most intelligent in the world"? Or in the vigorously pro-abortion Katha Pollitt, arguing repeatedly that the unborn are just too small to be morally significant? Or in Susan Faludi, whose "Backlash" put the word "eyes" in quotation marks when speaking of a fetus--as if there were anything else those organs could be called? Or in the white-knuckled defense by "women's rights" organizations of late-term abortions--procedures that even the pro-choice Daniel Patrick Moynihan has pronounced "too close to infanticide"? Or in the continuing feminist preoccupation that there are somehow not enough abortions in America today?
For that matter, who can fail to hear echoes of such inhumanity even in Naomi Wolf, over on the softer flank of the slippery slope, who closed her New Republic essay six years ago with a sepulchral paean to "the blood of the desperate and the unpreventable and accidental and the medically necessary and the violently conceived abortions. This is blood that the doctors and clinic workers often see clearly, and that they heroically rinse and cause to flow and rinse again. And they take all our sins, the pro-choice as well as the pro-life among us, upon themselves." Is it really hard to see why someone who can sign her name to such words will insist years later, in a book about her own maternity, on the theoretical dispensability of her very own fetus--even as she "cherished that nose and those hands"?
THE DIRTY LITTLE SECRET of the mommy wars, perhaps the last genuine secret left to excavate from that cultural pit, is that most women do not talk and think about motherhood and babies, born or unborn, the way Wolf and other contemporary feminists do. Whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice is beside the point. Most women do not revel in the bloody details of "reproductive choice"; most do not think of themselves as potential child abusers and killers; and most do not experience pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood as personal catastrophes.
But our pro-choice activists, our orthodox feminists, do--from the troops who woman the battlefronts of NOW and NARAL and Emily's List, to the aging ghouls who flaunt their own children's pacifiers as they march for the destruction of other people's babies. What it would take to truly satisfy these souls is something that--fortunately enough--we may never know.
This much, however, is plain: Three decades after Roe v. Wade was handed down, there is no mistaking the connection between what the high priestesses of abortion believe about disposability of the human fetus, and the turmoil that motherhood itself unleashes in them.
The incessant sacralization of their favorite rite has done more than harden our feminists toward what it is they kill. It has also deformed their view of the babies and children that fetuses become.
A contributing editor to Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt is a regular essayist for The Weekly Standard.
November 5, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 8