When a close friend of mine heard that I was writing something about motherhood, he—a resolutely feminist “he”—told me candidly that books on the subject provoked a kind of “sigh” in his “soul.” As much as I wanted to dismiss his response as the prejudice of someone who has neither a child nor the anatomy to give birth to one, I confess that his words might as well have been mine. Books about motherhood so often turn out to be books about mothering—which is to say, manuals on how to do it or memoirs on how it was done, with barely a sense of a world outside the home, or even Berkeley or Park Slope. On special occasions, China or France or the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert might come up for consideration, but then the discussion will still revolve around breast-feeding and sleep-training techniques, while bigger questions of politics and culture are brushed aside.
No doubt being a new parent can be so discombobulating that what many mothers may want most is a book that’s immediately useful, whether by way of advice or commiseration. In Raising America (2003), Ann Hulbert’s history of American parenting manuals, she notes that child rearing is an “American fixation, especially since the start of the twentieth century and particularly among the middle class.” The market for expert guidance thrives on parental anxiety and uncertainty—and because mothers have traditionally shouldered most of the child-rearing duties, that anxiety and uncertainty has generally belonged to them. Hulbert traces how advice has oscillated between strictness and permissiveness, with the fashion for one emerging in reaction to the other. Even Dr. Spock, often portrayed as the original guru for indulgent parents (in the 1960s, conservatives pilloried him for having nurtured a generation of student protesters), wasn’t entirely consistent throughout the numerous incarnations of Baby and Child Care; in the second edition, he discussed the dangers of letting a child rule the roost and encouraged mothers to assert more control.
What distinguishes the American tradition of “parental guidance” from those of other cultures is precisely the lack of a firm tradition, which is perhaps why child-rearing manuals—which offer clear prescriptions to the exhausted and confused—tend to flourish here. Many Americans live in a different city from their parents, if not a different state; with one or two siblings, often close in age, they may have had little to no experience with infants while they were growing up; and for those who are the children of immigrants, the ways in which their parents were raised might reflect the historical and cultural practices of another country—practices the children believe impractical or undesirable. In other words, the usual methods of transmitting child-rearing practices from generation to generation are less prevalent here. Add to this the cacophony of expert voices and passing fads, and you get a population of American mothers who have been exhorted to do one thing as well as its exact opposite.
This extreme variability shows how parenting books reflect cultural tensions that affect mothers and non-mothers alike. Motherhood is intimately connected to assumptions about mothers and fathers, about women and men, families in general and society at large. Feminists have been saying this for a while now—Betty Friedan in the 1960s, with The Feminine Mystique; Adrienne Rich in the ’70s, with Of Woman Born. Even Simone de Beauvoir, who never had children and was disgusted by the “curse” of reproduction, devoted a good part of The Second Sex to examining motherhood and the sentimentalization of the “Good Mother” that affects all women, whether or not they happen to have children. She first made this case in 1949; American readers were introduced to the book in 1953. (Alfred A. Knopf had apparently bought the translation rights to Le deuxième sexe under the mistaken impression that it was a highbrow sex manual—but still.) So when the discussion of contemporary motherhood is defined by terms like “lifestyle choices” and “mommy wars” (oh, those silly mommies!), the implication is that our culture has accommodated itself so fully to women’s desires and ambitions, in all their variety, that the decisions a woman faces are as easy and consequential as whether to buy a certain pair of shoes. Her experience might be of interest to others in the market for women’s shoes, but why should anybody else care?