As I read through the final pages of Naomi Wolf’s (2001) Misconception I couldn’t help but think that when it comes to kids, women give up more than men, and lose more of themselves than men.
Before calling me a cynic, hear what I have to say…
For one thing, in North America, we seem to be obsessed with the seclusion of new mothers. Fathers are often back to work within a week or two, leaving a woman (who is still healing from giving birth) isolated in her home, to not only take care of a new child, but also the home. With the exception of a weekly visit from a midwife, we most often look down on a mother who needs extra help, seeing her as unfit.
While new moms in communities in Malaysia, Guatemala, Japan and Greece are allowed to rest for weeks after childbirth, are given warm baths and ceremonial dinners, moms in North America return to life as per usual, except this time their hormones are imbalanced and they have an infant and recovering body to care for.
Wolf admits that during postpartum she had a strong longing for her own mother, a need to be cared for her and in essence babied. After a bit of research she learned that the extra help for moms in many cultures is not just for the baby, but the mother herself. In fact, studies have shown that mothers become moms by learning from others, it’s not as natural as we think and it most certainly doesn’t come from being in isolation.
And in addition to the ups and downs of dealing with postpartum depression, women often have to take a step back in their career. Women, in having children, are expected to “let go” of their personal goals, because society for so long has made that one of the few options they have. Those mothers who do the opposite are often plagued as bad mothers. Yet, we rarely call a father who goes back to work after two weeks of having a newborn, a bad father.
This is not something new to our society. It has historically been the trend for mother’s to give up (most everything) for their child. Wolf draws on the story from the book of Kings in the Old Testament where two women claim to be the mother of the same child. King Solomon rules that he will cut the child in half and give one to each, solving the argument. One woman agrees, while the other pleads for Solomon to spare the child’s life and give it the other woman. This is how he knows who the true mother is, for a true mom will protect her child from anything, even if it means giving up the child to someone else to save its life.
This ingrained motherly instinct that guilts women into doing the things that are right for the child, but not necessarily right for them, Wolf calls Solomon’s Sword. In knowing that this is how moms will react, society over the years has learned to use this to their advantage.
Wolf (2001) describes how: “women’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of their children is something that our society – from individuals to institutions – relies upon. It is useful leverage in pressuring women of all classes into giving in; in different ways, to unequal deals, negotiated hesitantly from the place of vulnerability that is one’s concern for one’s child” (p. 228).
But this constant sacrifice for a partner, institution, government etc., gradually wears on a woman.
Wolf is careful to note that the husbands of the wives she interviewed weren’t bad guys; they were good men, who believed in the goals of feminism, they just didn’t know how to think differently. They didn’t know how because they have grown up in a culture that doesn’t entertain the idea of a stay at home dad.
And why would men willingly give up something that society has for so many years let them have? It is not up to men alone to change the way child-raising occurs in North America, it needs to start in corporations, in institutional protocols and government legislation – with women.