I can’t even remember now why I added it to my reading list, but I do remember being instantly curious about what Reading Women by Stephanie Staal had to say. The official title is this: Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life. The premise is that Stephanie Staal, a young mother who is bewildered by how messed up her life has gotten since having a baby, goes back to her alma mater, Barnard College (a women’s college) in NYC and retakes Introduction to Feminist Texts, in the hopes that she can reconcile her image of herself as a confident, young feminist and her new motherhood.
Starting about my sophomore year of college, I began to identify myself as a “feminist.” Up until then, feminism was simply a group of women who blamed men for everything, but once I really started to learn about it, I realized that while I may not be a radical, militant feminist, I did feel like there were still some cultural and institutional constraints on and beliefs about women that were oppressive, and that I had a responsibility to work towards changing them. Staal’s journey sounded very much like an experience I would have enjoyed, so I picked up Reading Women hoping to live a little vicariously through her and get a better handle on the basic tenants of feminism at the same time.
While reading, I kept putting little post-its at passages that resonated with my own experience. I’ve decided to share some of those passages and my thoughts about them. Reading this brought up more questions for me because I felt like Staal, and the feminist authors she’s quoting, of course, were able to articulate the difficult feelings I’d been having and the paradoxes in which I found myself.
One of the major themes I latched on to was how motherhood and womanhood have been defined for us. Adrienne Rich said she felt alienated by the “institution—not the fact—of motherhood.” Staal summarized the institution of motherhood as “the belief that a mother need no longer feel any ambition, any curiosity, any desire of her own.” Later, I heard another description that was a little more concrete. I heard this on an incredible podcast called “Mormon Matters” just a few weeks ago, long after I’d read Reading Women and had some time to stew it over. (This podcast is entitled “Mormonism's Messages about Motherhood” and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, especially young moms. They did a great job helping me see some of the oppressive (or, for a nicer word, un-helpful) messages about motherhood my culture has given me while at the same time, helping me feel the desire to be a better mother, be kinder to my children, and appreciate my mom. Please listen to it.)
This comes from lesson 8 in the Young Women Manual 1. It says, “…if we believe that life as a wife and mother is routine and boring, it will be. But if we can understand our divine purposes and realize the great potential we have, our role will take on greater meaning than any other task in this world. By cheerfully and enthusiastically supporting our husbands and by bearing, nurturing, and teaching righteous spirits, we can experience the greatest fulfillment.” To me, this is the institution of motherhood: that having children is the most fulfilling thing a woman can do and you just need to have a good attitude about it to be happy. If you are not happy, you are failing in your role as wife and mother. Also, if you are not completely fulfilled by motherhood, you are not trying hard enough.
Now, I think this is an extreme description of motherhood, and I have heard talks from General Authorities in General Conference debunking these very messages, but the fact remains that this is a message I had internalized from girlhood. So every time I felt unhappy or unfulfilled, it meant I was an inadequate mother, an unsupportive wife, and that I probably just wasn’t trying hard enough. I also felt like I couldn’t talk about feeling unhappy or unfulfilled to other moms because they obviously had it together and despite the challenging times of motherhood, they were always cheerful.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. While I was reading the book, I kept Staal’s definition of the institution of motherhood. Here it is again: the belief that a mother need no longer feel any ambition, any curiosity, any desire of her own. Since becoming a mother, and especially since moving to Massachusetts where many more women work, and many of those in very high profile careers, I felt this assumption that my ambitions and skills and talents and anything that made me interesting had stopped existing. I sense this most acutely when Sam and I meet another couple, and they ask what we do. Sam gives his answer and then they turn to me. I say, "I stay at home with our children," (anyone got any ideas on a better way to phrase that?) and the conversation screeches to a halt. I often find myself fumbling something about how it's "fun" or "nice" or "a lot of work, but worth it" while the other couple is trying to back peddle through their own shock and say something polite. It's as if when I said I chose to be a mother full time, it was like admitting I had no other interests, and that I had nothing valuable to say outside of talking about children. I certainly don't think other people mean to make me feel that way, it just seems clear they feel they have absolutely nothing in common with me, and have no idea how to approach our relationship from here.
Realizing this is when I finally got to take my anger and pin point it at something. I was angry at society for telling us the mothers didn’t need anything but motherhood. I was angry at other people for believing that and assuming I wasn’t anything beyond my motherhood. I was angry at my kids for hijacking my identity. I was angry at myself for being angry at my kids because I knew it was my choice that brought them here in the first place, and that I couldn’t just say, “Screw you cultural norms, I’m a good mom and I know it. I’m a smart, interesting, creative woman and I know it. It doesn’t matter what other people think because I know who I am.” The problem was, this anger spilled over into many other aspects of my life.
Stall gives a great description of what an angry mom looks like, “There are the good moments [like when her daughter declares she wants to be a writer like her mom], but there are also the bad ones, and the entire spectrum arching between. Moments when my temper flares, so swift and bright, I scare even myself. Sometimes, feeling overextended, I am prone to snap. Maybe Sylvia refuses to put on her shoes when we're already late for school, and I jam her feet in them a little too roughly. Or she starts whining for a cupcake when she has just had a box of animal crackers, and I lash out in disproportionate anger. Or she accidentally spills a sticky glass of juice across the brand-new dining room table, and I send her to her room in a rage. I can feel this hulking restiveness beneath my skin that I try with all my might to restrain. Parenthood is rife with these little fits of fury, these powerful eruptions of frustration, and to keep them at bay, I constantly search to find the right balance of responsibility to my child and responsibility to myself.”
I remember one afternoon in particular. I can’t remember any details of the day or what had gone wrong to make me so frustrated, but the feeling of “hulking restiveness” is etched clearly in my memory. I know Sam was at school, working late, and I was trying to do something—maybe getting Levi into his pajamas—and a whiny Anna kept getting in the way. Finally, when she came near me, I pushed her. It was a little push, not even hard enough to make her fall down, but the fact that I had been physically aggressive toward my child made me snap back to the moment. As I took in the shock on Anna’s face and the sound of her frightened and angry little voice yelling, “No! No Mommy! We don’t push!” I burst into tears. As I held Anna and rocked her, apologizing over and over again, I felt so lost and so scared. Where had this come from? This wasn’t what I wanted to be. Why can't I control this? What will happen if I don’t?