So I know I’ve been out of touch for a while. I could give you a thousand excuses, but I won’t. Instead, I will share with your the article that has prompted me to blog today.
First, the article.
Katie Roiphe: My Newborn Is Like a NarcoticKatie Roiphe: My Newborn Is Like a NarcoticWhy won’t feminists admit the pleasure of infants?
In the six weeks since my baby was born, I seem to have lost all worldly ambition. I can think about September, when I am supposed to go back to work, only with dread. I have a class to teach. I have to start writing again. But the idea of talking about ideas in front of students or typing a coherent sentence (i.e., my normal life) seems totally implausible. Even now, the prospect of writing a few paragraphs about this problem seems almost out of reach. Taking care of the baby—physical, draining, exhilarating—is more like farming: following the rhythms of the earth, getting up at dawn, watching the corn flush in the sunrise. It is not at all like writing.
Some of my fear of returning to work may just be an accurate assessment of my capabilities. The other day it emerged that I lack the intellectual wherewithal to set a table: It was just a little too challenging to hold the number of people at dinner in my head on the walk from the kitchen to the deck. Some of this may be hormones; some is certainly sleep deprivation. I know from my days suffering from insomnia that sleep deprivation is tricky; it makes you sloppy, nervy, and fogged. But you also start to take a kind of perverse satisfaction in the jangly feeling of total exhaustion; you begin to thrive on the physical crisis, the special adrenaline of it.
When the baby was four weeks old, I had to do a reading at Barnes and Noble. I had written the introduction to Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and I was scheduled to do a reading with Talese. On the night of the reading, I left the baby with someone I trust completely and absolutely. I managed to put on a dress and look something like the person who gave readings who I used to be. But when I walked out onto the street, I felt like I was missing a limb. Even though Talese was riveting by any objective standard, my concentration faltered. During the reading I thought about the baby. As people asked questions, I calculated how long the taxi ride home would take. Afterward, there were people who wanted to buy one of my books. The manager of the bookstore held out a pen, and I apologized and told him that I couldn’t sign books, that I had to run home. The manager looked a little bewildered. This was, after all, a book signing at which the authors traditionally sign books.
On the escalator I panicked slightly because the person in front of me wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t pass her to get out of the store quickly enough. During the taxi ride down the FDR highway, I looked out at the water and cried. It was insane, sentimental, out of proportion, and I was aware that it was insane, sentimental, and out of proportion. But only when the baby was back in my arms did I feel OK again.
I remember visiting one of my closest friends on her maternity leave last summer. We sat on a wooden bench in her garden and drank iced coffees, and gazed at her second baby. She is a writer, and we talked about how the women writers we most admired had no children, or have had one child, at the absolute most, but never two. (Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen had no children; Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm all had one.) My friend looked down at her newborn and her tiny eyelashes. She could entertain this conversation in an academic way, but as she adjusted the baby’s hat I could see how far removed it was from anything that mattered to her. Here, sitting in the garden, looking at the eyelashes, would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing The House of Mirth ? You would not.
People often compare having a new baby to the early days of a love affair, which is true as far as it goes, but one’s physical fixation on, and craving for, a newborn is much stronger and more intense that that. How often in a love affair can you literally find yourself in tears because you were away from a man for three hours?
I imagine a better metaphor would be addiction. There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done?
One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a “vocation.” The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.
Some of the pressing tasks I do—say, running to the drugstore to buy more pacifiers—are just excuses to think about the baby, to obsess and dwell upon every little thing about him. Here again is the singular fixation that characterizes addiction rather than calm productivity. The new mother will say, “Look how tiny his fingernails are,” or “What I love are his ears.” But these comments are just socially acceptable ways of musing over and over on the basic miracle: This entirely formed human being just emerged from my body. I imagine to the normally intelligent and unaddled this kind of conversation is quite boring. I notice that when I try to force myself to converse about something other than the baby, I have to think to myself, “Now it’s time to talk about something other than the baby.” I recognize dimly that this is what is annoying about parents, and certainly about our current parenting culture: that subterranean stream of self-congratulation. One did, after all, do nothing more than millions of drunken teenagers on an average Saturday night to make that baby, which is not technically an achievement.
But then part of the allure of maternity leave is precisely this: You give up everything you are and care about. The books on your shelves are not your books; the clothes hanging in the closet are not your clothes. You are the vague, slow, exhausted animal nursing its young. Anything graceful, original, sharp, intelligent about you is gone. And it is that sacrifice of self, that total denial of the outside world, that uncompromising violence done to your everyday life, that is this period’s appeal. You are transported in a way you will never be transported again; this is the vacation to end all vacations.
Of course, in my drugged baby haze I do occasionally recognize that the baby will not always be six weeks old, that I will one day sleep more than two hours at a stretch. I also recognize that if you had a newborn every day of your life you would die. But for now, I feel like closing the shades and staying in the opium den. I know somewhere out there is a great world where people talk and think and write, but I am not interested in going there yet.
Without the subheadline and the odd – and entirely misplaced – jab at feminists, Rophie just sounds like your run-of-the-mill, super-crazy, new mom who is sleep deprived, hormonal, and falling head over heels in love with her new baby. All of this, she readily admits. But the subheadline and that disjointed non sequitur about feminists not understanding the joy of maternity leave, to me, showcases that Roiphe is completely spot on when she says that she in not in the land of the thinking.
The feminist movement, Roiphe says, is dishonest because it underestimates the “passion” of maternity leave in order to gain a political argument.
I’m not sure that the feminist movement frowns on maternity leave. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that this maternity leave thing was brought to you by the feminist movement near you. Helping the male decisionmakers of the time (and of today) understand that maternity leave was – and is – a necessity for women in the workplace was – and is – part of the feminist agenda. It’s a part of that whole women-get-to-choice-their-own-futures thing.
Of maternity leave, Roiphe says that the feminist movement has painted this time as one of “drudgery.”
I’m not sure that’s exactly right, but, again, even Roiphe admits that maternity leave it work. Characterizing maternity leave as work – even if it is the pinnacle of a labor of love – helps to dispel the notion that new moms are getting something special. Explaining that women on maternity leave actually have their hands utterly and entirely full all day long, helps highlight that maternity leave is not some 12-week extra vacation for these lucky ladies. Because maternity leave, while different from working in an office, is work. It’s hard, it’s messy, it’s dirty. It might be among the most rewarding endeavors of our lives, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not work and that it’s not hard.
Additionally, I don’t see what is helpful or illuminating about this particular point. One person’s drudgery is another person’s life passion. If we look at this issue in any other forum – say whether you like to do laundry or not – we can see this very clearly. For one of my aunts, doing laundry is akin to taking a bubble bath. It relaxes her. For another aunt, doing laundry is a punishment and has for years been a service that is outsourced. Sometimes to the other aunt. So instead of taking a punch at feminism for an argument not made, can’t we just agree that some women would rather shave their heads than experience anything even remotely affiliated with Roiphe’s description of maternity leave?
That Roiphe may be in love with the two hour sleeping and the constant feeding and the crying when she is away from her kid, and that this might be the greatest narcotic she’s ever experienced, is her business. Tho, as an aside, I would highly recommend that she expand her narcotic horizons, because please believe there’s some good stuff out there… so I’ve heard.
Yet, her description of her experience with maternity leave sounds more like a shared traumatic experience than some of the other suggestions she makes. To me, her description of her experience with new motherhood sounds like some post-traumatic stress situation, chock full of torturous sleeplessness, lack of cleanliness, and many, many tears. Or maybe it’s just a juiced version of codependency. Or an addiction, perhaps, as Roiphe suggests.
But here’s the thing. Any addiction is a bad thing. From our relationship with actual narcotics, alcohol, food, romantic relationships, parenting, etc, there is one constant piece of advice that is never wrong – all things in moderation. We – the collective we – look down on addictions, rooting them out where we find them, because we know one thing to be true. When someone is addicted to something, they will act irrationally to get, or protect, their fix. These acts of irrationality poise a great risk to the rest of us. Be it something simple like a run-in with a seemingly healthy, functioning adult women who has, unbeknown to you – and possibly her – morphed into the dreaded Mommy Monster. Or something more significant like running into said Mommy Monster who believes it is her right to breast feed in a public place with her entire upper body exposed and her suckling child in clear view of the Starbucks drinking public. Ma’am, there are lots of things that are “natural” about the human body. But we still require shirts and shoes in most establishments. B.T.W. This does not impinge on your rights, or the rights of your child. No shirt, no service. Period.
I’m getting off track.
Maternity leave is a good thing. A great thing even. It’s necessary for women in the workplace in order to respect the rights of women who choose to work and raise children. There are many more strives we could, and should, be taking to further strengthen the ability of parents to be both productive employees and present parents. But that’s for another day.
For now, it sounds like Roiphe is extremely happy. And good for her. But I’m not sure what feminism has to do with her “addiction.” Yet, I would not, for anything, want to share that experience. I hope to welcome a child into my life, and I’m sure I will revisit some of Roiphe’s characterizations of new motherhood then. Though, as a general matter, I prefer my addictions to come in a glass or the freezer section, not in the form of a living, breathing person. And I plan to keep it that way.