20 Pages


An American Reading Ann Snitow

I’ve just emerged from a bout of reading, a wide eclectic sampling of what this wave of US feminism has had to say about motherhood. My conclusions are tentative, and there’s another study that I’ve learned arises directly out of this one-a study of how feminists have misread our own texts on this subject. My reading came as the end point of a year and a half of infertility treatments and, although I see now how heavy that experience lies on my own readings, perhaps my misreadings, I’ve also come to see that anyone doing this work is likely to worry about where to stand. I want to criticize the pervasive pronatalism that has so shaped my recent experience-a pronatalism not only in the culture at large but also inside feminism-but this desire inevitably raises the question: who is allowed to criticize pronatalism, to question the desire for children? The mothers might feel it disingenuous to take on this task; they have their children after all. And the childless are bound to feel that their critique is a species of sour grapes. Certainly, women like me who have tried so hard to have babies late might well feel sheepish and hypocritical about mounting a heavy critique of pronatalism. Will the lesbian community speak up with unembarrassed enthusiasm for the child-free life? Not now. Far more typical at the moment is the recent book Politics of the Heart: A Lesbian Parenting Anthology. (Although I find there Nancy D.Polikoff’s question to the community: ‘Who is talking about the women who don’t ever want to be mothers?’ Her answer: ‘No one’) (Pollack and Vaughn, 1987) In one of the best collections of essays about the decision to mother I’ve found, Why Children?, the editors say they searched for mothers unhappy with motherhood and they found them; but they could not get these mothers to write (Dowrick and Grundberg, 1981). The dissatisfied mothers feared hurting their children if they admitted how little they had liked mothering. And what about the mothers who had children against their will? Are they in a position to complain? Not really, once again: it will hurt the children to know they were unwanted. Besides, women have made an art of turning these defeats into triumphs; women have made a richer world out of their necessities. And so the children rarely hear a forthright critique of how women come to mother in a patriarchy-although, of course, they usually know all about it at one level or another, and guilt is left to fill in the holes of the story.