The following is a letter to the author of a book on raising children in America, an acquaintance. I read this book in manuscript form and do not remember the author’s name. She’ll be glad I forgot. While your observations regarding the lack of acknowledgment and proper respect for particular mothers in specific circumstances throughout the land ring true and unassailable,, it seems to me that you are seeing the forest and that the forest is beautiful and nourishing and custom made for motherhood. While I’m creating analogies, picture a vast, slowly spinning spiral galaxy way off in the distance, far enough so that its astounding magnificence is fully perceivable - surely one of the most striking, mind-numbing wonders of our universe. Such is motherhood in America. Our entire culture, with its vast economic structures and mores, its complex legal system, its patterns of socialization of the young, of marriage, work and war, are all geared to create the best of all possible worlds for the mothers of America. Our Western Culture is that nebula and it spins for motherhood. Upon closer inspection, this galaxy is composed of stars that will burn you if you get too close, of planets whose atmosphere is not suitable for a breath and even our own hospitable planer Earth has very cold polar regions and equatorial zones that are too hot. The oceans are large and not suitable places to live either. There are relatively few nice places for people to live on Earth but they exist and in these places, life can be beautifully, gracefully explored.
In my experience, including first-hand observation of a mother in great turmoil, it appears to me that our culture rewards those who buy into motherhood and it destroys those who do not and it destroys many innocents who are not given a chance to demonstrate a leaning one way or another - for or against motherhood. The executive suites of a thousand corporations are occupied by men who obeyed their mothers, who sublimated their innate propensity for physical mayhem and focused their energy on achieving social status and the hard work and subtlety required to achieve it. They have lived lives of delayed or transmuted gratification of violence in order to propagate our way of life and its proven success in providing homes in the suburbs and big SUVs for mothers and their young.
The prisons of the United States are filled with millions of men who failed to get the word that their country is all about the mothers. American cemeteries are filled with the remains of young men who were called to defend the economic entities that were providing so well for American mothers. While the United States provides for its mothers in a bountiful way, it is clear that women who have overtly abandoned the mother path are ostracized. We are good to our mothers but the ferocity of the pressure for women to conform to motherhood is disturbing. The essence of your book is that women who wish to participate in the world of men are not vigorously encouraged until recently. It was odd that you selected Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton as poets of the trials of motherhood. These two women had much deeper issues with their brain chemistry that colored their views of their children that go far beyond the normal miseries of raising young children. You are hitting below the belt here with Ann and Sylvia although the notion of using poetry and poets to make your points is laudable. I do not believe for an instant that the United States is an inherently inhospitable culture in which to be a mother and raise children, as you assert, even after reading your book. I do believe that the path to savoring the opportunities of U.S. motherhood is very straight, very narrow and very white but our entire civilization is geared to providing that path. Your premise appears to be that our culture is headed in one direction and mothers are left out in the suburban wasteland to fend for themselves.
My mother attempted suicide three times before I was six and twice more before I left home. My eldest sister had her first child at age seventeen, her second at twenty. My second eldest sister gave birth at sixteen as an unwed mother and gave her baby up to adoption. I can see from immediate experience that motherhood is no picnic. I am aware of the turmoil among mothers in America but it is still clear that our entire galaxy is tailored for motherhood. The cliff along that straight, white, narrow path is steep and ugly. The women in my family lived hanging onto various ledges and scratchy side clinging sagebrush for most of their lives, nonetheless, the great beast that is America serves the mother in its own crude and ugly way.
In a final note, many of your complaints about life in America for mothers smacked of kvetching. Soldiers die in battle, men slave away in the corporate jungle chewing each other up and the citizens of the second and third world are harnessed into submission by American corporate interests to make clothing, toasters and dolls for American mothers and these mothers still gripe because there is no award ceremony for “Most Patience During the Terrible Twos” or “Most Meals Prepared for Ungrateful Brats”. There is a point, and it is not very distant at any given moment, where life is simply very difficult whether one is a mother or a corporate / academic soldier or an artist - life is tough - people suffer. It’s tough on mothers high up on the straight and narrow and it is tough in the ghetto. Whether a mother is generally happy or not happy is related more to her own level of resolution of unresolved swaths of blackness in her own heart that will haunt her on sunny days and lie heavy on her heart in the midst of what should be happy times. There has never been a more mother-friendly society in the history of civilization than our own.