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DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE:
Backlash Revisited

It's become trendy in some feminist circles to dismiss Susan Faludi's award-winning book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (Crown Publishers) as an overwrought and hysterical polemic. Most notably eschewed is Faludi's argument that 1980's and early 1990's American popular culture was rife with hidden messages encouraging women to return to more traditional roles, and that, like the Nazis, American conservatives wanted (and continue to want) women to focus on "Kirche, Kueche, Kinder" (church, kitchen, and children), rather than economic independence or careers. The majority of Backlash is an analysis of the subtle and not so subtle ways this message was incorporated into popular TV shows, books and women's magazines. Recently though, Faludi's analysis of sexist subtext in popular culture is at odds with the current direction of Pop Culture Studies, which tends to celebrate transgressive and revolutionary messages in seemingly mainstream texts. In the light of this trend, Faludi seems like a fuddy-duddy hold out from the '70's -- the great aunt who's still crying sexism while the younger generation is having a great time using queer semiotics to deconstruct I Love Lucy. Sadly, I'm beginning to feel like the wolf she warned us about is slavering at the door.

Some of Faludi's interpretations of these texts do seem a little farfetched or twisted to support her argument. For example, she relies heavily on certain episodes of the 1980's drama thirtysomething which she claims are pro-marriage / stay at home mothers and anti single and career women, without discussing other episodes which contextualize these ideas and do not support her thesis. However, Faludi's basic premise is sound: in the face of rapid changes in women's roles in American society, reactionary elements stepped up the pressure to convince women they'd be happier and more fulfilled at home. These forces have not backed down in the intervening decade, instead they recently seem to be intensifying their campaign and becoming increasingly blatant about it.

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A whole cadre of conservative women have written non-fiction books endorsing stay-at-home motherhood and decrying the evils of feminism; Danielle Crittendon (What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman), Wendy Shalit (A Return To Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue) and Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children) are some recent examples. Now Danielle Crittendon has written a novel, Amanda Bright@Home, to further spread her message that a woman's place is in the home. These women are advocating a return to an idealized version of the 1950's in which men were macho breadwinners and women were nurturing caregivers and everyone knew his or her place (never mind that this idyll never really existed except for a small group of middle and upper class families). In their view, men who stay at home with their children are wimps, women who work part time or from home are unfairly dividing their attention and not focusing on their children, and only women who devote themselves full time to parenting are real mothers.

Fellow AustinMama.com columnist, Adrienne Martini, recently wrote a funny and honest essay about the secret boredom of parenting. What seemed to be a normal response to the day-to-day drudgery of parenting apparently verged on sacrilege to some. One AustinMama.com reader was appalled by the idea that a mother would willingly allow someone else to take care of her child so that she could engage in personally fulfilling work. The vitriol in her open post to the AustinMama.com message boards is breathtaking closing with "I don't pity poor, bored, creatively-challenged you for one second. I do, however, pity your child. Imagine being a small child who realizes that Mommy is too busy 'being creative' to raise you." Because, it would seem, only full-time, stay-at-home mothers are raising their children. If someone else takes care of your children for any amount of time, then you're farming them out to strangers and abdicating all responsibility for their upbringing. Of course men can still be real fathers no matter how little time they spend with their children. In fact, they'd better get out there and work some extra hours. Someone's got to make a living, and obviously it can't be mom, since she's devoting every moment of her life to nurturing her little darlings.

The true believers may be certain that they are doing what's best for their children, but I don't for one moment think that the conservatives who are pushing this agenda are doing so out of altruistic motives. These are the people who are currently engaged in gutting the Head Start program and denying tax cuts to the poorest and most deserving Americans, while doling them out to those who need them the least. If this were really about giving children more time with their parents, there are many ways to achieve this in a non-sexist manner. The most obvious would be to extend family leave laws to include more unpaid time off or even heaven forfend! paid leave. Or you know, we could stop pushing unemployed, single parents off of the welfare rolls (apparently it's only middle class women who need to be at home with their kids, the poor ones need to get off their lazy butts and work, no matter how substandard their daycare options are). No, this is isn't about children at all. I think it's about stripping women of financial and professional power, and making them dependent upon men. Possibly, it's also about making things easier for big business by encouraging women to remove themselves from the workforce at a time when businesses don't need as many employees.

I'm not taking the opposite tack and damning all stay-at-home mothers. I would love to see mothers and fathers have the opportunity to spend more time with their children, and I'm also sympathetic to some parents' concerns about the daycare system. Families need to examine all their options and find the solution that works for them whether that is two parents employed full-time, one parent at home full-time, or some combination of full and part-time work. The right solution for each family will vary depending on the personalities involved (parents and children) and the skills and abilities of each parent, and these solutions are likely to change over time. Parents also need to think through the ramifications of their choices, realizing that some choices are more risky than others. What will happen if the working parent loses his or her job? What are the opportunity costs (in terms of lost seniority, rusty skills and reduced retirement savings) for the non-working or underemployed parent? Finally it's important to examine the underlying implications of our choices, and what they communicate to our children. I want my children to know that men and women can both nurture children and be breadwinners, and that parenthood does not mean effacing yourself and your dreams in favor of total devotion to your children. Because of this, it's important to me that my husband and I co-parent as much as possible, and that my children see us both pursuing our avocations and career goals. I believe we can communicate these values without both of us working full time, but it takes more conscious effort and planning to do so. Whatever solutions you find for your family, I encourage you to fight those who would limit women and men's choices. Do it for yourself, for the men and women who fought to expand our options and especially for your children.
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About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children, Drew and Franny, and her husband Adam. The chaos factor is expected to go up exponentially when their third child arrives in August. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog

Editor's Note:
When Adrienne Martini's column was attacked in the AustinMama message boards, we were so proud and pleased to see the rally of supportive responses -- like these:

 -- "Please keep in mind that most women here are probably hoping to cultivate a safe and, again, supportive environment in which to talk about **their** experience: the good, the bad, the challenging, and yes, even the mistakes they haven't figured out yet."

 --"I think it extremely unhealthy for kids to see Mother as someone who lives her every moment through her children, and has no life of her own. See, women have a hard enough time maintaining their own identities once they marry and have children. I think it is a fault in society, this thinking that motherhood and a full adult identity beyond motherhood are mutually exclusive."

 --"Just because a mother works, or feels a need to pursue a creative endeavor, does not mean she is selfish, or is never there for her kids. It means she does what she has to do to take care of her family, and it means that she is a *whole* person unto herself." 

 --(and... tossing my hat into the ring as well)
"Obtaining help with childcare is not handing one's child over to be raised by someone else any more than pursuing one's own creative passions and dreams once you become a mother a BAD thing. It would be nice if we could just give each other a break and accept that there are many paths. It's hard enough without heaping on guilt."

AustinMama thanks those who stood up and showed support.  It's what this community is all about.

-Kim

 

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