Moms in the Crossfire

[Christianity Today, October 26, 1998]

“Work or home? Breast or bottle? Spanking or spoiling?” asks the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. “No matter what they choose, they’re made to feel bad.” This “special issue on the joy and guilt of motherhood” is titled in big red letters, “Mothers Can’t Win.”

Is this a special issue from 1987? 1993? 1972? Does it matter? This story has had more lives than Shirley MacLaine. No matter how we fret about the situation, it never gets better and it never goes away. It’s a bad rash, and we’re stuck with it.

The problem, the Times says, is the uncertainty and guilt mothers feel about the choices they face. It’s true that too many alternatives can be bewildering; singer Joni Mitchell described “the kind of crazy you get from too much choice.” But thirty-five years ago (has it really been that long?) Betty Friedan identified the cause of women’s neuroses as too *little* choice. In her 1963 book, *The Feminine Mystique*, Friedan described the plight of intelligent, college-educated women, who were denied careers and confined to the “comfortable concentration camp” of the suburban home. There they had no focus for their energy but dusting and child-rearing, which provided insufficient intellectual stimulation.

This was clearly a rich girls’ problem, since poorer mothers had more to ponder than whether their dazzling talents were receiving the acclaim they deserved. But rich girls’ complaining has a way of getting attention, and soon it was de rigueur that women train for professions. No more “just a housewife”—if male chauvinists thought women’s work was mindless and inferior, women outdid them in heaping contempt on the legacy of their foremothers. Only work outside the home mattered, it seemed; life within the walls of the “padded playpen” was meaningless.

So how come this is still news? A survey in the Washington Post not long ago asked respondents their opinion of “recent changes” in the status and role of women. What recent changes? I wondered. The trend of young women once more staying home to raise their kids? The emergence of “sequencing” a woman’s career around the childrearing years, or of accommodating the “mommy track”? No, these changes are apparently too recent to be on the Post’s radar screen. By “recent changes,” the survey meant the entry of women into the professional workplace. Thirty-five years later, we’re still caught off-guard by this startling new idea.

Why does the nation still think this is “recent”? Because *it isn’t working*. It still doesn’t fit. Not because women are any less competent than men. Women in the workplace isn’t the problem. Moms in the workplace is.

The fatal flaw in the feminists’ plan to reject traditional roles was lumping childrearing in with housework. Most women would gladly kiss a dustpan goodbye, but kissing Junior goodbye as he shrieked in the day care worker’s arms proved more difficult.

“No matter what they choose, they’re made to feel bad.” By whom? The government, the experts, their husbands, their in-laws? Nope; the prime culprit is themselves. It’s an inside job.

The more moms absorb insanely conflicted messages about what they should or should not do, how they should or should not think, believe, and act, the less able they are to tune in to their instinctive knowledge of how to handle a particular child at a particular moment. Their confidence is shot. In a state like this, any decision (“Breast or bottle? Spanking or spoiling?”) dies the death of a thousand reversals. Whatever she ends up doing, she fears, is probably wrong.

Now comes the coup de grace, in the form of (wouldn’t you know it) a controversial new book, proposing that it doesn’t matter *what* parents do. Parents are irrelevant, says Judith Rich Harris in *The Nurture Assumption.* Half of a child’s makeup is genetic, and the other half, she says, comes mostly from peers. Why do the children of immigrants speak English without their parents’ accents? Why do twins raised separately show so few signs of their home-parents’ influence? Social scientists presume they need to scrutinize parents more closely, but Harris claims the influence simply isn’t there. For all their guilt and fretting, moms don’t affect their children much. The child shapes himself in response to outside influences, and moms merely react. That, and do laundry.

This is liberating news, according to Harris. “A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment,” she told the *New Yorker*. “If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid. You can have a kid without having to devote your entire life—your entire emotional expenditure—to this child for the next twenty years.”

Harris’ attempt to coax elite people into having children recalls the turn-of- the-century eugenicist slogan, “More from the fit, less from the unfit.”But her promise that they can do so because kids don’t require much of an investment recalls similar promises about used cars. Moms usually find that they make a massive emotional investment in their children, whether they expected to or not, and it lasts far more than twenty years. Knowing that outside forces can shape the child doesn’t make them carefree, contrary to Harris’ assumption. It’s one more reason they worry.

What’s missing in all this theorizing is a respect for the depth of a mother- child relationship, and the way a mom can make decisions based on her knowledge of each child. In scripture, mothers from Rebeccato Mary knew their children, and gave instructions confident of how the child would react. That’s the secret weapon: moms *know*. They know because they stand in a stream of mother-knowledge that rolls back for centuries. They know because they stand in a community of experienced mothers of all ages, whom they respect rather than denigrate as “mere housewives.” They know because they know their kids, with the kind of knowledge only gained by large-economy-size quantity time. Some problems are easy and some are hard, and some you have to just wait and pray for resolution. The common theme is constant love, even when it suffers.

Harris says, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and the New York Times says, “Worry.”A third alternative is to trust your instincts, know your children, and love ‘em for all you’re worth. Parental love, after all, is the model God chose to describe how he loves us. This is a good time to go with the higher authority.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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