Who’s The Dummy, Mummy?

February 10, 2009

Rachel Cooke thinks that I’m a dummy. Okay, maybe not me specifically, but women like me. Women who talk or write incessantly about their children and their experience as mothers. Women who, when asked how they’re doing, launch into a extended narrative about sleeplessness and breastfeeding and hormones and Xanax. Women who are – how did she put it? – “boring, selfish, smug and obsessed with motherhood.”

Like I said: women like me.

“Once upon a time,” says Cooke, “educated women fought to separate their identities from the ideal of mother, knowing that until the two came to be seen as wholly distinct they would never be taken seriously; and, in any case, who wants to be defined by only one aspect of their life? In the past decade, however, a growing number of women have reverted, 50s-style, to identifying themselves primarily, vociferously, and sometimes exclusively, as mothers. They fetishise childbirth, and obsess about all that follows it, in a way that is almost, if not quite, beyond satire, and which makes me feel a bit sick.”

Which, whatever. So she’s not interested in mothers; I can live with that. I wasn’t all that interested in motherhood before I became a mother, either. But there’s a very great difference between lacking an interest in a subject and asserting that any discussion or celebration of that subject is somehow subversive of broader social goods. That someone, anyone, lacks an interest in the motherhood does not mean that the celebration of motherhood or extensive discourse on the subject of motherhood represent broader social problems for which mothers should be held responsible. I mean, seriously. I’m not interested in hip-hop, but would it make sense for me to say, on that basis, that pop-cultural attention to hip-hop is fetishistic and sick-making? I’ve certainly had the experience – pre-motherhood – of being trapped in conversations with women who went on at length about the details of childrearing and wondering how I was a) going to escape, and b) scrub my brain of the mental image of mustard poo, but I’ve also had that very same experience with people who only want to talk about politics (an occupational hazard as a former academic specializing in political philosophy) or cats or global warming. The fact that those subjects, in excess, cause my eyes to roll back in my head does not mean that anyone who is passionate about those things is an out-of-control fetishist. It only means that I am not interested.

Like any reflective bigot, Ms. Cooke asserts that she is not attacking all mothers – some her best friends are mothers! but they’re, like, the smart kind who you don’t mind hanging out with! – just the smug, stupid mothers who talk too much about being mothers. Because, you know, it’s not that mothers as a community are sickening in their fetishistic attachment to the terms and trappings of motherhood. It’s that so many of them are, and Ms. Cooke is starting to find it overwhelming. Can’t we all just shut up already about childbirth and our children and everything having to do with our children? Don’t we realize that the more we talk about this stuff, the more stupid and smug and selfish and Stepford we sound? Can’t we see that we are setting women back? And, also, nauseating everybody in the process?

This is what is, to me, most hateful about Cooke’s diatribe: the assertion that there is not only something unseemly and uninteresting about the discourse of motherhood, but also something fundamentally unfeminist about it. This is Linda Hirschmann Lite: devotion to motherhood is somehow not deserving of respect, because it limits - limits - women to a life experience that has been dictated, in some part, by the terms of their biology. This is biology-as-destiny, this is femininity-as-enclosure: this is what prevents us from being free, like, men, to do whatever we want. This is an old feminist argument (one, if you’re interested, that has roots in Marx), that women need to be liberated from their biological destinies – from the almost-inevitable biological condition of motherhood – so that they might work and contribute to society like men, because only then do they meaningfully contribute to society, only then are they members in full, only then are they interesting.

This is bullshit. Women do not become free by rejecting motherhood, by ignoring motherhood, by keeping the stories of motherhood hidden behind the veil, the wall, the enclosures of the private sphere. Women become free, in some significant part, by celebrating motherhood – by celebrating parenthood (men love their children too, you know, and some might even choose to make parenting their primary occupation, if it were more generally accepted and recognized as important work) – by demanding that it be as valued a part of civil society as politics and business and the arts and, you know, whatever else people like Rachel Cooke and Linda Hirschmann deem to be important and interesting. Celebrating motherhood doesn’t mean that every woman must choose motherhood as part of her life experience – we celebrate all variety of callings, without insisting that any of them are necessary for every individual’s self-fulfillment – it only means that we all of us recognize that mothering – parenting – and all that it involves is important work. Which means, in turn, we recognize discourse on those subjects as important discourse.

This is not to say, of course, that every anecdote about poo explosions in public places or every detailed explanation of the effects of sleep deprivation on the post-partum mother is in itself a critically important contribution to public discourse. It is to say, rather, that the sum of these stories is important: that in telling these stories, and in recognizing these stories as legitimate and important, we are sharing – we are making public, we are lifting the veil on – the experience of motherhood and demanding that it be taken seriously as something that contributes to – that is, arguably, the backbone of – civil society. Not every one of these stories will be interesting to everyone; many will be interesting only to a very few. But they are our stories, the stories of our parenthood. And we are, in telling these stories, telling each other – telling other mothers, telling fathers, telling future mothers and fathers – that there is no need to be (and every harm in being) isolated in one’s experience of parenthood. We are telling each other that there is community in parenthood, and that such community should be sought out and embraced.

Cooke summarizes her argument with this statement: “all this droning on about baby and toddler world is not, in the long run, doing any of us any good. For me, and many other women, it’s boring and selfish, and it implicitly casts judgment on the way we choose to live our lives.” I’m sorry that she feels that way. I, for one, am quite capable of listening to my husband’s colleagues drone on about the TV industry without feeling like I’m being judged for not being in that industry. I am also, for that matter, quite capable of listening to childless friends talk about their careers and their active social lives and their travel adventures without feeling as though they pity me for always having a baby strapped to my chest. If she feels judged, that’s her issue, not a larger social problem that needs to be nipped in the bud. Indeed, as I’ve said above, this compulsion to silence mothers, to insist to them that their stories are not worthy of sharing in public spaces, to demand that they just shut up already about their silly children and their silly fascination with organic baby food and sleep training and post-partum depression – this is the larger social problem. It’s a terrible social problem. It does more to keep women silenced and isolated than pretty much anything else I can think of.

So if anyone should just shut up already and stop complaining and judging and holding women back with her need to control what women talk about… well, you know who you are.


(Thanks to Karen for the tip on the story. Funny how she knew just exactly what would make my head explode.)

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    Lynn (Walking With Scissors) February 11, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Bravo. Very well written. I would have just called her a stupid bitch and called it a day. Yours is much better. :)

    Kayleigh February 11, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    -coming out of lurkdom- Amen.

    fidget February 11, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I agree that we, as women, are not going to be “free” or “equal” until we learn to encompass all aspects of our femininity, including motherhood, into our daily lives. Dividing our singular persona from our responsibilities and family does nothing to further us.

    Gillian February 11, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I wouldn’t worry too much. Homegirl can’t construct a sentence to save her life. I have never seen so many parentheses and commas in my life. Didn’t anyone teach her that as far as sentence length is concerned, less is more?


    St February 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Amen. Amen. Amen.

    monkey girl February 11, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Well at least she’s not having children so we don’t have to worry about her offspring being as narrow minded as she is.

    Motherhood Uncensored February 11, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    She needs to get new friends.

    Emily February 11, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I read this the other day and have been seething ever since but haven’t been able to put my words together enough to explain why.

    I don’t get how someone not interested in her traveling to Yemen is a sign of a boring woman – maybe they just don’t want to be bored by yet another story by Rachel about herself?

    Seemed to me the bigger issue is that Rachel is upset that people don’t want to talk about her or her favourite things too much – poor little baby.

    catnip February 11, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Someday she’s going to look back at that article and be embarrassed that she wrote such intolerant drivel.

    Lucie @ Unconventional Origins February 11, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. Her article made me so angry I might have to write my own response as well.

    I love the idea of feminism, but women like her twist it so much that they have really done damage to the concept.

    My two biggest problems with her: she is completely sexist in basically telling moms to shut up and not dialogue about being mothers. Second, she blames her not wanting to have children on the way moms act. Does anyone else smell bullshit?

    Man now I’m all worked up!

    Kat February 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I want to know how feminism got switch from celebrating all the women can be to defining it as making women as manly as possible? I enjoy all the things I did before I had kids now, I just have 2 little people who enjoy juice and cookies along for the ride.

    Amy February 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    YES! Yes to everything you just said!!! Amazingly written, it’s like you took the words right out of my mouth and then made them so much better.

    Thank you.

    Mr Lady February 11, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    I read her article. It didn’t bother me one little bit. Why? Because the woman who tells me they know everything there is to know about motherhood because they worked as a nanny when they were 16 doesn’t phase me, either. Her entire argument was, “When I was a child, my mother…” She isn’t seeing that when she was a child, she wasn’t paying any attention at all to what the mothers were doing. She was busy being A CHILD. Which means her mother did something right, that her mother was devoted to mothering her. Which completely unravels her entire argument.

    That whole post was nonsense, and doesn’t matter at all, to anything. It was merely instagatory, and I couldn’t care less what a childless person thinks about how we should “be” as parents.

    thediaperdiaries February 11, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I read that article and was equally outraged. And is it not the ultimate in irony that there are still feminists out there who insist that we become “like men.” That makes little to no sense to me.

    Being a mother is not all I am, but it is a huge part of who I am as it shapes a lot of my worldview. And if that makes me some sort of idiot, drain on society than so be it. I wouldn’t trade my kids for the title of “enlightened” (as per her standards) for the world.

    PS. Never read your blog before cause apparently I was living under a rock, but you floored me at Blissdom and I hope to be back :)

    Atlanta Mommy February 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    How sad that someone could feel so anti-motherhood. Next thing you know she’ll be advocating some kind of Brave New World where the children are all reared at centers and adults are free to frolic in soma-induced hazes.

    VanderbiltWife February 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Amen, sister. I don’t see how talking about my daughter is more selfish than talking about my job. They’re both about ME, MINE, ETC right? Selfish is just not the right word there. You’re right–she can’t relate, thus it’s boring and she wants to blame it on something. Perhaps I will find her and we can have a long discussion about COMMAS since that is what I do for a living (edit) and what makes me an interesting person, obviously. Not anything else about me.

    Little Monkies February 11, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Can you even imagine having HER as a friend? She’d be the one at the party that would sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher (wa wa wa wa wa wa) going on about her important self. I love it that she has some sort of signaling requirement from her post-partum friends (dandling baby on knee, indeed!) to make sure they aren’t freakish mom zombies and instead can LISTEN TO HER TALK ABOUT HERSELF.

    Jesus. Who *is* this being? Not a woman in my book.

    And, yes, I am a staunch feminist. Which means that I work for choices and loving the full compliment of a woman. This would have been a much better article about how people are boring conversationalists…isn’t that what it’s really about?

    Mama Smurf February 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    To women like her I say….

    “Oh bite me!”

    But then, motherhood seems to have sucked all brain cells dry and rendered me inarticulate and boring…so…what do I know…

    Brian February 11, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    And yet a dad who talks about his children or his experience as a father is a good man.

    Just in case you weren’t angry enough already.

    Gaby February 11, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Catherine, I think your response to that article was incredibly well written and balanced, and the same cannot be applied to Cooke’s article.

    That being said, I must admit that I am a woman who does not have children. I hope to, someday, but I don’t have any now. And I could relate to a few items in Cooke’s article: the idea that those without children should be more willing to alter their schedules to accommodate those with children. That my weekends, which follow my 40-hour work week, aren’t as important a consideration as the weekends of my sisters-in-law with kids.

    And that many conversations between women with children and women without follow a path similar to “When you have a baby…” or “You’ll understand when you have children…” which I find to be some of the most demeaning comments I could be dealt. It’s the adult version of “You’ll understand when you’re older.” Just as dismissive.

    I don’t want to go against the tide here, but I wanted to present my opinion as a woman who loves children but doesn’t have any yet. I admire most women with children, I think they can be moms and still maintain their multifaceted personalities, but those two elements in the article resonated with me. Just my $.02.

    Binkytowne February 11, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    I think she’s being extreme but you have to admit- there are mom-women like that out there who are also extreme. I don’t consider you one of them.

    PBandJBoats February 11, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Yes and AMEN!

    Miss Grace February 11, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks. I wasn’t sufficiently irritated with my day.

    D. Cole Ossandon February 11, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Good for you for going after such a piece of trash!!!

    It’s a joke that she says she feels judged when mom’s talk about babies or toddlers when NO ONE is judging her — they’re just talking about their children. Yet at the same time SHE is the one who is judging, calling mothers boring and selfish!

    Women need to support each other in their choice to have or not have children, not attack each other as Rachel Cooke has done, for making the other choice.

    Feminism is about having the right to choose what is best for ourselves, not forcing women to believe there’s only one “right” choice in life! And it’s certainly not about telling another women to shut up when she’s talking about something that doesn’t interest you!

    Michelle February 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    ::Standing ovation::
    Wonderful post!

    And Gillian took the words out of my mouth. Honestly, I couldn’t get through the article. She is a terrible writer…

    Let’s look at an example, shall we?

    “This quip is not dishonest: though I have several friends who have combined novel-reading with motherhood very successfully, in my own head I hold a convoluted equation, one based on the approximate number of hours I have left to live versus the number of good books I have left to read, and it is very anxiety-inducing.”

    I’m itching to go at the entire thing with my RED pen. Sentence FAIL.

    Mandy February 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Part of me wonders if she was being purposefully inflammatory in order to spark response.

    Personally, as you allude to, I think the article reflects her own insecurities more than anything else.

    sweetsalty kate February 11, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Exquisitely put.

    Miguelina. February 11, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I can’t add anything to your response, so I’ll just say this: Bravo!

    geeklady February 11, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I’ve taped my latest CV to my ass, and she can kiss it.

    Pamela February 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    This is me, standing to applaud you.

    Also? I love the Like any reflective bigot… Awesome.

    Slice of Paradise February 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Her first sentence explained it all: “When people who know me well ask me, as they very occasionally do, why I do not, at this point, want to have children …”

    I get that some people who have decided that children are just not for them, listening to mothers who DO love children is like pouring acid in their cocktail. It’s just not acceptable. They can say that without coming off as total bitches though. When a mommy talks about poo, commiserate with tails your dog’s poo problems. Disgust the annoying mommy, win a prize!

    I’m thinking she protests too much. Sounds like her hatred of mommies may be rooted in a bit of jealousy.

    Walsh Family February 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I don’t comment, but this is so maddening. As if I am spitting in the faces of all those suffragettes and feminists by simply choosing to be a mother. Oh wait, isn’t that CHOICE exactly what they were fighting for?

    Nice rebuttal, though.

    Sarah February 11, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Eloquently said and I could not agree more wholeheartedly. I have only to add, “Suck on THAT, RC!!”

    Mr Lady February 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Also, Brian is totally right. Just wanted to through that out there.

    jenB February 11, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I can’t add much but awesome post and fuck that shit. I love you and thanks for speaking and writing so well for those of us, by us I mean ME, who don’t do it and certainly don’t say it so well.


    Goldfish February 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Love a blog that takes me back to my old feminist theory days…. Which were, of course, before I had kids. Because now, of course, I am holding back women everywhere.

    Anonymous February 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    It seems to me like Ms. Cooke is having issues with her childlessness (made up that word, thanks) and has decided to take it out on thos of us that chose the opposite route, thus burdening the world with our stories of “mustard poo” and tantrums.

    Mrs. Flinger February 11, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Karen told me about this and I nearly strung together a list of profanities. You are MUCH more eloquent in your debate. I couldn’t agree more.

    But also? I hold this truth for all things: religion, politics, etc. The fact that anyone should want to silence anyone is unconstitutional.

    Amy @ Milk Breath and Margaritas February 11, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    She sounds like a blowhard. And stupid and selfish too. Ironic isn’t it?

    Well written post. I say “ditto.”

    Jaywalker February 11, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    The Polly Vernon piece on the same day was even worse!
    See what I wrote about both of them.


    The thing I find saddest is the total lack of female solidarity, or compassion, or tolerance. It comes on both ‘sides’ (you should see some of the responses to the piece on eg. the Times ‘Alpha Mummy’ blog, which are poisonous). There shouldn’t be ‘sides’! Just, you know, people living their lives as they see fit, with or without children. Gah! I sound like such a hippie. Dammit. Off to kick something.

    Backpacking Dad February 11, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    1. Parental punditry is the most important kind of punditry. Good children grow into good people who create good culture, which helps create good parents who will raise good people.

    2. Amputating women is not a feminist act.

    3. I don’t want to be judged for choosing to drink, but that doesn’t mean that Alcoholics Anonymous should just shut the hell up about drinking.

    Amo February 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    The irony? She IS being judged now whereas before, it was only in her head.

    Hmmm…ain’t irony a bitch.

    phonemom February 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Thank you for saying what I wanted to but in a much more eloquent way.
    While I was on the page, I also looked at the Why I don’t want to be a mother article and 20 other reasons not to have children. argh.

    I will admit that for most of my life I did not want children, when I met my husband I still did not want children and I am occasionally amazed that we’re working our way to #2. I do think that it is aggravating and condescending to tell people that “you’ll know when you have children” and all the other patronizing crap that comes out of our mouths. That does NOT mean that we don’t deserve our outlet and to share our stories with other parents!
    I do work, I do live outside my children but I also don’t make anyone listen to the interworkings of a transplant lab. Most people are more interested in my child and I’m interested in sharing that joy that I’ve discovered through him. We’re not doing it to be patronizing and judgie. I do it because it makes me happy to think and emote about my children.

    Poppy Buxom February 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Oh. So Ms. Cooke is the only person who has ever had to endure long, boring, self-centered monologues.

    And because she is childless and an old-school, stuck-in-the-1970s, to-be-liberated-we-need-to-copy-men “feminist,” the most boring and self-centered thing you can be is a mother.

    Pfft. She’s not a member of our community of discourse, and she has the option of not listening.

    Thanks for giving her the ass-whupping she so richly deserves.

    anymommy February 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I never comment here, but I read often. Just wanted to say, beautifully, beautifully, put. It’s the obvious and it shouldn’t need to be said, but you said it so gracefully and eloquently, maybe someone who identified with w/Ms. Cooke will think again.

    mom2nji February 11, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Holy hell, what a biotch!
    Bitter much?

    Meagan Francis February 11, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I find it interesting that she’s complaining about reading cute stories about parenthood…ON A PARENTING WEBSITE.

    And yeah, she needs to have somebody edit about 75% of the commas out of that piece.

    kgirl February 11, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    First of all, Lynn, commenter #1, made me laugh out loud.

    Second of all, while everything you say about Rachel Cooke (horrible writer, btw) is quite accurate, imo, she is no worse than one of our own (gasp!) writing an article about how boring her kids, and motherhood in general are.

    We women constantly and consistently throw each other under the bus, regardless of whether or not our uterus has been utilized.

    Peggy February 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Everybody is entitled to an opinion…her’s just happens to suck!

    BreezieGirl February 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Delurking to say, Bravo!

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