Sisterhood Blog

Toward a More Equitable Parenthood

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I’m sad for Elana’s friend, the one who recently had an abortion. Not because she had an abortion, but because it was such a difficult experience and because her husband doesn’t agree with her decision not to have a child.

I’ll confess to having a laugh at Elana’s pre-Thanksgiving image, in which she describes motherhood as carving “out pieces of our identities, as if we’re a turkey lying there for all to partake in.” True, there is an objectification of motherhood. We are expected, all too often, to be fonts of unending maternal nurturance.

Our needs? They are frequently incompatible with the needs of children. I confess to still-frequent moments of frustration that I can’t get my writing done in a day, or a week or month, when this one is home with a stomach bug or that one needs to be taken for yet another blood test.

And without a doubt, American culture (I can’t speak authoritatively to Israeli culture on this) offers all the demands and virtually no support to mothers: insufficient parental leave and most, if not all of it unpaid, little support from extended family or government, and many other ways as well.

Feminism means choice — including the choice to become a mother or not. And so I support the right of any woman to make that choice for herself. But I also know that motherhood changes us in ways that nothing else does. It has the ability to turn mere mortals into superwomen, and I’d be sad to see fear about her own capacity to manage it all stop a friend from trying.

Parenting grows you — and not just in the physical sense (though I’m still working on that baby weight, never mind that it’s been 9 years since my youngest was born). I mean in those inchoate ways that are the true meaning of growth: emotionally, creatively, intellectually and spiritually.

Elana writes that she asked her friend:

whether her husband has offered to relieve her of some of the burden if necessary. Meaning, let’s say she has a baby and cannot cope, or feels overwhelmed or unhappy or desperate to get away (it happens!), I asked, would her husband be able to take over and be “both” parents for a while? After all, if having a baby is so important to him, is he willing to make any kind of caring or sacrificial gesture himself to take some of the pressure off of her? The answer was unequivocally no.

But I wonder whether her friend asked her husband about how much support he’d provide. She might have been surprised by the answer. Learning to be clear about what we want from our husbands/partners is part of becoming a mother. I saw what happened to the women who didn’t expect (or even require) their husbands to take the baby and change at least some of the diapers and do the cleaning up, when several of us became mothers at about the same time.

Some literally did not have 15 minutes to themselves for a year after their first child arrived, and I thought they were nuts not to hand the baby to their baby-daddy and say “I’m going out for a walk or to pick up a few groceries.” It was a disservice to themselves, and to their husbands and children as well.

After 20 years of marriage I can say for sure that men — even well-intentioned ones — make poor psychics. There’s no arguing with the last reason Elana’s friend cited to her doctor for wanting an abortion, that she “just never had the desire to have children.”

But as for her other fears, that:

“I don’t know if I’ll be a good mother, that I don’t think we can afford it, that I don’t know what it will do to me as a person…

Like the doctor said, everyone does go through that.

I’m glad my own anxiety on these very questions was laid aside as I took that big breath before jumping into the deep end that is parenting. There are days I feel like I’m nearly drowning in its demands, but I’m profoundly grateful to have the privilege that mothering is for me. Despite days when I’m struggling to keep my head above water (just to keep torturing that metaphor), I haven’t regretted it for a second.

And I second Elana’s closing lines, that “Motherhood does not have to be the end of a woman’s sense of self,” and that “women just need to ask the men in our lives — as well as lawmakers and business leaders — to make the well-being of women their top priority.”


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